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Coup in Constantinople

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Getty Images

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 53rd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

January 23, 1913: Coup in Constantinople, Betrayal in the Balkans, Conniving in the Caucasus

In January 1913 there was reason to hope the First Balkan War was winding down. After the Ottoman Empire suffered crushing defeats at the hands of the Balkan League—Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro—the two sides agreed to a ceasefire and entered into peace negotiations at the Conference of London beginning in December 1912.

As might be expected, these negotiations were a bit rocky: On January 1, 1913, the Turks said they were willing to give up almost all of their European territory, but not the key city of Adrianople, where the Turkish garrison was still holding out against a Bulgarian siege. The Bulgarians wouldn’t make peace if they didn’t get Adrianople. This conflict threatened to deadlock the negotiations, which were suspended on January 6.

On January 17, Europe’s Great Powers intervened by warning the Turkish representatives that if they didn’t make peace soon, the Ottoman Empire faced the loss of its Asian territories as well—a bold-faced threat. This arm-twisting paid off; on January 22, the Turkish negotiators thought better of their earlier refusal and agreed to give up Adrianople. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief.

But their relief was premature. On January 23, 1913, the Turkish “Liberal Union” government that agreed to the deal was overthrown by military officers from the rival Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks, led by Enver Pasha, the commander of the Constantinople reserve army.

Emboldened by their defensive victory at Chataldzha and horrified by the suffering of some 400,000 Turkish refugees streaming in from the Balkans, the nationalist officers refused to give up Adrianople before it had even been lost. Instead, they deposed the Grand Vizier, Kamil Pasha, and shot the Minister of War, Nazim Pasha, as punishment for his failure in the First Balkan War. Hoping to reinvigorate the Turkish military, the officers appointed a non-political general (and recent Minister of War), Mahmud Shevket Pasha, as the new Grand Vizier. The First Balkan War would drag on.

The Balkan League Begins to Fray

The Turks had reason to be hopeful. Although the members of the Balkan League presented a united front in their peace negotiations with the Ottoman Empire, tensions were rising over the division of spoils from the First Balkan War. In June 1913 these disputes would lead to the Second Balkan War, pitting Bulgaria against its former allies Serbia and Greece (plus Turkey and Romania for good measure).

The trouble was already brewing in January 1913, as intervention by Europe’s Great Powers triggered a chain reaction of conflicting territorial demands. Fearing the growth of Serbian power, Austria-Hungary was determined to prevent the small Slavic kingdom from gaining access to the sea, raising the possibility of war with Serbia’s backer Russia. To avoid a wider European conflagration, the Great Powers moved to placate Austria-Hungary by convincing Russia to agree to the creation of a new, independent Albania, which would block Serbia from the sea.

Albanian independence was crucial to defusing broader European tensions, but it did so at the cost of local stability in the Balkans. Because Serbia was forced to give up its conquests in Albania, it became even more determined to hold on to its conquests to the east, in Macedonia – including territory also claimed by Bulgaria. On January 13, 1913, Serbia sent Bulgaria a diplomatic note formally requesting to revise their treaty of March 1912 to give Serbia a bigger chunk of Macedonia, noting that Bulgaria hadn’t committed the promised number of troops to their joint operations in Macedonia.

Of course this was bound to infuriate the Bulgarians, who felt that their focus on defeating the Turks closer to home, in Thrace, had benefited the whole Balkan League. Meanwhile Bulgaria also had a bone to pick with Greece over the city of Salonika, the southern gateway to the Balkans. To top it all off, Romania was also demanding territorial compensation from Bulgaria in return for recognizing its conquests in Thrace. A new coalition was coming into being, this time directed against Bulgaria.

Russia Uses Kurds and Armenians as Pawns

In addition to losing its Balkan territories, farther east the beleaguered Ottoman Empire faced the threat of Russian aggression in the Caucasus. Here the Russians employed a time-tested ruse, combining covert action and diplomatic pressure, as cynical as anything dreamed up by a modern intelligence agency in the 21st century.

The ruse entailed using the Armenian and Kurdish populations of the Ottoman Empire as pawns to justify Russian intervention. Essentially, the Russians secretly armed the Muslim Kurds and Christian Armenians and encouraged them to fight each other as well as the Turkish government, thus creating a pretext for the Russians to step in as the “protectors” of the Armenians, incorporating the Armenian region into the Russian Empire while they were at it.

On November 26, 1912, the Russian ambassador to Constantinople, Baron von Giers, demanded that the Turks institute “reforms” granting more autonomy to the Armenians – a preamble to Russian annexation of the region. Meanwhile on November 28, 1912, Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov sent a secret directive to Russian consuls in eastern Anatolia telling them to work to unite the Kurdish tribes (never an easy task), and between December 1912 and February 1913 several Kurdish chiefs secretly swore fealty to the Russians.

In short, the Russians were creating a problem so they could solve it. Of course, by setting themselves up as the Armenians’ saviors, the Russians also stoked Turkish paranoia about Armenian loyalty (or lack thereof), laying the groundwork for the horrific Armenian Genocide during the coming Great War.

The other Great Powers were aware of what was going on, at least to some degree: on January 23, 1913, the German ambassador to St. Petersburg, Count Friedrich Pourtalès, wrote a letter to the German chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, warning him that Kurdish atrocities against Armenians would create an opening for Russia to expand into eastern Anatolia. As noted previously, this was unacceptable to the Germans, who feared they would lose out if the other Great Powers started dividing up the Ottoman Empire; a Russian advance in Anatolia would also threaten the proposed “Berlin to Baghdad” railway, a key part of Germany’s push to increase its influence in the Middle East.

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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