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Enter the Chamber of Horrors: Madame Tussaud

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The subject of our final post for our week of women is Marie Grosholtz (1761-1850), although you probably know her as Madame Tussaud. The French-born, Swiss-reared Grosholtz was a wax model prodigy "“ she made her first wax figure (Voltaire, above left) at the tender age of 17. (Her life is so interesting we had to make the post a bit longer than usual. Enjoy!)

1. Marie Grosholtz was trained by her mother's employer, Dr. Philippe Curtius, a skilled wax modeler. Grosholtz, who referred to Curtius as "uncle," apprenticed under the doctor from a young age. The Grosholtz women even moved to Paris with Curtius, where the doctor opened his popular wax museums. Upon his death, Grosholtz inherited his entire collection of wax figures, which became the foundation for her own exhibitions.

2. In 1780, the Royal Court at Versailles came calling: Grosholtz was invited to live at the Palace and serve as art tutor to Madame Élisabeth, Louis XVI's sister. Grosholtz, a savvy businesswoman, used the royal connection to her (and Curtius') advantage in creating Marie Antoinette-themed tableaux for Curtius's Wax Salon. Visitors could watch "Marie Antoinette and her family eating dinner" or satisfy their inner Peeping Toms with a scene of Antoinette, in a low-cut nightgown, preparing for bed.

3. After the mob stormed the Bastille in 1789, the mutilated head of de Launay, the Bastille governor, was brought to Grosholtz. Paraded on a pike by the angry mob, the head had deteriorated in condition and the group had decided a wax head might be better suited for their purposes. Grosholtz supposedly fashioned the wax head on the steps of her exhibition while the mob waited.

4. De Launay's head was just the beginning of the horrors to come for Grosholtz.

Suspected of Royalist tendencies due to her job at Versailles, Grosholtz was forced to make death masks from the heads of freshly guillotined victims of the Revolution, including Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI. Grosholtz would search through piles of corpses to find the heads of her executed friends and acquaintances. She would then make the mask while holding the bloodied head in her lap.

5. Eventually, Grosholtz too was arrested and imprisoned. According to some sources, her head was even shaved in preparation for her execution, though the day of execution never came. While in prison, she shared a cell with Joséphine de Beauharais, with whom she became good friends. The women were released after three months and remained friends; it was at the request of Joséphine, his wife, that Napoleon Bonaparte later posed for Grosholtz.

6. Grosholtz began using the name Madame Tussaud after her marriage to Francois Tussaud in 1795. Just five years later, she took her eldest son and her collection on the road, exhibiting throughout the British Isles. Some sources allege she left because her marriage had gone sour; others claim she merely left to make money. Whatever the reason, Tussaud left and never saw her husband again, as the Napoleonic Wars prevented a return to France. Her younger son only joined her in 1821, only after the deaths of his father and grandmother and 20 years after he last saw his mother.

7. One of Tussaud's most popular attractions at her museum in England (established in 1835) was the Chamber of Horrors, which included victims of the French Revolution, murderers, and other criminals. Most sources claim that the term "Chamber of Horrors" was coined by a contributor to Punch in 1845, but the term had been used in Tussaud's own advertising as early as 1843, indicating Tussaud most likely coined the term herself.

8. Surprisingly, some of Tussaud's (and even Curtius') original models still exist, including Tussaud's Robespierre, George III, and Ben Franklin (one of her earliest figures) and Curtius's Madame du Barry. Most, though, have been remade from molds, as the originals were rendered unusable through a combination of a 1925 fire and the bombing of London in 1941.

9. Tussaud ensured her museum legacy by establishing a permanent home for her exhibition in 1836; it went to her sons upon her death. She ensured her own legacy by writing her memoirs in 1838, creating a self portrait (shown above right) in 1842, sitting for a portrait by a court painter, and serving as the inspiration for Charles Dickens' Mrs. Jarley in his novel, The Old Curiosity Shop.

Larger versions of the photos of Voltaire (above left) and Madame Tussaud (above right), by Flickr user mharrsch, are available.

Fans should check out the Madame Tussauds web site; this video on the history of Madame Tussauds; the official Flickr photo group for Madame Tussauds London (the original location); this first edition copy of Tussaud's memoirs, available for purchase for $2,150; and the video for the Steve Taylor song "Meltdown" about the figures at Madame Tussauds melting.

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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]