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World War I Centennial: Confusion Reigns in Constantinople

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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 25th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

July 9, 1912: Confusion Reigns in Constantinople

Turkish fortunes took a sharp turn for the worse in 1911-1912, as the ailing multinational Ottoman Empire was first attacked by Italy, then assailed by an Albanian uprising, while the members of the Balkan League plotted to liberate their ethnic kinsmen under Turkish rule (and grab big chunks of land). Suffering reverses on all fronts, it’s no surprise that the ruling party, the Committee of Union and Progress – better known as the “Young Turks” – started looking around for a scapegoat.

That scapegoat turned out to be the Minister of War, Mahmud Shevket Pasha (pictured), who had been described by foreign observers as “the most capable and energetic of contemporary Turkish statesmen,” but who had only loose ties to the CUP and was therefore forced to take the blame for a military situation that was frankly beyond his (or anyone’s) control. On July 9, 1912, Shevket Pasha was forced to resign as Minister of War.

Shevket Pasha’s ouster was engineered in part by the Grand Vizier (prime minister) Mehmed Said Pasha, who ran the empire on behalf of the figurehead Sultan under the newly-restored constitution. To replace Shevket Pasha as Minister of War, Said Pasha wanted to appoint an army colonel with closer ties to the CUP, which would allow the CUP to consolidate control over the Turkish military.

No Confidence

But the Ottoman government was far from stable (as attested by the fact that this was Said Pasha’s eighth turn holding the office of Grand Vizier) and by cashiering Shevket Pasha, Said Pasha doomed his entire government. Indeed, the government was in such bad standing with the Turkish elite that no one who was qualified to be Minister of War would accept the position, leading Said Pasha to dissolve the government – even after he obtained a vote of confidence. He famously explained his decision to the Sultan: “They have confidence in me, but I have no confidence in them.”

Under pressure from a group of young military officers known as “The Savior Officers” – who mostly hailed from Macedonia and were concerned about the erosion of Turkish power in the Balkans – Said Pasha and his whole cabinet were forced to resign on July 16, 1912. On July 22, 1912, Gazi Ahmed Muhtar Pasha, a military hero, was appointed Grand Vizier, but stability continued to elude the beleaguered Turkish government: in the wake of the military disasters of the First Balkan War, Muhtar Pasha was replaced by Kamil Pasha in October 1912, and Kamil Pasha himself was deposed at gunpoint in January 1913.

Kamil Pasha’s replacement as Grand Vizier was none other than Mahmut Shevket Pasha (Ottoman government at this time was something of a revolving door). But Shevket Pasha was no more able to stop the process of decay as Grand Vizier than he had been as Minister of War: following even more military setbacks, Shevket Pasha agreed to an unfavorable peace treaty, and was assassinated by radical military officers on June 11, 1913.

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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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