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World War I Centennial: Albania Declares Independence

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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 46th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

November 28, 1912: Albania Declares Independence

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In the autumn of 1912, the Balkan League’s conquest of the Ottoman Empire’s European territories triggered an international crisis which threatened to provoke a general European war. The crisis resulted from Serbia’s desire to obtain access to the Adriatic Sea at Durazzo, and Austria-Hungary’s determination to prevent Serbia from gaining it. This put Austria-Hungary on a collision course with Serbia’s patron and protector, Russia, and thereby threatened to involve Austria-Hungary’s ally Germany and Russia’s ally France as well—outlining the dynamic that would lead to catastrophe in 1914. The situation reached its boiling point on November 21, 1912, when Austria-Hungary mobilized six army corps near Russia and Serbia, in a move clearly threatening war.

But Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister, Count Berchtold, had a plan to stop Serbia from gaining access to the sea while still avoiding a much bigger war: He would support independence for Albania, where Serbia had staked its claim to the sea. Greece and Montenegro would also lose chunks of Albanian territory that they had claimed; in Montenegro’s case, this included the important city of Scutari, where the Turkish garrison was still under siege by Serbian and Montenegrin forces.

This was a plausible strategy because the Albanians had already rebelled against the Turks earlier in the year, winning promises of greater autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. Now, threatened with even worse oppression by their Orthodox Christian neighbors, the mostly Muslim Albanians were ready to make the leap to full independence.

Balkan War Atrocities

Indeed, during the First Balkan War, the Serbs earned the lasting hatred of the Albanians with widespread atrocities (which the Serbs viewed as payback for earlier Turkish and Albanian atrocities against Serbs). According to an article published by the New York Times on December 31, 1912, “Thousands of men, women, and children [were] massacred” during the Serbs’ march to the sea, as part of a “deliberate policy to exterminate Moslems.” Thus, “Between Kumanova and Uskub [Skopje] some 3,000 persons were done to death. Near Pristina [Prishtina] 5,000, exclusively Arnauts [Albanians], fell beneath the hands of the Serbs, not in honorable fight, but by unjustifiable murder.” Some of the Serbian tactics foreshadowed other terrible events to come, including massacres of Jews by German Einsatzgruppen in the Second World War: “Near Kratovo Gen. Stefanovitch placed hundreds of prisoners in two rows and had them shot down with machine guns. Gen. Zivkovitch had 930 Albanian and Turkish notables killed near Sienitza because they opposed his progress.” Serbian atrocities were confirmed by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In November 1912, Ismail Qemali, a former Ottoman administrator who was the father of Albanian nationalism, returned from exile with assistance from Austria-Hungary, and quickly convened an Albanian national assembly at Vlorë. Although they didn’t control much Albanian territory besides the town of Vlorë itself, on November 28, 1912, the delegates declared Albanian independence from the Ottoman Empire, and on December 4, they formed a national government with representatives from all over Albania, who chose Qemali as president of the provisional government.

Of course, the Serbs and their allies continued to occupy most of Albania, and had no intention of giving up their hard-won access to the sea; in fact, on November 28 the Serbs captured Durazzo, and the Greek navy began a blockade of Vlorë on December 3. Meanwhile six Austro-Hungarian armies were still mobilized near Serbia and Russia, keeping the whole continent on edge. If Russia and Austria-Hungary went to war, the other Great Powers would almost certainly be sucked in. Also on November 28, 1912, German foreign secretary Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter assured the Bundesrat (the imperial council representing the princes of the German states, in effect the upper house of Parliament) that Germany was prepared to go to war in support of its ally Austria-Hungary. On December 2, 1912, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg repeated the message to the Reichstag (the lower house).

Big Questions

Now the peace of Europe depended on a couple of questions: would the other European Great Powers support Austria-Hungary by recognizing Albanian independence? And could Serbia be persuaded to withdraw from the area peacefully? In December 1912, diplomats from all the Great Powers—France, Britain, Russia, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary—hurried to the Conference of London to discuss these key issues.

See all installments of the World War I Centennial series here.

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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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