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10 Great Love Affairs in History

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By Sam Boykin

It's what makes women wear torturous undergarments and feign interest in preposterous sporting rituals. It's also what makes men hold dainty purses outside of fitting rooms and suffer through hosts of terrible movies. What could be this powerful? Why, love, of course. We've combed through Cupid's handiwork and selected some romantic pairings powerful enough to influence culture, trigger wars, and spawn international scandals.

1. Antony and Cleopatra

Cleopatra always had a high profile love life. The queen of Egypt, she was the mistress of Julius Caesar, king of Rome, until his assassination in 44 B.C.E. After Caesar's death, Mark Antony began sharing an uneasy alliance with Gaius Octavian (Caesar's grandnephew) and army general Marcus Lepidus as triumviral rulers of the Roman Empire. Looking to gain a powerful political ally, Antony invited Cleopatra to Tarsus (in what is now Turkey) in 41 B.C.E. for a meeting that would become legendary. Although she was rather plain looking, Cleopatra had a captivating presence and was known for her intelligence, wit and, at times, ruthless ambition. Antony was charmed instantly and followed Cleopatra back to Egypt. Back in Rome, Octavian was understandably angry, because Antony had previously wed his sister, Octavia, to strengthen his position. He began to view Cleopatra as a greedy temptress who had turned Antony into a helpless puppet. Octavian declared war on the two lovers, which culminated in the Battle of Actium in western Greece in 31 B.C.E. There, Octavian's naval fleet defeated the joint forces of Antony and Cleopatra, and the pair fled back to Egypt. Octavian, still pursuing sole control over the Roman Empire, invaded Egypt and forced Cleopatra and Antony to surrender.

During the final struggle against Octavian in Egypt, Antony received a false report that Cleopatra had committed suicide. Antony, overcome with grief, thrust a sword into his abdomen. His men carried him to where Cleopatra was hiding, and he died in her arms. Soon after, Cleopatra was taken prisoner. Legend has it she smuggled a poisonous snake into her cell and placed it upon her chest where it delivered a fatal strike. Cleopatra was buried next to her beloved, where they lay together for eternity.

2. Catherine the Great and Grigory Potemkin

Catherine the Great and her lover, Grigory Potemkin, definitely take the cake for the best "how we met" story. In 1761 Catherine was the wife of Russian Czar Peter III. But after only one year in power, Peter was overthrown (likely with Catherine's help) and killed (she may have given those orders, too) by the Imperial Guard forces in a coup d'état. It just so happened that, right about the time Peter was meeting his grim fate, Russian soldier Grigory Potemkin was on guard duty ensuring Catherine's safety. Catherine, who would become empress only days later, took a liking to Potemkin, despite the fact that he was obese, vain and missing an eye. But Catherine wasn't exactly known for being picky about her lovers; she had many, but she undoubtedly showed the longest fidelity to Potemkin. By 1771, Catherine had made him an official Russian statesman, a count and the commander of her armies. Although their love affair ended in 1776, Potemkin remained the love of her life. When he died at age 52, Catherine went into a depression from which she never fully recovered.

3. Napoleon and Josephine

napoleon-crowns-josephine.jpgNapoleon Bonaparte, a ruthless and ambitious soldier in the French military, was captivated the moment he saw Josephine, a charming and beautiful Paris socialite. Napoleon doggedly pursued the widowed, 32-year-old mother of two, but wasn't immediately successful. Despite being a military genius, he was unkempt and rather homely looking. Josephine eventually had a change of heart, and the two were married in 1796. Shortly after their wedding, Napoleon embarked on a series of military campaigns, while Josephine embarked on her own series of adulterous affairs. When Napoleon received word of this, he became enraged and demanded a divorce. But Josephine begged for his forgiveness, and he relented.

