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How a Royal Mistress Became France's Most Powerful Politician

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by Eleanor Herman

Behind every great man is a great woman. And sometimes, that woman is a mistress. While the adage might not apply to every extramarital affair, for King Henri IV of France, having a mistress just might have been the smartest political move of his reign. While it's no secret that historical heads-of-state often kept a honey (or two or three) on the side, these women shouldn't all be brushed off as bimbos. In 16th- and 17th-century Europe, mistresses were more of a royal fashion statement—a way to reflect the king's good taste. They were intelligent. They were talented. And, in the case of Henri IV's mistress, Gabrielle d'Estrees, powerful enough to lift a nation from the throes of civil war and change the course of European politics.

The Scarlet Ambassador

Gabrielle d'Estrees was just 18 years old in 1591, the year she became Henri IV's official mistress. Not incidentally, it was the same year things were heating up in the ongoing conflict between France's Catholic and Protestant citizens.
Meanwhile, a similar battle was raging within the king's marriage. Despite being an avowed Protestant, Henri had married Catholic-bred Marguerite De Valois on August 18, 1572, in an attempt to create an example of religious harmony for his people. But the plan failed (in rather spectacular fashion) when his bride's family had most of the king's Protestant wedding guests killed. The event touched off the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (which would eventually leave 70,000 people dead throughout France) and probably strained the relationship between Henri and his queen.
Enter Gabrielle. Although she, too, was a Catholic, she was considerably better versed in diplomacy than was Marguerite. For instance, d'Estrees knew Vatican and Spanish forces were massing on French borders. But she also knew that Henri could avoid defeat by converting to Catholicism. Using a heavy dose of pragmatism and persuasion, she convinced the king to make the concession—if only for the peace of his beloved country.
Henri later confessed, "Paris was well worth a Mass." However, he never would have reached this realization were it not for d'Estrees' behind-the-scenes politicking with the Pope and the heads of noble Catholic families. In fact, Henri acknowledged d'Estrees' ambassadorial abilities in 1596 by giving her a seat on his Council of National Policy. In her new role, she helped craft the groundbreaking 1598 Edict of Nantes, which declared France a Catholic nation, but also granted Protestants unprecedented civil rights. The document saved France from civil war and foreign domination, and it made the country a model of tolerance for the rest of the Western world.

Regarding Henri

Mistress or not, Gabrielle d'Estrees is one of the most influential Frenchwomen in history. Sadly, she's also one of the most tragic. With Queen Marguerite separated physically and emotionally from King Henri, Gabrielle essentially filled the role of queen in the court. And in the early months of 1599, Henri began to move toward making Gabrielle's place official by legitimizing the three children she bore him, giving her his coronation ring, and applying to have his marriage annulled. But, shortly before the ceremony that would have crowned her Queen of France, the five-months-pregnant Gabrielle went into premature labor and died at the age of 26. Two years later, the king married someone else, and Gabrielle all but slipped from historical memory.Eleanor Herman is the author of Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge (HarperCollins, 2004).

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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