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France Passes Three-Year Service Law

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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 80th installment in the series.

August 7, 1913: France Passes Three-Year Service Law

Beneath all the diplomatic maneuvering and bellicose blustering, Franco-German relations in the pre-war period were dominated by a single, inescapable fact: Germany’s larger population, the product of its higher birth rate. In 1913, Germany had a population of 67 million, compared to 41.5 million for France; that same year, 27.6 children were born for every thousand people in Germany, compared to 19.1 per thousand in France.

Germany’s higher birth rate powered faster economic growth, and also meant Germany had a larger pool of young men of military age to draw on for its armed forces. When Germany launched a massive expansion of its ground forces in the spring of 1913, France had no other option but to extend the term of service for conscripts from two years to three to bolster its own standing army.

On March 6, 1913, Premier Aristide Briand presented the “Three-Year Law” to the French Chamber of Deputies. Unsurprisingly the law was not popular with young Frenchmen liable to conscription, or their families: On March 29, 1913, huge demonstrations were held across France to protest the law, and in May soldiers rioted when they found out they were to be retained for another year.

Officials tried to pin the blame for these unpatriotic disturbances on communist agitators in the ranks, but the law was clearly unpopular outside the radical left. Of course German military planners noted this opposition with glee; at a meeting in Berlin in May 1913, Kaiser Wilhelm II tried to pry Tsar Nicholas II of Russia away from his French allies, asking, “How can you ally with the French? Don’t you see the Frenchman is no longer capable of becoming a soldier?”

Nonetheless, on August 7, 1913 the Three-Year Law was finally approved and adopted by the French Senate. By lengthening the term of service for conscripts, it added around 170,000 troops to the standing army, bringing it to a projected peacetime strength of around 827,000 in 1914 (when auxiliaries were included), versus 890,000 for the German army.

Although it increased the size of the French standing army, the Three-Year Law couldn’t redress the basic imbalance between the French and German populations: Germany would still be able to draft much larger numbers of untrained young men into the armed forces in the event of a long war of attrition. The Three-Year Law also did nothing to equip French forces with heavy artillery, which would prove indispensable for breaking up enemy trenches, leaving France at a serious disadvantage in the first year of the coming Great War.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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