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British Advance Into Sinai

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 257th installment in the series.   

November 15, 1916: British Advance Into Sinai 

Fighting in the Sinai Peninsula in 1914-1916 was unusual by the standards of the First World War, in large part because – unlike the nose-to-nose stalemate on the Western Front – the two opposing sides were separated by a “no man’s land” consisting of an inhospitable desert stretching hundreds of miles. Although both sides staged raids and larger attacks in this huge arena with scant success, in between these encounters ordinary troops might not see the enemy for months at a time.

This situation finally began to change – albeit very slowly– on November 15, 1916, when the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force under commander-in-chief Archibald Murray made its first foray into the desert with an eye to permanent occupation, rather than reconnaissance or harassing raids. Above all, the long delay in the British offensive reflected the enormous logistical difficulties attending modern desert warfare. 

The first and most challenging obstacle was also the simplest: water. With the British planning to bring a force numbering hundreds of thousands of men across the desert, the small brackish wells scattered across the Sinai Peninsula for use by Bedouin tribes were obviously going to be totally inadequate. The British decided to overcome the obstacle by building a pipeline to carry water from a base near the Suez Canal, at Qantara, across the northern Mediterranean coast of the peninsula to Palestine. 

The pipeline, and an accompanying railroad (top), were the main target of the failed Turkish campaign against the British in front of the Suez Canal at Romani in August 1916. That fall the pipeline and railroad continued to advance east, while the British received additional valuable information from Jewish Zionists who knew the terrain in Palestine, including the location of wells for when the invaders were forced to leave their pipeline behind.

In mid-November the British began their gradual pursuit of the Turkish force they’d first defeated at Romani, which had now retreated to a position at Bir Lahfan, leading to another British victory at El Arish in late December 1916 and Rafah in January 1917. But here, as in Mesopotamia, anyone expecting a colonial walkover was in for a surprise: following these early successes, Turkish resistance mounted once the British arrived in Palestine, stiffened by German officers and the prospect of a threat to the empire’s core territories. 

For ordinary British soldiers, the slow advance across the Sinai alternated with long periods of tedium, broken up by occasional leave to Cairo or Alexandria as well as a grudging appreciation of the desert’s natural beauty. Oskar Teichman, a junior medical officer serving with the British Army in Egypt, recalled the dramatic natural setting near the Suez Canal in early November: 

The landscape was grand and austere; the enormous vista of endless desert, here and there interrupted by gigantic sand mountains – fashioned into fantastic shapes according to the caprices of the wind – and by occasional palm-studded Hods nestling in tiny valleys, was most impressive. In this clear atmosphere the visibility was wonderful. Perfect silence reigned, and there appeared to be no sign of life except an occasional vulture hovering over the old Turkish battle-field or a jackal slinking homewards to his laid. At sunset the sky assumed most marvellous colours, which it is useless to try to describe. Then followed the deathly stillness of the desert night…

On the other side, conditions were already dire for Ottoman citizens living in Palestine, thanks to growing shortages of food, fuel, medicine, and other necessities. These were further underlined by disparities in the rations provided to German soldiers and officers, versus ordinary Turkish soldiers and civilians, according to the Conde de Ballobar, a Spanish diplomat who found himself acting as caretaker for Allied interests in Ottoman Palestine. On November 17, 1916 he wrote in his diary: 

Truly the contrast is notable in this Austrian-German-Turkish entente. The Teutons and Austrians live the life of princes: Sanatoriums, hospitals magnificently equipped, automobiles, economical restaurants, great free warehouses, very well stocked, while the Turks do not even have shoes, eat almost nothing and are lodged and cared for any old way. 

Lawrence Meets Faisal 

Hundreds of miles to the southeast developments marked the beginning of the end of Ottoman rule in the Hejaz, the west central coast of the Arabian Peninsula, home to the two holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina, as well as the port of Jiddah. Here, in late October 1916 the British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence finally met Prince Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the feudal ruler of Mecca who rose up against the Turks in June of that year.

Hussein had declared himself “King of the Arab Countries,” but as Lawrence already understood he would mostly be a figurehead for the Arab Revolt, which still needed a dynamic political and diplomatic leader. On meeting Hussein’s third son at a walled compound at Wadi Safra, nestled in a valley full of palm groves, Lawrence decided he had found a true revolutionary statesman.

Lawrence later recalled their first meeting, introduced by one of Faisal’s many retainers, in typically dramatic (not to say mystical) fashion: 

He led me through a second gate into an inner court, and across it I saw standing framed between the posts of a black doorway, a white figure waiting tensely for me. This was Feisal, and I felt at the glance that now I had found the man whom I had come to Arabia to seek, the leader alone needed to make the Arab Revolt win through to success. He looked very tall and pillar-like, very slender, dressed in long white robes and a brown head cloth with a brilliant scarlet and gold cord… His hands were loosely crossed in front of him on his dagger. 

Faisal would eventually prove a great leader, as Lawrence guessed – but for now the Arab Revolt was in its infancy, and the Turks felt they had little to fear from a disorganized band of Bedouin outlaws. Lawrence would have to do something to get their attention. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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!

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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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