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World War I Centennial: Balkan Armistice, Britain Warns 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 47th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

December 3, 1912: Balkan Armistice, Britain Warns Germany

Seeing his armies exhausted following their defeat at Chataldzha, Bulgaria’s Tsar Ferdinand (pictured) finally listened to the pleas of the Bulgarian civilian government and the advice of Bulgaria’s patron Russia, and consented to an armistice between the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire. The armistice agreed on December 3, 1912, was a temporary ceasefire between the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro; with Greek forces still laying siege to the ancient city of Janina (Greek: Ioannina) in Epirus, the Greek commander-in-chief, crown prince Constantine, wanted to continue fighting.

This partial ceasefire was at least a step in the right direction as the situation in the Balkans threatened to escalate. Austria-Hungary was apparently willing to fight to prevent Serbia from gaining access to the sea through its newly conquered Albanian territory: On November 21, 1912, Franz Josef mobilized six Austro-Hungarian army corps at the request of foreign minister Count Berchtold, and a week later, on November 28, 1912, Ismail Qemali declared Albanian independence in Vlorë with support from Austria-Hungary. But the situation was far from settled: The Greek navy was bombarding Vlorë, the Serbs were still occupying most of Albania, and Berchtold still had to get the other Great Powers to agree to the creation of a new Albanian state in the west Balkans. In the back of everyone’s mind was the distinct chance that the Ottoman Empire might simply fall apart, precipitating a disorderly and violent scramble by the Great Powers to secure their shares of Turkish territory in Europe, Asia Minor, and the Middle East.

The armistice between (most of) the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire cleared the way for an international peace conference. First suggested by the French premier Raymond Poincaré in mid-October and finally convened December 17, 1912, the Conference of London (actually two parallel conferences) gathered diplomatic representatives from the European Great Powers, the Ottoman Empire, and the Balkan League in the grey, rainy British capital to settle the situation in the Balkans and keep the peace in Europe.

In the weeks leading up to the Conference, the foreign secretaries and ambassadors of the Great Powers met individually to exchange views, agree on priorities, and establish plans of action, while their bosses engaged in some public grandstanding to win domestic political points. The overall effect was to consolidate the two alliance groups, with Britain, France, and Russia on one side and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other (and Italy nominally supporting Germany and Austria-Hungary as Triple Alliance partners, but actually on the sidelines).

No one wanted to appear weak or vacillating in front of their allies, or at home. On November 17, 1912, the French premier Raymond Poincare assured the Russian ambassador that France would back up Russia, and on November 23, 1912, Tsar Nicholas II told his Council of Ministers that he had decided to mobilize three Russian army districts, although the ministers later convinced him to reverse the order.

Meanwhile, on November 22, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II privately promised Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones, that Germany would back up Austria-Hungary in a war. Publicly, on November 28, 1912, German foreign secretary Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter told the Bundesrat (upper house of Parliament) that Germany was prepared to go to war in support of its ally Austria-Hungary, and on December 2, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg repeated the message to the Reichstag (the lower house). These veiled public threats drew an immediate public response. On December 4, Raymond Poincaré reassured the French Chamber of Deputies that he would protect France’s position in the Ottoman Empire, including commercial interests in the Balkans and Syria, while Paul Cambon, the French ambassador to London, privately warned that “Germanism,” represented by Austria-Hungary, had designs on the Mediterranean through the Balkans, threatening British interests. On November 22 and 23, 1912, Grey and Cambon exchanged letters finalizing the Anglo-French Naval Convention of July 1912.

The Balance of Power

In addition to the safety of their Mediterranean Suez route, the British were motivated by their longstanding concern to maintain the balance of power in Europe, which historically required preventing any Continental state from becoming all-powerful. In one of the most important private exchanges of this period, on December 3, 1912, the British chancellor (previously war secretary) Richard Haldane responded to Bethmann Hollweg’s veiled threat in front of the Reichstag by visiting the German ambassador to London, Karl Max, Prince Lichnowsky, and warning him that, if Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia and a general European war resulted, Britain would probably side with France against Germany. According to Lichnowsky, Haldane explained that “the theory of the balance of power was an axiom of British foreign policy and had led to the entente with France and Russia.” In short, Britain would probably honor its commitments to France, however vague.

Lichnowsky could hardly be surprised by Haldane’s warning: An Anglophile like his predecessor Metternich, he was sympathetic to the British viewpoint and frequently repeated Metternich’s warning that German naval construction was alienating British public opinion to his superiors in Berlin—Bethmann Hollweg, Kiderlen-Wächter and Kaiser Wilhelm II. The British chancellor’s warning of December 3 was especially noteworthy because of Haldane’s own “Germanophile” tendencies (he was a devotee of German philosophy) and supposed sympathy for Germany. And this was not just the view of a single minister: On December 6, 1912, King George V himself warned Kaiser Wilhelm II’s brother, Prince Henry of Prussia, that Britain would “very certainly under certain circumstances” take the side of France and Russia in the event of war.

Unsurprisingly, these warnings were angrily disregarded by Wilhelm II and the rest of the German government. Fulminating that Haldane’s warning was a “moral declaration of war,” on December 8, 1912 the Kaiser convened what came to be known as the “Imperial War Council” to consider the possibility of a European war with his top military advisors.

Characteristically, while planning for war, the Germans also tried to persuade themselves that the British were bluffing. In 1913, the new foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, wrote to Lichnowsky, telling him to “be more optimistic in your judgment of our British friends. I think you see things too black when you give expression that in the event of war England will be found on France’s side whatever happens.” In less than two years, the same basic combination of German belligerence and wishful thinking would lead Europe over the edge and into the abyss.

See all entries 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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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