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New York Tribune via Chronicling America 

Germany Backs Down, As Spy Scandals Erupt

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New York Tribune via Chronicling America 

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 199th installment in the series. 

September 1, 1915: Germany Backs Down, As Spy Scandals Erupt 

The sinking of the British liner Arabic by the German submarine U-24 on August 19, 1915, resulting in the deaths of three Americans, brought the diplomatic crisis between Germany and the U.S. to a head. Previously U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing had warned Berlin that any further submarine attacks resulting in American deaths would be regarded as “deliberately unfriendly,” leaving little doubt President Woodrow Wilson was contemplating war. Now just such an event had occurred, and it seemed Wilson had little choice but to break off relations with Germany. 

While diplomatic telegrams flew back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean following the Arabic sinking, behind the scenes in Berlin long-simmering tension between the civilian diplomats of the Foreign Office and the hardline militarists of the German Admiralty over U-boat policy finally boiled over. In the end, the threat of war with the world’s most powerful neutral country forced Kaiser Wilhelm II to intervene and overrule the naval faction – for now. 

Panic in Berlin 

In the immediate aftermath of the Arabic sinking, testimony from multiple American and British survivors seemed to leave little doubt that U-24 had attacked the Arabic without warning, giving civilian passengers no chance to evacuate to lifeboats, as the U.S. had previously demanded.

On August 24, 1915, the German ambassador to the U.S., Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, pleaded with Lansing to hold off judgment until all the facts were known – adding this could take up to two weeks, as the German Admiralty usually didn’t have direct communications with U-boats at sea, meaning they might have to wait for U-24 to return to port (the British Admiralty added to the confusion by claiming, mistakenly, that a British ship had sunk U-24 shortly after the Arabic sinking). However on August 26 Lansing turned up the heat, warning Bernstorff that he didn’t see the point in further exchanges of notes.

Washington Times via Chronicling America

Meanwhile in Berlin there was already a fierce political struggle underway between the Foreign Office and the Admiralty, reaching all the way up to the highest levels of the Kaiser’s government. Both sides tried to lay blame on the other, with the Foreign Office pointing to the obvious impact of the Lusitania and other sinkings on U.S. public opinion, while the Admiralty attacked the Foreign Office for failing to stop American munitions shipments to France and Britain. 

On August 26, as Lansing dismissed Bernstorff’s latest statement as pointless, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg convened a meeting with Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of Germany’s prewar naval buildup and the most powerful advocate of unrestricted U-boat warfare; Admiralty chief of staff Admiral Gustav Bachmann, War Minister and chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn; and representatives of the Foreign Office.

Amid growing acrimony Bethmann-Hollweg argued that relations with the U.S. were strained to the breaking point, and something had to give, complaining, “I cannot stay forever on the top of a volcano.” Tirpitz proposed moving the submarine war to the Mediterranean, away from U.S. shipping lanes, but this wouldn’t have solved the problem posed by the presence of American civilian passengers on British ships. At the same time Bethmann-Hollweg noted that Germany’s success on the Eastern Front held out the possibility of a negotiated peace with Russia, splitting the Allies; it made no sense to add a powerful new enemy just as ultimate victory might be within reach. Falkenhayn agreed and Kaiser Wilhelm II, previously an enthusiastic supporter of unrestricted U-boat warfare, backed up his chancellor and war minister. 

Thus Bethmann-Hollweg approved the Foreign Office’s request to send a conciliatory note to Washington, in which Germany disavowed the sinking of the Arabic (though not the Lusitania) and offered meaningful compromises on U-boat warfare. Unsurprisingly the text of the note sent to Lansing left the Admiralty livid, as the German Foreign Office assured their American counterparts that the sinking was “condemned by the German Government” and confided that Berlin was “most anxious to maintain amicable relations with the United States, [and] would express its deep regret and make full reparation.” 

Humiliated by these diplomatic obsequies, Tirpitz and Bachmann offered their resignations to Kaiser Wilhelm II, but at a stormy interview on August 30, 1915 the monarch furiously refused Tirpitz’s offer, accusing him (with some justice) of behaving like a prima donna during a time of national emergency, bitterly adding at a later meeting, “If I must kowtow to Wilson I will.” He did however accept Bachmann’s resignation.

In any event the crisis wasn’t over quite yet: while the White House expressed pleasure at the promises of compromise in the German note sent on August 27, Wilson insisted on an official, comprehensive commitment that German U-boats would stop sinking merchant ships without warning. On August 30, after delivering a new note insisting on these terms the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, James Watson Gerard, reported that Bethmann-Hollweg had definitively prevailed with the Kaiser’s support. Two days later, on September 1, Bernstorff presented a note to Lansing declaring: “Liners will not be sunk by our submarines without warning and without safety of the lives of noncombatants, provided the liners do not try to escape or offer resistance.”

Although the main diplomatic crisis had passed, the controversy over German U-boat warfare would drag on. For one thing Bernstorff had jumped the gun with his promise, which Berlin only later officially approved, creating some additional confusion. Then on September 4, 1915, U-20 (which sank the Lusitania) sank the British passenger liner Hesperian, outbound from Liverpool to Quebec, without warning, resulting in the loss of 32 people when a lifeboat overturned.

