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Wikimedia Commons

Conrad Urges War Against Serbia

Original image
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 69th installment in the series.

May 20, 1913: Conrad Urges War Against Serbia

On the death of Austro-Hungarian chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (above) in 1925, the Austrian socialist leader Otto Bauer delivered a bitter eulogy: “If we are listing the five or six men in all of Europe who bear the primary guilt for the outbreak of the war, one of these five or six men would be Field Marshal Conrad.”

Bauer’s condemnation was based in fact. Conrad was an old-school Austrian German who viewed southern Slav nationalists as existential enemies of the Dual Monarchy, with Serbia in the lead. The huge expansion of Serbian territory and population in the First Balkan War alarmed Conrad, who warned the Serbs would now turn to liberating their ethnic kinsmen in Austria-Hungary. It was imperative, Conrad said, to break the momentum of Slavic nationalism by crushing Serbia and reducing it to a vassal state—maybe even absorbing it. Of course he realized this might bring war with Serbia’s patron Russia—but he believed Austria-Hungary stood a fair chance as long as it had Germany at its side.

Conrad's call for war against Serbia became louder and more urgent over the course of the First Balkan War. On January 9, 1913 he told the foreign minister, Count Berchtold, that Austria-Hungary had “lost its position in the Balkans” because of the rise of Serbian power under Russian protection, adding that “Russia must be overthrown,” and repeated the advice in a memorandum prepared for Emperor Franz Josef on January 20. On February 15, 1913, he warned the German chief of staff Helmuth von Moltke that Slavic nationalism was a threat not only to Austria-Hungary but Germany as well, which would “in the end penetrate through to the very marrow of Germany.” At a meeting of the Dual Monarchy’s ministers on May 2, 1913, during the Scutari crisis, Conrad called for the defeat and annexation of Serbia’s sidekick Montenegro, which would probably lead to war with Serbia as well.

The peaceful resolution of the Scutari crisis seemed to remove any justification for war against Serbia and Montenegro, but Conrad remained convinced the Slavic kingdoms had to be crushed militarily, not just contained diplomatically—and also saw another chance for Austria-Hungary to act in the impending Second Balkan War. On May 20, 1913, he wrote to Franz Josef: “Fate once more today would offer us the opportunity for a solution; it was not impossible that Serbia and Greece might get involved in a war with Bulgaria. Then we must not hesitate to intervene against Serbia.” In fact, Conrad urged Berchtold to conclude an alliance with Bulgaria directed against Serbia, taking advantage of Bulgarian anger at Russia (which failed to protect Bulgarian interests against Serbia and Romania) to upend the balance of power in the Balkans. But Austria-Hungary’s German ally was skeptical about a Bulgarian dalliance, and Berchtold let the idea drop.

Ironically, Conrad’s main opponent in the debate over the Dual Monarchy’s Serbian policy was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who wielded a great deal of influence as the heir to the throne and inspector general of the armed forces. The archduke made his views known in no uncertain (and often abrasive) terms: The real long-term threat to Austria-Hungary came not from the small Slavic kingdoms in the Balkans, but rather from Austria-Hungary’s supposed ally Italy. While they were technically partners in the Triple Alliance with Germany, it was common knowledge that Italian nationalists loathed Austria-Hungary, which included areas they considered historically Italian in Trentino and Trieste; although the Italian government tried to conciliate Austria-Hungary, the nationalists wanted to liberate these irredenta (“unredeemed” areas) and unite them with Italy. They were also infuriated by the oppressive, discriminatory policies Austria-Hungary directed against its restive Italian population.

Franz Ferdinand felt war with Italy was probably inevitable, and therefore opposed any policy that threatened to distract or weaken Austria-Hungary by embroiling it in conflicts elsewhere—especially in the Balkans, with the attendant risk of confrontation with Russia. And although he originally supported Conrad’s appointment as chief of staff because they agreed about the Italian threat, the two men soon fell out over the issue of war with Serbia (typically, Conrad wanted war against Italy and Serbia). As often as Conrad brought up the idea, the archduke would shoot it down: After rejecting Conrad’s proposal for war with Serbia in a personal conversation on December 14, 1912, on March 15, 1913 he scolded Conrad for mentioning the idea to Franz Josef and ordered him to drop the subject. Later, in September 1913, Berchtold told Conrad his hands were tied, citing Franz Ferdinand’s opposition to the idea. It is one of the ironies of history that the archduke’s assassination by a Bosnian Serb nationalist removed the one person who might have been able to prevent Austria-Hungary from declaring war on Serbia.

Great Powers Scheme to Grab Ottoman Territory

While the Great Powers struggled to keep the peace in the Balkans, to the east they were all jockeying to claim their share of the ailing Ottoman Empire, whose demise they expected at any moment. The main threat came from Russia, whose designs on Constantinople and the Turkish straits were well known, and which was also greedily eyeing Anatolia. Here St. Petersburg was using the Armenians and Kurds as pawns in a devious gambit to build its influence there: Essentially, the Russians were arming the Muslim Kurds and encouraging them to attack the Christian Armenians in order to have a pretext for Russian intervention on Christian “humanitarian” grounds, while simultaneously fostering Kurdish and Armenian nationalism in the hopes that both groups would rebel against Turkey—thus clearing the way for Russia to scoop up the Ottoman Empire’s Kurdish and Armenian territories for itself. The Russians sought to further weaken Ottoman control by forcing Constantinople to implement decentralizing reforms in eastern Anatolia.

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Of course, Russia’s designs on Anatolia set off alarms in other European capitals—especially in Berlin, where Germany’s leadership feared they would get left out in a general scramble for Turkish territory. On May 20, 1913, German anxieties were heightened by a report from the German ambassador in Constantinople, Baron Hans von Wangenheim, stating that the Russians had succeeded in uniting the Kurdish tribes in Ottoman territory—no easy feat—as a preamble to a general rebellion. Not coincidentally, the next day diplomats from all the members of Triple Alliance hurriedly met to discuss how to maximize their gains in a division of the Ottoman Empire’s territories in Asia. Previously, on April 30, 1913, Kaiser Wilhelm II vowed that when the Ottoman Empire disintegrated, “I will take Mesopotamia, Alexandretta, and Mersin!” (referring to two Mediterranean ports in southeast Turkey). Little could he have predicted that the Great War would find Germany on the Ottoman Empire’s side, helping protect Turkish territory against British, French, and Russian imperialists.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]