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Brits Fear Growing Dependence On U.S.

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 252nd installment in the series. 

October 4, 1916: Brits Fear Growing Dependence On U.S. 

The unprecedented material demands of modern warfare, exemplified by the huge number of shells expended in the Allied offensive on the Somme (with British artillery firing 1.7 million in the opening bombardment alone) required the financial and industrial resources of whole empires to sustain – and even these proved insufficient. By the fall of 1916 Britain, France, and Russia found themselves relying more and more on the world’s biggest neutral nation, the United States, for loans as well as supplies of munitions, food, fuel, and other necessities. 

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After initially steering clear of financial entanglements with the belligerents, starting in 1915 American banks – led by J.P. Morgan – opened lines of credit for the Allies, encouraged by a change of heart in the White House, as President Woodrow Wilson was angered by German intransigence over unrestricted submarine warfare. The Allies promptly turned around and spent the money on everything from explosives, oil and steel to wheat, beef and horses, fueling an economic boom across the U.S. 

This one-sided arrangement, with American goods increasingly paid for by American loans, was obviously bad news for both Britain’s balance sheet and its balance of trade, but there was no alternative as long as the war continued. More alarming was the possibility that Britain’s own wartime policies might alienate the U.S., jeopardizing London’s ability to raise loans and make vital purchases across the Atlantic Ocean. Of particular concern were the British blockade of the Central Powers, which hurt some U.S. business interests (even as others prospered selling goods to the Allies); British censorship of mail and telegrams; and finally a “blacklist” of firms still doing business with German counterparts via other neutral countries. 

Introduced in July 1916, the blacklist immediately became major point of contention with the U.S. business community, and therefore the U.S. government too. After diplomatic protests failed to obtain concessions from London, in early September the U.S. Congress passed a series of laws setting the stage for tit-for-tat measures including the bluntly named Retaliatory Revenue Act, threatening to ban British imports and detain British merchant ships in U.S. ports. 

While these threats proved to be mostly bluster, they set alarm bells ringing in the British government, in part because they might prompt demands from British business interests for further restrictions on American commerce (in other words, retaliation for the retaliation) when a trade war was the last thing the Allies needed. Faced with this awkward and complicated situation, on October 4, 1916 the British cabinet convened the first meeting of a new advisory group, the “Interdepartmental Committee on the Dependence of the British Empire on the United States,” to assess the likely impacts of any escalation in the diplomatic and commercial dispute between the countries. 

The committee’s conclusions, delivered on October 10, were painfully clear: further disturbance in the Anglo-American relationship could easily cause the British war effort to collapse, leaving the British virtually no leverage over their American cousin. As one member, Lord Eustace Percy, recorded in the minutes: 

… it developed at once… that there was really nothing to deliberate  dabout because our dependence was so vital and complete in every possible respect that it was folly even to consider reprisals. In munitions… all previous estimates of our being able to fill our own needs by a certain time have been entirely destroyed… In steel… we have been obliged to buy up the whole of the United States’ steel output; in foodstuffs and especially in wheat…, in all industrial raw materials and above all in cotton and lubricants American supplies are so necessary to us that reprisals, while they would produce tremendous distress in America, would also practically stop the war. 

This judgment was based, among other things, on a quick analysis of British and Allied finances by the economist and Treasury official John Maynard Keynes, who noted that Britain alone had spent $1 billion in America from May to September 1916, of which two-fifths had come from American loans. The terms were only going to get more lopsided, Keynes added, predicting that from October 1916 to March 1917 Britain would have to spend another $1.5 billion on American goods, with five-sixths of this financed by American loans. 

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In case anyone failed to understand the central role American production played in the British war effort, another response to the committee’s inquiry from the Board of Trade stated bluntly:

To sum up, it is quite evident that any failure to obtain imports from the United States would at once affect this country irremediably from the point of view of our food supplies, of military necessities, and of raw materials for industry. For numerous articles important from one or other of these points of view, America is an absolutely irreplaceable source of supply. 

Not only was there currently no possibility of retribution in case of a trade war; to keep the munitions flowing from U.S. factories to British guns, Keynes warned that the scope of British borrowing in America would have to expand even further with bond offerings to regular American citizens. He added that this would require a careful public relations strategy: 

Any feeling of irritation or lack of sympathy with this country or with its policy in the minds of the American public (and equally any lack of confidence in the military situation as interpreted by this public) would render it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to carry through financial operations on a scale adequate to our needs. The sums which this country will require to borrow in the U.S.A. in the next six or nine months are so enormous, amounting to several times the national debt of that country, that it will be necessary to appeal to every class and section of the investing public. 

The unpleasant but unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from all this was that the United States, having surpassed Britain as an industrial power in the late 19th century, would soon surpass it as the world’s dominant financial power too, if it hadn’t done so already. Of course, this would bring with it any number of uncomfortable changes, as America’s growing financial power translated into enhanced diplomatic influence and a bigger say in international relations – including, presumably, the eventual peace settlement and shape of postwar Europe. 

In that vein Reginald McKenna, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (comparable to a minister of finance) wrote in a memo to the cabinet on October 16: “If things go on as at present, I venture to say with certainty that by next June or earlier the President of the American Republic will be in a position, if he wishes, to dictate his own terms to us.” With a presidential election coming up in November 1916, and Democratic President Woodrow Wilson and his Republican opponent Charles Evan Hughes both emphasizing their commitment to American neutrality, there was plenty of reason for the British to be nervous about the outcome.

Indeed, not long after the election the British would get another scare: on November 26, 1916 the newly-formed Federal Reserve warned American bankers that loans to the Allies were increasingly risky in light of the continuing deadlock and the growing possibility of a Central Powers victory. 

Fortunately for the Allies, they had some help from an unexpected quarter – Germany itself. While the British fretted about maintaining access to American loans and goods, America’s supplying munitions to the Allies convinced hardliners in Berlin that the United States was for all intents and purposes already at war with Germany, even if it was too cowardly and venal to actually engage in hostilities. In their view U.S. complaints about German U-boats sinking ships with American citizens on board was hypocritical and unreasonable, as a message sent by the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, James Gerard, to Secretary of State Robert Lansing on September 14, 1916, clearly conveyed: 

In general conversation with [foreign minister] Von Jagow recently he said that the offensive in the Somme could not continue without the great supply of shells from America. He also said that recently a German submarine submerged in the Channel had to allow 41 ships to pass and that he was sure that each ship was full of ammunition and soldiers but probably had some American… also on board and therefore the submarine did not torpedo without warning. He seemed quite bitter. 

Convinced that the U.S. wouldn’t fight, or would declare war in name only, the militarist faction led by chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff were pushing Kaiser Wilhelm II and Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg to take the gloves off and resume unrestricted U-boat warfare for the third time. It would prove to be a disastrous miscalculation. 

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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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