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World War I Centennial: Britain and France Team Up (Sort Of)

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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 28th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

July 23, 1912: Anglo-French Naval Convention

The rise of German power on land and at sea in the first years of the 20th century forced Britain and France, rivals since the medieval period, to put aside their differences to contain the growing German threat. This was a huge change for Britain, which had previously emphasized its “splendid isolation” from the Continent of Europe by avoiding long-term, formal commitments to France or any other European power.

Following the Second Moroccan Crisis in July-November 1911, it became clear to forward-thinking British ministers that Britain would have to put aside its traditional reluctance and cooperate with France. The big goal for First Lord Winston Churchill, heavily influenced by the retired Admiral Jackie Fisher, was an Anglo-French Naval Convention that would essentially give the French navy responsibility for guarding the Mediterranean, allowing Britain to concentrate its naval power in the North Sea against Germany.

Churchill had to overcome institutional resistance from Britain’s civilian government as well as the military: in addition to Britain’s traditional reluctance to enter into entangling alliances, the Mediterranean – a “British lake” since the Napoleonic wars – was the key link to the Suez Canal and Britain’s colonies in the Far East. Thus the First Lord spent much of the first half of 1912 carefully lining up support.

On April 23, 1912, the Admiralty produced a map showing proposed areas for responsibility for the French and British navies, and in June Churchill’s adviser Fisher explained the rationale behind the proposed Anglo-French Naval Convention: “As to the policy of reducing the Mediterranean Fleet, the matter is most simple. The margin of power in the North Sea… requires this addition of the Mediterranean battleships … We cannot have everything or be strong everywhere. It is futile to be strong in the subsidiary theatre of war and not overwhelmingly supreme in the decisive theatre.”

Churchill reinforced this message in conversations with key Cabinet members: on May 6, 1912, he reminded the Secretary of War Richard Burdon Haldane that the main naval confrontation of the next war would take place in the North Sea, not the Mediterranean.

Still, Churchill had to make compromises with some key players, including Lord Kitchener, the British consul general in Egypt, who was responsible for security in the entire Mediterranean basin. On July 4, 1912, Churchill, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, and Lord Herbert Kitchener met in Malta, where Kitchener agreed to move British battleships out of the Mediterranean – as long as the Royal Navy maintained two or three battle cruiser squadrons (as opposed to just one) to keep the Austro-Hungarian navy bottled up in the Adriatic Sea. Later, stubborn opposition from traditionalists in the British cabinet forced Churchill to keep four battle cruiser squadrons in the Mediterranean – but he got permission to withdraw the battleships.

Let's Make a Deal

On July 23, 1912, the British admiralty drew up a draft Anglo-French Naval Convention, which was then relayed to French Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré for review. At first Poincaré was not impressed, noting that there was no formal commitment by Britain to join the French in a war against Germany: “To begin a military or naval convention by saying that it means nothing so far as the Governments are concerned is superfluous and quite out of place in such a convention. If the Entente does not mean that England will come to the aid of France in the event of Germany attacking the French ports its value is not great.”

Subsequent revisions to the text hardly removed this ambiguity, with the final version merely providing that “if either Government had grave reason to expect an unprovoked attack by a third Power, or something that threatened the general peace, it should immediately discuss with the other whether both Governments should act together to prevent aggression and preserve peace, and if so what measures they would be prepared to take in common.” This technically preserved Britain’s freedom to stay out a war between France and Germany.

But communication between the French and British was taking place at several levels – and some of the most important exchanges occurred between British and French military officers, leaving diplomats in the dark. While the French might grumble about the actual text of the Naval Convention, discussions with top British military officers left little doubt that Britain would honor its commitment to protect the northern coast of France against German attacks.

Of course, this assumed that when the time came, pro-French cabinet members would be able to persuade Parliament to declare war on the basis, essentially, of an informal agreement – a remarkably casual approach to both foreign affairs and domestic politics, even by the standards of the day.

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]