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Wikimedia Commons

Albanians Rebel, Serbs March Into Albania

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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 86th installment in the series.

September 20-24, 1913: Albanians Rebel, Serbs March Into Albania

After the Balkan Wars, Europe’s Great Powers ordered Serbia to withdraw its troops from the new, independent nation of Albania, and the Slavic kingdom complied—sort of. While Serbian troops evacuated the coast, they lingered in the mountainous interior on the pretext of hunting down bandits, of which the Balkans had no shortage. By early September 1913, Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister Count Berchtold, who feared the growth of Serbian power, was losing patience with the obstreperous Serbs. But before he could act, the Albanians took matters into their own hands, triggering a brutal Serbian response.

On September 20, 1913, the Albanians rebelled against the Serbian troops occupying the country’s north and east, and in typical fashion for the Balkans (where borders rarely correspond to ethnic boundaries), the rebellion soon spread to ethnic Albanians living in the neighboring Serbian province of Kosovo, as Isa Boletini (above) led Albanian irregulars across the frontier. On both sides of the border the Albanians were angry about being denied access to their traditional markets in Dibra (Debar) and Jakova (Dakovica) by the Serbs, and were also upset about Serbian atrocities and general failure to establish a functioning government.

The Serbs reacted by sending 20,000 troops into Albania from September 20 to 24, with advance forces approaching Elbasan in the middle of the country. Even more alarming, the Serbs seemed intent on reversing the decision of the Great Powers at the Conference of London by destroying Albania as an independent nation.

Indeed, on September 24 the Serbian newspaper Samuprava, which often acted as a mouthpiece for the government in Belgrade, hinted: “Let the Great Powers consider whether it would not be appropriate in the light of these occurrences to undertake a serious revision of the mistaken decisions of the London Ambassadors’ Conference, all the more as today even the creators of autonomous Albania must allow that this idea was out of place…”

Needless to say this suggestion was dead on arrival in Vienna, where Count Berchtold did not in fact allow that the idea of an independent Albania was out of place, and certainly wasn’t about to let the Serbs suddenly overturn all his hard work in creating the new nation. In fact, Berchtold was coming around to the point of view of the hawks in Vienna, led by Conrad von Hötzendorf, that war with the upstart Balkan kingdom was simply inevitable

Knowing how long it would take the other Great Powers to reach a consensus (which would likely be unsatisfactory to Austria-Hungary anyway), Berchtold was also increasingly willing to go it alone—another ominous development foreshadowing the coming Great War. On September 27, 1913, he warned Austria-Hungary’s ally Germany that Vienna was going to confront Serbia, and on September 29 he consulted with Conrad about the possibility of occupying a portion of Serbian territory as a bargaining chip to force the Serbs to withdraw from Albania.

Ironically, now it was Berchtold who wanted swift action, with an ultimatum to be followed immediately by mobilization against Serbia—in other words, war. However Conrad pointed out that mobilization would require three weeks, giving the other Great Powers plenty of time to meddle and frustrate Austria-Hungary’s plans with unwanted negotiation. The Austrian foreign minister and chief-of-staff would face the same conundrum in July 1914; their failure to resolve it unleashed catastrophe.

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]