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New York Tribune via the Library of Congress

The Assassins Cross the Border

Original image
New York Tribune via the Library of Congress

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 120th installment in the series.

May 28-June 3, 1914: “Militarism Run Stark Mad”

As May 1914 drew to a close, two years after the sinking of the Titanic the world was gripped by news of yet another horrific maritime disaster—but developments behind the scenes foreshadowed something even worse, as a high-ranking American diplomat warned President Wilson that Europe was on the brink of a terrible cataclysm … and Germany’s top general hoped for exactly that.

The Empress of Ireland Sinks

In the early morning hours of May 29, 1914, the RMS Empress of Ireland, a Canadian Pacific Steamship Company liner on the Quebec-Liverpool route, was traveling northeast in the St. Lawrence River towards the Gulf of St. Lawrence when she was rammed amid heavy fog by a Norwegian coal carrier, the Storstad, heading in the opposite direction. The Storstad survived, but the 570-foot-long Empress of Ireland sank within 15 minutes of the collision, which took place around 2 a.m.

The accident occurred just a few miles from the town of Rimouski, Quebec, in a busy waterway plied by other vessels which hurried to the rescue, but the toll was still staggering: out of a total manifest of 1477 passengers and crew, 1012 were drowned, including 134 children—putting the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in the same grisly “1000+” hall of infamy as the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, when 1512 perished in the icy waters of the mid-Atlantic.

Like the Titanic, a disproportionate number of the victims in the Empress of Ireland sinking were poor “third class” passengers traveling below decks in “steerage"—and again, like the Titanic, many of these died needlessly, although for different reasons. The Empress of Ireland was provided with enough lifeboats—a positive legacy of the Titanic disaster—but half of these couldn’t be used be lowered as the ship listed to one side very quickly as it sank, probably because many passengers had opened their portholes to let in fresh air (in violation of regulations), allowing water to flood in even faster.

And like the Titanic, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland foreshadowed the terrible toll of the U-boat campaign against Allied and neutral shipping in the looming Great War, including the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, when 1198 passengers and crew lost their lives. And the Lusitania was just one of some 5000 Allied and neutral merchant vessels sunk by German and Austrian U-boats from 1914 to 1918, resulting in the deaths of around 15,000 crew and a similar number of civilian and military passengers.

“Militarism Run Stark Mad”

Wikimedia Commons

While the world was fixated on the Empress of Ireland sinking, behind the scenes diplomats were frantically trying to defuse European tensions amid mounting fears of a continental war. One of the most famous last-ditch attempts was the mission of Colonel Edward M. House (right), dispatched to Europe by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (left) as an unofficial envoy in the hopes of reconciling rivals before it was too late.

As the personal emissary of the leader of the great Republic across the sea, House was received with due respect but also understandable curiosity by European diplomats and politicians who wondered what, exactly, he hoped to achieve. The general goal was certainly ambitious: Wilson and House believed the U.S., with its economic strength and lack of direct involvement in European affairs, could use its leverage to help initiate a new era of trust-building in the Old World. But the details remained rather vague.

House suggested that the three “Anglo-Saxon” powers—Britain, the U.S., and Germany—ought to divide the world up into spheres of commercial influence, creating a new world order that would guarantee Germany her long-coveted “place in the sun.” Of course there were some problems with House’s plan, beyond his sketchy racial taxonomy (classifying Germany as “Anglo-Saxon” was a stretch, even by the flexible standards of racial theorists like Houston Stewart Chamberlain). For one thing it left out France and Russia, both established world powers, as well as Japan, the rising power in Asia.

But the real historical import of House’s mission was his insight into the current situation in Europe. His letter to Wilson from Berlin on May 29, 1914, was alarming indeed:

The situation is extraordinary. It is militarism run stark mad. Unless someone acting for you can bring about a different understanding, there is some day to be an awful cataclysm. No one in Europe can do it. There is too much hatred, too many jealousies. Whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria.

House’s prediction that the Triple Entente would start the war reflected American distrust of Britain and France, suspected of harboring colonial ambitions in the New World, and aversion to Russia, a despotic absolute monarchy. But House also raised red flags about Germany, warning British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey that in Berlin “the air seemed full of the clash of arms, of readiness to strike.”

“If Only Things Would Boil Over”

Wikimedia Commons

House was absolutely right, judging by a private remark made by the German chief of the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, to a retired German diplomat, Baron Hermann von Eckardstein, just two days later, on June 1, 1914. “If only things would boil over,” Moltke remarked wistfully, adding: “We are ready; the sooner, the better for us.”

