CLOSE
Original image

Russians Cry Foul on von Sanders Mission

Original image

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 92nd installment in the series.

November 10, 1913: Russians Cry Foul on von Sanders Mission

The European diplomatic world was a small one, composed of no more than a few hundred men, almost all aristocrats, most of whom knew each other to varying degrees. Between the gossip mill and ubiquitous espionage networks, it didn’t take long for news to circulate—so it was only a matter of time before word got out about the appointment of a German officer, Liman von Sanders (above), to command the Turkish First Army Corps guarding Constantinople.

It wasn’t uncommon for Europeans to train and sometimes even command the troops of second-rank powers, but von Sanders’ mission far exceeded the usual scope of these arrangements: By placing a German in charge of the Constantinople garrison, the Turks were effectively giving Germany control of the capital and the Turkish straits—a move sure to anger the Russians, who hoped to conquer Constantinople and the straits themselves in the not-too-distant future. 

The “Liman von Sanders Affair,” as it was soon known, began in earnest on November 10, 1913, when the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, instructed the Russian ambassador in Berlin, Sergei Sverbeev, to tell the Germans that the von Sanders mission, would be regarded by Russia as an “openly hostile act.” In addition to threatening Russia’s foreign trade, half of which flowed through the Turkish straits, the mission raised the possibility of a German-led Turkish assault on Russia’s Black Sea ports (not to mention imperiling Russia’s devious plans for expansion in eastern Anatolia).

While the von Sanders mission was troubling to Sazonov, he also understood that the Germans couldn’t simply back down for reasons of prestige. Thus the Russian foreign minister sought a solution that would allow them to withdraw and still save face. On November 18, the Russian premier, Count Vladimir Kokovtsov, who happened to be visiting Germany, paid a visit to Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg and suggested that von Sanders be given a different assignment, preferably somewhere other than Constantinople. 

For his part, Bethmann-Hollweg was only vaguely aware of the von Sanders mission—it was an initiative of the German army, which sometimes seemed to be conducting its own foreign policy—and he certainly had no desire to alienate Russia following a year of seemingly endless Balkan crises. But even if the German government was willing to reach an accommodation, it wasn’t solely their decision to make—and the Turks, fed up with European bullying, were in no mood to compromise. 

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
quiz
arrow
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image
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