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The Ultimatum Plan

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 128th installment in the series.

July 7-9, 1914: The Ultimatum Plan

After receiving promises of German support for their planned war against Serbia, on July 7, 1914 Emperor Franz Josef left for his summer retreat at Bad Ischl while his council of ministers met again in Vienna to consider their options. But first there was one more person who had to be persuaded: the Hungarian Premier Count István Tisza (left).

Wikimedia Commons

As the political leader of the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy, the approval of this elder statesman was indispensable, and it was by no means certain they would get it: The conservative Magyar aristocrats who ran Hungary felt their kingdom already included too many restive Slavs, and as their representative Tisza was bound to oppose any plan that involved annexing Serbian territory. This presented a conundrum, as the Austrians intended to eliminate Serbia as an independent state. So where, exactly, would it go?

Foreign Minister Berchtold (center) hit on a clever solution, promising Tisza that Austria-Hungary would not take any territory for itself; instead, most of Serbia’s lands would be turned over to its neighbors, Bulgaria and Albania, and a puppet government installed for whatever was left (top). This promise may have been disingenuous—after expending blood and treasure, Vienna was unlikely to give up its gains so easily—but it placated the Hungarian premier, who could now reassure his constituents the Empire wasn’t going to absorb any more Slavs.

To accommodate Tisza, Berchtold also gave up his idea of a surprise attack on Serbia, which the Hungarian premier warned would provoke Russia, and agreed to Tisza’s demand that they instead use diplomacy to engineer a plausible pretext for war. Tisza explained his conditions in a letter to Emperor Franz Josef on July 8:

Any such attack on Serbia would, as far as can humanly be foreseen, bring upon the scene the intervention of Russia and with it a world war … Hence in my opinion Serbia should be given the opportunity to avoid war by means of a severe diplomatic defeat, and if war were to result after all, it must be demonstrated before the eyes of all the world that we stand on a basis of legitimate self-defense…

This was the origin of the ultimatum plan, a tricky stratagem intended to make it look like Austria-Hungary sought a peaceful resolution before resorting to force. Basically, Berchtold proposed sending Belgrade an ultimatum with conditions so outrageous the Serbs could never accept them, giving Austria-Hungary the excuse it needed for war. Above all, Berchtold and chief of the general staff Conrad (right) agreed, Austria-Hungary had to avoid being forced into a negotiated solution by the other Great Powers, as it had at the Conference of London. This time, they were going to deal with Serbia once and for all.

One big question remained: Would Russia come to Serbia’s rescue? The Austrians and Germans tried to persuade themselves it wouldn’t for a number of reasons—some more convincing than others. For one thing, they hoped Tsar Nicholas II would refuse to take the side of assassins, especially as several of his predecessors had been murdered. They also guessed that while Russia was arming rapidly, it wasn’t yet prepared for war. Finally, they expected France and Britain to exercise a restraining influence on their ally.

All these assumptions proved false. True, Nicholas II was no friend to regicides, but Serbia had a king of its own and the Russians could always dispute the evidence linking Sarajevo to Serbia. Second, although Russia remained far from her ideal strength, in January and February 1914, the tsar’s ministers concluded they were ready for war with Germany and Austria-Hungary on land. Third, far from exerting a restraining influence, ever since the Second Moroccan Crisis the French had been urging Russia to be more assertive. Finally, the Germans and Austrians failed to appreciate that Russia (having alienated Bulgaria) couldn’t afford to lose Serbia, its sole remaining ally in the Balkans.

In truth, they never quite bought their own arguments anyway. On July 6, the same day Kaiser Wilhelm II assured acting Navy Minister Capelle he “did not anticipate major military complications,” the German undersecretary for foreign affairs, Arthur Zimmerman, told Alexander von Hoyos, the Austro-Hungarian emissary who obtained German backing for war, “Yes, 90 percent probability for a European war if you undertake something against Serbia.” The next day, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg admitted to his friend Kurt Riezler that an attack on Serbia “can lead to a world war,” and Berchtold in Vienna told the council of ministers “he was clear in his own mind that a war with Russia would be the most probable consequence of entering Serbia.” (He later doctored the minutes to say war “might” result.) 

How can we make sense of this strange “double-think,” in which the leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary seemed to hold two contradictory ideas in their minds at the same time? In the end, it may have reflected the sense of fatalism prevailing in both capitals. Berlin and Vienna clearly hoped Russia would stay out of a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia—but also rationalized that if Russia took Serbia’s side, it would be an opportunity to settle accounts with the great eastern empire before she grew any stronger. In the same vein, they hoped France and Britain wouldn’t come to Russia’s aid—but if they did, it was merely proof Germany and Austria-Hungary were victims of a conspiracy of encirclement, which they had to break through before it was too late.

German fear of encirclement always loomed in the background. On July 7, 1914, Riezler recorded his impressions of his talk with Bethmann-Hollweg:

The secret reports that he shares with me present an alarming picture. He regards the Anglo-Russian naval staff talks … as very serious, the last link in the chain … Russia’s military power growing fast; their strategic construction [of railroads] in Poland making them unstoppable. Austria grows ever weaker and more immobile … The future belongs to Russia, which grows and grows into an ever greater weight pressing down on our chest. 

In this context, following years of mounting anxiety and confrontation, the decision for war emerged with inexorable logic and developed an irresistible momentum all its own; the hand of Fate was beginning to move, and as Bethmann-Hollweg warned Riezler, the outcome would mean “the overthrow of everything that exists.”

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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