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Library of Congress

A False Glimmer of Hope

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Library of Congress

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 55th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

February 7, 1913: A False Glimmer of Hope

After an alarming deterioration in 1911-1912, in February 1913 relations between Britain and Germany took a sudden and unexpected turn for the better. Friendlier relations between Europe’s two leading powers held out hope for lasting peace – but the Anglo-German détente proved to be superficial, temporarily masking tensions without resolving their underlying causes.

Germany’s ambitious naval construction program was the single biggest factor alienating British public opinion, which rightly viewed naval superiority as key to the security of the British Isles. Concern over Germany’s growing High Seas Fleet pushed Britain and France closer together, leading to the Anglo-French Naval Convention. On the German side, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his military advisors were infuriated by what they viewed as British arrogance on naval issues as well as Britain’s participation in an alleged Franco-Russian conspiracy to encircle Germany.

So why did relations between Britain and Germany suddenly begin to improve in 1913? One important reason was their successful cooperation at the Conference of London, where they worked together to resolve the crisis arising from the First Balkan War. Here diplomats – not generals – shaped foreign policy. Men like British foreign minister Sir Edward Grey and the German ambassador, Karl Max, Prince Lichnowsky, made it their life’s mission to keep the peace in Europe, and were almost always able to negotiate a reasonable compromise.

At the same time, the more aggressive members of the German government were sobered by British determination to outpace German naval construction by a substantial margin, no matter how many ships Germany built. Although the Haldane Mission in February 1912 failed to produce an agreement limiting naval construction, by 1913 First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill’s repeated warnings – backed up by Parliamentary approval for more dreadnoughts – finally got through to Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (pictured), the architect of German naval strategy.

Thus on February 7, 1913, Tirpitz gave a speech to the Reichstag budget committee agreeing to a balance of forces in dreadnoughts which favored Britain 16-10 – the same proportion proposed by Winston Churchill in 1912. In truth it wasn’t quite that simple, as Churchill’s original offer didn’t include dreadnoughts which might be built for the Royal Navy by Dominions of the British Empire, including Malaysia and Canada. Nonetheless, for political and diplomatic purposes, Tirpitz was signaling his willingness to come to terms with Britain on dreadnought construction – a major step towards alleviating tension between the two countries.

Also on February 7, 1913, in his first speech to the Reichstag the new German foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, proudly pointed to Anglo-German cooperation at the Conference of London: “The intimate exchange of views which we are maintaining with the British Government has very materially contributed to the removal of difficulties of various kinds which have arisen during the last few months… I am not a prophet, but I entertain the hope that on the ground of common interests, which in politics is the most fertile ground, we can continue to work with England and perhaps to reap the fruits of our labors.”

This speech was an important piece of public diplomacy, obviously intended as much for British ears as German, and a clear indication that Germany did not want conflict with the powerful British Empire. Nor was Jagow trying to deceive: even the most belligerent German generals hoped to avoid fighting Britain, which could totally isolate Germany with a naval blockade in the event of war.

But the improvement in relations between Britain and Germany would prove fleeting. First of all, while German concessions on naval construction were welcome in Britain, they were simply part of a strategic shift in German defense spending, which from 1913-1914 prioritized the army in preparation for a land-based conflict with France and Russia. Since Germany had no chance of matching British power on the sea, it made more sense to focus on building up its power on land, where it had a real chance of beating France and Russia (and which was its traditional area of strength to begin with).

For this strategy to work, the German “war party” hoped that Britain would stay out of the conflict, so Germany could face France and Russia alone – and this hope appeared to be justified by warmer relations. But it should have been obvious that Britain would never allow Germany to destroy the European balance of power: the British had learned the hard way that they couldn’t let the Continent fall under the domination of a single despotic power, as in the glory days of Philip II, Louis XIV, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

As for the diplomats, Lichnowsky would continue to work for peace, but there was no guarantee that he would always be allowed to do his job, as demonstrated by the fate of the previous German ambassador to London, Count Metternich, who was cashiered by Berlin for reporting bad news. In Germany’s authoritarian government, the military outranked the civilians, and the Kaiser and his generals could always sideline, overrule, or simply ignore diplomats who didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear. In 1914 this would be a recipe for disaster.

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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]