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Erik Sass

Mixed Messages from Italy

Original image
Erik Sass

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 107th installment in the series. 

March 10-11, 1914: Mixed Messages from Italy

In the opening months of the Great War, Germany and Austria-Hungary were enraged by the failure of their supposed ally Italy to come to their aid, compounded by an even greater betrayal when the Italians sided with their enemies and attacked Austria-Hungary in May 1915 (shown above). Public opinion excoriated the “treacherous Latins” for this “stab in the back,” but as always the truth was more complicated.

Italy first joined Germany and Austria-Hungary in the defensive Triple Alliance in 1882, mostly out of fear of France, which had invaded Italy under Francis I, Louis XIV, and Napoleon Bonaparte; annexed Corsica in 1768; stationed troops in Rome and annexed Italian-speaking Savoy and Nice under Napoleon III; and more recently opposed Italy’s colonial ambitions in North Africa. But when France renounced new territorial claims and formed a closer relationship with Italy’s friend Britain, Italian motives for adhering to the Alliance faded.

Italy also had unfinished business with her “ally” Austria-Hungary, which held Italian-speaking territory around Trent and Trieste. The heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, cherished hopes of recovering Lombardy and Venice, lost to the new Italian state in 1859 and 1866, and Italian nationalists deplored Austria-Hungary’s oppression of its Italian minority, especially the recent Hohenlohe Decrees banning Italians from public office in August 1913. Italy and Austria-Hungary were also competing for influence in the Balkans.

In short, many Italians considered Austria-Hungary the real enemy, prompting Italian diplomats to hedge their bets. In 1902, Italy and France signed a secret non-aggression pact as well as a colonial agreement for North Africa, assigning Libya to Italy and Morocco to France. The Italians also insisted on adding a clause to the Triple Alliance treaty specifying that Italy would never have to fight Britain. And in 1909, Italy struck a deal with Russia aiming to preserve the status quo in the Balkans, which was obviously directed against Austria-Hungary.

But in typical fashion, Italian diplomats mostly kept their military colleagues in the dark about these other agreements, since none technically involved new military commitments. As far as Italian generals were concerned, Italy’s main obligations were still to its Triple Alliance partners. Thus in March 1914, the chief of the Italian general staff, Albert Pollio, dispatched General Luigi Zuccari, the commander of Italy’s Third Army, to Berlin to hammer out plans for military cooperation in the event of a hypothetical French attack on Germany. 

At a conference on March 10 and 11, 1914, Zuccari and the German quartermaster general, Major General Count George von Waldersee, agreed on a war plan calling for the transportation of three Italian army corps and two cavalry divisions through Austria to the Rhine, where they would reinforce German troops facing the French invaders. Meanwhile Italy would attack France directly across their shared frontier, forcing the French to divert troops from the main attack on Germany. In return (although the generals didn’t discuss this), Italy could probably expect territorial rewards in Nice, Savoy, Corsica, North Africa, and the Balkans.

This plan was so radically at odds with Italy’s actual actions just a few months later, it’s tempting to conclude it must be evidence of Italian duplicity. But Pollio, the conservative chief of the general staff, was a staunch supporter of the Triple Alliance, and Zuccari was simply following his orders. Again, as professional soldiers they didn’t consider diplomacy their concern: The fact that Italy’s civilian government was more likely to go to war against Austria-Hungary than for her was irrelevant to their duty as officers.

Events were about to reveal the basic dysfunction in the Triple Alliance. As Austria-Hungary and Germany pushed for war in July 1914, Italian diplomats correctly pointed out that the treaty was defensive in character, and therefore didn’t apply if Austria-Hungary provoked a broader conflict by attacking Serbia. Austria-Hungary also neglected to consult Italy before delivering the fatal ultimatum to Serbia (in July 1913 the Italian foreign minister, San Giuliano, had warned Austria-Hungary not to embark on any Balkan adventures without consulting Italy first, so there was no excuse for keeping Italy out of the loop one year later). Finally, in July 1914, Austria-Hungary also seemed to be breaking its promise to give Italy “compensation” for any territorial gains Austria-Hungary might make in the Balkans.

In other words, despite the public outcry in Germany and Austria-Hungary over Italian “treachery,” the fact was Italy had absolutely no obligation to join their war under the defensive Triple Alliance treaty—and beneath all their feigned indignation, top officials in Berlin and Vienna knew it. On March 13, 1914, the chief of the German general staff, Helmut von Moltke, advised his Austrian counterpart, Conrad von Hötzendorf: “At present… we must begin the war as if the Italians were not to be expected at all.”

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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]