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To the Cliff's Edge

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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 131st installment in the series.

July 19-22, 1914: To the Cliff's Edge

After the period of “missed signals” from July 16 to 18, there was still time to avert a European disaster, provided diplomats worked fast and cooperated. Above all they had to stop Austria-Hungary from delivering its ultimatum to Serbia, or at least get it to soften the conditions enough that Serbia could comply. Once the ultimatum became public there was basically no going back: the rules of prestige forbade Austria-Hungary from “backing down” from a confrontation with a much smaller state.

Vienna Drafts Ultimatum, Berlin Approves

The window of opportunity was closing fast. On July 19, Austria-Hungary’s top leaders gathered secretly at Foreign Minister Berchtold’s home in Vienna to finalize their plans for war and draw up the text of the ultimatum to be presented to Serbia on July 23.

After a preamble accusing the Serbian government of complicity in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the ultimatum set forth eleven demands, most of which Serbia might have been able to accept, including an official disavowal of subversion directed against Austria-Hungary, removal from the Serbian army of any officers involved in subversion, and suppression of anti-Austrian propaganda in the Serbian press.

But there were two demands the Serbs could never accept: the participation of Austro-Hungarian officials in the Serbian investigation of the crime and their “collaboration” in the suppression of subversive movements within Serbia. These conditions threatened Serbia’s sovereignty and, if fulfilled, would effectively reduce it to a vassal state. Any self-respecting Serbian leaders were bound to reject them (or face a revolution) giving Austria-Hungary the pretext it needed to declare war on Serbia.

Two days later Berchtold went to see Emperor Franz Josef at his favorite resort, Bad Ischl, where he presented the draft ultimatum for the monarch’s review and outlined the plan to present it on July 23 with two days for the Serbs to respond. After Franz Josef approved the ultimatum, the text was transmitted to Berlin where German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow also reviewed and approved the wording on the evening of July 22. Everything was ready; the plan just needed to be set in motion.

Intent to Deceive

Deception played a key role in the plan, beginning with the denial of its very existence. In order to give Austria-Hungary a free hand, Berlin would pretend it had not been consulted by Vienna about the decision to attack Serbia – so when Europe’s other Great Powers asked Germany to restrain her ally, the Germans could go through the motions and claim the Austrians were ignoring their requests. If France, Britain, and Russia believed Germany was on their side (rather than secretly egging Austria-Hungary on), hopefully it would create enough confusion and delay so that Austria-Hungary could quickly crush Serbia without anyone else getting involved.

This thinking was actually pretty naïve, as no one believed for a second that Austria-Hungary would undertake a war against Serbia without first consulting her powerful ally. It didn’t take long for the other Great Powers to figure out what was really going on. On July 21, the French ambassador to Berlin, Jules Cambon, wrote Paris warning that “when Austria makes the démarche [move] at Belgrade, which she deems necessary in consequence of the Sarajevo outrage, Germany will support her with her authority and has not any intention to play the role of mediator.”

The next day, July 22, German Foreign Secretary Jagow told Germany’s ambassador to London, Prince Lichnowsky, to tell the British, “we had no knowledge of the Austrian demands and regarded them as an internal question for Austria-Hungary in which we had no competence to intervene.” But the veteran British diplomat Eyre Crowe smelled a rat:

It is difficult to understand the attitude of the German Government. On the face of it, it does not bear the stamp of straightforwardness. If they really are anxious to see Austria kept reasonably in check, they are in the best position to speak at Vienna… They know what the Austrian Government is going to demand, they are aware that these demands will raise a grave issue, and I think with some assurance that they have expressed approval of those demands and promised support, should dangerous complications arise…

Had the British deduced this earlier, they might have been able to avert disaster by warning Berlin that Britain expected Germany to restrain Austria-Hungary and would not stand aside if Germany went to war with Russia and France. But now it was too late.

Poincaré in St. Petersburg

Germany and Austria-Hungary were also counting on disagreement and miscommunication between the members of the Triple Entente. In fact, the Germans believed the crisis offered a chance to “split” the opposing alliance by getting France and Britain to abandon Russia. The way to achieve this was making it look like Russia was the one escalating the crisis, which would give the Western members of the Entente an excuse to bail. However, the Germans overestimated their ability to “control the narrative,” while underestimating French commitment to Russia. In fact French President Raymond Poincaré, who was visiting St. Petersburg (above) along with Premier René Viviani from July 20-23, probably encouraged Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II and Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov to take a firm line against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Despite Vienna’s best efforts to sow confusion by holding the ultimatum until the evening of July 23 (when Poincaré and Viviani would be at sea again), the Austrian plans leaked thanks to the German ambassador to Rome. By the time the French leaders arrived in St. Petersburg on July 20, they and their Russian counterparts likely knew what was going on – although they later went to great lengths to cover up this fact as it could cast doubt on their claim that France was merely a passive victim of German aggression (a key factor in swaying British public opinion to their side).