The Germans said this shouldn’t be of concern to the U.S., since no American lives were lost, but Washington responded that the Germans were missing the point, since the Hesperian was a civilian commercial ship, of the kind they had just promised not to sink.  In fact the Hesperian was carrying defensive armament and was zigzagging – the same maneuver which allegedly caused U-24’s captain to think the Arabic was trying to ram him – all of which made the situation even more complicated, as these were the main justifications cited by the Germans for conducting submarine attacks without warning. 

But having just settled matters with America the Germans weren’t taking any chances: captain Schwieger was officially reprimanded and on September 18 (over two weeks after Bernstorff’s unauthorized promise to Lansing) the German Admiralty finally ordered the end of unrestricted U-boat warfare around the British Isles. The U-boat controversy was over – for now. 

Spy Scandals Erupt 

As one self-inflicted diplomatic crisis ended, Germany promptly found itself facing another – this time over revelations of espionage in the United States, including deliberate efforts to stir up labor unrest in order to sabotage munitions production. 

Rumors of spying by agents of the Central Powers went back to the very beginning of the war, when the U.S. government suspected the Germans of operating a wireless station broadcasting to German ships in the Atlantic from Long Island, followed by the discovery of a second wireless station in the Maine woods in November 1914 (to be fair the government also discovered a covert wireless station operated by the British on a yacht in New York City Harbor). 

The cloak-and-dagger campaign soon escalated to actual sabotage, although it wasn’t always apparent at the time that the perpetrators were actually German agents, rather than German immigrants inspired to become “lone wolves.” In December three Germans were arrested in New Orleans for plotting to blow up Allied merchant ships at sea, and in January a munitions factory in Trenton, NJ owned by John A. Roebling’s Sons Co., which supplied arms to the Allies, was destroyed in a suspected case of arson (above). Then in February a German national, Werner Horn, tried unsuccessfully to blow up the Canadian Pacific Railway bridge at Vanceboro, Maine – in a plot later found to be organized by the German military attaché in Washington, D.C., Franz von Papen (who later served as vice-chancellor under Adolf Hitler). And in July Eric Muenter, a German instructor at Cornell University, planted a bomb in the U.S. Senate antechamber and then tried to murder J.P. Morgan. 

Other plots were less violent but more successful. July 24, 1915, agents with the U.S. Secret Service picked up a briefcase full of papers accidentally left on a train by Heinrich Albert, a German national, which detailed a wide-ranging conspiracy to hinder U.S. munitions production by buying up all the supplies of phenol, or carbolic acid, a key chemical precursor used in the manufacture of explosives. The papers, published by the anti-German New York World on August 15, 1915, didn’t provide enough evidence to prosecute Albert, but did force him to suspend his activities. 

New York World via Wikimedia Commons

An even more damaging spy scandal came to light on August 30, 1915, when British authorities arrested an American correspondent, James A. Archibald, after he disembarked from the steamer Rotterdam in Falmouth, England, on charges of espionage. British intelligence agents searched Archibald and found secret correspondence from the German and Austro-Hungarian embassies in the U.S., intended for spymasters in Berlin and Vienna. 

One of the letters seized by the British had been written by the Austro-Hungarian ambassador, Konstantin Dumba, to Foreign Minister Burian in Vienna, and revealed the existence of a massive covert campaign to foment labor unrest in American factories, in the hopes of provoking strikes to disrupt production. Dumba had also been orchestrating a secret publicity campaign which involved, among other things, bribing well-known journalists and columnists to write articles sympathetic to the Central Powers. 

Infuriated by Dumba’s participation in espionage, Wilson demanded the Austria-Hungary recall the ambassador, which the Habsburg court finally did on September 27, 1915. Dumba departed the U.S. on November 4, 1915, and was replaced by Adam Graf Tarnowski von Tarnow – the last Austro-Hungarian ambassador to the U.S. 

Wilson Shifts Stance on Loans 

Beyond the immediate negative effects on U.S. public opinion, the tensions over U-boat warfare and then spying may have had much more significant long-term effects, by making President Woodrow Wilson more sympathetic towards the Allies. Indeed, it’s probably not a coincidence that around this time Wilson revised his earlier stance against U.S. banks making loans to the Allies. 

In declaring U.S. neutrality on August 19, 1914, Wilson had stated, “We must be impartial in thought, as well as action, must put a curb upon our sentiments, as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.” This accorded with the views of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, a pacifist who was a strong advocate of American neutrality. 

However Bryan’s replacement, Lansing, who was more in tune with the interests of Wall Street financiers, pointed out that Allied purchases of munitions were driving the U.S. economy’s recovery from its prewar slump, and argued that U.S. banks should be allowed to extend loans to the Allies in order to keep this business going. On August 26, 1915, Wilson finally acceded to this suggestion in policy in a confidential note to Lansing, advising the Secretary to henceforth state that “Parties [i.e., the government] would take no action either for or against such a transaction.” 

This opened the floodgates to funds that Britain and France (and through them, the other Allies) could use to pay for U.S. munitions and agricultural goods, deepening the rift between the U.S. and the Central Powers. Because billions dollars of loans were at stake if the Allies should suffer defeat and default, it also gave the U.S. an enormous financial incentive to help secure their victory. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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