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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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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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13 Smart Facts About The Big Bang Theory
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CBS Entertainment

The Big Bang Theory, which has held the title of television's most popular comedy for several years now, and will return for its 11th season on Monday, September 25th. In the meantime, geek out with these facts about the long-running cerebral comedy on the 10th anniversary of its premiere.

1. THE SHOW WASN’T PITCHED IN A TRADITIONAL WAY.

Instead of writing up a premise—which includes outlines of the characters and the long-term vision for the show—and pitching it to CBS, co-creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady revealed at PaleyFest in 2009 that for their pitch, they wrote a complete script, hired actors, and, as Lorre explained, “put on a show” for CBS president Les Moonves. Lorre found the experience to be “crazy,” but it obviously worked.

2. IT TOOK TWO PILOTS FOR THE SHOW TO GET PICKED UP TO SERIES.

The show filmed two different pilots, because CBS didn't like the first one but felt the show had potential. The first pilot began with a different theme song and featured Sheldon, Leonard, and two female characters, including a different actress playing what would become the Penny role. Chuck Lorre thought the initial pilot “sucked” but is open to having the unaired pilot included as part of a DVD.

3. JIM PARSONS THOUGHT HE WAS AUDITIONING FOR A GAME SHOW.

Amy and Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory.
CBS Entertainment

When Jim Parsons’s agent called and said Chuck Lorre wanted him to audition for a pilot, Parsons misunderstood. “I did not know Chuck Lorre at the time,” Parsons told David Letterman in 2014. “I thought he was talking about Chuck Woolery. I thought, why are they so excited about it? We should see what the man has to offer before we’re like, ‘It’s a new Chuck Woolery pilot!'"

4. ED ROBERTSON OF THE BARENAKED LADIES HESITATED TO WRITE THE THEME SONG.

As the story goes, Lorre and Prady went to a Barenaked Ladies concert and were impressed that lead singer Ed Robertson sang a song on cosmological theory, so they tapped him to write the series' theme song, called “The History of Everything." In 2013, Robertson told CBS News that he’d previously written some songs for TV and films only to have his work rejected, so he was initially reluctant to take on the project.

“I was like, look, how many other people have you asked to write this? I’m at my cottage, I got a couple of weeks off right now and if you’ve asked Counting Crows and Jack Johnson and all these other people to write it, then I kinda don’t want to waste my time on it,” Robertson told them. Lorre and Prady told Robertson he was their only choice, so Robertson agreed to come on board. The first version was 32 seconds long but Robertson had to trim it down to 15 seconds. The original version was also acoustic, which Lorre loved, but Robertson insisted that his bandmates be on the track, and Lorre loved that one even more.

5. SHELDON PROBABLY DOESN’T HAVE ASPERGER’S.

Because of Sheldon’s anti-social nature, viewers have often assumed that Sheldon has Asperger's syndrome. But Prady has stated that, "We write the character as the character. A lot of people see various things in him and make the connections. Our feeling is that Sheldon's mother never got a diagnosis, so we don't have one.”

Parsons himself isn’t totally sure, though. “Asperger’s came up as a question within the first few episodes. I got asked about it by a reporter, and I had heard of it, but I didn’t know what it was, specifically,” he told Adweek in 2014. “So I asked the writers—I said, ‘They’re asking me if Sheldon has Asperger’s’ and they were like, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ And I went back and I said, ‘No.’ And then I read some about it and I went, OK, well, if the writers say he doesn’t, then he doesn’t, but he certainly shares some qualities with those who do. I like the way it’s handled ... This is who this person is; he’s just another human.”

6. KUNAL NAYYAR GOT HIRED BECAUSE HE WAS “CHARMING."

CBS Entertainment

In reminiscing about the early days, Prady explained to Buzzy Mag how Raj came to be: “When we were casting for that part, we were casting for an international member of the ensemble, [because] if you go into the science department at a university, it’s not [just] Americans,” Prady said. “It’s one of the most international kinds of communities. So we saw foreign-born people. And so we saw people who were Korean and Korean-American and Latino. And then Kunal came in and it was like Jim [Parsons]—it was just Person Number Eight on a day of Twenty-Seven people, and he was charming.”

7. AMY FARRAH FOWLER WAS MADE A NEUROSCIENTIST ON PURPOSE.

Mayim Bialik, who in real life has a PhD in neuroscience, told Variety how Amy Farrah Fowler’s profession came to be. “They didn’t have a profession for my character when I came on in the finale of season three,” she says. “In season four, Bill Prady said they’d make her what I am so I could fix things (in the script) if they were wrong. It’s neat to know what things mean. But most of the time, I don’t have to use it.”

8. ASTROPARTICLE PHYSICIST/SCIENCE CONSULTANT DAVID SALTZBERG ONCE GOT A JOKE ON THE AIR.

The Big Bang Theory has had David Saltzberg on retainer since the beginning of the series. Every week he attends the tapings and offers up corrections and ensures the white boards used in the scenes are accurate. During episode nine of the first season, Saltzberg wrote a joke for Sheldon, who has a fight with another scientist. Penny asks Sheldon about the misunderstanding and Sheldon replies, “A little misunderstanding? Galileo and the Pope had a little misunderstanding!”

Even though Saltzberg teaches at UCLA and publishes papers, he thinks his work on The Big Bang Theory is more impactful. “This has a lot more impact than anything I will ever do,” he told NPR. “It’s hard to fathom, when you think about 20 million viewers on the first showing—and that doesn't include other countries and reruns. I’m happy if a paper I write gets read by a dozen people.”

9. WIL WHEATON GOT THE “EVIL WIL WHEATON” GIG THROUGH TWITTER.

Wil Wheaton and Jim Parsons in a scene from The Big Bang Theory.
Sonja Flemming - © 2012 CBS Broadcasting, Inc

Wil Wheaton, who plays a “delightfully evil version” of himself on the show, tweeted about The Big Bang Theory. Wheaton told Larry King, “I was talking on Twitter about how much I loved the show and how I thought it was really funny.” Executive producer Steven Molaro—who will be taking on the same role in the Young Sheldon prequel, which also premieres Monday night—saw the tweet and told Wheaton to let him know if he wanted to come to a taping. A few days later Wheaton received an email from Bill Prady’s assistant about appearing on the show. “I just thought the email was a joke from one of my friends, so I just ignored it,” Wheaton said.

When Wheaton realized that the email was legit he phoned up Prady, who explained they wanted a nemesis for Sheldon. “It’s always more fun to be the villain,” Wheaton said. Even though the character has evolved into Sheldon’s ally, Wheaton said, “I still call him Evil Wil Wheaton.”

10. CHUCK LORRE THOUGHT THE SHOW AIRING AT 8 P.M. WAS THE BEGINNING OF THE END.

The show aired a handful of episodes in the fall of 2007, but a Writers Guild strike halted production until the following year. When the show returned in March, it had an earlier time slot. During a 2009 Comic-Con panel with the show’s cast and producers, the moderator asked Lorre about how CBS once again changed the time slot, this time from Mondays at 8 p.m. to Mondays at 9:30 p.m. “You guys followed us when they put us on at 8 and that is what kept us alive,” Lorre replied. "We did eight shows before the strike took us out in our first season. When the strike was over, CBS put us on at 8 p.m. and we thought that might be the end of it. You followed us and kept us alive and that was when we got the two-year pickup when we did well at 8.” The show eventually returned to the Mondays at 8 p.m. slot.

11. PARSONS ATTRIBUTES THE SHOW'S SUCCESS TO ITS LACK OF CHARACTER ARCS.

In a 2014 interview with New York Magazine, Parsons gave his theory (if you will) on why The Big Bang Theory attracts more than 20 million viewers per week—a number unheard of since the Friends-era sitcom reign. “There’s not anything to keep up with,” he said. “You don’t go, ‘I didn’t see the first three seasons, and now they’re off with prostitutes, and they no longer work in the Mafia, and I don’t understand what happened.’ People have so many choices on TV now, so no one’s asking for you to marry us. You can enjoy our show without a weekly appointment.”

12. A NEW GENUS OF JELLYFISH IS NAMED BAZINGA.

CBS Entertainment

In 2011, a photographer spotted the unnamed grape-sized rhizostome in Australia’s Brunswick River, snapped a photo of it, and sent the photo to marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin. In 2013, she named the jellyfish and published a paper on it for the Queensland Museum. In her findings she called it “a new genus and species of the rhizostome jellyfish, which cannot be placed in any known family or suborder.” She told The Huffington Post that it’s the first time in more than 100 years that a new sub-order of jellyfish had been discovered. For now, it’s the only member of the genus Bazinga, the family Bazingidae, and the sub-order Ptychophorae. Sheldon’s catchphrase also inspired the naming of a new bee species in 2013.

13. THE CAST MEMBERS ARE SOME OF THE WORLD’S HIGHEST PAID TV ACTORS.

In August 2017, Variety released a list of television's highest paid actors, and the main cast members of The Big Bang Theory—Kaley Cuoco, Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, Simon Helberg, and Kunal Nayyar—came out on top for comedy, earning an average of $900,000 per episode.

BONUS FACT: WE'RE ON THE COFFEE TABLE!

Image credit: Wil Wheaton

In 2010, Wil Wheaton shared this close-up of the coffee table in Sheldon and Leonard's apartment. "I saw a lot of things that could have been on my own coffee table," he wrote, "so I decided to grab a picture."

Here's one from 2014:

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