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Russian Black Sea fleet, Wikimedia Commons

Russians Weigh War Against Turkey

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Russian Black Sea fleet, 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 August, 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 98th installment in the series. 

January 13 to 15, 1914: Russians Weigh War Against Turkey, Liman von Sanders Affair Resolved

In mid-January 1914, the Liman von Sanders Affair was finally resolved by some bureaucratic sleight-of-hand in Constantinople—and not a moment too soon, as the Russians were seriously considering war against the Ottoman Empire.

In December 1913, Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov was alarmed by the appointment of a German officer, Liman von Sanders, to command the Turkish First Army Corps guarding Constantinople; Sazonov and other top officials in St. Petersburg feared this would place the Ottoman capital and strategic Turkish straits under German control, menacing Russian foreign trade and frustrating their own ambitions to conquer the ancient city in the not-too-distant future.

Sazonov responded by enlisting Russia’s “Triple Entente” allies, France and Britain, to pressure Germany and Turkey to cancel the von Sanders mission. The French were ready to back up Russia, but the cagey British required a bit of coaxing. After some dithering, British foreign minister Edward Grey finally warned Berlin that the Russians might demand compensation for von Sanders’ appointment in the form of territory in Turkish Armenia (where the Russians were already fomenting rebellion), which in turn might trigger the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire—exactly what the Germans didn’t want to happen (at least, not yet).

Facing a united front from Russia, France, and Britain, the Germans signaled that they were ready to compromise: after some prodding by German diplomats, in late December von Sanders asked the Turkish government to transfer him to another command, which would remove him from Constantinople while still upholding German prestige. However the Turks, still hoping to draw Germany into a long-term defensive alliance, took their time about granting the request.

The Russians were in no mood to wait: On January 13, 1914, Sazonov convened a war council presided over by premier Vladimir Kokovtsov (who was also finance minister) and attended by war minister Vladimir Sukhomlinov, navy minister Ivan Grigorovich, and chief of staff Yakov Zhilinsky. At this secret meeting Russia’s top leadership considered the ramifications of war against the Ottoman Empire—including the possibility of a much wider war.

Referring to Sazonov’s designs on Turkish Armenia, Kokovtsov warned that Russian advances here would probably trigger war with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Could Russia handle all three enemies at once? The answer depended partly on Russia’s allies. Here Sazonov told his colleagues that “France would go as far as Russia may wish,” an opinion supported by French president Raymond Poincaré’s statements as well as the recent appointment of the fiercely anti-German Maurice Paléologue as French ambassador to Russia; Sazonov had also received assurances from Poincaré that Britain would fight with them—as long as the British believed that the Germans started it.

On the military front, Sukhomlinov and Zhilinsky expressed confidence that Russia could fight Turkey, Germany, and Austria-Hungary simultaneously, as long as she could count on support from France and Britain. True, the strategic situation would be even better in 1917, when Russia’s Great Military Program, finally approved by Tsar Nicholas II in November 1913, would be substantially complete; Russia also needed to extend its military railroads and bolster its Black Sea fleet for an amphibious assault on Constantinople. But the soldiers were clear: If Russia had to go to war now, she could take all comers.

As it turned out, this wouldn’t be necessary. On January 15, 1914, the Turks announced that Liman von Sanders had been promoted to field marshal in the Turkish army, which meant he was now too high-ranking to command an individual army corps; instead he would serve as inspector general, overseeing training and reforms. Basically, von Sanders had been “kicked upstairs” to resolve the situation without damaging anyone’s prestige.

As this peaceful resolution showed, nobody actually wanted a general European war. The problem was that most of the Great Powers—Russia and France on one side, Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other—believed they faced long-term threats that might eventually compel them to go to war in spite of their own peaceful intentions. Russia feared another power might seize Constantinople and also felt obliged to protect its Slavic cousin, Serbia, in order to preserve its own influence in the Balkans; France feared Germany’s growing economic and military might and resented German bullying in colonial affairs; the Austrians feared the rise of Slavic nationalism in the Balkans, which threatened to tear their patchwork empire apart; and the Germans feared encirclement and the decline of Austria-Hungary, their only real ally.

As 1914 wore on these fears—along with each nation’s belief in its own military preparedness, and their collective tendency to bluff and counter-bluff in high-stakes conflicts—all combined to produce a very dangerous situation.

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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]