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Origins of the Second Balkan War

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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 57th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

February 22, 1913: Origins of the Second Balkan War

Before the First Balkan War between the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire was even over, another conflict was brewing—this time between the members of the Balkan League. Although Serbia and Bulgaria were still cooperating against the Turks, tensions were rising between the allies over the distribution of spoils in former Turkish territory. Meanwhile, Romania was also demanding Bulgarian territory, foreshadowing the formation of a new coalition against Bulgaria in the Second Balkan War, June through August 1913.

On the surface, relations between Serbia and Bulgaria were fine. At Bulgaria’s request, Serbian troops were helping lay siege to Adrianople, one of three big cities in the Balkans still in Turkish hands (the other holdouts were Scutari, under siege by the Montenegrins and Serbians, and Janina, under siege by the Greeks); Serbian heavy artillery would play a key role in the fall of Adrianople in March 1913.

Beneath the surface, however, the Bulgarian and Serbian governments were already facing off over the division of conquered Turkish territory in Macedonia. Before the war, a secret treaty parceled out most of Macedonia between the two sides—but left a large “undecided” zone in the middle. In their treaty, the allies agreed to submit any dispute over this territory to arbitration by Russia, the traditional patron of the Slavic kingdoms.

As it turned out, during the First Balkan War Bulgaria committed most of its troops to Thrace, leaving Serbia to do most of the work in Macedonia, where the Serbs conquered both the “undecided” zone and territory that was assigned to Bulgaria. And because the Great Powers were denying Serbia access to the sea (by creating an independent Albania) the Serbs were determined to compensate for the loss by holding on to their conquests in Macedonia, despite their agreements with Bulgaria.

On February 22, 1913, Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić sent a diplomatic note to the Bulgarian government, formally requesting to revise the terms of the treaty to give Serbia a bigger share of Macedonia. The Serbians argued that Bulgaria had failed to provide the promised number of troops to their combined operations in Macedonia, while Serbia was providing more assistance than promised to the Bulgarians at Adrianople. In fact this wasn’t the first time the Serbs asked to revise the treaty: a previous note made the same request on January 13, 1913. Both notes were politely ignored by the Bulgarians, and Serbian patience was wearing thin.

Needless to say, the Bulgarians weren’t about to give up their claims in Macedonia, for a number of reasons. For one thing, the Serbians had signed the treaty, and the Bulgarians were counting on Russian support in mediation. Moreover Bulgarian claims were based on historical precedents from the medieval period, when the Bulgarians ruled an empire covering most of the Balkan Peninsula (of course, the medieval Serbian Empire covered much of the same territory, and the Serbs were equally committed to regaining their lost glory). More recently, Bulgarian claims were also aligned with the Bulgarian exarchate—the ecclesiastical territory of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which split from the Greek Patriarchate in 1872.

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Romania Joins the Fray

European balance-of-power politics in the early 20th century resembled children dividing up a cake: If one state expanded its territory, it was standard procedure for other states to demand “compensation,” in the form of territorial annexations for themselves. Thus Bulgarian success in the First Balkan War also attracted the envious gaze of Romania, the largest Balkan state, which had claims to Dobruja, a chunk of territory straddling Romania and Bulgaria between the Danube and the Black Sea. In return for recognizing Bulgaria’s conquest of Thrace, Romania demanded Silistra, the northernmost part of Bulgarian Dobruja, implicitly threatening war if Bulgaria refused.

On February 24, 1913, the Bulgarians agreed to submit their dispute with Romania to mediation by the Great Powers at the Conference of London, on the assumption that the Russians would protect the interests of their Slavic cousins in Bulgaria against the non-Slavic Romanians. However Bulgaria’s trust in Russia turned out to be entirely misplaced, as ineffectual Russian diplomats ended up siding with their enemies in both mediations. The Bulgarians were understandably embittered by these betrayals, which left Serbia as Russia’s only real ally in the Balkans—and that, in turn, meant that Russia had to back up Serbia in future disputes no matter what, or risk losing all its influence in the region. In 1914 this would have unforeseen, and incalculable, consequences.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.