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Wikimedia Commons

Italy Warns Austria-Hungary Not to Attack Serbia

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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 76th installment in the series. 

July 12, 1913: Italy Warns Austria-Hungary Not to Attack Serbia

By the summer of 1913, key Austro-Hungarian leaders were convinced that Serbia posed an existential threat which could only be dealt with militarily. The chief of the army’s general staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, had long called for war against Serbia, and the events of the First Balkan War helped bring the indecisive foreign minister, Count Berchtold, around to Conrad’s point of view. The outbreak of the Second Balkan War, when Serbia fought Bulgaria, seemed to offer another chance for Austria-Hungary to put Serbia in its place. On July 3, 1913, Berchtold warned the German ambassador, Heinrich von Tschirschky, that the Dual Monarchy would lose its Slavic territories if Serbia became any more powerful, and Tschirschky informed Berlin that Austria-Hungary was considering intervening against Serbia. Once again war loomed on the European horizon.

German leaders, their nerves strained by months of Balkan crises, were ambivalent about the prospect of their ally Austria-Hungary going to war just when a peaceful resolution seemed to have been achieved at the Conference of London; Kaiser Wilhelm II’s scribbled note on Tschirschky’s message read simply, “Completely crazy! So war after all!” But Germany was ready to back up her ally if it came to a fight.

The decisive factor keeping the peace this time was the attitude of Italy, the third member of the Triple Alliance. Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti foresaw that Austro-Hungarian intervention against Serbia would probably provoke Russia to act to protect its “Slavic brothers” in the Balkans, leading to a general European war, and instructed the Italian foreign minister, San Giuliano, to discourage Austria-Hungary from this dangerous course.

In a meeting on July 12, 1913, San Giuliano warned the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Rome, Kajetan von Mérey, that if Austria-Hungary went to war with Serbia, it shouldn’t expect any help from Italy against Serbia’s ally Russia. True, under the terms of the Triple Alliance Italy was pledged to support Austria-Hungary if the latter were attacked—but the alliance was strictly defensive in nature, and if Austria-Hungary got itself embroiled in a conflict with Russia by attacking Serbia, Italy wouldn’t lift a finger.

In his report to Vienna, Mérey summarized San Giuliano’s warning and argument: “In view of the gravity of the situation he consulted with the Prime Minister and was obliged to inform me that Italy could not follow the Monarchy in this course. We should be seriously mistaken if we were to count on the passivity of Russia … the intervention of Russia would mean a European conflagration.” At the same time, “In the present case there is no question of imminent danger, nor in general of a serious threat to the existence of the Monarchy. These are hypothetical future perils which can be averted by quite other methods than war. An attack on Serbia by us would therefore constitute an offensive action … It would be impossible in this eventuality to want to invoke the Triple Alliance which is purely defensive in character…”

Austria-Hungary’s Count Berchtold took the hint and dropped the idea of war—for the time being, at least.

A Precedent Lost

In interpreting the terms of the Triple Alliance this way, Giolitti and San Giuliano were setting a precedent which could have helped avert disaster just over a year later: In July 1914, a similar warning, delivered in timely fashion, might have discouraged Vienna and Berlin from risking war, since they wouldn’t be able to count on Italy’s assistance.

The only problem was that Giolitti stepped down in March 1914, and was succeeded as prime minister by Antonio Salandra, a foreign policy novice who mostly followed San Giuliano’s lead. For his part, San Giuliano felt competent to manage Italy’s foreign affairs by himself; during the crisis of July 1914, he hoped to use the possibility of Italian cooperation as a bargaining chip to win territorial concessions from Austria-Hungary, so he never informed Salandra of the important precedent established in July 1913, when Giolitti put the brakes on Austria-Hungary’s plans for war. As a result the new prime minister didn’t realize it was possible—let alone urgently necessary—for Italy to make a similar intervention one year later.

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]