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Next Time France Won’t Back Down, Poincaré Vows

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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 58th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

February 27, 1913: Next Time France Won’t Back Down, Poincaré Vows

With Raymond Poincaré’s inauguration as President of France, the Third Republic’s foreign policy took a decisive turn away from appeasement towards a more assertive stance vis-à-vis Germany. The new direction was clearly visible in the appointment of Théophile Delcassé, an outspoken critic of Germany, as ambassador to Russia, France’s most important ally. Just in case there were any lingering doubts in St. Petersburg, the new president was even more explicit in his first meeting with Count Aleksandr Izvolsky, Russia’s ambassador to France.

According to Izvolsky’s report to the Russian foreign ministry, in their meeting on February 27, 1913, Poincaré recalled the Second Moroccan Crisis, when Germany had tried to intimidate France by sending a gunship to the Moroccan port of Agadir, and vowed that “in view of the present excited state of French national feeling, neither he nor his ministers would tolerate a repetition of the Agadir incident and they would not agree to a compromise like the one of that time.” In short, next time around, France wasn’t going to meekly submit to German bullying.

Poincaré’s promise to Izvolsky was significant in several ways. First, by confirming that France still viewed Germany as the main threat, he reassured the Russians that France would adhere to the alliance. Furthermore, reading between the lines, by signaling that France would pursue a more confrontational policy towards Germany, Poincaré was also encouraging Russia to do the same.

Indeed the timing of the statement, coming amid the crisis resulting from the First Balkan War, left little doubt that Poincaré hoped the Russians would take a firmer line with Germany and Austria-Hungary—because while Agadir had hurt French interests, and Balkan affairs were of more concern to Russia, these sorts of events actually affected the prestige of both partners. As France and Russia formed a single diplomatic “bloc,” their interests became so closely intertwined that they might as well be identical.

This represented a big evolution of the Franco-Russian alliance. On paper, the alliance was strictly defensive, calling for the allies to support each other if either were attacked by Germany, or Austria-Hungary supported by Germany. Now, however, Poincaré was broadening the interpretation of the treaty to promise cooperation in other scenarios—implying that France would come to Russia’s aid even if Russia precipitated the conflict, for example, by mobilizing in order to protect Russian interests in the Balkans. Naturally, Poincaré hoped the Russians would return the favor if France felt compelled to take the offensive against Germany in the west.

Of course there was still a big advantage to letting Germany make the first move. During his meeting with Izvolsky on February 27, Poincaré repeated his earlier disclosure to Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov, assuring the Russians that (despite the apparent improvement in Anglo-German relations) Britain could be counted on to support France and Russia in a war with Germany—but only if France and Russia were clearly the victims, not the aggressors. Public opinion simply wouldn’t allow the British government to intervene on the side of any country viewed as a European warmonger. As one of the main advocates of closer relations between Russia and Britain, Izvolsky was familiar with the delicate art of managing British public opinion, and therefore understood the importance of ensuring Germany bore the blame for starting any future conflict, even if more assertive French and Russian policies helped cause it. 

By this point, key members of France’s civilian and military leadership undoubtedly believed war with Germany was inevitable. As noted previously, on February 24, 1913, 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,” and on March 3 the warning was repeated by Francis Bertie, the British ambassador to France, who wrote to British foreign minister Edward Grey that in light of French public opinion “any incident with Germany might lead to war." In fact “many Frenchmen… think that war is predictable within the next two years and that it might be better for the French to have it soon.”

At the center of French plans was a new law extending the term of military service from two to three years. On March 2, 1913, Maurice Paléologue, a veteran French diplomat who was also fiercely anti-German, told the new French foreign minister, Charles Jonnart, “that the probability of a war with Germany, or more exactly, of a great European conflict, increases from day to day, [and] that an ordinary incident may suffice to precipitate the catastrophe… We must make ourselves strong without delay. We must restore as soon as possible the three-year service term.”

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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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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May 23, 2017
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