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World War I Centennial: With Friends Like These...

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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 23rd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

June 24, 1912: With Friends Like These...

Image credit: Hemera Technologies

In the 19th century, European statesmen came to share an amoral (some would say cynical) view of geopolitics, in which international relations were based solely on the size and strength of rival players and their perceived self-interest, and diplomacy and warfare operated on a Darwinian principle of merciless, unrelenting competition. Ironically, however, this system of realpolitik actually served to keep some weaker players alive simply because their enemies couldn’t agree how to divide them up.

The most prominent example was the Ottoman Empire, which stumbled along in a weakened state for decades, with foreign observers constantly warning of its imminent demise – and constantly being proven wrong. Despite its massive internal problems, the Ottoman Empire survived in part because the European Great Powers all worried their rivals might come out ahead if they started splitting up the empire. With everyone suspiciously watching everyone else, they maintained the status quo to the benefit of the beleaguered Turks.

Of course the Turks were well aware how perilous their situation was, as the empire’s continued existence essentially depended on the mutual mistrust of its enemies. They knew that to survive in the long term, the Ottoman Empire needed massive internal reforms, including a more efficient administration, improved education and infrastructure, and a modern military. But all these reforms would take time – so the Ottoman Turks also needed a powerful ally to guarantee the empire’s security and give it some breathing space.

The need for a foreign protector became even more urgent with Italy’s declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire in 1911, followed by the Italian conquest of Ottoman territory in Libya. With the empire’s weakness clear for all to see, in 1912 the Albanians rebelled while the empire’s Balkan neighbors began plotting its demise. With new threats popping up everywhere, the Turkish government in Constantinople was desperate to forge an alliance with one of the Great Powers.

The Contestants

But there were precious few viable options. Britain was willing to send naval advisors, but otherwise still adhered to its longtime policy of avoiding foreign alliances; Russia was a traditional foe of the Ottoman Empire; France was allied with Russia; Austria-Hungary and Italy were too weak to be helpful (and, of course, Italy was at war with the Ottoman Empire). Thus by 1912, the best candidate was obviously Germany.

But that was a relative judgment at best: like all the other Great Powers, Germany knew the Ottoman Empire was in decline and German imperialists were hungry for Ottoman territory. Indeed, the only thing holding Germany back was the fear that other European powers – especially Russia – were better positioned to grab chunks of Ottoman territory if the chips were down. It was this consideration alone that tilted Germany towards propping up the Turks: better to help the Ottoman Empire fend off its enemies than see the whole thing sliced up by Russia, France, and Britain.

On June 24, 1912, Gerhard von Mutius, a counselor to the German ambassador in Constantinople, wrote a secret letter to the German chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, warning that Germany would be left out in the cold if the Ottoman Empire was divided up by other Great Powers, perhaps in cooperation with the Balkan League. At the same time, he also warned that making an open alliance with the Turks would disrupt the balance of power in Europe, possibly leading to war.

So Germany had to perform a subtle balancing act over the next few years, making sure the Ottoman Empire survived, at least long enough for Germany to get a piece when the division of spoils came. But it had to do this without alarming the other European powers. This led to a closer relationship between Germany and the Ottoman Empire, including a German military mission to Constantinople – but the Turks knew full well that their “friend” could just as easily be their enemy.

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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]