CLOSE
Original image
entertainment
arrow

Missed Signals

Original image

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons (1, 2, 3), Austro-Hungarian-Army.co.uk

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 130th installment in the series.

July 16-18, 1914: Missed Signals

By July 14, 1914, Austria-Hungary had decided to attack Serbia and enlisted the support of her ally Germany, all under a cloak of secrecy meant to keep Europe’s other Great Powers unaware, unprepared, and ultimately uninvolved. But the news leaked thanks to the German ambassador at Rome, Baron Flotow, who hinted what was going on to Italian Foreign Minister San Giuliano on July 11. San Giuliano telegraphed the news to Italy’s ambassadors across Europe, and the message was apparently intercepted by Russian spies, who soon spread the word. In short, the secret plan was no longer secret, at least in elite diplomatic circles, meaning there was still a good chance to avert disaster—but tragically, during this crucial period European diplomats on all sides missed important signals. The cost of their mistakes would be tallied in millions of lives.

Brushing Off the Russians

On July 16, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, Nikolai Shebeko, reported:

Information reaches me that the Austro-Hungarian Government… intends to make certain demands on Belgrade, claiming that there is a connection between the question of the Sarajevo outrage and the Pan-Serb agitation within the confines of the Monarchy. In so doing it reckons on the non-intervention of Russia… It would seem to me desirable that… the Vienna cabinet should be informed how Russia would react…

Sazonov didn’t see Shebeko’s telegram until July 18, when he returned from a brief vacation at his country estate, but he then summoned Austria-Hungary’s ambassador to St. Petersburg, Count Frigyes Szapáry, to warn him Russia could “in no circumstances agree to any blow to Serbia's independence.” However, Austria-Hungary continued to ignore the Russian warnings, instead heeding the advice of Germany, where the German undersecretary for foreign affairs, Arthur Zimmerman (above, left), expressed confidence Russia was bluffing and would ultimately be restrained by France and Britain.

British Omissions

For this to work, however, France and Britain would first have to know what was happening between Austria-Hungary and Russia. This was another area where key signals were missed—especially by the British government, still distracted by the Irish crisis.

On July 16, the British ambassador to Austria-Hungary, Sir Maurice de Bunsen, reported:

I gather that … a kind of indictment is being prepared against the Serbian government for alleged complicity in the conspiracy … and that Austro-Hungarian Government are in no mood to parley with Serbia, but will insist on immediate unconditional compliance, failing which force will be used. Germany is said to be in complete agreement with this procedure.

Two days later, the British ambassador to Russia, Sir George Buchanan, reported that Sazonov warned him, “Anything in the shape of an Austrian ultimatum at Belgrade could not leave Russia indifferent and she might be forced to take some precautionary military measures.”

These reports from British ambassadors clearly showed that Austria-Hungary and Russia were on a collision course. But Prime Minister Asquith and Foreign Secretary Grey (above, second from left) were reluctant as ever to get embroiled in continental affairs, especially when their attention was focused on the Irish issue. In fact Grey didn’t even meet with the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to London, Count Mensdorff, until July 23—when it was already too late.

Meanwhile, from July 15 to 20, French President Raymond Poincaré and Premier René Viviani were at sea aboard the battleship France, headed for a long-planned conference with Tsar Nicholas II and his ministers in St. Petersburg. Although the French leaders weren’t totally incommunicado, long-distance ship-to-shore radio communications were still patchy (even with the benefit of the powerful Eiffel Tower transmitter), so their ability to get news during this period was limited.

Determined Germans

The British weren’t the only ones ignoring their own ambassadors. The German government had a habit of simply not listening to bad news from foreign countries, especially if the country in question happened to be Britain. Even worse, Berlin often withheld information from its ambassador to London, Prince Lichnowsky (above, second from right), who was viewed as an unreliable “Anglophile.” Nonetheless, on July 18 German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow sent a long message to Lichnowsky secretly explaining that

Austria… intends now to come to a settlement with Serbia and has conveyed this intention to us… We must see to localizing the conflict between Austria and Serbia. Whether this is possible will depend in the first place on Russia and in the second place on the moderating influence of the other members of the Entente…  at bottom Russia is not now ready to strike. France and England will not want war now.

