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World War I Centennial: Germany Ramps Up and Albanians Take Up Arms

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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 18th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

May 21, 1912: Germany Ramps Up and Albanians Take Up Arms

Even after the failure of the Haldane Mission and dire warnings from Winston Churchill, there was a slim chance that Germany still might choose the path of moderation and suspend the European arms race, if the Reichstag voted against the military spending bills proposed by Kaiser Wilhelm II and the naval novelle added by Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. On May 21, 1912, those hopes were dashed when the Reichstag voted to pass both increased military spending bills by a large majority.

The bills represented an unmistakable increase in the tempo of the arms race. Tirpitz’s naval novelle called for three additional dreadnoughts to be built over the next five years, adding one ship per year in 1912, 1914, and 1916. On land, under the original five-year law passed by the Reichstag in March 1911, the German army was supposed to gradually increase in strength to around 515,000 by 1915-1916; under the terms of the Army Bill passed on May 21, 1912, this was increased to 544,211, beginning in October of that year. Including non-commissioned officers and one-year volunteers, the German army’s peacetime strength would increase from 626,489 in 1911 to 655,714 in 1912.

By contrast, the peacetime strength of the French army in 1912 was 519,000, and France was already conscripting a larger proportion of its young men every year due to its smaller population (40 million in 1912, compared to Germany’s 64 million). To keep up, the French government would eventually have no choice but to extend the standard term of military service from two years to three years – a politically unpopular move at home, which would add more fuel to the European fire abroad (justifying, for example, yet another round of increases in Germany).

Even more ominous, it was already clear that in a full-scale war Germany, with its larger population, would be able to field a much larger army than France when reserves were included. Indeed in 1914 Germany, counting its first and second reserves, could field 3.85 million troops versus just 2.2 million for France. Of course, France counted on help from its ally Russia, which could field a total 5.4 million men including its first and second reserves; but given Russia’s vast distances and poor infrastructure, Germany might be able to crush France before the eastern giant could even get its troops to the front. And that’s exactly what the Germans planned to do.

Rebellion in Albania

Meanwhile the Balkan Peninsula was taking another step towards mayhem with a rebellion by Albanians against their Ottoman overlords. With the Ottoman Empire weakened by its war with Italy, on May 20, 1912, two local Albanian notables – Nexhip bey Draga and Hasan bey Prishtina – called a meeting of Albanian rebels in the town of Junik, Kosovo, to organize an uprising against the Turks. Together with other Albanian leaders including Bajram Curri, Riza bey Kryeziu, and Isa Boletin, Draga and Prishtina demanded the end of the “Ottomanization” policy implemented by the Young Turks in Constantinople, which involved forcing smaller ethnicities and nationalities in the empire to conform to Turkish political, social, and cultural dictates. While the immediate cause was an Albanian demand for independent schools, in effect, the Albanian rebels were demanding more autonomy for some 750,000 Albanians living within the Ottoman Empire – although radical elements were already advocating full independence.

In addition to confronting the Turkish government with yet another military challenge, the Albanian rebellion could only spur on the Balkan League, which was preparing a joint attack on the Ottoman Empire for the autumn of 1912. But that didn’t mean the Balkan League was sympathetic to the Albanians – quite the opposite. Aside from the fact that most Albanians were Muslim and their peoples were Christian, the governments of Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece all hoped to wrest away big chunks of Ottoman territory in the Balkans, including areas inhabited by Albanians that could plausibly become part of an independent Albanian state. This was of particular concern to Serbia, which hoped to gain access to the Adriatic Sea at Durazzo (modern-day Durres) in the center of the Albanian region.

Alarmed that their somewhat-carefully-laid plans might be wrecked by Albanian independence, the conspirators of the Balkan League decided to accelerate their plans for a regional war against the Ottoman Empire in 1912. Unwittingly they were also moving Europe closer to a general conflagration a few years later.

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
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]