Original image
Wikimedia Commons

Kaiser Warns Belgian King that War is Inevitable

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 91st installment in the series.

November 6, 1913: Kaiser Warns Belgian King That War Is Inevitable

Kaiser Wilhelm II was not known for his finesse or sense of decorum; in fact, he was notorious for his complete lack of tact. Take, for example, a speech he gave in 1900 urging his soldiers to model themselves on the barbarian Huns, or the time in 1908 when he told a British newspaper that most Germans hated the British. But the gaffe-prone German emperor outdid himself on November 6, 1913, when he turned a pleasant diplomatic meet-and-greet into a terrifying dinner party from hell for the guest of honor. 

The unhappy object of Wilhelm’s attentions was King Albert of Belgium (above), a quiet, reasonable man whose personal modesty and intellect were matched only by his integrity and Catholic piety—a perfect monarch for an unassuming realm. Albert was paying the first visit to Berlin by a Belgian king since his uncle Leopold II in 1904; the Belgian royal family was of German descent (the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which also includes the British royal family, renamed the House of Windsor in 1917 due to anti-German sentiment) and the two countries enjoyed strong economic and cultural ties, so there was every reason to expect a friendly, low-stress encounter, limited to the usual aristocratic pastimes of horseback riding, dancing, champagne, cigars and gossip.

It was not to be. It seems Albert’s hosts had decided to take the opportunity to persuade the Belgian king to ally with Germany in any future war with France—or at least allow the Germans to pass through Belgium unimpeded on their way to France, as called for by the Schlieffen Plan. Wilhelm and the German chief of staff, Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger), set about the task in typically muddled fashion, prying and bullying by turns as they sought to ascertain Belgium’s likely course of action. It was all especially bizarre given Wilhelm’s own reputation as a man of peace; unsurprisingly, this totally unexpected assault left their guests confused and frightened—Hohenzollern hospitality at its best.

Speaking with Albert at the ball before dinner, the Kaiser pointed to general Alexander von Kluck and stated matter-of-factly that he was the man who would “lead the march on Paris.” This shocking statement was merely the amuse-bouche for a four-course meal of insane (and possibly inebriated) invective. The Belgian ambassador to Berlin, Baron Napoleon-Eugène Beyens, recalled: “The Kaiser discoursed at length on the political situation in Europe. He thinks it so bad, through the fault of France, that he regards war with her as inevitable and imminent… The King tried to overcome this disastrous error of judgment… All to no purpose. The Kaiser obstinately went on declaring that a conflict was inevitable and that he had no doubt of the crushing superiority of the German army.” Among other things, he cited the Three-Year Service Law as proof of French hostility.  

After Wilhelm’s opening salvoes, Moltke took the lead with all the subtlety of a Prussian drill sergeant, warning his listeners, “Small countries, such as Belgium, would be well advised to rally to the side of the strong if they wished to retain their independence.” Albert’s military advisor Captain Emile Joseph Galet noted: “This was more than intimidation; it was a shameless threat against the neutrality and independence of Belgium.” And still they pounded away at their bewildered guests. When the Belgian military attaché Major Melotte demurred, Moltke snapped: “Do not have any illusions. War with France is inevitable and much nearer than you think. We do not desire it… [but] we are sure of being victorious… We shall lose battles but shall win in the end.”

With this terrifying scenario laid out, Moltke again demanded to know what Belgium would do if, say, one of the Great Powers violated her neutrality: would she actually fight, even if it were hopeless, or would she bow to the inevitable and lay down her arms (as the Germans hoped)? Shocked, Melotte replied that Belgian honor required her to fight any invader with all her strength. Turning back to Albert after dinner, Moltke now blithely contradicted his earlier assertion that Germany didn’t want war: “Your Majesty cannot examine the irresistible enthusiasm which will permeate Germany on The Day.”

Wilhelm and Moltke were careful to avoid an open diplomatic breach; the Teutonic duo could always claim that they were simply inquiring whether Belgium would defend itself against France in the event of war, as required by the international treaty decreeing its neutrality. But following distinctly lukewarm German promises to respect Belgian neutrality earlier that year, all this talk of a hypothetical invasion was hardly reassuring.

The dazed, distraught Belgians looked to the other Great Powers for help and reassurance—and to warn them about the prevailing mindset in Berlin. With Albert’s permission, on November 10, 1913, Beyens described the incident to the French ambassador to Berlin, Jules Cambon, who in turn passed the news on to Paris. Key figures in the French government took note: In December 1913, President Poincaré, citing Cambon’s report, warned his associates that war with Germany was coming in the not-too-distant future. 

Of course the Belgian warnings fell on fertile ground, as many French leaders already believed war was inevitable: in February 1913, Sir Henry Wilson, the British officer in charge of coordinating military planning with France, noted that top French generals were “of the opinion that it would be far better for France if a conflict were not too long postponed,” and the following month the warning was repeated by Francis Bertie, the British ambassador to France, who wrote to British foreign minister Edward Grey that “many Frenchmen … think that war is predictable within the next two years and that it might be better for the French to have it soon.” Thus fear and suspicion fed on itself in a vicious cycle, which soon became a whirlpool, dragging in all the nations of Europe. 

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
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
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
Original image

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]