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“The Balkans for the Balkan Peoples”

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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 118th installment in the series.

May 23, 1914: “The Balkans for the Balkan Peoples”

The European alliance system was a major cause of the First World War, but even in the last months of peace it was still far from certain that the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and Britain would hang together in the face of the looming cataclysm, prompting politicians in all three countries to cast doubt on the commitment of their foreign allies.

On May 23, 1914, a right-wing Russian aristocrat named Nikolai Yevgenyevich Markov (above, right) questioned the trustworthiness of France and Britain in a speech to the Duma, predicting that the democratic Western powers would leave the Tsarist Empire in the lurch in a showdown with Germany and Austria-Hungary, embroiling Russia in war only to let her bear the brunt of the fighting.

Markov, an anti-Semitic monarchist who advocated closer relations with authoritarian Germany, pointed out that British interests conflicted with Russian goals in Persia and the Turkish straits, and warned of an impending cataclysm: “Are we not becoming involved in an inevitable war … for no other reason than that we are associated with France and England against Germany and Austria? Is there no practical way out? ... Are the conflicts between Russia and Germany really unavoidable? What is there to divide us and Germany?” 

Of course Markov was perfectly aware of the issue dividing Russia from Germany: the threat posed to Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary by Slavic nationalism in the Balkans, backed by “Pan-Slav” ideologues in Russia. On this subject Markov (a reactionary leery of Pan-Slavism’s liberal, international bent) criticized Russia’s support for Serbia as “Don Quixotian,” adding, “It is time for us to abandon this policy, even though it be called Slavophilism.” Instead of antagonizing Austria-Hungary, he concluded, Russia should focus on reaching an agreement with Germany, “since this is the only way of averting a most terrible war, the consequences of which no one can predict.” 

Markov’s speech required a response from Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov (above, left), who had to reassure Russia’s foreign allies that he had no intention of heeding Markov’s policy suggestions. First of all Sazonov reminded the Duma that France and Britain had backed up Russia during the crises resulting from the Balkan Wars in 1912-1913, helping produce a peaceful outcome, reiterating that “Russia continues to rest on her steadfast alliance with France and on her friendship with England.” As far as recent tensions with Germany, Sazonov blamed nationalist rabble-rousers on both sides, particularly in the press, adding that both governments should try to restrain their newspapers from stirring up trouble.

Finally the foreign minister turned to Markov’s critique of Russian policies in the Balkans. Previously the Russian government had come under fierce attacks from the “Pan-Slavs” for selling out their Slavic cousins in Serbia during the First Balkan War, and Sazonov couldn’t afford to be seen as weak or vacillating on Balkan issues; as a wily politician, he also realized he could take the heat off the government by directing the Pan-Slavs’ anger against Markov.   

Thus Sazonov concluded his speech by affirming the principle, “The Balkans for the Balkan peoples!” This stirring slogan, dating back to at least the nineteenth century, originally summed up the ideal of self-determination that fueled the nationalist revolutions against Ottoman rule in the Balkans. But what, exactly, did the slogan mean now that Serbia and Bulgaria had achieved independence and liberated their kinsmen suffering under Ottoman rule? 

At the very least Sazonov was warning Austria-Hungary not disturb the current balance of power in the Balkans, an area of vital interest for Russia. As Sazonov explained in his memoirs (drawing on the Social Darwinist racial views then in vogue): 

“The Balkan Peninsula for the Balkan peoples” was the formula which comprised the aspirations and aims of Russian policy; it precluded the possibility of the political predominance, and still more of the sovereignty in the Balkans, of a foreign power hostile to Balkan Slavdom and to Russia. The Bosnia-Herzegovina crisis [when Austria annexed the provinces in 1908] revealed with unmistakable clearness the aims of Austro-German policy in the Balkans and laid the foundations for an inevitable conflict between Germanism and Slavism.

However, taking a darker view, the Russian foreign minister’s speech of May 23, 1914, could be interpreted as coded encouragement for  “Pan-Serb” or “Yugoslav” (South Slav) nationalists in Serbia to push ahead with their efforts to liberate their Slavic brothers in Austria-Hungary, triggering the final dissolution of the Dual Monarchy. 

In this case, as in many others, prewar diplomatic history is ambiguous. On a number of occasions Sazonov tried to restrain Serbia—but in February 1913 he privately told the Serbian ambassador that Serbia and Russia would together “lance the Austro-Hungarian abscess.” Ultimately the political gray area where Sazonov and his master Tsar Nicholas II tried to maneuver – between pro-German reactionaries on one side, and pan-Slav ideologues on the other—still left plenty of room for disaster.

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]