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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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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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