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Montenegro Backs Down, Greeks and Bulgarians Clash

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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 67th installment in the series.

May 1 through 4, 1913: Montenegro Backs Down, Greeks and Bulgarians Clash

In 1912 and 1913, the victories of the Balkan League precipitated a series of diplomatic crises which threatened to escalate into a general continental war. In the first crisis, from November 1912 to March 1913, Serbia’s conquest of Durazzo (Durrës) provoked a standoff between Serbia’s patron Russia and their shared enemy Austria-Hungary, whose foreign minister, Count Berchtold, was determined the city should belong to the new independent nation of Albania. Berchtold called on mediation by all Europe’s Great Powers at the multilateral Conference of London, but the crisis was actually resolved by the bilateral Hohenlohe Mission, when Russia and Austria-Hungary reached an agreement that the Serbians would withdraw in return for compensation in the interior.

In the second crisis, from April to May 1913, Montenegro’s conquest of Scutari (Shkodër) led to another clash between Austria-Hungary and Russia. At first glance, the Scutari crisis seemed less dire than the Durazzo crisis, because reason dictated the tiny kingdom would never defy all the Great Powers, who had also awarded Scutari to Albania at Austria-Hungary’s behest. And yet that is precisely what Montenegro’s King Nikola seemed prepared to do, issuing defiant statements telling the Great Powers to butt out of Balkan affairs.

Despite the obvious irrationality of this stance (Montenegro couldn’t take on one Great Power, let alone all of them), Nikola’s defiance could easily have turned the Great Powers against each other, resulting in disaster. Indeed, the demands of prestige left very little room for negotiation or maneuver: While the Russians were privately urging Nikola to back down, on April 2, at the Conference of London, they warned their colleagues that Austria-Hungary must not act unilaterally. If Austria-Hungary attacked Montenegro, there was a good chance that Serbia would be drawn in, and the Russian government might be forced to act by pan-Slav ideologues. The British ambassador to St. Petersburg, Sir George Buchanan, warned London that “Isolated action by Austria seems now inevitable and, as the possibility of such action has ever since the beginning of the crisis constituted the chief menace to European peace, the political outlook is blacker than at any other period of the crisis.” In 1914, this same dynamic—in which Russia and Austria-Hungary faced off over the fate of a smaller Slavic state—would result in disaster.

But in May 1913, common sense prevailed, by however small a margin. After Austria-Hungary mobilized troops along the border with Montenegro on April 29, on May 2 the Austro-Hungarian joint council of ministers agreed on military action and Count Berchtold prepared to issue an ultimatum to Montenegro. As Austria-Hungary wielded the stick, the Conference of London offered King Nikola a carrot in the form of a generous loan, to the tune of £1,200,000, backed by British and French banks. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, on May 3 the troublesome monarch finally caved, sending a telegram to British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey stating “I place the fate of the city of Scutari in the hands of the Powers.” The next day he informed his own royal council, and on May 5, Montenegrin troops began withdrawing from the city, clearing the way for an occupation force drawn from the multinational fleet blockading Montenegro.

While most of Europe’s leaders were heaving a sigh of relief, key figures in the Austro-Hungarian government viewed the peaceful outcome as a missed chance for the Dual Monarchy to settle accounts with the southern Slavs. The leader of the Austro-Hungarian war party, chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf—who had advocated annexation of Montenegro at the May 2 cabinet meeting—complained bitterly to a friend as the prospect of war slipped away yet again: “Now it is all up … pity me.”

To make matters worse, on May 3, the Austrian governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Oskar Potiorek, declared a state of emergency in the province as a precaution in case war broke out. The decree dissolved the local parliament, suspended civil courts, and closed Slavic cultural associations, which Potiorek accused (with some justification) of fomenting rebellion. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, some of the plotters would cite these draconian measures as one the grievances motivating their crime.

Greeks and Bulgarians Clash

As tensions eased in the western Balkans, they were rising again in the east, where the members of the Balkan League fell to squabbling over the spoils of the First Balkan War. Deprived of their Albanian conquests by the Great Powers at the Conference of London, in early 1913 the Serbians repeatedly asked the Bulgarians for a bigger share of Macedonia, but their requests were ignored, even as Serbian troops helped Bulgaria capture Adrianople. Meanwhile Romania demanded the territory of Silistra, in northern Bulgaria, in return for recognizing Bulgarian conquests to the south—where conflict was also brewing between Bulgaria and Greece.

Although full-scale hostilities were still a month away, on May 1, 1913, Greek and Bulgarian troops skirmished near the port city of Kavala, which was claimed by both sides but assigned to Bulgaria by the Conference of London. On May 5, the Serbians and Greeks agreed on a secret treaty dividing up Bulgarian territory in Macedonia, to be followed by a military alliance against Bulgaria on May 14. And on May 8 the Great Powers, who were arbitrating the dispute between Romania and Bulgaria, assigned Silistra to Romania, reflecting Russia’s desire to expand its influence in the Balkans by winning favor with Romania. Russia justified the decision by promising to compensate Bulgaria with territory to the south—but here Greece stood in the way. Unsurprisingly, Bulgaria resisted the judgment, leading to a dispute with Romania (as well as a falling out with Russia, which the Bulgarians accused of betrayal). In June 1913 all these conflicts would erupt in the Second Balkan War.

See the previous 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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