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Wikimedia Commons

The Fall of Adrianople

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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 62nd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

March 26, 1913: The Fall of Adrianople

During the First Balkan War, the armies of the Balkan League—Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro—scored victory after victory against the ailing Ottoman Empire, until Turkish troops were isolated in a handful of fortified cities. About 20 miles west of the Ottoman capital Constantinople, the Turks dug in for a last stand at Chataldzha (Catalca), where they fended off repeated Bulgarian assaults. Elsewhere in the Balkans, Scutari (Shkodër) was besieged by Montenegrin and Serbian forces, despite threats from Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister, Count Berchtold, who wanted the city to be part of the new independent state of Albania. And to the south, a small Turkish garrison held out in Janina (Ioannina) until March 6, when the city finally fell to a massed assault by Greek forces.

But the most important city still in Turkish possession in March 1913 was Adrianople (Edirne), in Thrace. In addition to its strategic position on the way to Constantinople and the Turkish straits, Adrianople had cultural and sentimental significance for the Turks: After Sultan Murad I captured the city in 1365, Adrianople served as the Ottomans’ European capital until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and contains treasures of art and architecture including the Selimiye Mosque, designed by the architect Mimar Sinan in the late 16th century. Of course the ancient city—called the “most contested spot on the globe” by military historian John Keegan—was also important to the Bulgarians, who remembered it as the site of numerous clashes between the medieval Bulgarians and Byzantines as well a great Bulgarian victory over marauding Crusaders in 1205.

After defeating the Turks at Kirk Kilisse in October 1912, a Bulgarian force of 100,000 (later joined by 50,000 Serbs) laid siege to Adrianople, but repeated assaults were frustrated by 75,000 tenacious Turkish defenders, dug in behind German-designed fortifications that were widely considered impregnable. So determined were nationalist Turkish officers not to give up Adrianople that, when the Ottoman government in Constantinople agreed to surrender the city during peace negotiations, officers from the Committee of Union and Progress—CUP, better known as the “Young Turks”—overthrew the government in a coup on January 23, 1913, killing war minister Nazim Pasha in the process.

By March 1913, morale was plunging among the Bulgarians, who were low on supplies, exposed to the elements, and weakened by typhus and cholera. The Bulgarian commander, General Mihail Savov, knew that time was running out for a successful assault. The arrival of Serbian reinforcements—especially Serbian heavy artillery—in February helped Savov decide in favor of attack. The order was given on March 23, and the battle began the next day.

At 1 p.m. on March 24, 1913, the ground shook and the sky flashed as Bulgarian and Serbian artillery poured thousands of shells on Adrianople’s defenses. As this withering barrage reached its climax in the early morning of March 25, waves of Bulgarian and Serbian troops advanced towards Turkish lines to the south of the city. Fierce fighting continued until noon on March 25, resulting in heavy casualties—but the southern attack was actually just a feint, intended to draw Turkish troops away from the city’s eastern defenses. This elaborate ruse succeeded and the main assault from the east began around 3:50 a.m. on March 25. Within a few hours Bulgarian and Serbian troops had broken through barbed wire and trenches to capture the outer ring of Turkish defenses, reaching the inner ring by 1:50 a.m. on March 26. Turkish units now began to surrender en masse, and by 9 a.m. Bulgarian cavalry had penetrated into the city itself. At 1 p.m. on March 26, 1913, the Ottoman commander, Mehmet Şükrü Pasha, formally surrendered to the Bulgarians.

The loss of Adrianople was the final indignity for Turkish nationalists already humiliated and enraged by the loss of the Ottoman Empire’s Balkan territories. Public opinion was further inflamed by the arrival of around 400,000 Turkish and Albanian Muslim refugees from the Balkans, telling of horrible atrocities by Christian troops. And the situation was only getting worse: On March 26, 1913, the very day Adrianople fell, the Ottoman government was forced by Europe’s Great Powers to pass a law giving more autonomy to six provinces in eastern Anatolia with big minority (in some cases, majority) populations, including Armenians and Kurds.

Supposedly passed on humanitarian grounds, these de-centralizing measures cleared the way for Russia’s devious plan to extend its influence in the region, with an eye to outright annexation. As a result, the Ottoman Empire’s minorities—particularly the Armenians and Greeks—were viewed with growing distrust by Turkish nationalists, who feared they were unreliable and possibly even agents of foreign powers like Russia. This would have terrible consequences in the coming Great War, when the Ottoman government committed genocide against Armenians and Greeks.

The sudden upsurge of Turkish nationalist feeling was reflected in the publication of scores of pamphlets, books, journals, and newspaper columns calling for a Turkish “awakening.” Citing the recent military defeats as well as the empire’s inept administration, poor educational system and economic backwardness, Turkish nationalists called for wide-ranging reforms, indeed the creation of a “new society” or “new life.” Otherwise, they warned, the European imperialists would carve up the Turkish heartland in Anatolia.

One pamphlet, “The Ottoman Future, Its Enemies and Friends,” published January 18, 1913, was typical: “There can be no doubt that our homeland’s survival and well-being depends on the raising of our defensive strength… Ottomans!... If you do not want to become slaves, if you do not want to be destroyed forever, ready yourselves for the fight.” Significantly, several authors called for an alliance with Germany against the rising power of Russia and its Slavic allies in the Balkans. But the general thrust was simple rage and desire for vengeance. In a letter written on May 8, 1913, Enver Pasha, the leader of the Young Turks, poured out his anger: “My heart is bleeding… our hatred is intensifying: revenge, revenge, revenge, there is nothing else.”

See the previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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