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100YearsAgoToday.com

Austria-Hungary and Russia Stand Down

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100YearsAgoToday.com

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 60th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

March 11, 1913: Austria-Hungary and Russia Stand Down

After a four-month-long armed standoff provoked by the First Balkan War, on March 11, 1913, Austria-Hungary and Russia reached an agreement for both sides to stand down, defusing a dangerous situation threatening a much broader war. The Austro-Hungarian armies in the northeastern province of Galicia would de-mobilize, and Russia would allow the senior conscript class to go home, lowering Russian strength to normal peacetime levels.

Coming on the heels of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef’s personal intervention with the Hohenlohe Mission in February, the decision for mutual “de-escalation” was a major diplomatic breakthrough. In terms of the Balkan crisis, it sent a strong signal to Serbia and Montenegro that Russia wasn’t going to back Serbia’s ambitions to gain access to the sea at Durazzo (Durrës), or Montenegro’s ambition to take the important city of Scutari (Shkodër). As part of the settlement, Russia agreed that both cities would be included in the new independent Albania, as previously demanded by Austria-Hungary; in return Austria-Hungary agreed to give the inland market towns of Dibra (Debar) and Jakova (Dakovica) to Serbia as consolation prizes.

On the surface, the agreement held out hope for lasting European peace—but it failed to resolve the underlying tensions pushing the continent towards war, and may even have contributed to them.

Although Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Count Berchtold appeared to score a diplomatic victory with the creation of an independent Albania, he was still roundly criticized by hawks in Vienna for allowing Serbia’s rise: having almost doubled its territory and population at the expense of the Ottoman Empire during the First Balkan War, the Slavic kingdom looked more threatening than ever to Austro-Hungarian officials, who feared (correctly) that the Serbs hoped to liberate the Empire’s restive Slavic peoples next. At the same time, the apparent success of Austria-Hungary’s intimidation tactics left Berchtold with the mistaken impression that Russia wouldn’t back up Serbia with military force, leading him to adopt a more aggressive stance in future conflicts. In a little over a year, all these factors would converge to produce disaster.

Germany and Britain Settle Colonial Boundaries

While Austria-Hungary and Russia ironed out their differences in the Balkans, Germany and Britain also appeared to be mending fences with the first of several agreements settling colonial disputes in Africa.

With a presence in West Africa dating back to the 17th century, Britain began taking formal possession of colonies including the Gold Coast (incorporating the former Ashanti Empire) and Nigeria in the latter half of the 19th century. Germany, a relative newcomer to the colonial game, received the nearby colonies of Togo and Cameroon as part of the European division of Africa at the Conference of Berlin in 1884. France ceded additional territory to German Cameroon to help resolve the Second Moroccan Crisis in 1911.


Click to enlarge.

Because geographical boundaries were originally based on agreements with local tribes (who didn’t think of sovereignty in terms of lines on a map) the border between German Cameroon and British Nigeria remained hazy until 1913, when German diplomats—hoping to further bolster good relations established at the Conference of London—approached their British counterparts about a compromise. With the Anglo-German Agreement of March 11, 1913, the two powers drew a definite border from Yola, in what is now Nigeria, to the Gulf of Guinea, some 500 miles to the southwest (well, fairly definite: Nigeria and Cameroon still dispute ownership of the Bakassi Peninsula, which was assigned to Cameroon in 2002 by the International Court of Justice, citing the Anglo-German Agreement).

As noted, this was just one of a series of colonial agreements between Britain and Germany, which later included a secret treaty dividing up Portuguese colonies in Africa and a diplomatic agreement over the controversial Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad. All these treaties and conventions raised hopes in Germany that relations with Britain were finally on the mend—and this, in turn, led the Germans to hope Britain would stay out of a war between Germany and France.

This interpretation was, like the rest of Germany’s foreign policy, unreasonably optimistic. True, the British were genuinely interested in resolving colonial disputes—after all, it seemed foolish to allow minor disagreements about faraway places to threaten the stability of the international order. But the whole point was to keep the peace closer to home: The balance of power in Europe was far more important to Britain than practically any colonial issue. Indeed, the British Empire wouldn’t mean much if Britain itself were under the thumb of a continental conqueror.

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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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