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Wikimedia Commons

Falkenhayn Appointed Minister of War

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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 72nd installment in the series.

June 7, 1913: Falkenhayn Appointed Minister of War

On June 7, 1913, Kaiser Wilhelm II appointed General Erich von Falkenhayn (above) to the position of Minister of War for Prussia (and in effect Germany), replacing Josias von Heeringen, who was forced out because he opposed further expansion of the standing army. A relatively junior officer, Falkenhayn—a court favorite since his reports on the Boxer Rebellion in China from 1899 to 1901—was elevated to the top administrative position over a number of older generals, reflecting the Kaiser’s personal style of government. In a little over a year, he would play a key role in steering Germany into the First World War.

Born in 1861, Falkenhayn was just a child during the Franco-Prussian War and German unification in 1870 and 1871, but was keenly aware of lingering French antipathy and increasingly anxious about the prospect of “encirclement” by France, Russia, and Britain. He also recognized the threat posed to Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary by the rise of Slavic nationalism in the Balkans, and believed that Austria-Hungary would have to deal with the upstart Kingdom of Serbia someday—preferably sooner rather than later.

In the near term, the new war minister was more receptive than his predecessor to suggestions for military expansion, reflecting the views of his imperial master. In November 1913, Falkenhayn reassured the Bundesrat that the newly expanded army was ready for action, hinting that more new recruits could be assimilated if funds were allocated, and later urged expansion of Germany’s espionage capabilities, warning that “in the great life and death struggle, when it comes, only the country which presses every advantage will have a chance of winning.” [Ed. note: The translation of this quote was slightly edited for clarity.]

In the July Crisis of 1914, Falkenhayn was even more aggressive than his rival, chief of staff Helmuth von Moltke, urging Austria-Hungary to move against Serbia as soon as possible and advising the Kaiser to declare pre-mobilization while last-ditch negotiations were still underway. He was also afflicted with the same curious fatalism displayed by other German leaders: In the final days of July, he concluded they had already “lost control of the situation,” adding, “the ball that has started to roll cannot be stopped.” As war began, he famously stated: “Even if we go under as a result of this, still it was beautiful.” Not long afterwards, Falkenhayn would replace Moltke as chief of staff after the failure at the Battle of the Marne, and in 1916 he became the architect of the bloodiest battle in history up to that point—the apocalypse of Verdun.

Russians Press Reforms on Ottoman Empire

A week after the Ottoman Empire made peace with the Balkan League, the Russians returned to the attack (diplomatically) in the east. Their devious plan to undermine Constantinople’s control over Anatolia involved arming Muslim Kurds and encouraging them to attack Christian Armenians—creating an opening for Russia to intervene on “humanitarian” grounds. After lining up diplomatic support from Britain and France (Germany and Austria-Hungary were opposed) the next step was forcing the Turks to implement decentralizing reforms granting more autonomy to the Armenians.

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On June 8, 1913, a Russian diplomat in Constantinople, André Mandelstamm, presented a proposal for reforms drawn up by the Russians and Armenians which would, in essence, place ultimate authority over six Ottoman provinces in eastern Anatolia in the hands of European officials—whom the Russians would of course help appoint. Building on the groundwork laid by the provincial reforms forced on the Turks in March 1913, the June proposal called for redistricting the provinces along ethnic lines to form ethnically homogenous communes. The Sultan would appoint a European as governor-general with authority over official appointments, courts, and police (also under European commanders) as well as all military forces in the region. Armenian-language schools would be established, and land taken from Armenians by Kurds would be restored to its previous owners. Christians (Armenians) and Muslims (Turks and Kurds) would receive seats in provincial assemblies in proportion to their populations, and no Muslims would be allowed to move into Armenian areas, ensuring lasting Armenian control.

At the same time the Russians were fostering Armenian nationalism, so the Armenians would likely pursue independence from the Ottoman Empire, at which point they would be presented with a fait accompli: After breaking away, they would have no choice but to seek Russian protection and eventually unite with Russia’s Armenian population under Russian rule.

The Ottoman leaders understood that implementing the proposed reforms would mean the loss of eastern Anatolia, which they considered the Turkish heartland. Later, Ahmed Djemal—a member of the Young Turk triumvirate which ruled the empire in its final years, along with Ismail Enver and Mehmed Talaat—wrote in his memoirs: “I do not think anyone can have the slightest doubt that within a year of the acceptance of these proposals the [provinces] … would have become a Russian protectorate or, at any rate, have been occupied by the Russians.” On top of all this, the Ottoman Empire’s other populations were starting to agitate for autonomy as well: on June 18, 1913, the Arab Congress met in Paris to discuss their own demands for reforms.

In 1913 and 1914, all these factors—the humiliating defeat in the First Balkan War, nationalist movements, brazen foreign interference, plus a general awareness of stagnation and decline—provoked a sense of crisis that galvanized the Turkish leadership and population alike. With the very core of the empire threatened, their backs were against the wall and they had nothing to lose. In a letter sent May 8, 1913, Enver Pasha seethed: “My heart is bleeding … our hatred is intensifying: revenge, revenge, revenge, there is nothing else.”

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
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
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]