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World War I Centennial: Austria-Hungary Mobilizes Against Russia

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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 45th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

November 21, 1912: Austria-Hungary Mobilizes Against Russia

The Balkan League’s triumph over the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War, and subsequent dismembering of Turkish territory in the Balkans, provoked an international crisis that threatened to touch off a general European war.

After defeating the Turks at Kumanovo, Serbian armies seized Ottoman territory that would have doubled the size of the kingdom, had Serbia been allowed to keep it all. The territories claimed by Serbia in November 1912 included Albania, which would give Serbia its long-hoped-for access to the Adriatic Sea, including the important port of Durazzo (Durrës).

The Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, Count Berchtold (pictured), fearing the growth of Serbian power and its effect on Austria-Hungary’s restive Slavic population, decided to stop the Serbs from getting access to the sea through diplomacy and, if necessary, military action; for the same reason he also vowed to stop Serbia’s sidekick, Montenegro, from taking the important city of Scutari. Instead of letting Serbia and Montenegro expand to the sea, Berchtold proposed (to the other European Great Powers) that both cities would be part of new, independent nation, Albania.

This put Austria-Hungary on a collision course not only with Serbia but the small Slavic kingdom’s patron and protector, Russia – which in turn raised the possibility of involvement by Russia’s ally, France, and Austria-Hungary’s ally, Germany. In short, the dispute over a possible Serbian port on the Adriatic Sea outlined the dynamic that would push Europe into catastrophe less than two years later.

The conflict moved into crisis mode when Serbian forces reached the Adriatic Sea at Alessio (Albanian: Lezhë), 50 miles north of Durazzo, for the first time on November 17, 1912. Growing frantic, on November 21, 1912, Berchtold ratcheted up the tension by asking the Emperor Franz Josef to mobilize three army corps – the I, X, and XI – in the northeastern province of Galicia, along the Russian border, and partially mobilize three more – the IV, VII, and XIII – near Serbia.

There could only be one interpretation for these moves, which were clearly intended to intimidate Serbia and its Russian backers: Serbia would have to give up its hopes for a port on the Adriatic Sea, or Austria-Hungary would enforce its will by invading Serbia – and fighting Russia too, if the latter came to Serbia’s assistance.

Of course, it was possible that Franz Josef and Berchtold were bluffing – that was for the Russians to guess. On one hand, they’d only mobilized six out of a total 15 Austro-Hungarian army corps, which suggested their hearts weren’t set on war; on the other hand, the government in Vienna felt it had already suffered a major loss of prestige in the First Balkan War, so it might just be desperate enough to start a much bigger fight.

At first, the Russians weren’t inclined to back down in the face of Austro-Hungarian intimidation. In fact, on November 23, 1912, Tsar Nicholas II told his Council of Ministers that he had decided to mobilize three Russian army districts – Kiev, Warsaw, and Odessa – in response to the Austro-Hungarian mobilization. Of course, this might trigger counter-mobilization by Austria-Hungary’s ally Germany, which could quickly lead to a European war, as it actually did in 1914. On November 22, 1912, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II had promised Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones, that Germany would back up Austria-Hungary in a war, and on November 17, the French premier Raymond Poincare assured the Russian ambassador that France would back up Russia. The stage was set for a conflagration.

The Russians Stand Down

Fortunately, internal divisions in St. Petersburg helped avert further escalation. The Council of Ministers, furious that Nicholas II had bypassed them in ordering mobilization, demanded that he cancel the orders. At the same time, France, Germany, and Britain were scrambling to arrange a diplomatic meeting that would allow them to iron out the complicated situation in the Balkans; the Conference of London, which first met in December 1912, ended up preventing Serbia from expanding to the sea, satisfying Austro-Hungarian demands.

But the Russian stand-down ultimately contributed to a dynamic that would eventually result in war. Most importantly, Count Berchtold and other Austro-Hungarian officials drew the (incorrect) conclusion that Serbia and Russia would always respond to military intimidation, leading them to take a more aggressive stance in future crises. Meanwhile Nicholas II, angry at being sidelined by the Imperial Council, began to assume a more autocratic role in Russian government; he was also sensitive to criticism from Russian “Pan-Slavs” that he had sold out their Serbians cousins, which prompted him to be more assertive in future crises as well.

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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iStock

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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