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WWI Centennial: The Conference of London Convenes

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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 50th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)


Bulgarian delegates leaving London's Ritz Hotel, for the Peace conference at St James Palace. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

December 17, 1912: The Conference of London Convenes

In mid-December 1912, as Europe seemed to teeter on the edge of war, diplomats representing the Great Powers, the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire hurried to an international conference in London organized by British foreign secretary Edward Grey with the goal of settling the situation in the Balkans and keeping the peace.

The Conference of London was actually two parallel conferences. The first consisted of peace negotiations between the Balkan League—Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro—and the Ottoman Empire. Following a rapid series of victories over the Turks, the armies of the Balkan League had occupied almost all of the Ottoman Empire’s Balkan territories, and it was clear that the Turks would have to give up most of these, including a large part of Thrace, Macedonia, and Albania. But there were still a number of unresolved issues, including the fate of the ancient city of Adrianople (Edirne) – a key Turkish possession under siege by the Bulgarians, but still holding out, at least for now. The Turks also wanted to keep a buffer zone in Thrace along the straits, which the Bulgarians were also occupying. The Bulgarians, by contrast, wanted the Turks to give up all their territory west of the defensive lines at Chataldzha.

In the second conference, Europe’s Great Powers came together to decide on the new shape of the western Balkans—focusing on the central issue of Serbia’s long-term ambition to gain access to the Adriatic Sea, now a real possibility following the Serbian conquest of Ottoman Albania, including the ancient port city of Durazzo (Durrës). Fearing the effect that this enhancement of Serbian prestige would have on Austria-Hungary’s own restive Slavic population, Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister, Count Berchtold, was determined to prevent Serbia from keeping Albania. He hoped to accomplish this by creating a new, independent Albanian state, free from Serbian occupiers. Of course, this put Austria-Hungary at odds with the Serbs and, through them, their Russian backers.

The first task of the Conference of London, therefore, was to gain international recognition for Albanian independence—especially from Russia. This goal was achieved almost immediately: On December 17, 1912, the representatives of the Great Powers agreed in principle to recognize an independent Albanian state. However, a number of important issues remained unresolved, including Albania’s precise boundaries in the north, south, and east.

In the north, would the new Albanian state include the important city of Scutari, currently under siege by the Montenegrins? To the south, would it include territory currently occupied by the Greeks, who were still fighting the Turks despite the armistice? (On December 20, 1912, the Greeks occupied Koritsa, triggering further alarm in Austria-Hungary.) And to the east, just how far would Albania’s borders extend into territory claimed—and occupied—by Serbia, including Kosovo?

While these territorial negotiations might sound trivial, they were taking place in the context of growing tension between the two main European alliances, with Austria-Hungary supported by Germany on one side, and Russia supported by France on the other. And the threat of military action wasn’t just hypothetical: Austria-Hungary had mobilized eight army corps near the Russian and Serbian borders, and although Tsar Nicholas II’s attempt to mobilize four military districts was countermanded by his own ministers, the Russians were secretly keeping recruits from that year’s military class in service, rather than discharging them (similar to the U.S. military’s “stop loss” policies).

Fortunately, there were also a lot of factors at work for peace. With Grey in the forefront, the British and Italians were doing their best to get everyone to agree to a peaceful resolution. Meanwhile, beneath all the posturing for the benefit of allies and domestic public opinion, the leaders of the other Great Powers were more ambivalent than they let on.

In St. Petersburg, Russian foreign minister Sazonov was advised by Russian generals that the Russian military wasn’t ready for a war, and on November 8, he secretly informed Russia’s French allies that Russia wouldn’t go to war for a Serbian port. In Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his military advisors were belligerent as usual—but as early as November 9, the mercurial German monarch also expressed the opinion, in a telegraph to German foreign minister Kiderlen-Wächter, that the issue of Serbian access to the sea wasn’t worth a war. In Vienna, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones, also privately voiced doubts that it was worth going to war to prevent Serbian access to the sea (there was also pressure from Austro-Hungarian finance officials to end the hugely expensive mobilization, which cost 200 million crowns by the end of 1912). Finally, for their part, the Serbs knew better than to defy a consensus among the larger European powers: On December 20, 1912, the Serbian general and diplomat Sava Gruji? assured Grey that Serbia would accept whatever decision the Great Powers rendered on the issue.

In the end, although it took several months and 63 meetings to resolve the situation (including a period of renewed fighting in the Balkans in early 1913), eventually all these factors contributed to a peaceful outcome. Thus, the Conference of London seemed to provide a promising model for international diplomacy—and reason to believe that rational human beings, united by mutual good will and a sense of collegial responsibility, could hold back the darkness. But the situation in the Balkans remained unstable to say the least, promising fresh crises in the near future. In 1912 and 1913, European diplomats succeeded in keeping the peace; in 1914, they failed.

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

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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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May 23, 2017
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