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The Gay Spy Scandal That Rocked Vienna

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 70th installment in the series.

May 25, 1913: Gay Spy Scandal Rocks Vienna

In late May 1913, Vienna was gripped by revelations of a spy scandal that shook the Austrian military to its very foundations. Lurid headlines splashed across every newspaper told of a sordid intrigue at the heart of the Dual Monarchy: on May 25, 1913 the former head of Austrian military espionage, Colonel Alfred Redl (above), had shot himself after being uncovered as a Russian spy and – almost more shocking, if that were possible – a homosexual.

Redl was unusual all around: the son of a poor railway clerk in the eastern Austrian province of Galicia (now Ukraine), his brilliant intellect propelled him into the top ranks of the army, usually an aristocratic preserve, where he served as chief of counter-intelligence from 1903-1907, then head of all intelligence operations from 1907-1912. In a conservative institution he embraced modern, innovative techniques like telephone and wireless eavesdropping, hidden cameras and recording devices, and dusting for fingerprints.

But Redl had more secrets than anyone could have guessed: in an era when homosexuality was a deviant crime punishable with prison time or worse, Redl’s double life was a huge liability that left him vulnerable to blackmail. During a visit to Russia to polish his Russian in 1889, Russian intelligence discovered his secret via a woman Redl employed as his “beard,” then supplied Redl with a series of young lovers to further incriminate him. Beginning in 1902 the Russians threatened to uncover Redl while also offering him huge sums of money for top secret information. The combination of carrot and stick was enough to convince Redl to turn traitor.

As head of counter-intelligence, Redl won recognition for his cutting-edge methods and amazing success rooting out Russian agents: in 1905 he was awarded the Military Service Cross and Military Service Medal, and in 1911 he was awarded a medal signifying the “Expression of Supreme Satisfaction” by Emperor Franz Josef himself. Meanwhile behind closed doors he led a flamboyant, rather bizarre secret life with his lover, a handsome Czech cavalry officer named Stefan Hromadka who became involved with Redl at age 14. In public Redl introduced Hromadka as his “nephew” and showered him with gifts; in private they attended extravagant parties (read: orgies) with other members of Vienna’s underground homosexual subculture.

The whole time Redl was also selling valuable information to the Russians, including the identities of Austrian agents in Russia, blueprints for Austrian fortifications, and secret codes. He also set up an intelligence-sharing partnership with Austria-Hungary’s ally Germany, which enabled him to sell German secrets to the Russians too. In his crowning betrayal Redl sold Austria-Hungary’s plans for wartime mobilization – then found himself in charge of the search for the culprit when the leak was discovered. To relieve Redl of the burden of searching for himself, the Russians set up several dupes whom Redl duly discovered in 1904, helping secure his advancement to chief of the entire intelligence service three years later. In 1913 Redl was promoted again, to chief of staff of the Eighth Army Corps based in Prague, where he continued spying for the Russians.

By the Letter

Ironically Redl was finally caught thanks to one of his own innovations. In early April 1913 Redl’s successor as head of counter-intelligence – his protégé, Maximilian Ronge – was alerted to several suspicious letters by his German counterpart, Major Walter Nikolai, through the intelligence-sharing channel created by Redl. The letters had been mailed anonymously to a certain Nikon Nizetas, care of the Vienna post office, but were later returned unclaimed and intercepted by German intelligence. One letter contained a large sum of money and references to espionage cover addresses in Vienna, Paris and Geneva, so Ronge decided to flag the name and see if anything else turned up.

Ronge’s diligence paid off: on May 9, 1913, another letter containing cash addressed to Nikon Nizetas was delivered to the Vienna post office. When a mysterious man turned up to claim the envelope on May 24, detectives tailed him to a nearby hotel, where they observed him unobtrusively and identified him as none other than Alfred Redl, just arrived from Prague.

The detectives immediately informed the chief-of-staff of the Austrian army, Conrad von Hötzendorf, who nearly had a nervous breakdown on learning the news. Seized by panic, Conrad’s only thought was ridding the army of the traitor right away: four senior officers were dispatched to give Redl one last chance to spare himself (and the army) the embarrassment of a trial. The officers confronted Redl in his hotel room just after midnight on May 25, and he immediately confessed: “I know why you are here. I am guilty. I want only to judge myself.”  One officer put a pistol on the table and they filed out to wait in the street. A few minutes later, around 1 a.m., a gunshot rang out and the officers returned to find Redl’s blood-spattered body next to a note which read: “Passion and levity have destroyed me. Pray for me. I pay with my life for my sins. Alfred…” The following day, Sunday May 26, the press reported Redl’s suicide, supposedly resulting from “mental overexertion.” Redl was gone and the public was none the wiser – or so the officers thought. In fact a strange set of coincidences was about to blow the cover-up wide open.

Denied a chance to interrogate Redl, Ronge was understandably curious to find out as much as he could about his mentor’s career of high treason, and ordered investigators to break into his apartment in Prague. As it was Sunday all the locksmiths in Prague were closed, so the officers waylaid an expert locksmith they happened to know and hustled him into a car, telling him he had a secret, important task – breaking into Redl’s apartment. That’s when the evidence of “deviancy” started to come out: the investigators were stupefied to find the spymaster’s quarters full of pink leather whips, cosmetics, and pornographic photographs, framed in snakeskin, of Redl, Hromadka, and other men (including fellow officers), sometimes dressed in women’s clothing.

Still, Redl’s private life might have gone to the grave with him as well – if only the investigators had picked a different locksmith. As it turned out, their choice, one Hans Wagner, missed an amateur league soccer match as a result of his unexpected tour of duty that Sunday. His team lost the match and the team’s captain, a journalist named Egon Erwin Kisch (above), furiously demanded an explanation for his absence. Wagner told Kisch what he had seen and the latter, remembering the news of Redl’s suicide, soon put two and two together.

The story made Kisch’s career, and probably ended quite a few others: it would be hard to over-state the impact of the scandal, which irreparably damaged public confidence in the army, long viewed as the most functional part of a dysfunctional empire. Indeed, the details of Redl’s personal life are enough to leave a modern observer wondering how he got as far as he did without being detected: even before the revelation of his homosexuality, the extravagant presents Redl purchased for his “nephew” – including a custom Daimler that cost more than his annual salary, purebred horses, diamond rings, and a luxury apartment – probably should have raised suspicions (Hromadka himself, who apparently knew nothing of Redl’s spying, was found guilty of “unnatural prostitution,” dishonorably discharged, and sentenced to three months of hard labor).

The public was right to fear for the empire’s security. The Russians had passed the mobilization plans they bought from Redl on to the Serbs, giving them a preview of the Austro-Hungarian plan of campaign in the Balkans. Consequently the small kingdom’s general staff were able to anticipate their enemy’s moves in 1914 and deliver a humiliating defeat to Austria-Hungary in the opening days of the Great War.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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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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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

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To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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