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Tampico Incident Brings U.S., Mexico to Brink of War

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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 111th installment in the series.

April 9, 1914: Tampico Incident Brings U.S., Mexico to Brink of War

Anyone who expresses amazement that China and Japan might come to blows over a couple of tiny, barren rocks would do well to consider the Tampico Incident, when the United States and Mexico almost went to war over nothing. Well, almost nothing.

By April 1914, the Mexican Revolution had degenerated into a civil war between multiple factions including the beleaguered federal government under Victoriano Huerta, peasant revolutionaries rallying to Emiliano Zapata, and the “Constitutionalists” led by Venustiano Carranza. On the east coast of Mexico, Carranza’s forces were laying siege to the port city of Tampico, in Tamaulipas state, which was held by a smaller force of federal troops as well as some state troops. Meanwhile U.S. President Woodrow Wilson dispatched a small naval force under Rear Admiral Henry T. Mayo to protect American citizens and property, including investments in the local oil industry. Although the U.S. government refused to recognize Huerta’s regime, the American forces stayed out of the fight and the situation remained calm—at first. 

On April 9, 1914, the commander of the U.S.S. Dolphin sent nine sailors ashore in a whaleboat to pick up some cans of fuel oil from a warehouse in Tampico, as previously agreed with the Mexican federal commander. However, as the sailors were transferring the cans to the whaleboat, they were stopped by Tamaulipas state troops, who hadn’t been informed of the plan.

After a brief but tense armed standoff (naturally no one on either side spoke the other side’s language) the Mexican state troops arrested the U.S. sailors, including two who were ordered out of the whaleboat at gunpoint—technically, a violation of U.S. sovereignty, as naval vessels are considered national soil. The sailors were then paraded through the streets of Tampico to the headquarters of the federal commander, who recognized the mistake and ordered them released. Following a bit more confusion, and an official complaint by Mayo and the U.S. consul, the sailors were returned to the Dolphin with no harm done.

Or so it seemed. While the Mexican federal commander apologized for the mistake, he balked at Admiral Mayo’s demand that he raise the U.S. flag over Mexican soil for a 21-gun salute—an obvious affront to Mexican national pride—as restitution for the earlier alleged violation of U.S. sovereignty. Now, the seemingly minor incident started to spiral rapidly—and absurdly—out of control.

Back in Washington, D.C., President Wilson, who openly despised Huerta, claimed that the whole incident was part of a “pattern” of hostile and disrespectful behavior by Mexico, and repeated the demand for a salute to the U.S. flag. Huerta, who openly reciprocated Wilson’s feelings, of course refused, and Wilson in turn rejected Huerta’s counter-offer of a simultaneous salute by U.S. and Mexican troops.

Incredibly, the situation was about to get even worse, as Wilson ordered ships from the U.S. Atlantic and Pacific fleets to Mexican waters and asked Congress for permission to occupy a number of Mexico’s east coast ports, including the key city of Veracruz (but oddly enough not Tampico). On April 21, 1914, U.S. Marines landed in Veracruz and cleared Mexican forces from the city over the next few days, at a cost of 19 American and 150 Mexican dead. Meanwhile, on the west coast, U.S. ships made a show of force in the harbor of Mazatlan.

U.S. forces remained in Veracruz until November 1914, when the dispute was finally settled at the Niagara Falls Conference, but the Tampico Incident foreshadowed further American intervention in Mexico during the Punitive Expedition that attempted, unsuccessfully, to capture Pancho Villa from March 1916 to February 1917. Around this time, the continuing tensions seemed to offer Germany an opportunity to distract the U.S. and prevent it from joining the First World War by embroiling it in a war with Mexico instead, leading to the infamous Zimmerman Telegram—a ham-handed covert initiative that ended up backfiring disastrously.

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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
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]

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