As Napoleon continued to rise in power and wealth, being crowned emperor of France in 1804, he became focused on having a son to carry on his royal lineage. But he eventually came to the conclusion that Josephine was unable to conceive, and the couple divorced in 1809. Less than a year later he married 18-year-old Marie Louise of Austria and had a son. But without Josephine it seemed his destiny was cursed. After devastating military losses he was exiled to the island of Elba on May 4, 1814. Josephine, still heartbroken, wrote a letter to Napoleon and asked permission to join him. He wrote back that it was impossible, but Josephine died on May 29 before his letter arrived. In 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to Paris. The first person he visited was the doctor who treated Josephine. When Napoleon beseeched the physician as to why his beloved Josephine had died, the doctor replied that he believed she had succumbed to a broken heart. He then retrieved violets from her garden and wore them in a locket until his death in 1821.

4. Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra Federovna

Young Nicholas II, the future Czar of Russia, fell for the ravishing German princess Alexandra of Hess as soon as he saw her. The pair became inseparable and, to the dismay of the royal family, often engaged in public displays of affection. Nicholas and Alex (as he called her) became engaged in 1893. The following year Nicholas' father died, and, only days later, the young couple was married in a ceremony diminished by the Russian leader's recent death. Nonetheless, Czar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra had a happy and passionate marriage. But while they were enjoying lavish royal parties and yacht outings, their countrymen toiled in poverty. During WWI the Russian people suffered greatly, and by 1917 support for the royal family was all but gone. Russians stormed the streets of St. Petersburg (then known as Petrograd) in protest and toppled the monarchy. Nicholas and his family were arrested and sent to Siberia. On July 16 of the next year the entire family was executed by the new Bolshevik government, ending the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty.

5. Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. and Anne Spencer Morrow

lindberg-anne.jpgAn American aviator, Charles became famous in 1927 when he made the first solo, nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. While on a goodwill trip to Latin America later that year he met and began seeing Morrow, the shy, self-conscious daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Their courtship gained international attention, and when the two married in 1929, they became one of America's first celebrity couples. Anne soon began flying the friendly skies—she was the first licensed female glider pilot in the country—and took to the air with her husband. Together they made history by charting potential air routes for commercial airlines, and they even set a Los Angeles-to-New York air speed record in 1930 when Anne was seven months pregnant. With her beloved husband's encouragement she wrote memoirs of their life together and became one of the country's most popular and famous diarists with 13 published books to her credit. But their storybook romance hit a few rough spots, including a few short-lived affairs, and the tragic and infamous kidnapping and murder of their infant first son in 1932.

6. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

It was love at first sight when Gertrude Stein, 33, met Alice Babette Toklas, 29, in Paris in 1907. Like many great lovers, they met by accident. Stein's parents had gone to Oakland, Calif., to check on property damaged during the 1906 Bay Area earthquake, where they met Toklas and enthralled her with their stories of Paris. Toklas moved there two years later, met up with Gertrude, and the two women soon began living together. Besides being a well-known avant-garde writer, Stein was a brilliant eccentric with a heavy, unladylike presence. Alice B. Toklas, who worked as Stein's secretary and cook, was a chain smoker with a slight mustache, given to exotic dress. The pair became inseparable. Their apartment at now-famous 27 Rue de Fleurus became the foremost meeting place for artists and writers like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

7. (Prince) Edward and Wallis Simpson

Edward, the handsome Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne, changed the course of his life, as well as that of British history, when he fell in love with Wallis Warfield Simpson—a woman who was not only American, but also married. Edward met Simpson at a party in 1931, hosted by Lady Thelma Furness, a viscountess with whom Edward had conducted a long relationship. Edward was not instantly smitten, but he and the upwardly-mobile Mrs. Simpson traveled in the same social circles, and after many society balls and dinner parties he was slowly captivated by her charm and poise. By 1934, Wallis was separated from her husband, and British Parliament grew increasingly nervous over the relationship. Then, in 1936, Edward's father died, and he was forced to take his position as king. But his brief stay on the throne only created a media frenzy due to his relationship with Simpson. Miserable, Edward abdicated the throne in a famous radio broadcast in which he told the world that he "found it impossible to carry the heavy burden" of being king without the support of "the woman he loved." Edward's younger brother, Albert, became King George VI, and, since the title Prince of Wales can only be held by the eldest son of the sovereign, Edward was made the Duke of Windsor. King George made sure that his brother kept the courtesy title of His Royal Highness, but he also pointedly decreed that should he marry Wallis, she (and any children they produced) would be denied royal status. After Simpson's divorce in 1937, Edward and Wallis were married in a small ceremony and spent most of the rest of their lives in France.

