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Wikimedia Commons

An Emperor’s Personal Plea for Peace

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Wikimedia Commons

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 54th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

February 4-6, 1913: An Emperor’s Personal Plea for Peace

As fighting between the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire resumed in February 1913, Europe seemed to be teetering on the edge of a much wider war. Austria-Hungary, fearing the growth of Serbian power, was determined to prevent Serbia from gaining access to the sea through its newly-conquered territory in Albania, and mobilized eight army corps along its borders with Serbia and Russia to intimidate the small Slavic kingdom and its powerful patron. The Russians felt obliged to back up their Slavic cousins in Serbia, and although the Council of Ministers in St. Petersburg ultimately decided against counter-mobilization, they quietly retained that year’s army recruits in service, raising their military strength along the Austrian border without actually mobilizing. Austria-Hungary was supported by its ally Germany, Russia by its ally France, and France by its informal ally Britain. The two alliance blocs were facing off in an alignment foreshadowing the First World War.

Indeed, while most of the leaders of Europe’s Great Powers were privately skeptical about the wisdom of going to war, keeping the peace wasn’t a simple matter. Then, as now, foreign policy decision-making was dominated by considerations of “prestige”—the somewhat nebulous but very real measure of a country’s power based on perceptions of its military might, economic strength, internal cohesion, domestic political support, and history of keeping (or breaking) promises to other countries. With the demands of prestige always in the forefront of their minds, Europe’s leaders were determined not to look weak in front of their peers, which meant they couldn’t appear to give way in the face of intimidation. And that made it much more difficult to defuse the situation in Eastern Europe, where neither Russia nor Austria-Hungary felt they could afford to back down because of a military threat.

To work out a peaceful solution that avoided diminishing anyone’s prestige, the Great Powers convened at the Conference of London in December 1912, where negotiations over the new shape of the Balkans would (hopefully) help end the military standoff. Despite the continued warfare between the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire, the Conference made progress: in December the Great Powers—including Russia—all agreed to recognize Albanian independence, and by February 1913 the Serbs had given up their claim to the Albanian port city of Durazzo (Durrës), satisfying the first Austro-Hungarian demand. However the Serbs’ Montenegrin allies still hoped to capture Scutari, which Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister, Count Berchtold, wanted to give to Albania, and the Serbs were also determined to hold on to Dibra (Debar) and Jakova (Dakovica), two inland market towns which Berchtold also believed should go to Albania.

With negotiations threatening to deadlock and troops standing guard on both sides of the border, Franz Josef, the Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, decided to intervene directly by reaching out to Tsar Nicholas II. While not totally unheard of, this kind of personal engagement was rare; even in the old-fashioned dynastic states of Eastern Europe, where the monarchs set overall policy, they still usually left the conduct of foreign affairs, like the rest of the business of government, to their ministers and their subordinates.

After recovering from his surprise, Count Berchtold readily agreed to the Emperor’s proposal to send one of Austria’s most illustrious noblemen, Gottfried Maximilian Maria, Prince zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, Ratibor und Corvey, to St. Petersburg bearing a personal letter from Franz Josef asking the Tsar for peace. Hohenlohe was an astute choice for this mission: in addition to impeccable aristocratic credentials, he had previously served as the Austro-Hungarian military attaché in St. Petersburg for five years, during which time he became a personal friend of Nicholas II and therefore a “court favorite.”

Prince Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst left Vienna for St. Petersburg on February 1, 1913, and was granted an audience with the Tsar on February 4. After presenting the emperor’s letter, during several subsequent meetings with the Tsar and Sazonov, the prince emphasized that the Austro-Hungarian mobilization along the Russian and Serbian frontiers was purely defensive, and Austria-Hungary had no intention of attacking Serbia, provided the Serbs were willing to compromise. Meanwhile Austria-Hungary might be willing to cancel some of its military preparations if Russia was willing to do the same.

Of course, the first part wasn’t strictly true: Austria-Hungary’s mobilization along the Serbian border was clearly intended to convey a threat of offensive action if Serbia didn’t conform to Vienna’s wishes. Diplomatic double-speak aside, Prince Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst’s mission played a major role in defusing the tension between Austria-Hungary and Russia by demonstrating goodwill and opening a personal channel of communication between the two monarchs; now the rest of the issues separating the two empires could be resolved. At Sazonov’s urging Serbia soon gave up its claim to Scutari (although the stubborn Montenegrins continued to lay siege to the city, foreshadowing yet another crisis) and in return Count Berchtold agreed to let Serbia keep Dibra and Jakova. Military de-escalation came not long after.

But the peaceful conclusion of the Albanian Crisis in 1913 didn’t prevent the catastrophe of 1914—and may even have contributed to it. For one thing, opinion in most European capitals was divided between a “war party” and a “peace party,” and the hawks came away feeling they gave up too much in the compromise. In St. Petersburg, Russian nationalists and Pan-Slavs criticized the Tsar and Sazonov for selling out their Slavic cousins yet again, while in Vienna the extraordinarily belligerent chief of the general staff, Count Conrad von Hötzendorf, complained that Austria-Hungary had missed a major opportunity to settle accounts with Serbia.

Their allies voiced similar feelings. In late February 1913, Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, the British officer in charge of coordinating military plans with France, told London that top French generals believed war was coming, and wanted to fight Germany sooner rather than later. And in Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II and chief of the general staff Helmuth von Moltke, who’d grown increasingly paranoid about encirclement over the course of the crisis, also viewed war as inevitable. Indeed, on February 10, 1913, Moltke wrote to Conrad warning that “a European war must come sooner or later in which ultimately the struggle will be one between Germanism and Slavism…”

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

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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