CLOSE
Original image
Getty Images
entertainment
arrow

French Finalize War Plan with Fatal Flaws

Original image
Getty Images

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 115th installment in the series.

May 1, 1914: French Finalize War Plan with Fatal Flaws

In April 1913, the chief of the French general staff, Joseph Joffre, presented the basic elements of his plan for war with Germany to the Supreme War Council. In its broad outlines, Plan XVII (so-called because it was the seventeenth war plan adopted by the council) envisaged a vigorous offensive by four French armies ranged along the Franco-German frontier, with one army held in reserve for follow-up attacks. The Supreme War Council approved Plan XVII shortly thereafter, and over the next year Joffre fleshed it out with general directives for each of the five armies. On May 1, 1914, the designated commanders received their final orders under Plan XVII.

Military Photos

Furthest south, the French First Army under General Auguste Dubail would strike east from an area straddling the headwaters of the Moselle River, near Epinal, into southern Alsace, one of the “lost provinces” annexed by Germany following its victory over France in 1871. Meanwhile, the Second Army under Noël Édouard de Castelnau, starting around Nancy, would move northeast into Lorraine, the other “lost province,” in the general direction of Sarrebrücke. This thrust would be supported by the Third Army under Pierre Ruffey, heading due east from Verdun towards Metz. Meanwhile the Fourth Army under Fernand de Langle de Cary would be held in reserve west of St. Mihiel as a “masse de manoeuvre,” to be thrown into battle to exploit openings created by the advance of the Second and Third Armies, as Joffre saw fit. Finally the Fifth Army, under General Charles Lanrezac, was left alone in the north to face whatever German forces might advance through Belgium, to be followed by an advance into Luxembourg and maybe even Germany itself.

Riboulet

As this frequently ambiguous wording suggests, Plan XVII was not a detailed plan of campaign, but rather a general scheme for mobilization and concentration that also contemplated some basic opening moves. Joffre, who fully realized that war is unpredictable, intended Plan XVII to be flexible, allowing improvisation to respond to the enemy’s movements. But even in outline this strategy had fatal flaws.

First of all, Joffre—like most other European generals of his day—believed that bold offensives were the key to victory, enshrining relentless all-out attack (offensive à outrance) as a sacred principle; according to this view, troops could overcome any obstacle as long as they were sufficiently imbued with intangible qualities of spirit and will. Thus Plan XVII opened, “Whatever the circumstance, it is the Commander-in-Chief’s intention to advance with all forces united to the attack of the German armies,” and the French infantry regulations adopted on April 20, 1914 declared that French troops would achieve the best results by rushing the enemy and relying on their bayonets for hand-to-hand combat, adding, “the French Army has returned to its old traditions, and no longer recognizes any law in the conduct of operations but that of the offensive.” But the French, along with the rest of Europe, were about to learn that their “law” held no sway on the modern battlefield, where machine guns, barbed wire, rapid-fire rifles, and heavy artillery made mincemeat of men’s valor.

Even worse, Plan XVII assumed that any German attack through Belgium would be confined to the country’s southeast corner, advancing on Sedan in northern France, the scene of the decisive Prussian victory in 1870. This assumption was questioned by Joseph Gallieni, the original commander of the Fifth Army designated to face the Germans in Belgium, who correctly predicted that their invasion would reach much further north and west, passing by Namur and Dinant, allowing them to threaten French forces with a huge envelopment from behind; however Joffre refused to shift the French armies west to face the threat, and Gallieni eventually resigned in protest. Tellingly, Joffre’s first choice to replace Gallieni, General Alexis Hargon, refused to command the Fifth Army on the same grounds.

Charles Lanrezac, who ended up accepting the command, was no more confident in Plan XVII’s strategy of concentration, echoing Gallieni’s suggestion that Fifth Army and at least some other French forces should be deployed further west along the Belgian border to counter a German invasion in depth. Lanrezac also criticized the decision to send Fifth Army into southeast Belgium, noting in a letter to Joffre, “Clearly, once the Fifth Army is committed to an offensive in the direction of Neufchateau it will be unable to parry a German offensive further north.” 

Considering his earlier obstinacy towards Gallieni and Hargon, it’s highly unlikely that Joffre would have given Lanrezac’s concerns any hearing, even in peacetime. But by the time he received Lanrezac’s letter, on August 1, 1914, war was upon them and it was too late for revisions anyway. In the weeks that followed Joffre’s stubborn refusal to face the facts—especially evidence of a massive German invasion through northern and central Belgium—would bring France to the brink of disaster.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Opening Ceremony
fun
arrow
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
Original image
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:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES