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World War I Centennial: Imagining the Demise of France

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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 26th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

July 10, 1912: Imagining the Demise of France

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One of the big questions facing historians of the First World War is the role played by popular nationalism in the outbreak of hostilities. While conventional historical wisdom has stated that “most” ordinary Europeans embraced nationalist ideals, and that national rivalries and hatreds therefore contributed to the outbreak of war, revisionist historians have questioned that assumption, pointing out that there is actually little evidence what most ordinary people thought.

Historians can (maybe) get some idea of how people felt from the products or documents of popular culture, including newspapers, magazines, descriptions of concerts and festivals, music, and books. The latter category includes any number of volumes, of varying quality, predicting what the “next war” would be like. These books were almost without exception wrong in their predictions about how the war would be fought, but they nonetheless yield some interesting clues about how at least some Europeans felt going into the war.

One example is Frankreichs Ende bis Jahre 19??, or The Demise of France in Year 19??, by Major Adolf Sommerfeld. No literary gem, The Demise of France, as the title indicates, was largely an exercise in German wish-fulfillment: set in the not distant future, it imagined that France would alienate its allies, Britain and Russia, then foolishly provoke a war with Germany in which it would be totally destroyed.

Indeed, in addition to its generally low quality, The Demise of France got a number of important predictions wrong. Britain and Russia didn’t remain neutral in the Great War, and Italy didn’t join in on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary as imagined in the book. Some other predictions are sadly ironic: Sommerfeld imagines Franz Ferdinand succeeding Franz Josef as the Kaiser and King of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then energetically expanding the Dual Monarchy’s navy and army in preparation for war. Sommerfeld also shared the general belief that the next war would be short, as all the events (including the fall of France) take place in a single, unnamed year.

A Bolt From the Blue

In other ways, however, the book was remarkably perceptive. Sommerfeld predicted that the Balkan states “were working secretly to carve up Turkey” – a prediction that would be proved right far sooner than he probably expected. He also accurately captured the widespread feeling of shock and surprise at the outbreak of war, which came “like a bolt from the blue” – a description that would be repeated almost verbatim in countless memoirs written after the war was over.

More importantly, The Demise of France provides documentary evidence of strong nationalist feeling in Germany, which expressed itself in extreme hostility to the age-old rival France – and her people. While not every German bought the book, and not every reader necessarily subscribed to Sommerfeld’s views, his casual denigration of Germany’s neighbor was, at the very least, not particularly shocking or off-putting, judging by the success of the book: after a first edition quickly sold out following its release on April 1, 1912, a second edition was rushed to the market on July 10, 1912.

Interestingly The Demise of France would be cited by Allied propagandists during the Great War as proof of Germany’s intentions to dominate Europe and eventually the world. This included producing a map showing Europe as Sommerfeld imagined it after the German conquest of France, with France divided between Germany in the north and Italy in the south.

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]