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The Arms Race Shifts into High Gear

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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 59th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

March 6, 1913: The Arms Race Shifts into High Gear

In March 1913, amid the continuing crisis resulting from the First Balkan War, the European arms race shifted into high gear with three practically simultaneous moves by Germany, France, and Russia. 

On March 1, the German government presented a novelle (amendment to an existing law) to the Reichstag that would boost the effective strength of infantry and field artillery units, create new cavalry brigades and regiments, strengthen fortress artillery, and add more communications personnel, in addition to improving training and speeding up wartime mobilization. The artillery procurement included a secret order for several 42-centimeter mortars (pictured) specifically designed to destroy the fortifications around Liège, Belgium, as part of the Schlieffen Plan; nicknamed “Big Berthas” by designers at the Krupp armaments firm, these monstrous guns weighed 43 tons and fired shells weighing up to 1830 pounds.

The additions called for in the March 1913 novelle actually fell short of the three additional army corps originally requested by the German Army—but they still represented a sizeable increase in its peacetime strength from 790,000 in 1913 to 890,000 in 1914 (including officers, one-year volunteers, and auxiliary personnel). Some of the other measures, like new fortifications, wouldn’t be complete until 1915 or 1916. The price tag for all this included a one-time splurge of 895 million gold marks, plus a recurring annual outlay of 184 million marks, making it the biggest military spending bill in German history.

Click to enlarge.

Less than a week later, on March 6, 1913, Premier Aristide Briand presented the French Chamber of Deputies with a momentous request to increase the standard term of service from two years to three. The “Three Year Law,” as it became known, was supported by President Raymond Poincaré, army chief of staff Joseph Joffre, and the other members of the conseil superieur de la guerre, or Supreme War Council. By lengthening the term of service for conscripts by a year, the new law would increase the size of France’s standing army from 690,000 in 1913 to 827,000 in 1914, including officers and auxiliary personnel. For obvious reasons, this idea was unpopular with young Frenchmen liable to conscription (as well as their families) and probably wouldn’t have passed if not for public alarm over the new German military program, unveiled just days before; French officials warned that a strengthened German army might be able to launch a surprise attack without even waiting to mobilize reserves (a “standing start” attack).

While it signaled France’s determination to keep pace with Germany, in retrospect the Three Year Law was just as important for what it failed to do. For political reasons, the new law only applied to the 1913 (“freshmen”) conscript class, not previous classes, which were discharged as planned under the old schedule. This served to delay much of the law’s benefit as far as manpower was concerned, and also increased the proportion of untrained “green” recruits, meaning the army’s preparedness would actually decrease in the short term; the maximum benefits wouldn’t be felt until 1916.

Perhaps more importantly, the French government dragged its feet in procuring heavy artillery, which would prove crucial in trench warfare as the only means of breaking up enemy lines before advancing infantry. Although the war ministry asked the Chamber of Deputies to spend 400 million francs over seven years on howitzers and heavy artillery, the volatile French political environment prevented Parliament from agreeing to the request until June 1914—far too late to do any good in the opening stages of the war. The delay was partly due to complacency, as conventional wisdom held that France’s famous 75-millimeter cannons were the best field artillery in the world, as indeed they were—but these light guns, intended for a war of maneuver, were soon found to be inadequate in the face of a heavily entrenched enemy.

Last but certainly not least, in March 1913 the Russian government—eager to demonstrate solidarity with its French ally—began developing plans for a huge increase in armaments known as the “Great Military Program.” Although the details remained sketchy, on March 19, Tsar Nicholas II’s Council of Ministers agreed to a plan, outlined by Minister of War Vladimir Sukhomlinov, calling for a massive increase in the size of Russia’s standing army, procurement of new artillery, and construction of new strategic railroads to speed mobilization.

All this came on top of ambitious projects already underway. The current military bill, passed in 1912, was set to expand the Russian standing army from 1.2 million men in 1913 to 1.45 million men in 1914; the Great Military Program called for a further addition of half a million men by 1917, bringing Russia’s peacetime strength to nearly two million men. That alone would have been enough to trigger serious alarm in Germany and Austria-Hungary—but the program also promised to accelerate wartime mobilization with new military railroads, paid for in part by French loans. Remarkably, St. Petersburg was confident it could fund the rest of the program without having to resort to borrowing, thanks to Russia’s breathtaking economic growth: from 1910 to 1914, gross national product soared 25 percent to over 20 billion rubles, flooding government coffers with new tax revenues.

Click to enlarge.

But Russia’s autocratic government proved just as inefficient as the democratic regime of the French Republic: Final plans for the Great Military Program weren’t approved by Nicholas II until November 1913, and the bill wasn’t passed by the Russian Duma until July 1914—again, far too late to have much impact on Russia’s performance in the Great War. Indeed, the Great Military Program managed to induce panic in Berlin and Vienna without actually contributing to Russian military potential, and so ended up being counter-productive.

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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