CLOSE
Original image
Wikimedia Commons

Serbs Back Down, But Kaiser Warns of Coming Race War

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 89th installment in the series.

October 18-20, 1913: Serbs Back Down, But Kaiser Warns of Coming Race War

In October 1913, Franz Josef (top)—Emperor of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, Croatia, Galicia and Lodomeria, and Grand Duke of Krakow—was 83 years old and no longer in the best of health. The elderly monarch understandably hoped to live out his twilight years in peace, enjoying the company of his longtime companion (and perhaps mistress) the beautiful actress Katharina von Schratt, taking the air at the resort town of Bad Ischl or tea at the imperial palace of Schönbrunn in Vienna.

But Franz Josef was also a dutiful sovereign, motivated by feelings of responsibility to his subjects and the ancient house of Hapsburg to preserve and pass on his imperial inheritance intact. This meant seeing off various internal and external dangers, many of them linked, including nationalist movements among Austria-Hungary’s many minority populations and military threats from Russia and Italy—Great Power rivals who hoped to dismember the Empire and annex bordering territories.

What’s more, it was widely feared that Russia was encouraging its Balkan client state, Serbia, to trigger the Empire’s final crackup by stirring up dissent among its southern Slav populations; these fears were only heightened by Serbia’s expansion in the Balkan Wars and its continued meddling in the new nation of Albania, culminating in an invasion in September 1913. By openly defying Austria-Hungary, Serbia threatened to diminish the Empire’s prestige and even call into question its status as a Great Power.

All this was daunting enough, but Franz Josef’s task was further complicated by differences of opinion among his top officials and advisors. On one hand, chief of staff Conrad von Hötzendorf argued that Serbia indeed posed an existential threat to Austria-Hungary, which could only be ended by war, and by October 1913, the bellicose chief of staff had also persuaded Franz Josef’s foreign minister, Count Leopold von Berchtold, that Serbia had to be dealt with militarily; in their view, the Serbian invasion of Albania offered an ideal opportunity to settle accounts. Opposing Conrad was the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who warned that attacking Serbia would bring Austria-Hungary into conflict with Russia, with potentially disastrous consequences.

But in the authoritarian Dual Monarchy the ultimate decision lay with Franz Josef. After initially siding with Franz Ferdinand, in mid-October the Emperor, doubtless dismayed by Belgrade’s defiant responses to several “friendly warnings” from Berchtold, decided to split the difference: Austria-Hungary would once again threaten to mobilize its troops against Serbia if the latter didn’t withdraw its troops from Albania immediately. Hopefully Serbia would comply, resolving the problem without war—but at the end of the day the old Emperor was ready to fight to protect his Empire’s interests.

On October 18, 1913, Berchtold sent a note to the Serbian government in Belgrade stating: “It is indispensable in the eyes of the Imperial and Royal government that the Serbian government shall proceed to the immediate recall of the troops… who… occupy territories forming part of Albania… Failing this, the Imperial and Royal government will to its great regret find itself compelled to have recourse to the appropriate means to assure the fulfillment of its demand.” He gave the Serbs one week to comply.

The Serbs, who faced more rebellions in Macedonia as well as continuing hostility from Bulgaria, caved almost immediately: On October 20, the Serbian ambassador to Vienna, Jovan Jovanović, promised Berchtold that the Serbian armies were being withdrawn behind the borders agreed at the Conference of London, and on October 25 Belgrade followed up with a second note announcing that the withdrawal was complete. Yet another Balkan crisis had been resolved peacefully. 

But several unfortunate precedents had been set. For one thing, while Berchtold carefully lined up support from Austria-Hungary’s German ally, he didn’t consult with the other Great Powers before delivering the ultimatum. This meant Britain, France, Italy, and Russia never had a chance to intervene, for example by warning Serbia to withdraw or persuading Austria-Hungary to moderate its stance, as Italy had in the crisis of July 1913. Because everything worked out, the other Great Powers didn’t protest (too much) and Berchtold drew the conclusion that Austria-Hungary could go it alone in the Balkans, dealing with Serbia one-on-one without interference from the other Great Powers. In July 1914 this assumption would prove sadly mistaken.

Meanwhile, Germany’s leaders—already paranoid about being “encircled” by France, Russia, and Britain—feared losing their only ally, as the rise of Slavic nationalism threatened Austria-Hungary with dissolution. The only remedy for Serbian defiance, they felt, was war. On October 18, 1913, Kaiser Wilhelm II told Conrad, who was visiting Germany for the centennial celebration of Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig: “I go with you. The other [Powers] are not prepared, they will not do anything about it. In a few days you will be in Belgrade. I was always a supporter of peace, but there are limits.” 

As always, Germany’s leaders were haunted by anxiety about a looming “racial war” between Teutons and Slavs. Meeting with Berchtold during a visit to Vienna on October 26, Wilhelm shared his fear about the “powerful forward surge of the Slavs,” warning that “War between East and West was in the long run inevitable.” He elaborated: “The Slavs are born not to rule but to obey,” and if Serbia didn’t comply with Vienna’s demands, “Belgrade shall be bombarded and occupied until the will of His Majesty [Franz Josef] has been carried out. And you can be sure that I will back you and am ready to draw the saber any time your action makes it necessary.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
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
entertainment
arrow
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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES