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Wikimedia Commons

The Archduke Seals His Own Doom

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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 103rd installment in the series. 

February 17, 1914: The Archduke Seals His Own Doom

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 gave Austria-Hungary the excuse it needed to attack Serbia, inadvertently triggering the First World War. But the Archduke’s presence in Sarajevo that day was purely a matter of chance—or more precisely, petty political maneuvering.

Emperor Franz Josef had appointed his cantankerous nephew inspector general of the Austro-Hungarian army in August 1913, in order to acquaint the heir to the throne with the empire’s military affairs. Now armed with sweeping (if rather vague) authority, Franz Ferdinand was eager to assert control over the Dual Monarchy’s armed forces—especially if it allowed him to pull rank on the chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, a former friend who’d fallen out of favor due to his persistent advocacy of war against Serbia.

Conrad found it especially annoying when Franz Ferdinand showed up to observe the army’s annual maneuvers, so naturally the Archduke always made sure to be there. In 1914 the maneuvers were set to take place in Bosnia, with the clear goal of intimidating neighboring Serbia, and Franz Ferdinand—who opposed war with the troublesome Slavic kingdom, but understood the need for occasional saber-rattling—let it be known he planned to attend. But his itinerary didn’t include the provincial capital of Sarajevo, a third-tier town of 50,000 with little to recommend it to a globetrotting aristocrat.

Sarajevo was only added to the Archduke’s itinerary at the insistence of the provincial governor, Oskar Potiorek, an ambitious functionary determined to show Vienna how his enlightened administration had won over Bosnia’s restive Slavs. Of course this was pure fantasy—Potiorek had declared a state of emergency in May 1913 and never rescinded it—and Franz Ferdinand, knowing the risks, was understandably reluctant. But Potiorek had another card to play. If the Archduke paid an official visit to Sarajevo, his “morganatic” wife Sophie would be accorded the ceremonial recognition usually denied her in Vienna (as a minor aristocrat she was considered inferior and coldly ignored at court). After years of snubs, Franz Ferdinand was probably eager to show Sophie off with the pomp and circumstance he felt she deserved.

Whatever his reasons, on February 17, 1914, the Archduke finally gave in to Potiorek’s nagging and agreed to visit Sarajevo the day after the maneuvers, scheduled for June 26 and 27. They couldn’t have chosen a worse date: June 28, St. Vitus’ feast day (Vidovdan in Serbian) is the anniversary of the traumatic Serbian defeat at the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds (Kosovo Polje), where the Ottoman Turks wiped out the badly outnumbered Serbs in 1389. A key event in the formation of Serbian national identity, the Battle of Kosovo Polje symbolizes Serbia’s long struggle against foreign oppression, and has traditionally been commemorated with church rituals, the recitation of epic poetry, and patriotic gatherings.  

Even worse for Franz Ferdinand, the semi-legendary history of Kosovo Polje included the story of Miloš Obilić, a brave Serbian knight who avenged the defeat by assassinating the Ottoman Sultan Murad on the field of battle, martyring himself in the process. The symbolic link between the medieval Turkish despot and the modern Austrian Archduke was all too obvious to Bosnian Serb nationalists, especially in light of rumors that the Austro-Hungarian army maneuvers were actually a cover for a surprise attack on Serbia. 

Meanwhile, the head of Serbian military intelligence, Dragutin Dimitrijević, codename Apis, was busy plotting the assassination of some high-ranking Austrian official. In December 1913 or January 1914 several members of Dimitrijević’s ultranationalist terrorist organization, Unity or Death (also known as the Black Hand) met in Toulouse, France, to plan the murder of Potiorek, but this conspiracy soon fizzled out. Afterwards one conspirator, Muhamed Mehmedbašić, returned to Sarajevo and got in touch with his friend and fellow Black Hand member Danilo Ilić, who eventually put him in touch with several other would-be assassins, including a young Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip. In March 1914 they learned of the Archduke’s coming visit to Sarajevo, and a new plot began to form.

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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.