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Wikimedia Commons

British Back Russians on von Sanders

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 95th installment in the series. 

December 15, 1913: British Back Russians on von Sanders

In the autumn of 1913, Europe was gripped by yet another in a long series of diplomatic crises, this time triggered by the news that a German officer, Lieutenant General Liman von Sanders, was to be appointed commander of the Turkish First Army Corps guarding Constantinople. The Russians in particular vehemently opposed this arrangement, arguing that it would effectively turn control of the Ottoman capital over to Germany, thus threatening Russia’s foreign trade, half of which flowed through the Turkish straits; the Russians also hoped to conquer Constantinople for themselves someday.

As in the previous crises caused by the Balkan Wars, Europe’s Great Powers tried to avoid a wider conflict but nevertheless found themselves dragged into a cycle of escalation by less powerful client states—in this case, the Ottoman Empire.

For the Committee of Union and Progress (Young Turks) led by Enver Pasha, the German military mission was more than just a step towards overhauling the Turkish army; it also held out the possibility of a more serious commitment from Germany to protect the beleaguered Ottoman Empire against the other Great Powers. If the Turks could just get Germany to sign a formal defensive alliance, it would buy them time to carry out sweeping reforms to get the empire back on its feet. For their part the Germans were leery of deeper Turkish entanglements, viewing the ramshackle empire as essentially a lost cause and a dangerous liability in military terms (the von Sanders mission was as much about staking a claim to Turkish territory as it was about defending it). But the Young Turks were willing to play hardball with their reluctant partners.

On December 4, 1913, the Turks delivered a fait accompli to the Great Powers—including Germany—by formally announcing von Sanders’ appointment as commander of the First Army Corps. By escalating the situation the Turks hoped to force the Germans to make a clear stand at the side of the Ottoman Empire, using the diplomatic crisis surrounding the von Sanders Affair as leverage; with their prestige on the line, it would be harder for the Germans to back down and leave the Turks hanging.

Unsurprisingly the Russians were not at all happy with this turn of events. On December 6, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov rang the alarm bells in St. Petersburg, warning Tsar Nicholas II that “to abandon the Straits to a powerful state would be to place the economic development of the whole of South Russia at the mercy of that state.” And two could play the escalation game: on December 7, Sazonov raised the stakes by suggesting that Russia might be forced to seek compensation in the form of Turkish territory—specifically the province of Erzurum in Turkish Armenia. Thus the wily foreign minister, ever opportunistic, hoped to either get rid of von Sanders or use the crisis to advance Russia’s devious long-term plan to annex Turkish territory.

As intended, Sazonov’s threat triggered serious alarm in Western capitals, with France and Britain hurrying to restrain their Entente partner while also urging Germany to back down—not unlike friends trying to prevent a drunken bar fight. But their efforts were overtaken by events: von Sanders left Berlin for Constantinople on December 9, arriving five days later. Meanwhile on December 12 Sazonov informed Britain and France that Russia considered this a test of the Entente, adding, “This lack of… solidarity between the three Entente Powers arouses our serious apprehension...”

Up to this point British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey (top) had avoided involvement in the von Sanders Affair, which didn’t directly affect British interests. But with war in the air, on December 15, 1913, the phlegmatic foreign secretary finally left the sidelines, warning the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, that “Russia might demand compensations in Constantinople in the form of the transfer to her of a command in Armenia. Such a solution seemed to him to be fraught with danger, as it might mean the beginning of the end—the beginning of the partition of Turkey in Asia.” Later Grey told Lichnowsky “the Russians are more concerned than ever and must be satisfied somehow…”

Lichnowsky conveyed Grey’s warnings to Berlin, and the Germans—who had no desire for a confrontation with the Entente over the von Sanders mission—began thinking of ways to satisfy Russian demands while still maintaining German and Turkish prestige. The answer was clear enough: to save face von Sanders would give up command of the Constantinople army but remain in Turkey in a military capacity, which, in the Kabuki-like world of European power politics, would technically mean no one had backed down.

On December 18, von Sanders (with a nudge from the German ambassador to Constantinople, Baron von Wangenheim) suddenly realized that reforming the Turkish army and commanding an active army corps was too much for one person to handle, and requested a transfer to command of the Turkish army corps at Adrianople, leaving Constantinople in Turkish hands once again. This wasn’t quite the end of the von Sanders Affair, as the Turks still required some convincing, but it showed that the Germans were trying to defuse the situation, and tensions began to subside.

However the Liman von Sanders Affair revealed dynamics that would help precipitate the First World War less than a year later. For one thing, the Turks’ decision to escalate the crisis showed that Germany, having encouraged its allies in a particular course of action, couldn’t necessarily control them once they embarked on it. At the same time Grey’s initial reluctance to take sides, which allowed the situation to escalate dangerously, foreshadowed Britain’s belated intervention during the final crisis of July 1914, when the world’s fate hung in the balance. 

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
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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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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]