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World War I Centennial: Russia Promises to Attack Germany

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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 27th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

July 13, 1912: Russia Promises to Attack Germany

Beginning in 1910, the general staffs of France and Russia, allied since 1894, held regular talks once a year, alternating between Paris and St. Petersburg, to coordinate their military strategies in case of war with Germany. In June-July 1912, members of the Russian general staff, led by General Yakov Grigorievich Zhililnsky, made the several weeks’ journey to Paris to discuss strategy with the French general staff, led by General Joseph Joffre, in a meeting covering both land and naval plans.

Joffre and Zhilinsky had already conferred in an exchange of letters in January and February 1912, where Joffre laid out his vision for Russian participation in a war with Germany.

With France facing a likely German flanking attack through Belgium, Joffre needed the Russians to mobilize their forces for an attack on the German rear as fast as possible; a rapid Russian attack in East Prussia, the heartland of Germany’s Prussian military elite, might force the Germans to withdraw troops from the attack on France in order to protect the Fatherland. Zhilinsky broadly agreed: if France went down to defeat in the West, Russia would be left to face the entire German army, and probably the entire Austro-Hungarian army as well, all by itself.

In a military convention signed in Paris on July 13, 1912, Joffre and Zhilinsky firmed up the details, with the Russian generals formally promising to attack Germany within 15 days of mobilization, or M+15. This was an impressive commitment, considering that just several years before, conventional military wisdom held that Russia would be unable to mobilize its troops and make an attack within less than six weeks. Indeed, that was the assumption made by General Alfred von Schlieffen, the architect of German strategy, who gambled that six weeks gave Germany enough time to take advantage of the dense western rail network to defeat France, then hurry east to confront the Russians before they overran Prussia. A Russian attack in the east by M+15, just two weeks after the Russian army got the order to mobilize, might throw a (big) monkey wrench into the Schlieffen Plan – exactly what Joffre intended.

When war finally came in August 1914, the Russian general staff, responding to Austro-Hungarian aggression against Serbia, concentrated most of their armies (the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 8th Armies) for a planned invasion of Galicia in the northern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while still leaving enough troops, in the 1st and 2nd Armies, to also mount a surprisingly rapid attack on German territory in East Prussia on August 17 – as promised, just 15 (well, 16) days after Germany’s declaration of war against Russia on August 1. This invasion forced the Germans to hurry mobilization for new defensive armies, but the commanders of the outnumbered German forces, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich von Ludendorff, scored brilliant victories over the Russians at Masurian Lakes and Tannenberg.

Russian Reforms

While Schlieffen was probably correct in his assumption when he was designing his strategy, and even more so after the catastrophic Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, towards the end of that decade the Russians embarked on a massive – and massively expensive – series of reforms and upgrades intended to restore the Russian army as a fighting force in Europe and Asia. In addition to rebuilding shattered divisions and equipping them with modern artillery, the Russian general staff made a number of pragmatic changes to their strategy. Among other revisions, they decided to pull the Russian line of concentration (the step following mobilization) back towards Russia, leaving Russia’s Polish territory undefended. The general staff reasoned, probably correctly, that attempting to hold the Polish salient would leave their armies in Poland vulnerable to a joint German and Austro-Hungarian pincer attack from the north (East Prussia) and south (Galicia). Instead, they would gather the Russian armies closer to a central position in the Russian heartland and then use an improved rail network to quickly send them north or south, against Germany or Austria-Hungary, as necessity determined.

However the Russian mobilization plan relied in part on railroads that had yet to be built – which is why France was glad to provide her Russian ally with literally billions of francs in loans for railroad construction, including huge sums earmarked for ten railroads with primarily military purposes – specifically speeding Russian war mobilization. Indeed, by 1914 France had loaned the Russian government and government-backed industry a majestic 10.5 billion francs, or around 3.4 billion rubles – four-fifths of Russia’s total foreign debt of 4.23 billion rubles. (This wasn’t pure charity, of course. According to one estimate, French bondholders made six billion francs from their Russian holdings from 1889-1914).

Franco-Russian Naval Convention

The Franco-Russian military convention governing land operations was followed not long after, on July 16, by a similar agreement coordinating their naval strategies in case of a war with Germany – possibly in combination with other enemies including Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. While naval strategy was obviously of lesser importance given the allies’ continental preoccupation with Germany, the Franco-Russian Naval Convention confirmed their commitment to total cooperation in all military matters.

And in some theatres Franco-Russian naval cooperation might actually prove decisive. In the Middle East, for example, Russia’s Black Sea fleet and France’s Mediterranean fleet might be able to force the Turkish straits at Constantinople, thus liberating Russia’s Black Sea fleet, which could in turn help the French confront Germany in the English Channel and North Sea. Of course British naval intervention on the side of the Franco-Russian alliance would be decisive in all theatres – if it could be secured. On July 12, 1912 Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Royal Navy, had agreed to initiate naval negotiations with France.

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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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