Original image
Wikimedia Commons

Second Balkan War Ends

Original image
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 81st installment in the series.

August 12, 1913: Second Balkan War Ends

After the Balkan League’s victory over the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War, Bulgaria attacked its former allies Serbia and Greece over the division of Turkish territory—but the Second Balkan War immediately proved to be a disastrous mistake. Following Serbian and Greek victories over Bulgarian forces in Macedonia, Bulgaria’s fate was sealed when Romania and the Ottoman Empire attacked from the rear. Bulgaria’s Tsar Ferdinand begged for peace on July 21, 1913, and ten days later, the belligerents met in the Romanian capital, Bucharest. The terms of peace were agreed on August 10, and on August 12, 1913, the Treaty of Bucharest was finally ratified, ending the Second Balkan War. 

The Treaty of Bucharest stripped Bulgaria of most of its gains from the First Balkan War, as well as its own pre-war territory of Dobruja along the Black Sea coast. Between the First and Second Balkan Wars, Serbia increased its territory 82 percent, from 18,650 square miles to 33,891 square miles, and Greece grew 67 percent, from 25,041 to 41,933 square miles, with more than half of this coming at Bulgaria’s expense; adding insult to injury, Romania snipped off 2,700 square miles in Bulgaria’s northeast.

Most contemporary observers realized there was little chance of a lasting peace. Unsurprisingly, the Treaty of Bucharest left the Bulgarians embittered and resentful; in a few years, Tsar Ferdinand would lead his country into the maelstrom yet again, in an effort to redeem its lost territories and self-respect. The Second Balkan War also upended the diplomatic status quo in the Balkans, by turning Bulgaria against its traditional patron Russia, which had failed to protect Bulgaria against its enemies. Seeking a new protector among the Great Powers, Bulgaria turned to Austria-Hungary, which shared Bulgaria’s enmity towards Serbia and its backer Russia.

Indeed, on July 27, 1913, Tsar Ferdinand warned the Austro-Hungarian ambassador that “An opportunity has been wasted of wiping Serbia off the map. War between [Austria-Hungary] and Russia was inevitable and would come within a few years… The aim of his life was the annihilation of Serbia, which ought to be partitioned between Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary, and Romania…” On August 1, 1913, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Berchtold—now converted to the idea of war by the hawks in Vienna—agreed that “in a not-too-distant future [Serbia] will compel us to have recourse to violent measures.” Meanwhile Russia was left with Serbia as its only client state in the Balkans, meaning the Russians had no choice but to back the quarrelsome Serbs in their future disputes, or risk forfeiting all their influence in the Balkans.

The Balkan states and their Great Power backers were on a collision course that was about to plunge the region, and the rest of Europe, into unimaginable bloodshed and misery. 

Germans, British Partition Portuguese Colonies

While tensions were brewing in the Balkans, the situation in Western Europe seemed to be improving, as Britain and Germany worked to iron out longstanding sources of friction. After Germany accepted a compromise to slow the naval arms race in February 1913, in March the two leading Great Powers reached an agreement to settle the boundary between the British colony of Nigeria and the German colony of Cameroon. Then, in August 1913, they followed up with a preliminary agreement secretly divvying up Portugal’s African possessions.

Europe’s first colonial power, Portugal, led the conquest of Africa beginning in the 15th century, but like its fellow colonial pioneer, Spain, the small maritime state had suffered a long decline, surpassed by a new generation of colonial powers including Britain, France, and eventually Germany. It still held some large chunks of African real estate, in Portuguese West Africa (modern-day Angola) and Portuguese East Africa (modern-day Mozambique)—but as the unclaimed areas of the world shrank, it was only natural for the dominant colonial powers to turn their gaze to these remnants of empire, directly adjacent to their own African possessions.

Under the terms of the Anglo-German Convention agreed in principle on August 13, 1913, Britain and Germany assigned most of Angola—312,000 square miles in area, with a population of two million, located north of German Southwest Africa (Namibia)—to Germany, with Britain getting a small corner southeast of the Zambezi River. Meanwhile, most of northern Mozambique abutting German East Africa (Tanzania) would also go to Germany; the southern part of Mozambique, geographically contiguous with the Transvaal of British South Africa, would go to Britain.

The British and German representatives agreed to “compensate” Portugal with a $100 million loan on easy terms, but the agreement was still fairly treacherous on the part of the British, who were partners with Portugal in the world’s oldest alliance, the Treaty of Windsor, agreed in 1386; in fact, the British diplomat Arthur Nicolson called it “one of the most cynical diplomatic acts in my memory.” But British Foreign Minister Edward Grey was willing to strong-arm Britain’s weak ally in order to improve relations with Germany, a much larger and more important state.

In the end, the Anglo-German Convention was never ratified, as it was first delayed by predictable Portuguese objections, and finally superseded by the Great War. But the existence of even the preliminary agreement had an “excellent effect in clearing the air between England and Germany,” according to a contemporary analysis—and ironically, this may have contributed to the outbreak of war. As with the Nigeria-Cameroon boundary treaty, the Germans overestimated the importance of these colonial compromises to Britain: Of course British diplomats were happy to clear up minor disagreements about African borders, but that didn’t mean they were going to stand aside and let Germany violate Belgian neutrality, crush France, and establish hegemony in Europe. In less than a year the Germans would pay a heavy price for this fatal miscalculation. 

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
May 21, 2017
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
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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]