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Wikimedia Commons

Russian Tsar Vows “We Shall Do Everything” for Serbia

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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 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 101st installment in the series. 

February 2, 1914: Russian Tsar Vows “We Shall Do Everything” for Serbia

“Greet the King for me and tell him, ‘For Serbia we shall do everything.’” Although neither man could know it at the time, Tsar Nicholas II’s parting words to Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić on February 2, 1914, with a message for Serbia’s King Peter, foreshadowed the massive sacrifice Russia was about to make on behalf of her Slavic cousins exactly six months later.

Pašić and Serbia’s Crown Prince Alexander had come to St. Petersburg to discuss foreign policy, reaffirm Serbia’s loyalty to its great Slavic patron, and maybe even forge a new connection with the Russian royal family through marriage. Pašić, an elder statesman, did most of the talking on the Serbian side, and left a detailed account of their meetings with the tsar and his ministers.

Ironically, Pašić’s main talking point was Serbia’s desire for peace in order to rebuild her strength after the exhausting Balkan Wars—but he also hinted that this period of peace wasn’t going to last forever. Indeed, Serbia needed to rearm as fast as possible to meet the looming threat from Bulgaria and Austria, now allied against her.

Pašić recalled: “I led the conversation around to a discussion of Austria’s deliveries of arms to Bulgaria … the Tsar added that Germany too was supporting Bulgaria. I begged him that Russia should likewise aid us, and that out of her magazines she should deliver to us 120,000 rifles and munitions and some few cannon, particularly howitzers, if they could spare them … And here I took occasion to tell the Tsar how pleased we were that Russia had armed herself so thoroughly; it gave us a feeling of security...” The Tsar promised to help Serbia at some point, but couldn’t guarantee anything in the near term, since Russia’s war industries were fully occupied supplying its own military needs.

Next they discussed the situation with Austria-Hungary where, according to Pašić, six million South Slavs longed to be united with their brothers in Serbia: “I then told the Tsar how great a change in sentiment had taken place among the Slavs of Austria-Hungary … [who] now comprehended that … salvation could come to them only from Russia or Serbia, and that they could scarcely await the opportunity to see their desires fulfilled.” Fittingly Pašić then segued into war, telling the tsar that Serbia would be able to field half a million troops in the next Balkan conflict. Nicholas II appeared impressed, remarking, “one can go a great way with that.”

Finally Pašić broached the subject of a royal marriage between Crown Prince Alexander and one of the Tsar’s daughters, which would cement the relationship between the two countries as well as strengthen the position of the Serbian monarch at home. There was plenty of precedent for such a connection: The tsar’s first cousin once removed (sometimes referred to as his uncle), the Grand Duke Nicholas, had married a Montenegrin princess, Anastasia Nikolaevna. However, the tsar, who apparently embraced Victorian romantic notions, merely smiled and said he let his children choose their spouses for themselves.

All this talk of Slavic unity and military preparations, along with the tsar’s dramatic parting words, might seem to suggest that Russia and Serbia were anticipating war and Russia, by promising unconditional support, was practically encouraging Serbia to precipitate the conflict. But as usual the truth was a bit more complicated. Neither Pašić nor the Tsar wanted war, at least not in the near future; the problem was they weren’t fully in control.

For one thing, neither government could actually present a coherent foreign policy, as both had to contend with rival factions at home. In the case of Serbia, Pašić—the head of a moderate civilian government—was facing off with the military’s ultranationalist spymaster, Dragutin Dimitrijević (codename Apis), who was plotting a coup as well as organizing the conspiracy to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. Where Pašić wanted to conciliate Austria-Hungary in the near term, Dimitrijević called for ceaseless agitation and subversion among the empire’s South Slavs; it’s unlikely that Pašić had any knowledge of the conspiracy at this point.

Russia was similarly divided between moderates and radicals: while the tsar himself was peacefully inclined, he and his ministers were under growing pressure from “pan-Slav” ideologues who accused them of selling out their Slavic cousins in Serbia during the Balkan Wars. The pan-Slavs were a powerful force shaping Russian public opinion, and had to be heeded, resulting in an inconsistent foreign policy. Thus Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, a moderate, was forced to appoint a radical pan-Slav, Baron Nicholas Hartwig, as Russian ambassador to Serbia—and while Sazonov frequently expressed exasperation with the Serbs, vowing to leave them to fend for themselves the next time they got into a jam, Hartwig consistently sent the opposite message, egging them on in their conflict with Austria-Hungary; in December 1913 he told his hosts in Belgrade that Serbia would be Russia’s “instrument” to “destroy” Austria-Hungary.

Just six months later the radicals would thrust Serbia and Russia into a confrontation with Austria-Hungary much sooner than the moderates could have foreseen—and then Russia would have no choice but to fulfill the tsar’s parting promise to the Serbs.

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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]