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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
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]