Original image
Wikimedia Commons

Franz Ferdinand Opposes War with Serbia

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 87th installment in the series. 

September 29, 1913: Franz Ferdinand Opposes War with Serbia

After months of arguing, cajoling, pestering, and pleading, by September 1913 Austrian chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf had finally won over foreign minister Count Leopold von Berchtold to his point of view: The upstart kingdom of Serbia, burning with ambition to liberate its ethnic kinsmen in Austria-Hungary’s neighboring Balkan provinces, represented an implacable existential threat to the Dual Monarchy which could only be eliminated by war.

Conrad was helped in his campaign by the events of the Balkan Wars, when Serbia and its allies carved up the European territories of the Ottoman Empire, then fought each other over the spoils; informed opinion held that the Serbs would next try to fulfill their national destiny by dismembering Austria-Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s southern Slavic populations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia already complained of oppression (resentment which was hardly allayed by Bosnian governor Oskar Potiorek’s decision to decree a state of emergency in the province in May 1913). The sense of looming disintegration was only heightened by a rash of assassination attempts against Imperial officials by Slavic nationalists and anarchists.

In short, Conrad’s fears were no paranoid fantasy: the Empire really was coming apart at the seams, and Slavic nationalism seemed to be the main (though certainly not the only) culprit. Thus when Serbian troops invaded Albania in September 1913, threatening to undo all Berchtold’s work creating the new nation, the foreign minister didn’t need to be persuaded that the time had come for a decisive military response.

But one key figure still stood in the way: Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, who remained focused on Italy as Austria-Hungary’s real long-term enemy. Never shy about sharing his opinions, Franz Ferdinand shrugged off Berchtold’s warnings about the Serbian threat—“all such Serb horror stories leave me cold”—and made no secret of his opposition to war, predicting (correctly) that it would lead to war with Serbia’s patron Russia as well. In February 1913 he gave an unusual toast at a public event: “To peace! What would we get out of war with Serbia? We’d lose the lives of young men and we’d spend money better used elsewhere. And what would we gain, for heaven’s sake? Some plum trees and goat pastures full of droppings, and a bunch of rebellious killers. Long live restraint!” 

In fact the Archduke had a falling out with Conrad over this issue, repeatedly chastising the chief of staff for urging Emperor Franz Josef to attack Serbia. In the summer of 1913 he wrote to Berchtold: “Excellency! Don’t let yourself be influenced by Conrad—ever! Not an iota of support for any of his yappings at the Emperor! Naturally he wants every kind of war, every kind of hooray! rashness that will conquer Serbia and God knows what else… It’s be unforgivable, insane, to start something that would pit us against Russia.”

Now, as different factions vied for the Emperor’s ear amidst another Albanian crisis, Franz Ferdinand’s attitude was yet again the decisive factor. On September 29, 1913, Conrad told Berchtold “Now would be the opportunity to put things in order down there. An ultimatum, and if Albania is not evacuated in twenty-four hours, then mobilization.” Berchtold replied that he personally supported military measures, but “felt no confidence that authoritative quarters would stand firm.” Conrad, ever hopeful, pointed out that “On peace and war the decision lies solely with the Emperor”—but there was no escaping the fact that the elderly monarch felt obliged to heed the vehemently expressed views of his nephew the Archduke. Once again the foreign minister and chief of staff found their plans frustrated by the heir to the throne.

Franz Ferdinand wasn’t totally oblivious to the threat posed by Serbia, but he hoped to resolve things with a (somewhat vague) plan to reform Austria-Hungary by adding a third monarchy representing the Slavs, or perhaps even remaking the Empire as a federal state, which might then absorb Serbia peacefully. Unsurprisingly his plan was bitterly opposed by Serbian nationalists, who aspired to become the nucleus of a new “Yugoslav” state, not a mere appendage of a decadent multinational empire.

Nevertheless, Franz Ferdinand—recently appointed inspector general of the armed forces—pressed ahead with his plans to attend the upcoming annual maneuvers in Bosnia in June 1914, followed by a visit to the provincial capital of Sarajevo; while the Archduke hoped to avoid war with Serbia and conciliate the Empire’s own Slavs, he also understood that a little saber-rattling could help keep the peace. On September 29, 1913, Conrad met with Potiorek, the provincial governor, to begin making arrangements for Franz Ferdinand’s visit, including provisions for security (which in the event proved sadly lacking).

Inevitably, word of the Archduke’s impending visit started to spread. The Serbian ambassador to Vienna, Jovan Jovanović, later recalled: “From the month of December [1913] onwards the maneuvers in Bosnia were spoken of in Vienna. The Inspector General of the Austro-Hungarian army was to take part both as future Emperor and Commander-in-Chief. It was to be, as was said towards the end of 1913, a lesson and warning to the Serbs both of Bosnia and Serbia.” Among those certain to hear of the Archduke’s planned visit was Dragutin Dimitrijević (“Apis”), the chief of Serbian military intelligence and head of the ultra-nationalist secret society known as the “Black Hand.”

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]