8. Waties Waring and Elizabeth Avery Waring

The story of Julius Waties Waring and Elizabeth Avery Waring is not just a great romance, it is a great romance that altered the course of America's civil rights movement. Growing up in Charleston, S.C., Waties Waring was the personification of Old South patrician. In 1941, at the age of 61, he was appointed a federal judge and became a popular member of the Charleston elite. Yet, Waring was already showing signs of dissent: He ended segregated seating in his courtroom and appointed John Fleming, a black man, as his bailiff. But eyebrows were raised even higher when Waring divorced his Southern-born wife of 32 years and married Elizabeth Avery, a twice-divorced native of Detroit. Waties and his new bride found themselves shunned by Charleston society; aside from being a "Yankee," Elizabeth was disliked because she was seen as inspiring her husband to look at issues of race in an even more aggressive light. Indeed, by the late 1940s, Waties had undergone an astonishing conversion that turned him into an outspoken critic of segregation and champion for racial justice. In fact, it was due to Waring's key legal influence and court ruling that the segregationists' "separate but equal" doctrine was declared unconstitutional, laying the groundwork for the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision.

9. Harry Tyson Moore and Harriette Simms Moore

Harry and Harriette Moore are a relatively unknown yet pioneering couple that helped pave the way for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The two met in 1925 while Harry, 20, was teaching elementary school in Cocoa, Fla., and Harriette, 23, formerly a teacher herself, was selling insurance. The two quickly fell in love and were married within a year. Both strong-willed and compassionate people, the Moores raised a family (they had two daughters) while organizing the first Brevard County Chapter of the NAACP in 1934, championing such causes as equal pay for black teachers. With the support of legendary African-American attorney Thurgood Marshall, the Moore couple became key allies in the movement. By 1941, Harry was the president of the Florida chapter of the NAACP, and his new level of activism took him into the dangerous arena of lynchings and police brutality. At first, Harry's involvement was confined to letters to government officials, but he quickly began launching his own investigations. Many believed this is what precipitated the attack in 1951 on Christmas Day—also the Moores' 25th anniversary—when a bomb exploded in their bedroom. Harry died before he reached the hospital; Harriette passed away nine days later from her injuries. Though authorities believe that the Ku Klux Klan was involved, the murders have never been solved.

10. Juan Domingo Perón and Maria Eva Duarte (Evita)

evita.jpgMove over Bill and Hillary, this was the ultimate power couple. Evita Perón, born Maria Eva Duarte, began carving out a perfectly respectable rags-to-riches story when she left her poor family and small town of Los Toldos, Argentina, in 1935 to pursue acting in Buenos Aries. She appeared in vaudeville stage acts and found some success as a radio actress, but her life changed when she met and charmed Juan Domingo Perón, the future president of Argentina, in 1944. After only a year the two were married, and in 1946 Perón was elected president of Argentina. Together the couple helped reform labor and social welfare programs. In addition, Evita established a women's branch of the Peronista political party, as well as foundations for needy children and the elderly. Indeed, she was one of the most active first ladies the world has ever known, made formal in 1951 when she was asked to join her husband's election ticket as vice president. The Peróns' political opponents blocked her candidacy, fearing that she could one day become president, but Evita was not bitter. When her husband was inaugurated for the second time in 1952, Evita appeared by his side. But the occasion was bittersweet; she was suffering from cervical cancer and died shortly thereafter. Her husband's inauguration was her last public appearance.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]