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Austria-Hungary Mobilizes Against Montenegro

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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 66th installment in the series.

April 29, 1913: Germany Promises to Respect Belgian Neutrality, Austria-Hungary Mobilizes Against Montenegro

The neutrality of Belgium, agreed by international treaty in 1839 following Belgium’s revolt against the Netherlands, was a cornerstone of peace and stability in Western Europe. With memories of Louis XIV and Napoleon always in the back of their minds, British diplomats insisted that Europe’s other Great Powers guarantee the neutrality of the new, independent kingdom in order to keep France contained. Ironically, the rationale for Belgian neutrality would shift in subsequent decades—but British commitment never wavered, as the little kingdom’s territorial integrity was still crucial to the European balance of power.

After Prussia’s stunning defeat of France and creation of the German Empire in 1870 and 1871, Belgian neutrality suddenly became a safeguard for France against Germany’s growing strength. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who had no desire to alienate Britain, reaffirmed Germany’s commitment to Belgian neutrality in 1871. Nevertheless, in the early years of the 20th century it was widely suspected that Germany might violate Belgian neutrality in an attempt to circumvent France’s new defensive fortifications and outflank French armies from the north. Of course this was exactly what the Germans envisioned in the Schlieffen Plan—and of course they had to deny it up and down.

British and French fears were shared by German anti-war socialists, who deeply distrusted Germany’s conservative military establishment (for good reason). Thus on April 29, 1913, a prominent Social Democrat, Hugo Haase, threw down the gauntlet in a speech to the Reichstag, noting, “In Belgium the approach of a Franco-German war is viewed with apprehension, because it is feared that Germany will not respect Belgian neutrality.” After this blunt reminder there was no way to avoid the subject, and the German government was forced to make a public declaration.

The government response was delivered by foreign minister Gottlieb von Jagow (above), who reassured the Reichstag that “Belgian neutrality is provided for by international conventions, and Germany is determined to respect those conventions.” The message was reiterated by war minister Josias von Heeringen, who promised parliament that “Germany will not lose sight of the fact that the neutrality of Belgium is guaranteed by international treaty.” Needless to say, both men were aware that the Schlieffen Plan called for the violation of Belgian neutrality—Jagow since January 1913 and von Heeringen since December 1912, at the latest. In fact, both were personally opposed to it on the grounds that it would provoke Britain to enter the war against Germany, as indeed it did (they were ultimately ignored, and in any event their private views can’t excuse these bald-faced lies to the public).

Austria-Hungary Mobilizes Against Montenegro

The fall of Scutari to Montenegro on April 23, 1913—the last major event of the First Balkan War—triggered yet another diplomatic crisis which threatened to provoke a much larger conflict. Spurred to action by the Austro-Hungarian war party led by chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, foreign minister Count Berchtold demanded that the Montenegrins withdraw from Scutari, which had been assigned to the new, independent state of Albania by the Great Powers at the Conference of London. Meanwhile, Berchtold also put pressure on the other Great Powers to back up their decision with the threat of force against Montenegro, currently under blockade by a multinational fleet—and if France, Britain, and Russia weren’t willing to use military action to enforce their will, he warned, Austria-Hungary would do it for them. But on April 2, Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov had insisted that Austria-Hungary could not act alone; Berchtold’s threat raised the possibility of another standoff between Austria-Hungary and Russia—or even war.

On April 25, 1913, the Conference of London refused Berchtold’s request for a naval bombardment of Montenegrin forces. Meanwhile, German foreign minister Jagow told the Austro-Hungarian ambassador in Berlin, Count Szogeny, that Germany would support military action by Austria-Hungary against Montenegro, even if it was unilateral (meaning, against the wishes of the other Great Powers); the next day the Germans warned the Conference that Austria-Hungary might proceed against Montenegro on its own. On April 28, Berchtold repeated his request for a naval bombardment, but (expecting another rebuff) also decided to go ahead with Austria-Hungary’s own military preparations.

On April 29, 1913, Austria-Hungary mobilized divisions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and began massing troops near the Montenegrin border. The following day, Jagow warned the French ambassador in Berlin, Jules Cambon, that if the situation spiraled out of control, resulting in a Russian attack on Austria-Hungary, Germany would stand beside her ally. On May 2, the Austro-Hungarian cabinet agreed to military measures against Montenegro, and the Germans repeated their support for aggressive action. Once again Europe teetered on the edge of disaster.

See the previous 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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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