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Wikimedia Commons

Russia Tries to Enlist British Help Against Germany

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 93rd installment in the series. 

November 25, 1913: Russia Tries to Enlist British Help Against Germany

The years leading up the first World War saw Europe separated into two alliance blocs, with the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and Britain on one side, facing Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other (Italy, nominally allied with Germany and Austria in the Triple Alliance, was actually undecided). From 1911 to 1914 a series of confrontations served to harden these blocs as allies strengthened their commitments, prompting their opponents to move closer together in a cycle of endless escalation. 

On the Entente side, the Franco-Russian alliance provided the main axis, bolstered by the more recent and informal agreements between France and Britain. These two partnerships, hinging on France, brought Britain and Russia together gradually and indirectly; although suspicious of Russia’s ambitions in Asia, the British realized its importance as a counterweight to Germany in Europe. Thus the Second Moroccan Crisis in 1911 led to the Anglo-French Naval Convention, while Russia and France finalized their contingency plans for joint military action against Germany, and the French quietly informed the Russians that Britain would probably support them in a continental war. Amid the crises resulting from the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913, French President Raymond Poincaré urged the Russians to take a firm line against Germany and Austria-Hungary, and vowed France wouldn’t back down in future conflicts either. His appointment of the fiercely anti-German Théophile Delcassé as French ambassador to St. Petersburg only served to reinforce the message.

On the other side, during the Balkan crises Germany repeatedly assured Austria-Hungary of its full support, even if that meant war with Russian and France, and the nerve-wracking standoff with Russia over Serbian expansion brought home to the Germans the existential threat posed by Slavic nationalism to Austria-Hungary—their only real ally. Indeed, key figures in Germany and Austria shared fears of a looming “racial struggle” between Teutons and Slavs, and from September 1913 onward, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II believed war was the only way for Austria-Hungary to settle the Serbian question.

In November 1913, another crisis pushed Russia and France (and ultimately Britain) even closer together. The Turkish government’s appointment of a German officer, Liman von Sanders (above), to command the Turkish First Army Corps guarding Constantinople triggered serious alarm in Russia, as it effectively gave Germany control of the Turkish capital, imperiling Russian foreign trade (half of which flowed through the Turkish straits) and foreclosing any chance for Russia to conquer the strategic city for itself. And as always in European diplomacy, there was another level to consider: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov understood that the von Sanders mission was a probe by Germany as it tried to break through the feared strategic “encirclement” by France, Russia, and Britain by dividing the allies, and maybe even turning them against each other. Specifically, would Britain stand by the French and Russians, or was the proud island nation reaching the limits of cooperation?

Sazonov was determined that the Entente would show the Germans a united front, which meant getting Britain on board. On November 25, 1913, he sent formal requests to Paris and London for French and British diplomatic support against Germany in the von Sanders Affair, with a warning that Germany was trying to pry the allies apart. On December 1, 1913, Sazonov explained to the British charge d’affaires, “this matter would be a test of the value of the Triple Entente. He believed that, if the three Powers showed themselves really determined, Germany would not persist in her intentions…” British participation was particularly important, Sazonov emphasized, as “Germany might disregard remonstrances of France and Russia if she had not also before her fear of the British fleet” (a little flattery of British vanity never hurt).

Meanwhile Sazonov also enlisted France to put pressure on Britain. Thus the French ambassador to Britain, Paul Cambon, urged British Foreign Minister Edward Grey to join the French and Russians in delivering a note warning the Turks “that to entrust the Constantinople First Army Corps to a German general … would mean virtually handing the keys to the Straits to that Power … [and] upset the equilibrium of the Powers which is the guarantee of the existence of the Ottoman Empire.”

At first the strategy seemed to be working: On December 2, 1913, Grey sent the British ambassador to Constantinople a telegram stating that control of the straits were “matters of concern more or less to every Power that is interested in Turkey.” But Grey then limited himself to asking the Turks to clarify the extent of von Sanders’ responsibility, including his authority to initiate military action. Unsurprisingly Sazonov was annoyed, but resigned himself to taking what he could get from the cagey British. 

Eventually the British would be forced to take a more active role in the crisis, when the situation was more serious. This reluctance to take sides in the early stages of the von Sanders Affair—when a clear stand might have deterred the Germans and Turks—followed by belated intervention, foreshadowed Britain’s tragic hesitation and inability to act forcefully to avert war in the final weeks leading up the First World War.

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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]