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Grand Vizier Assassinated, Serbia and Bulgaria Prepare for 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 73rd installment in the series.

June 11-13, 1913: Grand Vizier Assassinated, Serbia and Bulgaria Prepare for War

On Wednesday, June 11, 1913, Mahmud Shevket Pasha, who was serving as both Grand Vizier (akin to prime minister) and Minister of War for the Ottoman Empire, was on his way to the War Ministry in Constantinople when his car broke down on the busy Divan Yolu avenue running through the old city center. After the driver pulled over to make repairs, another open-topped car—one of just 100 in use in the city at that time—pulled up alongside Shevket Pasha’s car and two men, each holding revolvers in both hands, stood up and unleashed a fusillade which hit both the Grand Vizier and his aide, Ibrahim Bey. The audacious assassins then jumped out of their car, approached the Grand Vizier’s car, and fired ten more shots before driving off. Shevket Pasha’s supposed last words were suitably dramatic: “My country; alas, my country!”

Judging by newspaper coverage, the brazen murder of the Ottoman Empire’s elder statesman (Shevket Pasha had played a key role in establishing constitutional government) elicited expressions of sympathy in Europe – but not much surprise. Political murders were all too common in the years leading up to the First World War, as demonstrated by the assassination of Greece’s King George by an anarchist just a few months before, and there was a long tradition of Ottoman Grand Viziers coming to bad ends. It was widely believed that Shevket Pasha’s assassination was revenge for the murder of the previous War Minister, Nazim Pasha, in the coup in January 1913, with one newspaper noting: “It has been generally believed that ever since Nazim Pasha’s murder Shefket Pasha has been virtually under sentence of death.”

The circumstances of the crime were obviously suspicious, beginning with the alleged breakdown and the fact that Shevket Pasha’s driver apparently escaped unharmed. Equally suspicious was the fact that the third passenger, Echref Bey, “escaped as if by a miracle” and then had not one but two pistols misfire when he tried to shoot back at the assassins. In their haste to escape the attackers left one assassin behind, a “lame innkeeper” who conveniently implicated a group of known gangsters and bookies. On June 24, 1913, the innkeeper and eleven other “real or alleged plotters” were found guilty and promptly hanged.

Whoever killed Shevket Pasha, his demise was viewed as a blow against the Committee of Union and Progress, or Young Turks, who supposedly relied on his reputation and prestige to govern; it was also seen as a major setback for the Ottoman Empire’s efforts to reform its military following its humiliating defeat in the First Balkan War.

In fact, both of these contemporary analyses turned out to be wrong. After Shevket Pasha’s death the Young Turk triumvirate – Enver Pasha, Taalat Pasha, and Djemal Pasha – simply appointed a weak-willed Egyptian member of the CUP, Said Halim Pasha, as a figurehead Grand Vizier, and consolidated power in their own hands. Shortly afterwards, in January 1914, the energetic, charismatic Enver Pasha took the reins as Minister of War and pushed military reforms at an even faster pace, including a purge of old officers who were no longer fit to command, a new structure for Turkish divisions based on the cutting-edge Germany model, and new, more efficient plans for conscription and mobilization. As a result of all these reforms the Ottoman Empire, viewed by Europeans as a negligible quantity after the First Balkan War, presented a much greater threat than any of its opponents realized in the coming conflict.

Serbia and Bulgaria Agree to Arbitration, But Prepare for War

In spring 1913, tensions between Serbia and Bulgaria reached a boiling point, as the former allies turned on each other over the spoils of the First Balkan War. By June 1913, the situation was so alarming that the indecisive Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, felt compelled to use Russia’s traditional role as patron of the Slavic states to force a peaceful resolution on its feuding client kingdoms. On June 12, 1913, Russia demanded that Serbia and Bulgaria agree to submit to arbitration by Russia over the division of conquered Turkish territory in Macedonia. Both sides naturally agreed – one didn’t just say “no” to Russia – but as usual Sazonov’s efforts were too little, too late.

The rival claims of Serbia and Bulgaria were simply irreconcilable: their attachment to Macedonian territory was emotional, dating back to the medieval period, and neither Serbia’s King Peter nor Bulgaria’s Tsar Ferdinand could afford to be seen as weak by their own subjects.  Thus even as they agreed to submit to Russian arbitration, Serbian and Bulgarian armies continued to concentrate near their shared border; meanwhile Serbian diplomats cemented a military alliance with Greece directed against Bulgaria, and Serbian officers organized paramilitary units in Bulgarian-controlled territory to sow chaos once fighting began. The Second Balkan War was less than three weeks away.

U.S. Senate Committee Recommends Women’s Suffrage

The years before the First World War were a time of political and social upheaval in the New and Old Worlds alike. In the U.S., the main causes of turmoil were the shifting balance of power between rural and urban areas, industrial labor unrest, and a huge influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. But the U.S., like Britain, was also divided by the issue of women’s suffrage.

Women on both sides of the Atlantic had been demanding more legal rights, including the right to vote, since the mid-19th century, if not before (Abigail Adams was advocating women’s rights as early as 1776 in private letters to her husband). In Britain, the women’s suffrage movement developed as part of the broader push to eliminate property requirements and extend the franchise to the working class; in the U.S., it was closely connected with the abolitionist movement, with female Quakers and evangelical Christians (many from New England) playing a key role in advancing both causes. Notable events in the U.S. included the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, while in Britain the London Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed in 1867.

After the Civil War, the American suffrage movement received new impetus from the Progressive Movement as well as from trailblazing Western states and territories. Those granting women the right to vote in local and state elections included Wyoming in 1869, Utah in 1870 (later repealed), Colorado in 1893, and Idaho in 1896; they would later be joined by Kansas (1910); California (1911), Oregon and Arizona (1912), and Alaska (1913). But most states still denied women the right to vote, and women’s suffrage advocates turned to Congress in hopes of a federal amendment.

On March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, suffragists paraded in Washington, D.C., where they were harassed by angry mobs. They convened on the capitol again on April 7 to present petitions demanding a women’s suffrage amendment: the “Anthony Amendment,” after Susan B. Anthony. This goal seemed even more plausible after the 17th Amendment, providing for direct election of the U.S. Senate, was formally adopted May 31, 1913. Democracy was in the air; maybe it would now include women as well.

The prize seemed within reach on June 13, 1913, when the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Women’s Suffrage published a report that recommended giving women the right to vote. The report noted that women already owned property and paid taxes, highlighting the embarrassing fact of taxation without representation. The Senate also recommended creating a parallel committee on women’s suffrage in the House of Representatives, which would remove the issue from the purview of the House Judiciary Committee which had “tabled” (ignored) several earlier suffrage laws.  

It wasn’t going to be that easy, however. In addition to their traditional prejudices, Congressmen were simply leery of granting such a huge expansion of the franchise, which would force them to take into account the needs and desires of a vast new constituency. Thus the Anthony Amendment ran into the political sands in 1913 and 1914, when America’s attention turned to cataclysmic events unfolding overseas. Women’s suffrage would also be delayed on the other side of the Atlantic, as the British House of Commons voted down a law which would have given women the right to vote on May 7, 1913. 

But the struggle was far from over, and suffrage advocates were increasingly militant. On June 4, 1913, the radical suffragist Emily Wilding Davison was trampled after trying to block a horse owned by King George V at the Epsom Derby; her death on June 8 made her a martyr for women’s rights, and her funeral procession on June 14 attracted tens of thousands of mourners. In the end it would take the destructive upheaval of the Great War, which laid bare the bankruptcy of all the old political arrangements, to break men’s resistance to women’s suffrage in the U.S., Britain, and Europe.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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