Moltke’s statement reflected the volatile mix of short-term confidence and long-term desperation prevailing in Berlin and Vienna. Just a few weeks before Moltke (left) had expressed the same view to the Austrian chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf (right), in a private meeting at a hotel in the resort town of Karlsbad, Bohemia (now Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic). Conrad and Moltke agreed in their basic assessment: Germany and Austria-Hungary were ready for war with Russia and France now, but before long the balance of forces would begin to tilt permanently against them, as Russia implemented its Great Military Program and France started to benefit from increased manpower thanks to the Three-Year Service Law. Moltke warned Conrad: “If we delay any longer, the chances of success will be diminished; as far as manpower is concerned we cannot enter into a competition with Russia.”

Similarly, a week after the Karlsbad meeting Moltke told Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow “there was no alternative to waging a preventive war in order to defeat the enemy as long as we could still more or less pass the test.” And Moltke’s deputy, General Georg von Waldersee, wrote that Germany had “no reason whatever to avoid” war and in fact a very good chance “to conduct a great European war quickly and victoriously.” The conclusion was inescapable: if Germany and Austria-Hungary were going to fight Russia and France, it had to happen soon. Of course a suitable pretext would have to be found.

The Assassins Cross the Border

Wikimedia Commons

Events were already in motion that would provide Moltke and Conrad the very excuse they were looking for. On May 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip and several of his co-conspirators set out from the Serbian capital of Belgrade on their final journey to Sarajevo, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province Bosnia, where they planned to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones.

Princip (left) and his fellow plotters, Nedeljko Čabrinović (center) and Trifun Grabež (right), had received training with pistols from Milan Ciganović, an employee of the Serbian state railroad and associate of Major Vojislav Tankosić, who in turn was the right-hand man to Dragutin Dimitrijević (codename Apis) the chief of Serbian military intelligence and leader of Unity or Death, otherwise known as the Black Hand.

Serbia’s civilian government wasn’t totally in the dark about the plot to kill Franz Ferdinand: by late May 1914, Prime Minister Nikola Pašić (who was currently locked in a power struggle with Dimitrijević) had caught wind of the conspiracy, perhaps via Ciganović, who apparently served as an informer for Pašić inside the Black Hand. Pašić was worried enough to inform his cabinet, and tried to disrupt the plot by ordering officers in the Serbian frontier guard to apprehend the plotters when they tried to cross the border into Austrian Bosnia. Pašić also instructed the Serbian ambassador to Vienna, Jovan Jovanović, to ask the Austrians to cancel the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo.

But both measures were doomed to fail. The Black Hand had already infiltrated the frontier guard and on the evening of May 31 to June 1, 1914, Princip and Grabež crossed the border with the help of Rade Grbić, an officer in the frontier guard who ferried them across the River Drina, at one point hiding them on an island popular with smugglers. They were followed not long after by Čabrinović, who crossed separately and met up with Princip and Grabež in the Bosnian town of Tuzla on June 3; all three finally arrived in Sarajevo on June 4.  Meanwhile it’s not clear if Jovanović—a radical Pan-Serb who may have been mixed up with the Black Hand himself—ever delivered the warning to Vienna as instructed. If he did, he was obviously ignored by the proud Austrians.

The Sarajevo murder would find Serbia totally unprepared for conflict: On June 2, 1914, Prime Minister Pašić and his cabinet resigned at the urging of Serbia’s King Peter, who was trying to forestall a military coup by Dimitrijević and his fellow ultranationalists, and on June 24 King Peter himself would step down in favor of Crown Prince Alexander. Meanwhile the Serbian army was in disarray, exhausted and overextended following hard fighting in the Balkan Wars. On June 2, 1914 the Greek military attaché in Belgrade asked Crown Prince Alexander about the possibility of Serbian help in another war against Ottoman Empire, and summarized the gloomy reply: “The Serbs lack everything. They have no ammunition, no artillery, no rifles. They have nothing at all and even if they were to mobilize, there would be no response to the call-up.”

“Calm and Quiet – Perfect Peace”

On June 3, 1914, Mildred Aldrich—an American journalist and writer who had just moved to the rural French village of Huiry, overlooking the River Marne—wrote to her friend explaining her decision to leave Paris: “I have come to feel the need of calm and quiet – perfect peace.” With modest pride she noted her village “is in that district between Paris and Meaux little known to the ordinary traveler… these are all little villages of which you may never have heard. No guidebook celebrates them.” A few months later Aldrich’s idyllic retreat would provide a ringside seat to the greatest battle in history.

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
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!

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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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