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Ceasefire in the Balkans, French War Council Approves Plan XVII

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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 64th installment in the series.

April 13-19, 1913: Ceasefire in the Balkans, French War Council Approves Plan XVII

With the fall of Janina (Ioannina) to the Greeks and Adrianople (Edirne) to the Bulgarians in March 1913, the last two reasons for the Ottoman Turks to continue holding out against the Balkan League were removed, and from April 13 to 19, 1913, Turkish representatives agreed to a ceasefire with Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece as a preamble to negotiations for a lasting peace. For all intents and purposes, the First Balkan War was over.

It was pretty clear what shape the peace treaty (to be negotiated at the Conference of London over the following weeks) would assume: The Turks would have to give up virtually all of their European territories except for a small strip of territory to the west of the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, left at the suggestion of British foreign minister Edward Grey as a buffer for the strategic Turkish straits.

However the diplomatic crisis resulting from the First Balkan War was far from over, as the smallest member of the Balkan League, Montenegro, continued to lay siege to the important city of Scutari (Shkodër) in the western Balkans. This threatened to provoke military action by Austria-Hungary, whose foreign minister, Count Berchtold, insisted that Scutari should belong to the new, independent state of Albania.

As part of the deal which defused the military standoff between Austria-Hungary and Russia in March, the Russians agreed that Scutari would go to Albania as long as their client, Serbia, was compensated with territory in the interior. By mid-April 1913, the Serbians took the hint from their Russian patrons and withdrew from Scutari—but the Montenegrins were hanging on with grim determination (pointless obstinacy might be more accurate, considering Montenegro was now defying a consensus among all of Europe’s Great Powers, who made their displeasure known by dispatching a multinational fleet to the Adriatic Sea to blockade the tiny kingdom). Although the Montenegrin forces laying siege to Scutari appeared incapable of capturing the well-defended city, in the Balkans when military might failed there was always recourse to treachery.

Meanwhile, tensions were already brewing between the other members of the Balkan League, as Bulgaria fell to squabbling with Serbia and Greece over Ottoman territory conquered in the First Balkan War. To the south, the Bulgarians still claimed Salonika, occupied by the Greeks. In the west the Serbians, forced by the Great Powers to give up their conquests in Albania, had sent at least two diplomatic notes asking the Bulgarians for a larger share of neighboring Macedonia—but the Bulgarians ignored both requests. By mid-April, the Serbs were organizing paramilitary groups in Bulgarian-occupied territory, with plans to incite rebellion against their erstwhile ally, and Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić (above) was privately warning the Great Powers that Serbia would go to war with Bulgaria if its demands weren’t met.

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The Bulgarians had some idea what was coming: As early as mid-March, 1913, Tsar Ferdinand warned his son that the Greeks and Serbians were forming an alliance against Bulgaria. Meanwhile Romania—hitherto a neutral power—was now demanding a chunk of Bulgaria’s northern territory, Silistra, in return for recognizing Bulgarian conquests to the south. The victor of the First Balkan War was rapidly running out of friends.

French Supreme War Council Approves Plan XVII

Appointed chief of staff of the French army during the war scare accompanying the Second Moroccan Crisis, Joseph Joffre’s top priority was drawing up a new strategic plan for war with Germany, which was increasingly viewed as inevitable. The plan formulated by his predecessors, Plan XVI, was considered dangerously passive and obsolete: It called for French armies to assume a defensive stance southeast of Paris, thus giving up the initiative to the Germans and contravening military doctrine of the day, which called for offensive outrance (all-out attack) relying on the élan (spirit) of French soldiers.

The obvious goal was to regain the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, lost to Germany in 1871, but the issue was complicated by the possibility of a German attack through Belgium, as it was widely recognized that the Germans would probably violate Belgian neutrality in an attempt to circumvent French fortresses and envelop French armies from the north. Still, there was a range of opinion among French officers about how large this Belgian incursion would be, and where it would be directed. Joffre and most of his colleagues assumed the Germans would limit their maneuvers to the closest corner of Belgium, east of the River Meuse, in order to minimize the violation of Belgian territory and (hopefully) keep Britain out of the war. A more alarming scenario—the one actually envisioned by the German Schlieffen Plan—had German armies crossing west of the Meuse to strike deep to the rear of the French armies.

In fact Joffre’s predecessor, Supreme War Council vice-president General Victor Michel, foresaw just such a scenario, and drew up his own radical plan to replace Plan XVI, calling for a French deployment far west along the Belgian border, followed by an advance into Belgium to defensive positions connecting the three key fortress cities of Antwerp, Namur, and Verdun. But the British general Sir Henry Wilson warned that a French violation of Belgian neutrality would alienate public opinion in Britain, making it more difficult to persuade the proud island nation to join the war against Germany. Michel’s plan was doubly unacceptable because it gave up the cherished offensive to the Germans. France’s civilian leadership instructed Michel’s successor Joffre that the Republic’s war plan should be offensive in nature—but avoid Belgium.

On April 18, 1913, Joffre presented his proposal for a new strategy, Plan XVII, to the Supreme War Council, including President Raymond Poincaré and war minister Adolphe Marie Messimy. Plan XVII divided 62 divisions, containing roughly 1.7 million troops, in five armies along the French frontier with Germany and Belgium. In line with the civilian leadership’s instructions, French strength was concentrated near the German border for a direct attack aiming to liberate Alsace-Lorraine. The French First Army would form south of Epinal and strike east into Alsace, towards the Rhine; the Second Army would form south of Nancy and strike northeast into Lorraine; the Third Army would form north of Verdun and strike east and northeast, near Metz. The Fourth Army would be held in reserve, while the Fifth Army stood alone on the French left (northwestern) flank to check a German advance through Luxembourg and Belgium.

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In retrospect it is easy to criticize Joffre’s plan for failing to anticipate the German threat to the French left flank, but the fact is he was placed in a difficult situation by France’s civilian leadership, who foreclosed serious consideration of any strategy involving Belgian territory in order to placate their cagy British allies. Unable to devote serious planning resources to Belgian scenarios, Joffre naturally concentrated on plans for a direct attack on Germany, as instructed by the civilian leadership—while still leaving himself some flexibility in the form of the Fifth Army, near the Belgian border, and the Fourth Army, in reserve.

Indeed, a number of historians have pointed out that Plan XVII was a general plan of concentration, rather than a specific plan of attack, which left Joffre a great deal of leeway to react to German moves (including an invasion of Belgium) by making big strategic decisions on the fly. But at the end of the day his plan still failed to provide sufficient forces to counter an “all out” German thrust through Belgium; in 1914 this would bring France to the brink of disaster.

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

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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