Original image
Getty Images

Britain Winning Naval Arms Race, Churchill Says

Original image
Getty Images

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 78th installment in the series.  

July 17, 1913: Britain Winning Naval Arms Race, Churchill Says

“We shall receive in the near future incomparably the greatest delivery of warships ever recorded in the history of the British Navy,” First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill (above) informed Parliament on the evening of July 17, 1913. British shipbuilding, spurred on by German competition, was indeed impressive: “During the next twelve months we shall receive, on the average, a light cruiser every thirty days, and—this is the most impressive fact of all—during the next eighteen months we shall, on the average, receive a ‘super-Dreadnought’ of the latest possible type … every forty-five days.”

Churchill was quick to point out that the “next strongest Naval Power” (no one needed to be told this meant Germany) was adding new dreadnought-type battleships at less than half this rate. In short, Churchill’s vow to outpace German construction by a margin of at least 60 percent was being realized, and the threat to Britain’s naval supremacy was receding—at least for the time being. 

There was some reason to hope the Germans were throwing in the towel in the naval rivalry. Back in February 1913, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz had given a speech to the Reichstag indicating the German government was prepared to accept 60 percent superiority in the British dreadnought fleet, as demanded by Churchill. This concession came amid a general warming of relations between Britain and Germany, who cooperated at the Conference of London to resolve the crises resulting from the First Balkan War and also settled disagreements about colonial boundaries in Africa.

Unsurprisingly, Churchill remained leery of the Germans, noting that their naval concessions were provisional and easily revoked. On March 26, 1913, the First Lord cautioned Parliament, “We must not try to read into recent German naval declarations a meaning which we should like, but which they do not possess.” But on April 30, Churchill struck a more positive note, privately informing the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, that the naval rivalry was the only real obstacle to good relations between Germany and Britain.

Ironically, the improvement in Anglo-German relations in 1913 may have inadvertently contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914 by leading the Germans to believe the British wouldn’t intervene in a conflict between Germany and France. This was (typically) wishful thinking on their part—the British had learned they couldn’t allow a single nation to dominate Europe, as Louis XIV and Napoleon had, with disastrous consequences for Britain. While the British were undoubtedly pleased to slow the naval arms race and settle colonial issues, this didn’t mean they would stand by while Germany crushed France and seized control of the continent.

Bulgarian Government Falls

The Second Balkan War was an unmitigated disaster for Bulgaria, which found itself under attack (or rather, counter-attack) on all sides, resulting in the loss of most of its conquests from the First Balkan War. With Serbian and Greek armies advancing in the west, in the east Romanian troops occupied the northern Bulgarian province of Dobruja on July 11, 1913, and two days later Turkish troops moved to reclaim Adrianople, which had been left completely undefended.

Bulgaria’s traditional Slavic patron, Russia, made no move to help, and Tsar Ferdinand frantically turned to Austria-Hungary for military assistance, pointing out that the rise of Serbian power endangered both their interests.  But the indecisive Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, Count Berchtold, kept adding new conditions for a potential alliance. Thus, on July 15, he demanded that Bulgaria’s pro-Russian civilian government resign, to be replaced by a new government formed by the pro-Austrian opposition.

Grasping at straws, Ferdinand gave the word, and on July 17, 1913, a new Bulgarian government was formed by the pro-Austrian liberal politician Vasil Radoslavov, who begged the Austro-Hungarian ambassador for military assistance the following day: “How is it possible that Vienna does not seize this chance to make an end of Serbia?” But by this point Bulgaria’s defeat was an accomplished fact, and Berchtold (who was being advised to stay out of the Second Balkan War by Austria-Hungary’s Triple Alliance partners) merely encouraged the Bulgarians to make peace on whatever terms they could.  

Nonetheless, the fall of Bulgaria’s pro-Russian government had serious lasting consequences. The loss of Bulgaria meant that Russia was left with Serbia as its sole remaining ally in the Balkans, and that in turn meant Russia would have to back Serbia up in any future conflicts, or risk losing its influence in the Balkans altogether. In July 1914, this would result in disaster.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
Original image

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]