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Wikimedia Commons

Serbia and Greece Ally Against Bulgaria

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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 68th installment in the series.

May 14, 1913: Serbia and Greece Ally Against Bulgaria

By May 1913, the Balkan League had disintegrated, as the former allies turned on each other over the spoils of the First Balkan War. Deprived of its Albanian conquests by the Great Powers, Serbia asked to revise its 1912 treaty with Bulgaria to get a bigger share of Macedonia, but was rebuffed (or rather, ignored). To the south, Greece refused to give up Salonika, also claimed by the Bulgarians, while to the north Romania wanted a chunk of Bulgarian territory in Dobruja in return for agreeing to Bulgarian expansion elsewhere. Looking around, Bulgaria’s impetuous Tsar Ferdinand (above) suddenly found himself long on enemies and short on friends.

On May 14, 1913, Greece and Serbia cemented their secret treaty of May 5 with a military convention directed against Bulgaria, dividing Macedonian territory claimed by Bulgaria and outlining a plan of attack to secure their goals. In the disputed area, the Greeks and Serbians agreed to a border west of the Vardar River, although the details remained fuzzy; meanwhile, both partners were already moving their troops to concentration areas near Bulgarian-occupied territory, and the Serbs were organizing paramilitary groups to create chaos behind enemy lines.

Crucially, while the new alliance was directed against Bulgaria, it also divided up the new nation of Albania into Greek and Serbian spheres of influence—indicating that whatever promises they made to the Great Powers at the Conference of London, the Serbs had no intention of actually giving up their claim to Albanian territory. Of course, this put them on a collision course with Austria-Hungary, whose foreign minister, Count Berchtold, had been the driving force behind the creation of Albania precisely to prevent Serbia from gaining access to the sea.

The Serbs and Greeks now turned to delaying tactics: By dragging out peace negotiations at the Conference of London, they gave their armies more time to concentrate near the Bulgarian border while keeping Bulgarian troops tied up in the east, where the Bulgarians still faced Turkish armies at Chataldzha and the Gallipoli peninsula. For their part, the Bulgarians were eager to make peace with Turkey so they could redeploy their troops west against Serbia and Greece. The conflicting national aspirations of the Balkan states were bubbling up, and the Second Balkan War was a month and a half away.

The Romanian Conundrum

The Romanian situation was another headache for Tsar Ferdinand, who refused to give up Bulgarian territory in Dobruja even after the Great Powers awarded it to Romania at a side conference in St. Petersburg on May 8, 1913. Romania was benefiting from rivalry between the two European alliance blocs, as both the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) and the Triple Entente (France, Russia, and Britain) vied for Romania’s favor by taking her side in territorial disputes—a classic example of the “tail wagging the dog,” as a smaller state exploits tensions between larger states to force them to do its bidding.

Although nominally aligned with the Triple Alliance, Romania was drifting towards neutrality—or even an outright switch to the Triple Entente. The matter was complicated for the Triple Alliance by Austria-Hungary’s large Romanian population, which resented the oppressive policies adopted by the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy against its own ethnic minorities. The Hungarians feared (not without reason) that Romanians in the Kingdom of Hungary wanted to be reunited with their ethnic kinsmen in the neighboring Kingdom of Romania, much as the Empire’s Slavs hoped for union with Serbia.

Of course the political disenfranchisement of Romanians in Hungary also angered Romanian nationalists in Romania itself—presenting yet another dilemma for Count Berchtold, who somehow had to square all these interests when crafting the Dual Monarchy’s foreign policy. If the vacillating foreign minister made too many concessions to the Romanians, he would anger the Hungarian elite and lose his domestic support; if he let the Hungarians bully their own Romanian subjects too much, Romania might leave the Triple Alliance and join the Triple Entente.

On top of all this, there was political intrigue to deal with as well: The heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and chief of staff Conrad von Hötzendorf both hated the Hungarians and favored concessions to the Romanians at home and abroad, but were opposed by the powerful Hungarian statesman István Tisza, who seemed to be the only politician able to keep Hungary in line with Austria. On June 4, 1913, Emperor Franz Josef was forced to ask Tisza to form a new Hungarian government, further limiting Berchtold’s freedom of movement on the Romanian issue.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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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]