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France Sends Anti-German Ambassador to Russia

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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 96th installment in the series. 

December 23, 1913: France Sends Anti-German Ambassador to Russia, Federal Reserve Created

Aside from the foreign minister, the most important job in the French diplomatic universe was ambassador to Russia. As guardian of the sacred Franco-Russian Alliance, the French minister to St. Petersburg was responsible for shoring up the key pillar of French national security, which meant reassuring the Russians of French commitment while politely extracting more concrete guarantees from the Russians.

The appointment of Theophile Delcassé as ambassador to the court of the Tsar in February 1913 sent a clear message to friend and foe alike. A former foreign minister and one of the main architects of the Franco-Russian Alliance, Delcassé was convinced that France was on a collision course with Germany, leading Kaiser Wilhelm II to call him “the most dangerous man for Germany in France.” Before leaving for Russia Delcassé told Maurice Paléologue (top), the foreign ministry’s (also ferociously “anti-German”) political director: “We are inevitably headed toward a great European conflict, and it will be France which will bear the first blow… for make no mistake about it, Germany will attack us through Belgium… It is necessary, therefore, that the Russian ally be in such a state to be able to launch a full-scale offensive in the shortest possible time…”

Over the course of 1913, Delcassé (along with French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre and President Raymond Poincaré) firmed up the Russian alliance, resulting in a new military convention, signed in September 1913, confirming and elaborating their plans for near-simultaneous attacks on Germany; this included a personal promise from Tsar Nicholas II to invade East Prussia within 15 days of mobilization (M+15) in hopes of forcing the Germans to divert forces from their attack on France.

But in the winter of 1913 Delcassé, complaining of ill health (and nursing political ambitions back home) let it be known that he would like to return to France. Opportunistic as always, on December 23, 1913, Poincaré seized the chance to cement his control over French foreign policy by nominating his friend Paléologue to replace Delcassé in St. Petersburg—thus sending someone who was perhaps even more virulently anti-German than Delcassé, if that were possible, to represent the Republic in Russia. 

Paléologue’s appointment was especially significant in the context of the continuing Liman von Sanders Affair, which the Russians viewed as a test of French solidarity in the face of German bullying. President Poincaré had previously hinted he might support Russia’s claims to control the Ottoman capital Constantinople and the Turkish straits, and Paléologue—whose family claimed (probably spurious) descent from Byzantine emperors—would support Russian claims to the ancient city in the coming conflict, helping pave the way for the disastrous Gallipoli Expedition. 

Paléologue’s appointment further consolidated the Franco-Russian Alliance during the final countdown to war, as both partners signaled their determination not to tolerate German bullying, relying on their mutual defensive agreement for strength. Bidding farewell to Paléologue in January 1914, French Prime Minister Gaston Doumergue left no doubt about the main thrust of his mission to St. Petersburg: “War can break out from one day to the next… Our allies must rush to our aid.” Meanwhile, Tsar Nicholas II echoed Poincaré’s earlier calls for a firm line against Germany, warning the departing Delcassé, “We shall not let ourselves be trampled upon.” 

Federal Reserve Created

On December 23, 1913, Congress passed and President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act, creating a new national bank and massively increasing the government’s power to intervene in the economy by setting interest rates and controlling the supply of money. 

The United States had had national banks before: In 1791, Congress chartered the First Bank of the United States at the urging of Alexander Hamilton, who wanted the federal government to assume the Revolutionary War debts of the states to stabilize their finances and foster adherence to the new nation. But the national bank faced fierce opposition from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other critics who feared official corruption and federal aggrandizement. In 1833, Andrew Jackson shut down the Second Bank of the United States (the successor institution chartered in 1816), which he accused of favoring northeastern industrial interests over small farmers on the frontier. To “democratize” the financial system Jackson transferred the national bank’s funds to state banks (“pet banks”) mostly selected for political loyalty to Jackson and his allies in the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, “wildcat” banks free from federal regulation sprang up around the country and began issuing huge amounts of bank notes with little or no backing, resulting in financial collapse and the Depression of 1837. 

During the Civil War, Congress created a new system of “national banks” to finance the war and introduce the first uniform national currency, but stopped short of creating a new central bank, so the new national banks (which mostly operated like state banks) lacked the backing of a “lender of last resort” to supply emergency funds in the event of a financial crisis. That’s what happened in 1907, when a failed attempt to corner the stock of the United Copper Company on Wall Street triggered financial panic and bank runs across the U.S. Total financial collapse was averted by the frantic efforts of J.P. Morgan and bank presidents, essentially acting as an improvised central bank, but the public’s confidence was badly shaken and a steep economic downturn ensued. 

The Panic of 1907 laid the groundwork for the formation of the Federal Reserve System, beginning with the creation of a National Monetary Commission in 1908, followed by a top-secret meeting of bankers hosted by Delaware Senator Nelson W. Aldrich and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury A.P. Andrew at Jekyll Island, Georgia, in 1910, where they agreed on an outline for a National Reserve Bank. In January 1911 the National Monetary Commission formally recommended the formation of a National Reserve. After two years of debate over the balance between political and private control, the bill to create the Federal Reserve System – composed of regional Federal Reserve Banks owned by private banks, supervised by an independent Board of Governors, and backed by the “full faith and credit” of the United States—was introduced in the House of Representatives on August 29, 1913, passed by the Senate on December 18, approved by a joint conference committee on December 22 and 23, and immediately signed by President Wilson on the latter date.

During the First World War, the Federal Reserve helped protect the U.S. and world financial system from the initial shocks of the war, then became a key financier of the U.S. and Allied war efforts, with the New York Fed leading the way. To facilitate this process in 1916 and 1917, Congress lowered the amount of “real” money the Fed had to hold as collateral for loans, and also changed the rules so government debt could serve as collateral; this helped increase the money supply to fund the war effort, but also resulted in major inflation, with the purchasing value of the dollar decreasing by roughly half from 1914 and 1920. After the war the Fed’s “easy money” policies helped fuel the economic expansion of the “Roaring 20s,” but also contributed to the credit bubble that finally popped in 1929, triggering the Great Depression. 

See the previous installment or all entries

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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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]

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