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World War I Centennial: Carving up the Ottoman Empire

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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 24th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

July 2, 1912: Carving up the Ottoman Empire

[Note: Pretend we posted this on Monday.]

In the first half of 1912, the small Christian kingdoms of the Balkan Peninsula began plotting an attack on their former oppressor, the weak, declining Ottoman Empire. In March the main conspirators, Bulgaria and Serbia, signed a treaty of alliance in which they agreed to divide up the Ottoman territory of Macedonia, followed in May by a military convention where both countries promised to provide 200,000 soldiers for the joint attack on the Turks; the Albanian rebellion which also began in May 1912 prompted them to hurry their preparations. On July 2, 1912, they agreed on a plan of attack.

The plan had been worked out by the general staffs (high commands) of the Bulgarian and Serbian armies over the previous two months, in consultation with the respective monarchs and prime ministers of the two kingdoms. It was finalized at a meeting in the Bulgarian port of Varna, where Serbian minister of war and chief of the general staff Radomir Putnik signed an agreement with his Bulgarian counterpart, Ivan Fichev, while the Serbian King Petar I Kara?or?evi? and the Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand I also made a verbal agreement.

The plan agreed to on July 2 divided up the Balkan theatre into different areas of responsibility for the Bulgarian and Serbian armies. Originally Putnik had called for a combined Serbian-Bulgarian attack on Macedonia, committing the majority of the alliance’s troops to securing the main prize. But Fichev argued that the decisive actions would probably take place in Thrace, south of Bulgaria along the Aegean Sea: by occupying Thrace the Bulgarians could cut Macedonia off from the rest of the Ottoman Empire, preventing the Turks from sending reinforcements, and it would also allow them to put pressure on the Turkish capital at Constantinople.

Instead of a combined attack on Macedonia, Fichev proposed sending most of the Bulgarian army into the Maritsa River valley, slicing the Ottoman Empire in Europe in two. This would include an audacious attack on Edirne (the ancient Roman city of Adrianople), which would open the way to Constantinople itself. Meanwhile the Serbs under Putnik would attack and occupy Macedonia, advancing first to Skopje and then, if possible all the way to Durazzo (Durrës) on the Adriatic Sea.

The plan agreed on July 2, 1912, made sense from a strictly military perspective, but it also set the stage for conflict between the Balkan allies. If all went according to plan, Serbia would end up occupying most of Macedonia, while the Bulgarian army would be tied down in Thrace – meaning Bulgaria wouldn’t have “boots on the ground” to enforce its claims in Macedonia. To make matters worse, the allies never agreed on the precise borders of their spheres of interest in Macedonia. No surprise, when it came time to divide the spoils, the Serbs were reluctant to part with territory they felt belonged to them by right of conquest, leading to even more fighting – this time between Bulgaria and Serbia.

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]