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German Newspapers Beat the War Drums

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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 106th installment in the series. 

March 2, 1914: German Newspapers Beat the War Drums

“Two years ago there was hesitation, but now it is said openly even in official military journals that Russia is arming itself for a war against Germany,” the Kölnische Zeitung (Cologne Gazette) warned its readers in a hair-raising article, “Russia and Germany,” published on March 2, 1914. The inflammatory article sparked alarm across Europe, fueling fears in Russia, France, and Britain that the German government was preparing its public for war.

There was reason for fear: Many European newspapers were semiofficial mouthpieces, and it was widely known that the Kölnische Zeitung was often “inspired” by German officials, who either wrote articles under pseudonyms or provided sensitive information to publicists and journalists. In this case the article was supposedly written by the German military attaché in St. Petersburg, Oberleutnant Richard Ulrich, or perhaps a pan-German publicist with access to Ulrich.

Whoever wrote it, the article painted a terrifying picture of Russian military development, apparently on track to achieve superiority over Germany in the next few years thanks to the Great Military Program, expanding Russian land forces, artillery, and railroads to speed mobilization. According to the author, “the purely geographical deployment of these arms points to the western border, thus toward Germany.” The article also condemned anti-German agitation in Russia’s pan-Slav press and complained of Russian ingratitude for Germany’s efforts to restrain its ally Austria-Hungary during the recent Balkan crises. Summing up, the author warned that Germany had to prepare herself for conflict in the not-too-distant future, as Russia would be ready to attack in the fall of 1917.

Vast and backward, Russia was already a bogeyman across the German political spectrum. German liberals and socialists deplored Russia’s reactionary Tsarist regime, while the conservative aristocrats who ran the Second Reich feared Russian territorial designs in German East Prussia and the northeastern provinces of Austria-Hungary, where Slavs predominated. Many educated Germans also embraced social Darwinist views that held Germans superior to Slavs and forecast an impending “racial struggle” between them. In strategic terms the chief of the general staff, Helmut von Moltke, was concerned that Russian efforts to accelerate mobilization would upset the Schlieffen Plan, which allotted six weeks to deal with France on the assumption Russian forces would take at least that long to get ready.

Embarrassed by the controversy resulting from the article, the Imperial Government disavowed any connection with the Kölnische Zeitung—but archival evidence confirms that this was indeed the strategic outlook in the top echelons of the German government. When the German ambassador to St. Petersburg, Count Friedrich Pourtalès, wrote a report arguing the situation wasn’t as dire as the article suggested, Kaiser Wilhelm II scribbled in the margins, “then you are mistaken,” adding, “According to all my reports, I as a military man harbor not the slightest doubt that Russia is systematically preparing for war against us; and I direct my policy accordingly.”

Meanwhile a number of German newspapers, all sympathetic to the military, amplified the message with warnings of their own. On February 24, 1914, the Berliner Post called for a preemptive strike to break through the Triple Entente’s encirclement before it was too late: “At the moment the state of things is favorable for us. France is not yet ready for war. England has internal and colonial difficulties, and Russia recoils from the conflict because she fears revolution at home. Ought we to wait until our adversaries are ready?” Instead Germany should “prepare for the inevitable war with energy and foresight” and then “begin it under the most favorable conditions.” In early March another newspaper, Die Post, echoed the call for a preemptive war, and the usually moderate Berliner Tageblatt asserted “we wish to keep the peace as long as possible with our great neighbor, but that is no reason to why we should continue to yield before his arrogant pretensions.” Finally, on March 14, the ultranationalist Alldeutsche Blätter warned its readers: “We maintain, today more than ever, that Germany and Austria-Hungary, even with the most honorable desire for peace, can not avoid war with their eastern and western neighbors; that a frightful, decisive struggle will be forced upon them.”

Some historians have contended that European newspapers helped push the continent into war by pressuring their respective governments to take aggressive stances, but it was more likely the other way around, as governments used newspapers to whip up public support for confrontational policies. That’s certainly how it looked to Eyre Crowe, a veteran British diplomat, who wrote on March 16, 1914: “No German government, nor the Emperor, will be driven into war by popular clamour. On the contrary, the necessary popular clamour will be engineered by the German government if it wishes to go to war. Public opinion alone is of no account whatever.”

The Triple Entente were in no mood to be bullied: on March 12, 1914, Russian War Minister Sukhomlinov penned an anonymous response in the Birzhevye Vedmosti, a Russian financial newspaper, stating that Russia wanted peace—but was prepared for war. And the London Times opined: “If something were still necessary to pull the Triple Entente closer together, or to strengthen the decision of the French masses to maintain their three-years’ compulsory army service, nothing could be so effective as the articles that have been allowed to appear in the German press.”

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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]