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Poincaré Elected President of France

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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 52nd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

January 17, 1913: Poincaré Elected President of France

On January 17, 1913, Raymond Poincaré, a leading conservative politician and the premier and foreign minister of France since January 1912, was elected President of France after a complicated, contentious five-way race, which at times pitted him against his own party and almost saw him involved in not one but two duels.

With the term of President Armand Fallière coming to an end, many French political observers expected Léon Bourgeois, a center-left former prime minister now serving as minister of labor, to win the presidency easily. However Bourgeois, who had struggled with illness since 1904, refused to stand for election, citing his age and declining health. This unexpected withdrawal opened the race wide open, resulting in a political free-for-all.

Poincaré, never slow to seize an opportunity, declared his candidacy just days later, but was immediately challenged from both ends of the political spectrum. From the right came Alexandre Ribot, another former foreign minister and prime minister who had helped forge the all-important alliance with Russia in 1892. From the left came Jules Pams, a progressive Republican serving as agriculture minister, with support from George Clemenceau, a newspaper publisher and leader of the Radical Party. From even further left came the Socialist candidate, Édouard Vaillant, a former member of the Paris Commune with little hope of actually winning.

To make things even more complicated, two other contenders from the center-right also threw their hats in the ring. Paul Deschanel, a member of the Progressivist Republican Party who had famously advocated separation of church and state during the controversy over Catholic control of education around the turn of the century, now served as the president of the Chamber of Deputies. Antonin Dubost, a former journalist and educator respected for his early advocacy of Republican government during the dictatorship of Napoleon III, now served as president of the French Senate.

This complicated presidential race would be decided by an equally complicated, multi-stage balloting procedure in the National Assembly. On January 16, 1913, three preliminary ballots were held, which at one point gave the leftist Pams a slight lead over the conservative Poincaré, with the three other center-right candidates trailing behind. Faced with a possible leftist victory and no hope of clinching the election themselves, Ribot, Deschanel, and Dubost decided to withdraw from the race, leaving Poincaré the de facto choice for center-right Assemblymen.

On January 17, 1913, the Assembly again convened to vote, this time for keeps. Before they could do so, a “Bonapartist” deputy protested that the President of France should be elected by universal suffrage, rather than the votes of Assembly members; meanwhile a lunatic brandishing a revolver was arrested outside the building. Rumors also circulated that Poincaré would be required to fight a duel—or rather, duels—with Clemenceau and Pams over minor points of honor. Nonetheless, voting proceeded with two rounds of balloting, and on the second ballot, Poincaré secured 483 votes against 296 votes for Pams and 69 for Vaillant, giving him the Presidency.

Poincaré’s election was a crucial factor in the lead-up to the First World War for a number of reasons. Poincaré, a native of the lost province of Lorraine, considered Germany the main threat to French national security; indeed, his first statement to the public after winning the presidency was a promise to strengthen the national defenses. And while the French presidency had mostly been viewed as a ceremonial post up to that time, the energetic Poincaré realized that it actually had the potential to confer enormous power through a number of channels, including control of parliamentary procedure, the publicity of the “bully pulpit,” and the appointment of key ministers and officials.

Poincaré didn’t take long to exercise his new power. One of his first moves was to replace the French ambassador to St. Petersburg, Georges Louis, with Théophile Delcassé, who shared Poincaré’s view that Germany’s current trajectory posed an existential threat to France. Indeed, during the Second Moroccan Crisis Delcassé had written: “No durable arrangement can be concluded with Germany. Her mentality is such that one can no longer dream of living in lasting peace with her. Paris, London, and St. Petersburg should be convinced that war is, alas! inescapable and that it is necessary to prepare for it without losing a minute.”

Everyone recognized the significance of Delcassé’s appointment to the important position as French envoy to Russia. On February 21, 1913, the Belgian ambassador to France, Baron Guillaume, reported to the Belgian foreign office that “The news that M. Delcassé is shortly to be appointed Ambassador at Petersburg burst like a bomb here yesterday afternoon. … He was one of the architects of the Franco-Russian alliance, and still more so of the Anglo-French entente.” The implications were grasped as far away as Serbia, where the government was rumored to be encouraged by Delcassé’s appointment, because it meant the Russians would feel more confident in confronting Germany, which in turn meant Serbia would have more support from Russia in its own confrontation with Austria-Hungary.

The Serbs weren’t mistaken: On January 29, 1913, the Russian ambassador to France, Izvolsky, sent a secret telegram to the Russian foreign minister, Sazonov, assuring him that Poincaré was strongly sympathetic to Russia, and would support an expanded interpretation of the Franco-Russian alliance, including French support for a more assertive Russian policy in the Balkans. The tangled web of European diplomacy was drawing tighter.

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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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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