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Serbian Government Fears Military Coup

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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 113th installment in the series.

April 19, 1914: Serbian Government Fears Military Coup

In the spring of 1914, the chief of Serbian military intelligence, Dragutin Dimitrijević, was busily spinning several plots at once – as usual. As the head of Unity or Death, an ultranationalist cabal also known as The Black Hand, Dimitrjević (codename “Apis”) was planning the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones, when he visited Sarajevo in June. Meanwhile the ambitious schemer was also trying to organize a coup against Serbia’s civilian government.  

The roots of the rivalry between the Serbian military and its supposed civilian masters went back at least to 1903, when Dimitrijević had helped assassinate the previous Serbian monarch, King Alexander Obrenović, and installed a new royal dynasty led by King Peter Karadjordjević. The civilian government, led by Prime Minister Nikola Pašić, resented Dimitrijević’s power as kingmaker and feared that both King Peter and his son Prince Alexander were in thrall to the spymaster. At the same time some officers complained because Pašić refused to increase military spending.

In 1912-1913, Serbia’s victories in the First and Second Balkan Wars created new sources of conflict.  Unsurprisingly ultranationalist officers bitterly opposed the civilian government’s decision to give up Albania, won by Serbian valor, under compulsion by Austria-Hungary and the other Great Powers. At the same time the conquest of Macedonia almost doubled the kingdom’s size, and before long the civilian government and army were feuding over the question of who would govern the new territory.

Tensions were further heightened by the appointment of Colonel Dušan Stefanović, who was known to oppose the Black Hand, as minister of war in January 1914. Dimitrejivić and other ultranationalist officers believed, probably correctly, that Pašić had appointed Stefanović in preparation for a purge of Black Hand sympathizers from the ranks of the Serbian army.

In this context even a minor event could serve to precipitate an open breach. The final straw was a decree promulgated in March 1914 by the interior minister, Stojan Protić, asserting civilian “priority” over the military in public observances; essentially this meant the civilians got to “go first” in processions, church ceremonies, and other civic events, which offended the officers’ prickly sense of honor.

On Easter Sunday, April 19, 1914, a leading member of the Black Hand, General Damjan Popović, openly defied the government by refusing to cede precedence to civilian administrators at the church celebration in Skopje, Macedonia. Sensing a challenge the civilian government immediately responded by forcing Popović to retire, but his colleagues – equally determined not to give in – thumbed their noses at the civilians by throwing a lavish retirement party, and then electing him president of the Serbian officers’ union. Popović returned to Belgrade and key officers conferred with Dimitrejivić behind closed doors at military headquarters; no one had to guess what the meeting was about.

Having set out to break the influence of The Black Hand, Serbia’s civilian government suddenly found itself facing the prospect of a military coup. Worse still, the opposition parties seemed to be aligning themselves with the army against the Pašić cabinet, and King Peter was also drifting towards the conspirators. Finally in May 1914 Dimitrejivić instructed army officers to overthrow the civil administration in the recently conquered Macedonian territories, which would then serve as a base for a march on Belgrade. The Black Hand newspaper Pijemont warned, “bloody clashes between the army and the police can be expected any minute,” and some officers in Kosovo prepared to wage guerrilla warfare.

But now the tide turned against Apis, as most of his fellow officers (the majority of whom were not in The Black Hand) balked at the risky, obviously unconstitutional plan, which threatened to undermine Serbia’s young democracy. Instead they advocated a constitutional approach, seeking help from King Peter to get the “priority decree” revoked and military rule firmly established in Macedonia. As a result of their complaints Pašić and his cabinet were forced to resign on June 2, which triggered elections to form a new government – leaving Serbia in a state of political flux when the great crisis burst upon the world in July 1914.

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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]