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WWI Centennial: Irish Troubles

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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 119th installment in the series.

May 25, 1914: Irish Troubles

In the tortuous history of Anglo-Irish relations, 100 years isn’t really that long a time—so it’s no surprise Britain, Ireland, and Northern Ireland are still dealing with the repercussions of decisions made a century ago.

English involvement in Ireland dates back to the 12th century, when the Norman invaders who conquered England in 1066 turned their attention to neighboring Ireland, eventually establishing the feudal “Lordship of Ireland” in 1171. But many Normans intermarried and “went native,” and English authority was patchy at best until the second English conquest of Ireland, begun by Henry VIII in the 1530s and brutally completed by his daughter Elizabeth I in the Nine Years’ War from 1594 to 1603.

By this time, the fight had become mixed up with religion, as most English were now Anglican, Puritan, or otherwise Protestant (loosely defined) while the Irish for the most part remained loyal Catholics. To stamp out Irish Catholic resistance in the island’s troublesome northern province of Ulster, Elizabeth’s successor James I created the Plantation of Ulster, a colony settled by Protestants from England and Scotland—the latter mostly Presbyterians who eventually became known as the “Ulster Scots” or “Scots-Irish.”

Across Ireland, brutal repression, religious discrimination, and rapacious English landlords provoked uprisings on numerous occasions, including 1641, 1798, 1803, and 1867. Meanwhile, the horrific Irish Potato Famine in the second half of the 1840s, when at least a million Irish peasants starved to death, stirred sympathy in England for the plight of poor Irish, and the rise of the British Liberal Party under William Gladstone laid the groundwork for reforms in Ireland.

Early reforms bolstered tenants’ rights and ended the requirement that Catholics pay tithes to the Anglican Church in Ireland—but in the decades that followed it became clear many Irish wanted greater autonomy or even independence. The issue of “Irish Home Rule,” or self-government for Ireland, split the Liberal Party in two in 1886, as the “Liberal Unionist Party” aligned with the Conservatives led by Lord Salisbury, who also opposed to self-government for Ireland.

However, the Liberal Unionists eventually ended up splitting (again) over free trade and tariffs, and the Liberals returned to power in 1906, setting the scene for a final showdown over Irish Home Rule. Now the scene moved to the House of Lords, the aristocratic upper house of Parliament, which still wielded veto power over the democratically elected House of Commons. This feudal holdover allowed the House of Lords to veto the Second Irish Home Rule Bill for Irish Home Rule, which the (mostly Conservative) Lords felt threatened the very fabric of the United Kingdom.

But the Lords overplayed their hand and were finally stripped of their veto following their rejection of a Liberal budget including welfare measures with broad popular support (the “People’s Budget”) in 1909. The Lords’ veto of the budget, which had passed the Commons by an overwhelming margin, was the final insult that provoked the Liberals in the House of Commons – with support from Irish nationalists—to ask the recently enthroned King George V to step in and bring the Conservative-dominated Lords to heel.

George V, bowing to the popular will, warned the Conservative members of the House of Lords that if they didn’t pass the Parliament Act, acknowledging the constitutional supremacy of the House of Commons, he would use his royal prerogative to flood the House of Lords with hundreds of new Liberal peers—who would then pass the Parliament Act anyway. Presented with this fait accompli, in 1911 the House of Lords caved and yielded their right of veto. Under the new rules the Lords could reject any bill passed by the Commons twice, but if the Commons passed the bill a third time they could override the Lords and send it directly to the king.

That’s exactly what happened with the Third Irish Home Rule Bill: after the House of Commons passed the bill granting Ireland self-government in 1912, the House of Lords predictably rejected it in January 1913, forcing the Liberals to reintroduce the bill in 1913, whereupon the Lords rejected it yet again. Finally, on May 25, 1914, the House of Commons passed the bill for the third time and sent it to George V, sidestepping the House of Lords. At long last, it looked like Irish Home Rule was about to become a reality. 

But this was hardly the end of the matter. The Protestant population of Northern Ireland bitterly opposed Irish independence and feared that without British protection they would be persecuted by Ireland’s Catholic majority. Soon both sides began arming themselves in preparation for a civil war. The main Protestant militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force (above), claimed to have 100,000 members, all prepared to fight Irish Home Rule and keep Ulster in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile the Irish nationalists organized a rival force, the Irish Volunteers, committed to defending Ireland’s hard-won self-government. 

Even worse, the British government was apparently powerless to restore order in Northern Ireland, because British officers—mostly Protestant and staunchly patriotic—refused to act against the pro-British Protestant “Unionists” in Ulster, some of whom were former colleagues from the British army. In fact in March 1914 a number of senior British officers threatened to resign if ordered to move against the Ulster Volunteers, in what became known as the Curragh Incident or Curragh Mutiny (after the main British army camp west of Dublin).  

For professional officers in a European army to threaten mutiny in peacetime was an astonishing—and deeply embarrassing—state of affairs, reflecting the depths of division in British society over Irish Home Rule. Thus in the final months of peace the British government, press, and public were wholly absorbed by the situation in Ireland, where it seemed civil war might break out at any moment, and Parliament scrambled to find some sort of compromise that would prevent bloodshed. Ultimately the solution they settled on—a partition of Ireland—simply deferred the problem, as Irish nationalists still considered Ulster part of Ireland, and Ulster Protestants still considered Ireland part of the United Kingdom. 

The situation remained tense and uncertain into the summer, culminating in the Buckingham Palace Conference of July 21-24, 1914, when George V called representatives from both sides to meet in an effort to hammer out an agreement that would allow Irish Home Rule while respecting the rights of the Protestants in Northern Ireland. But the conference proved fruitless and soon the Irish question seemed less pressing, as all eyes turned to Europe following the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, 1914.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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