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Origins of the Armenian Genocide

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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 102nd installment in the series. 

February 8, 1914: Origins of the Armenian Genocide

The Armenian Genocide of 1915 to 1917, in which the government of the Ottoman Empire killed approximately 1.5 million Armenians through mass shootings, forced marches (shown above), exposure, and starvation, couldn’t have taken place without the First World War, which radicalized Turkish public opinion and freed the “Young Turks” from the constraints of international law. But the stage for genocide was set on February 8, 1914, when Europe’s Great Powers forced the Turks to accept reforms they viewed as an existential threat.

An ancient ethnic group attested as far back as the sixth century BCE, the Armenians weathered the rise and fall of empires for millennia before the Ottoman Turks finally conquered the multiethnic Caucasus region in the 16th century CE. During the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, the Christian Armenians enjoyed considerable religious freedom and legal autonomy under the Ottoman “millet” system, which allowed religious minority groups to live by their own traditional laws.

But in the 19th century the millet system was undermined by the rise of nationalism, as various Ottoman subject peoples (including Armenians as well as Greeks, Slavs, and Arabs) embraced national identities and began demanding more autonomy, or even independence. The issue was further complicated by the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the encroachment of Europe’s Great Powers—especially Russia, which grabbed large chunks of Turkish territory in the Caucasus over the course of the 19th century, including some of the Armenian lands.

Now divided between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, the Armenians became a pawn in St. Petersburg’s devious gambit to grab even more Turkish territory in eastern Anatolia. Essentially the Russians used the Muslim Turks’ mistreatment of Christian Armenians as an excuse to intervene and assert Russian control over the region—and to move things along they were quite willing to stir up trouble between the Armenians and their Muslim neighbors, including the Kurds, who the Turks often employed as local enforcers (when they weren’t busy rebelling themselves).

This cynical ploy succeeded in turning international opinion against the Turks, who were their own worst enemies anyway. In 1895, clashes between Kurds and Armenians led to massacres that left at least 100,000 Armenians dead; these and subsequent atrocities generated public support for reforms in Europe and America. However the Turks had one (sort of) ally in Germany, which didn’t stand to benefit from the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire—at least in the near term—and now threw its diplomatic weight behind the Turks, delaying and watering down the proposed reforms.

After years of debate, in early 1914 the Turks (and their German backers) finally agreed to a compromise reform package that included some concessions by Russia: Among other things, the proposed administrative units included more Muslims to dilute Armenian political power, and the Armenians gave up any right to restitution of land previously seized by Kurds. But at the end of the day the Turks were still being forced to grant foreigners sweeping powers over an area they considered part of the Turkish homeland.

Under the terms of the Yeniköy Agreement signed on February 8, 1914 (so-called because it was signed in the Yeniköy district of Constantinople), seven Turkish provinces in eastern Anatolia would be grouped into two new inspectorates, both presided over by a European inspector general with the authority to appoint and dismiss local officials, arrest officials they suspected of criminal misconduct, suspend judges, and render decisions on new land disputes. They were also given command of the police and the military. Meanwhile the Kurdish irregular cavalry units were to be disarmed, even as the Russians continued covertly funneling arms to the Armenians (as part of their double game the Russians had also secretly armed the Kurds before, but never mind).

Unsurprisingly, the Turks viewed the Yeniköy Agreement as the opening move in Russia’s final push to dismantle the Ottoman Empire. And there was plenty of evidence fueling Turkish suspicions: Around this time, Zaven, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, called for “the unification of all Armenia under Russian sovereignty,” adding, “the sooner the Russians arrive here, the better for us.”

Similarly, Konstantin Gulkevich, the Russian charge d’affaires in Constantinople who signed the Yeniköy Agreement for Russia, reported to Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov that the Yeniköy Agreement “signifies without doubt the opening of a new and happier era in the history of the Armenian people … The Armenians must feel that the first step has been taken towards releasing them from the Turkish yoke.” Furthermore, “the outstanding role of Russia in the Armenian question is thus officially emphasized… This circumstance will certainly not fail to exert a most favorable influence on the international status of Russia, and to place a halo on the head of her sovereign in the eyes of the Christians of the Near East.”

The Young Turk junta in Constantinople desperately looked for ways to stem the rising Russian tide; one member of the ruling triumvirate, Djemal Pasha, recalled simply, “We wanted to tear up that Agreement.” But there was nothing they could do in the face of the united front presented by Europe’s Great Powers—unless, that is, the situation were suddenly changed by some unexpected event, some great upheaval that would allow them to cancel the reforms and redraw the map on their own terms, with their own methods.

See the previous installment or all entries

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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