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World War I Centennial: Protests and Pistols in Hungary's Parliament

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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 19th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

June 4, 1912: Protests and Pistols in Hungary’s Parliament

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With Russia, France, Germany, and Britain locked in an arms race and trouble brewing along its southern border in the Balkans, Austria-Hungary was soon swept up in the European armaments craze. But in Austria-Hungary, nothing was ever simple.

As in other countries, the question of increased military spending stirred political controversy in Austria-Hungary, which became even more complicated because of the unusual “dual” nature of the state. Adopted in 1867, the power-sharing arrangement elevated Hungary, long subordinate to Austria, to an equal partner with its own constitution and parliament. A semblance of unity was maintained by the monarch, Franz Josef, who ruled Austria and Hungary from separate thrones, as the Emperor (Kaiser) of Austria and King (König/Király) of Hungary.

This byzantine division of authority was a desperate measure to head off Hungarian independence – but radical Hungarian (Magyar) nationalists still opposed any compromise or cooperation with the German Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy. Because the military budget was one of the few areas where the Austrian and Hungarian governments still had to work together, it was a natural target for Hungarian politicians, who always seemed to find financial obstacles to increased defense spending.

And it got even more complicated: ironically the Hungarian Magyars themselves were threatened by new nationalisms arising among the Slavic populations of the Kingdom of Hungary, who were of doubtful loyalty, resisted military service, and also opposed military spending as long as they didn’t enjoy the same political rights (especially in voting) as the Hungarian Magyars. Then, of course, there were also socialists – urban workers who tended to oppose increased military spending as a capitalist-imperialist plot.

In the face of all this ethnic and economic fragmentation, the only thing holding Hungary (and indeed the Dual Monarchy) together was the conservative Hungarian Magyar elite, consisting of aristocrats who embraced the traditional dynastic form of government prevalent in Eastern Europe and supported Franz Josef as the legitimate king of Hungary. As such, they also tended to support the military as one of the few institutions still binding the empire together.

Thus on June 4, 1912, the leader of the moderate (pro-Hapsburg) Hungarians, Count István Tisza, presented a new Army Bill to the Hungarian parliament that would increase the annual recruiting contingent from 139,000 in 1912 to 181,000 in 1913 and 236,300 by 1918.

Tisza was already detested by the Hungarian nationalist and socialist opposition as a pro-Austrian collaborator: on May 22, 1912, protests demanding his resignation as president of Hungary’s House of Deputies (the lower house of parliament) turned into bloody riots in Budapest. Predictably, when Tisza presented the new Army Bill on June 4, he faced a storm of dissent from radical members of the House of Deputies who repeated their old demand that Magyar replace German as the official language of military command in Hungary. The radicals also wanted to cancel the law that gave Emperor Franz Josef the right to call up recruits in an emergency without parliament’s permission.

But there was no way that Franz Josef or the heir to the throne, his nephew Franz Ferdinand, would cede even more power to the Hungarians by giving up their constitutional right to emergency call-ups. Faced with a seemingly impossible situation in the Hungarian House of Deputies, where opposition members disrupted proceedings with "whistles, trumpets, rattles, or other instruments of the most discordant character" to keep the bill from passing, Tisza showed his traditional authoritarian (read: anti-democratic) side by simply ordering the police to remove the opposition so he could bring the Army Bill to a vote. On June 4, 1912, the Army Bill passed the Hungarian lower house literally under armed guard.

Going After the Opposition

While many conservative aristocrats admired Tisza’s no-nonsense approach to the opposition, he almost paid for it with his life. On June 7, 1912, Gyula Kovács, an opposition member who had been suspended from parliament for disorderly behavior, strode into the chamber, shouted “There is still one member of the opposition present!” and fired three shots at Tisza before turning his pistol on himself. The shots missed and both Tisza and Kovacs survived, but the incident was another sign that the traditional order in Austria-Hungary was unraveling – and ominously foreshadowed more political violence to come.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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