Indeed, in his history The Russian Origins of the First World War, Sean McMeekin points out a number of suspicious circumstances surrounding the French visit. For one thing there are no official notes or minutes documenting what was discussed – a very strange oversight for such a high-level meeting. Especially odd was the behavior of the French ambassador to St. Petersburg, Maurice Paléologue, who failed to write a single dispatch or diary entry during the visit. And given Poincaré’s previous statements, it seems likely he encouraged the Russians to take a hard line.

Whatever they talked about, the Russians and French definitely had some idea what was coming. On July 21, the German ambassador to St. Petersburg, Friedrich Pourtalès, sent a telegram to Berlin warning Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg that Sazonov...

...told me that he had most alarming reports from London, Paris and Rome, where the attitude of Austria-Hungary was everywhere causing growing concern… If Austria-Hungary was determined to break the peace, she would have to reckon with Europe… Russia would not be able to tolerate Austria-Hungary’s using threatening language to Serbia or taking military measures.

That same day, Poincaré warned the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to St. Petersburg, Frigyes Szapáry, “With a little good will this Serbian business is easy to settle. But it can just as easily become acute. Serbia has some very warm friends in the Russian people. And Russia has an ally, France. There are plenty of complications to be feared!” After this brief exchange Poincaré told Viviani and Paléologue, “Austria has a coup de theatre [big upset] in store for us. Sazonov must be firm and we must back him up.” The following day Sazonov informed the Russian ambassador to Vienna, Nikolai Shebeko, that “France, who is greatly concerned about the turn in which Austro-Serbian relations might take, is not inclined to tolerate a humiliation of Serbia unwarranted by the circumstances.”

By July 22, the sense of looming conflict was widespread — at least in elite circles. At the banquet concluding the French state visit, the Grand Duchess Anastasia (wife of Grand Duke Nikolai, who would shortly take command of the Russian army) told Paléologue, “There’s going to be war. There’ll be nothing left of Austria. You’re going to get back Alsace and Lorraine. Our armies will meet in Berlin. Germany will be destroyed.”

Calling the “Bluff”

Unfortunately, Germany and Austria-Hungary continued to dismiss the Russian and French warnings as bluff. On July 20, a message from the charge d’affaires for the German state of Baden recorded the attitude in the imperial capital of Berlin, where “the opinion prevails that Russia is bluffing and that, if only for reasons of domestic policy, she will think well before provoking a European war, the outcome of which is doubtful.”

Meanwhile, Germany and Austria-Hungary still couldn’t agree whether to bring their supposed ally Italy on board, which would require Austria to cede its own ethnic Italian territories in the Trentino and Trieste. As the clock ticked down, Berlin became increasingly frantic – and Vienna increasingly intransigent – on the Italian issue.

On July 20, Italian Foreign Minister San Giuliano telegraphed Italy’s ambassador to Berlin Bollati (who was just about to leave for a spa cure), “it was to our interest that Serbia should not be crushed and that Austria-Hungary should not be territorially enlarged,” and the following day San Giuliano repeated the warning directly to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Rome, Kajetan von Mérey. But in a meeting with the German ambassador to Vienna, Tschirschky, Austrian Foreign Minister Berchtold innocently stated that Austria-Hungary had no plans to annex any Serbian territory – and therefore no obligation to “compensate” Italy. Of course the Italians weren’t going to buy this, and the Germans knew it.

“The Oppression On My Heart”

As their continent hurtled towards the brink of disaster, ordinary Europeans were distracted by sensational events. In France, July 20 marked the beginning of the murder trial of Madame Caillaux, which would dominate French newspapers even as peace began to unravel. Also on July 20, Britain’s King George V invited rival Irish factions to meet in a futile attempt to resolve the issues surrounding Irish independence; the failure of the Buckingham Palace Conference on July 24 raised the possibility of civil war in Ireland. Elsewhere, the Russian capital of St. Petersburg was paralyzed by a massive strike, while Italy was still recovering from its own “Red Week” demonstrations in June.

But some people already sensed the gathering storm. According to one observer, when Poincaré and Viviani arrived in St. Petersburg on July 20, they were greeted by protestors shouting, “We don’t want war!” and, “Down with Poincaré the warmonger!” That same day Marie van Vorst, an American living in Paris, wrote her friend:

I have the most curious spirit of unrest… I don’t know what it is, but there seems a menace over everything. What can it mean? In all my life I have never had such a strange, strained, tense feeling. Sometimes at night I can’t sleep and on several occasions I’ve gotten up and thrown open my shutters… and the most curious sense of peril seems to brood over everything in sight… There have been times when I could hardly catch my breath for the oppression on my heart.

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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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