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Wikimedia Commons

The Conspiracy Forms

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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 97th installment in the series. 

December 31, 1913: The Conspiracy Forms

The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 was the culmination of a conspiracy that began forming six months before. But conspiracies have a tendency to mutate or evolve, and this plot was no exception: In fact, it initially targeted a different person altogether.

The man who set the ball rolling was Vladimir Gaćinović, well known in Serbian nationalist circles as the author of a pamphlet lionizing Bogdan Zerajic, who in 1910 tried unsuccessfully to assassinate General Varešanin, the Austrian governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina, then killed himself, becoming a martyr to the cause. Gaćinović was also a member of Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia), a revolutionary group inside Bosnia, and Ujedinjenje Hi Smert (Unity or Death, also called Crna Ruka, the Black Hand), an ultranationalist cabal led by the chief of Serbian military intelligence, Dragutin Dimitrijević, codename Apis (above, left).

In autumn 1913, Dimitrijević’s right-hand man Major Vojislav Tankosić (above, center) instructed Gaćinović, who was then living in Lausanne, Switzerland, to convene a meeting of Mlada Bosna members to plot the assassination of a high-ranking Austrian official. At this stage it wasn’t quite clear who the target would be, and frankly it didn’t really matter; the most important thing was that the murder should inspire violent resistance by Slavic nationalists inside the Austro-Hungarian Empire, hopefully leading to a general uprising.

Towards the end of December 1913, Gaćinović invited several members of Mlada Bosna to a secret meeting in Toulouse, France, in January 1914. Participants included Gaćinović himself; Mustafa Golubić, another member of the Black Hand who later became a Soviet agent in Yugoslavia in the interwar period; and Muhamed Mehmedbašić, a cabinetmaker from a minor Bosnian Muslim noble family which had fallen on hard times.

According to Mehmedbašić, the plotters discussed a number of potential targets, including Franz Ferdinand, but finally agreed that the victim should be Oskar Potiorek (above, right), the Austrian governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who succeeded Varešanin in May 1911 and earned the hatred of Slavic nationalists by declaring a state of emergency in the restive province in May 1913. Mehmedbašić was supposed to carry out the assassination using a dagger dipped in poison provided by Gaćinović—but it didn’t take long for this plot to fizzle out. According to his own account, on the way back to Bosnia Mehmedbašić panicked and threw the dagger and poison away when Austrian police boarded the train and began searching the compartments (it later turned out they were looking for a thief).

Still hoping to strike a blow against Austrian tyranny, back in Sarajevo Mehmedbašić got in touch with his friend Danilo Ilić, a Bosnian schoolteacher and journalist who volunteered in the Serbian army during the Second Balkan War in 1913, joined the Black Hand while living in Belgrade, and later returned to Sarajevo to work with Mlada Bosna. Ilić was in contact with Gaćinović in Switzerland and was also best friends with a young Bosnian Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip, who’d been drifting back and forth between Sarajevo and Belgrade—where he was supposedly attending high school but actually spent most of his time in grimy cafes frequented by radical nationalists and anarchists. As a matter of fact, Ilić and Princip had discussed their own plan to assassinate Potiorek in 1912, but this also came to nothing.

Lurking in the background of these overlapping, often half-baked plots was always the puppet master Apis, pulling strings through his Black Hand henchmen including Tankosić and another man, Milan Ciganović—a Bosnian Serb who’d served as a paramilitary commander in the Balkan Wars and now worked for the Serbian state railroad (as it happened Ciganović and Princip came from the same district in Bosnia and briefly lived together in the same house in Belgrade in 1912).

Not long after the Toulouse meeting, in February or March, 1914, Apis learned that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was planning to attend military maneuvers in Bosnia in June 1914, and would even have the audacity to visit Sarajevo on the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389—a key event in Serbian history, symbolizing Serbia’s long history of foreign oppression. Now a new plot began to take shape. 

A Look Back at 1913, the Last Year of Peace

As 1913 drew to a close, ordinary Europeans could look forward with relief to the New Year: after a series of crises Europe finally seemed to be recovering its equilibrium, and there was every reason to hope for lasting peace. But all the apparent successes of diplomacy, negotiation, and compromise were in fact setting the stage for disaster.

The Year 1913 had been born in crisis, with Austria-Hungary and Russia facing off in the wake of the First Balkan War, in which Bulgaria and Serbia conquered the Ottoman Empire’s European territories. Austria-Hungary’s Foreign Minister Count Berchtold correctly viewed Serbia as a magnet for the nationalist aspirations of the Dual Monarchy’s Southern Slavs, and was determined to force the Serbs to give up their conquests in Albania, thus denying Serbia access to the sea (which would have bolstered Serbian prestige). This put Austria-Hungary on a collision course with Serbia’s Slavic patron Russia, where Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov was under pressure from “Pan-Slav” ideologues to support their ethnic kinsmen in the Balkans. This crisis was eventually resolved by the Hohenlohe Mission, a personal appeal from Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef to Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II that paved the way for a compromise at the Conference of London, including the creation of an independent Albania.

But this wasn’t the end of the Balkan crises—not even close. While Serbian forces began withdrawing from Albania, in April 1913 Serbia’s sidekick Montenegro captured Scutari, an important city that had also been granted to Albania at the Conference of London. This second crisis was resolved when Europe’s Great Powers offered Montenegro’s King Nikolai the choice of a carrot (a sweetheart loan from Britain and France) or a stick (war with Austria-Hungary); Nikolai wisely chose the carrot and the Montenegrins withdrew from Scutari.

And still the turmoil continued with the Second Balkan War from June to August 1913, when Bulgaria attacked Serbia and Greece over the spoils of the First Balkan War—then swiftly reaped the whirlwind as Romania and the Ottoman Empire piled on from the rear. Defeated on all fronts, Bulgaria turned to Russia for protection, but Sazonov, indecisive as ever, dithered, delayed and finally ended up cutting the Bulgarians loose in favor of the Serbians and Romanians, leaving the Bulgarians understandably embittered—and Serbia as Russia’s only remaining ally in the Balkans. This meant Russia would have to back up Serbia in future crises unconditionally, or risk losing all its influence in the region.

The final Balkan crisis of the year came about in September, when ethnic Albanians in the southern Serbian territory of Kosovo rebelled and the Serbs responded by invading Albania proper, threatening to undo all Austria-Hungary’s recent efforts to create the new nation. Ultimately the Serbs backed down in the face of a unilateral threat from Austria-Hungary—another alarming development, as it convinced the Austrians they could go it alone in the Balkans, without having to consult the other Great Powers.

Indeed, this was probably the closest Europe came to war during the past year: By autumn 1913, the hawks in Vienna, led by chief of staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, had persuaded Austrian Foreign Minister Count Berchtold (and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II) that war was the only way to deal with the obstreperous Serbs. Ironically the only person standing in their way was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who warned that an attack on Serbia would bring war with Russia. If the Archduke were somehow removed from the scene, the hawks would be in the ascendant.

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]