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Poincaré Takes Office, Coup in Mexico

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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 56th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

February 18, 1913: Poincaré Takes Office, Coup in Mexico

On February 18—one month after winning the French presidential election—center-right politician Raymond Poincaré took office in an inauguration ceremony at the Hôtel de Ville, an elegant chateau constructed between 1533 and 1628 to house the city government of Paris. In a sign of Poincaré’s popularity, his inauguration attracted thousands of enthusiastic spectators despite the frigid weather.

Poincaré’s presidency was an important factor in the lead-up to the First World War, for a number of reasons. Although he didn’t seek war with Germany, the new French president was increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for lasting peace in Europe. At the same time, he also planned to take a more active approach to the presidency (previously regarded as a mostly ceremonial position), especially in foreign policy, where he had the power to conclude treaties and appoint key diplomats.

Indeed, one of his first moves was replacing the French ambassador to St. Petersburg, Georges Louis, with Théophile Delcassé—a big name in French foreign policy who, as foreign minister from 1898 to 1905, helped to bring about the entente cordial ("friendly understanding") with Britain. Delcassé was known to be pro-Russian and anti-German, and his agenda as ambassador to St. Petersburg can be deduced from his own words during the Second Moroccan Crisis: “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 the appointment of Delcassé, described by Kaiser Wilhelm II as “the most dangerous man for Germany in France.” 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." And on February 25, the French ambassador to Serbia, Léon Descos, told the French foreign ministry that his hosts thought Delcassé’s appointment would provide “…Slavism with the support needed to strengthen it in its struggle against the Teutonic powers.”

Meanwhile Poincaré wasted no time in moving to strengthen the French military. Among other things, the new president advocated increasing the size of the active-duty French army by extending the length of service for conscripts from two to three years. On February 20, in his first presidential address (read to the Chamber of Deputies by premier Aristide Briand), Poincaré laid the groundwork for the three-year service law: “No people can be really pacific unless it is always ready for war. We must turn toward our army and navy, and spare no effort or sacrifice to consolidate and strengthen them.”

Poincaré and Delcassé weren’t alone in thinking war probable and maybe even inevitable; other members of the French government were considering the same scenario, and pondering the most advantageous moment to fight. On February 20, 1913, the Russian ambassador to London, Count Aleksandr Benckendorff, sent a secret message advising Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov: “[France] has complete confidence in her army... and it may be that she regards conditions as more favorable today than they might be later.” Likewise, on February 24, Sir Henry Wilson, the British officer in charge of coordinating military planning with France, told London that top French generals were “of the opinion that it would be far better for France if a conflict were not too long postponed.”

Coup in Mexico

While Europe was fixated on the crisis resulting from the First Balkan War, the New World had problems of its own. Foremost was the ongoing Mexican Revolution, which began with the toppling of the dictator Porfirio Díaz (above) in 1910 and soon escalated into a complicated civil war lasting until 1920.

After two chaotic years in power, Díaz’s replacement, the beleaguered liberal reformist president Francisco Madero, was finally ousted on February 18, 1913, following 10 days of bloody street warfare in Mexico City (which then had a population of about half a million) known as “La Decena Tragica,” or “Ten Tragic Days.” The author of his downfall was General Victoriano Huerta, the military governor of Mexico City, who had previously sworn allegiance to Madero but betrayed him when he saw an opportunity to seize power for himself. On February 22, Madero and vice-president José María Pino Suárez were both murdered at Huerta’s command; public revulsion at the assassinations foreshadowed Huerta’s own downfall in July 1914.

Huerta’s coup received assistance from co-conspirators including Félix Díaz, the nephew of the ex-dictator Porfirio Díaz, and the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson. This kind of meddling was a common theme of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America throughout this period: 1900-1925 saw repeated U.S. interventions across the Caribbean and Central America, including decades-long military occupations of Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. U.S. interventions generally aimed to protect American commercial and financial interests, prop up friendly regimes threatened by strikes and rebellions, and quell border disputes.

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As the largest country in the region and the only one bordering the U.S., Mexico’s descent into anarchy understandably absorbed the attention of the American public well into the First World War, culminating in the Punitive Expedition which tried and failed to catch Pancho Villa between 1916 and 1917. In fact, German diplomats hoped to use the unstable situation to distract U.S. policy makers and keep America out of the war – but their (rather unrealistic) efforts backfired badly with the Zimmerman Telegram affair in 1917.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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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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