But Lichnowsky replied that Berlin was too optimistic about localizing the conflict: “Hence the chief thing seems to me that the Austrian demands should be worded in such a manner that with some pressure on Belgrade … they will be acceptable, not in such a manner that they will necessarily lead to war…” His forecast was correct, but the suggestion to soften the ultimatum showed he was still in the dark about the true nature of the plan: Vienna wanted Belgrade to reject the ultimatum, because Vienna wanted war.

Ostrich Austrians

Last but not least, the Austrians themselves were displaying some ostrich-like behavior by sticking their heads in the sand about Italy. Berlin was urging Vienna to cede Austria’s ethnic Italian territories of Trentino and Trieste to get Rome to join them, or at least remain neutral, and cautioned that Italy might join their enemies if they didn’t. But Emperor Franz Josef wasn’t inclined to start dismembering his empire—that was kind of the whole point—and Vienna breezily dismissed a series of Italian warnings conveyed by German diplomats.

On July 16, the German ambassador to Rome, Flotow, reported to Foreign Secretary Jagow in Berlin: “I regard it as hopeless if Austria, in view of the danger, does not pull herself together and realize that if she means to take any territory [from Serbia] she must give Italy compensation. Otherwise Italy will attack her in the rear.” Increasingly alarmed, on July 18 Jagow instructed the German ambassador to Vienna, Tschirschky, to advise the Austrians (again) “that an Austrian attack on Serbia would not only meet with a most unfavorable reception in Italy but would probably encounter direct opposition.”

However, Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Berchtold insisted—probably disingenuously—that Austria-Hungary had no territorial ambitions in Serbia, and therefore owed Italy nothing in the way of compensation. He was also receiving more positive reports from the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Rome, Kajetan von Mérey (who had suffered a nervous breakdown after the assassination of the Archduke, and was only now pulling himself together—above, right). Mérey was sanguine in his message of July 18, admitting Italy would be angry but predicting it wouldn’t come to a fight: thus, “I do not in any sense plead for previous consultations and negotiations with the Italian cabinet.”

In truth, Italian Foreign Minister San Giuliano was also partly to blame. An elder statesman, he treated foreign policy as his personal bailiwick and often made decisions without consulting other members of the Italian government. After learning the basic outlines of the Austrian plan on July 11, he decided to use the mounting crisis to extract territorial concessions from Austria-Hungary, rather than coming right out and telling Vienna to back off, as he had a year before. Even worse, he never informed Prime Minister Salandra (a foreign policy novice) about the July 1913 precedent, so Salandra didn’t realize Italy had the option of telling Austria-Hungary not to go it alone.

Disturbed Serbs

If there was one country that heard the message loud and clear, it was Serbia herself. As early as July 15, the Serbian ambassador to Vienna, Jovan Jovanović, warned Belgrade that Austria-Hungary was preparing something big, and on July 18, Prime Minister Pašić (currently a political “lame duck,” but still technically in charge) ordered Serbia’s army to begin calling up reservists. The same day Slavko Gruić, secretary general of the Serbian foreign ministry, assured the unforgettably named British charge d’affaires in Belgrade, Dayrell Crackanthorpe, that “Serbia would not stand alone. Russia would not remain quiet if Serbia were wantonly attacked… Under present conditions a war between a Great Power and a Balkan state must inevitably … lead to a European conflagration.”

Ordinary Folks Smell Smoke

While diplomats on all sides did their best to project calm, by mid-July even some “ordinary” (albeit particularly perceptive) people were noticing something was afoot. On July 14, the French newspaper Le Figaro noted that newspapers in Austria-Hungary were whipping up public opinion against Serbia, and two days later Mildred Aldrich, an American journalist and author who’d just moved to a small village east of Paris, wrote in a letter to a friend: “Alas! I find that I cannot break myself of reading the newspapers, and reading them eagerly.  It is all the fault of that nasty affair in Servia…  It is a nasty outlook.  We are simply holding our breaths here.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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!

Original image
iStock
Sponsor Content: BarkBox
arrow
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
Original image
iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES