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How Archduke Ferdinand Spent His Final Days

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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 124th installment in the series. 

June 24, 1914: The Archduke’s Forebodings

While fact and fiction often blend in retrospect, according to various accounts in his final days, Archduke Franz Ferdinand expressed forebodings about his journey to Bosnia to observe the empire’s annual military maneuvers, scheduled for June 26 and 27, 1914, followed by an official visit to Sarajevo on June 28.

After leaving his estate at Konopischt ,the Archduke and his wife Sophie traveled together as far as Vienna, where they would part ways, with the Archduke heading to Trieste to board the new battleship Viribus Unitis (indulging his naval obsession, below) while Sophie continued to Bosnia by rail. But there were a few minor mishaps along the way.

On June 24, one of the axles on their private carriage began overheating, forcing them to switch to another carriage and provoking a sarcastic remark from the acerbic Archduke: “Well, well, this journey is getting off to a really promising start… You see, that’s the way it starts. At first the carriage running hot, then a murder attempt in Sarajevo and finally, if all that doesn’t get anywhere, an explosion on board the Viribus.” Later, on the way to Trieste, the electric lights in the Archduke’s carriage failed and the servants brought out candles, prompting him to ask one of his attendants: “How do you find this lighting? Like a grave isn’t it?”

Apparently these weren’t his first premonitions. According to his nephew Karl (who would become the last emperor of Austria-Hungary in 1916), in May Franz Ferdinand had confided: “I know I shall soon be murdered. In this desk are papers that concern you. When that happens, take them, they are for you.” A superstitious man, the Archduke also noted that the family crypt at their estate in Arstetten had recently been completed.

But through it all he was resolved not to live in fear. During a previous visit to Trieste, he dismissed worries about Italian assassins: “We are at all times in God’s hands. Look, some rogue could have a go at me now, coming out of that brushwood. Worry and caution paralyze life.”

Serbian Government Dissolved, King Peter Steps Down

As the plotters made their final preparations in Sarajevo, the neighboring Kingdom of Serbia was in political turmoil following an abortive military coup. After dissolving his cabinet on June 2, on June 24 Prime Minister Nikola Pašić called for new elections for parliament, which he hoped would confirm public support for his policies, including his attempts to put the army in its place. This meant he would have to devote the next two months to campaigning in the countryside, but the energetic elder statesman felt up to it (as it happened the elections were canceled following the outbreak of hostilities). It also meant there was only a caretaker government in place to handle the coming crisis.

Indeed, even the monarchy was in a state of flux: on June 24 King Peter, who was accused of siding with the military faction during the coup attempt, stepped down (supposedly on grounds of poor health, but probably under Russian pressure) in favor of his son, the Crown Prince Alexander, who would now serve as regent. However Peter would return to lead the battered Serbian army, along with huge numbers of civilian refugees, as they fled the attacking Central Powers during the horrible retreat of late 1915.

Royal Navy Pays a Friendly Visit to Germany

In 1913 and 1914, it seemed like relations between Britain and Germany, long strained by Kaiser Wilhelm II’s determination to challenge British naval supremacy, might finally be on the mend. Germany had tacitly agreed to accept British superiority on the seas, and Britain was accommodating Germany with colonial agreements and a deal on railroad construction in the Middle East.

Topical Press Agency, via 

To demonstrate the new friendly relations, the Germans invited the Royal Navy to participate in the Kiel Regatta (above), an annual naval exhibition and sailing competition hosted by the Kaiser at the port city of Kiel in northern Germany. On June 23, 1914, the British Second Battle Squadron dropped anchor in the harbor at Kiel, kicking off a week of festivities when officers and sailors from the two navies fraternized (occasionally to excess). Although First Lord of the Navy Winston Churchill didn’t end up attending, he was hopeful that the regatta might be a symbolic turning point in Anglo-German relations.

Not everyone was so optimistic. The June 1914 regatta was especially significant because it celebrated the opening of the newly deepened Kiel Canal across the foot of the Danish peninsula (Jutland), which would allow the German High Seas Fleet to shuttle back and forth between the Baltic Sea and North Sea without fear of interception by the Royal Navy. In 1908 Admiral Jackie Fisher, the architect of the modern Royal Navy, predicted that Germany would launch its war with Britain in the summer of 1914, following the completion of the canal.

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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]