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World War I Centennial: Balkan Bedlam Beckons

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 17th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

May 12, 1912: Balkan Bedlam Beckons

While the world focused on Italy’s war with the Turkish Ottoman Empire, an even bigger conflict was brewing in the Balkans, where an international conspiracy against the beleaguered Turks was coming together in the form of the Balkan League. The first step had been taken in March 1912, when Bulgaria and Serbia signed a defensive pact with a secret protocol dividing up the Turkish territory of Macedonia. On May 12, 1912, another Balkan country joined the conspiracy, with the signing of a secret pact between Bulgaria and Greece.

In their “Treaty of Alliance and Defense,” Bulgaria and Greece vowed “not to give this agreement, which is purely one of defense, an aggressive tendency in any way whatsoever,” promising only to assist each other if either party were attacked by the Ottoman Empire. But like the alliance between Serbia and Bulgaria, the partnership between Greece and Bulgaria ended up having little to do with defense and a lot more to do with grabbing territory from the hated Turks: the defensive alliance was just a prelude. In September it would be joined by a secret military convention that committed Greece to provide 120,000 troops and Bulgaria 300,000 troops to a joint war against Turkey. Meanwhile the Greek navy would run interception against the Turkish fleet in the Aegean Sea, thus blocking the Turks from bringing reinforcements to the Balkans from Asia Minor and the Middle East.

Also on May 12, 1912, Bulgaria and Serbia signed a military convention in which both powers agreed to provide at least 200,000 troops (each) to a war with the Ottoman Empire. The military convention would be followed later that month by an agreement between the Bulgarian and Serbian General Staffs, in which they set out detailed plans for the attack on the Ottoman Empire. At the center of the plans was a joint attack forming a pincer movement on Skopje, the capital of Turkish Macedonia; at the same time the Serbians would advance on Turkish territory along the Adriatic Sea in Albania, and the Bulgarians would seize Turkish territory along the Aegean Sea in Thrace. Separately, Bulgaria and Greece later agreed that the Greeks would seize Epirus and possibly some parts of southern Macedonia. The key city of Salonika would be occupied by either the Bulgarians or Greeks – both sides hoped to grab it for themselves.

Indeed, while all the conspirators were eager to carve up Turkish territory in the Balkans, trouble was brewing over the division of the spoils, as Bulgaria and Serbia had never agreed on precise borders for their spheres of interest in Macedonia. To move things along, they sidestepped this issue by agreeing to appoint Russia’s Czar Nicholas II as mediator for their dispute. As the most powerful Slavic state, Russia appeared to be a natural choice to arbitrate conflicts between the smaller Slavic states, but the Russian autocrat would fulfill this responsibility only reluctantly, since it meant he would probably have to alienate one of his two client states in the Balkans. The result was a confused muddle that pushed the Balkan Peninsula -- and Europe -- closer to renewed conflict on a much greater scale in 1914.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]