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5 Things You Didn't Know About Wallis Simpson

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It takes quite a woman to get a man to give up the English throne just to marry her, but twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson pulled off the trick in 1936 when she married King Edward VIII. Here are five things you might not know about the woman for whom Edward abdicated the throne.

1. She Was the First 'Woman of the Year'

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In 1936, Time honored Wallis Simpson's major coup of getting Edward to abdicate his throne by naming her "Woman of the Year," the first time the magazine had ever given its "Man of the Year" award to a woman. She didn't sneak past a field of slackers to get the honor, either; the other finalists included FDR, Mussolini, Eugene O'Neill, Chiang Kai-shek, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Lou Gehrig, Jesse Owens, and Margaret Mitchell.

Why did the magazine choose to honor Wallis Simpson over so many people who changed the course of 20th century history? According to Time, "In the single year 1936 she became the most-talked-about, written-about, headlined and interest-compelling person in the world. In these respects no woman in history has ever equaled Mrs. Simpson, for no press or radio existed to spread the world news they made."

2. Their Wedding Cake Sold for Big Money—in 1998

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Remember the episode of Seinfeld where the fictional J. Peterman bought a slice of Edward and Wallis' 60-year-old wedding cake for $29,000? That little quirk didn't just spring from Jerry Seinfeld's head; it actually happened.

In 1998, Sotheby's held a large auction of the duke and duchess' personal effects, including a slice of cake in a box marked ""A PIECE OF OUR WEDDING CAKE WE WE 3-VI-37." (The "WE" stood for "Wallis and Edward.")

Sotheby's expected the cake curiosity to sell for $500-1000. The bidding for the slice of cake quickly became heated, though, and in the end California couple Benjamin and Amanda Yim forked over $29,000 for the well-aged baked good. Benjamin Yim explained his purchase by saying, "It is almost unimaginable to have such an item exist. It is something totally surreal. It represents the epitome of a great romance."

3. She Loved Pugs

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As a fellow pug fancier, I had to include this one. The duke and duchess owned a pack of pugs with great names: Disraeli, Davey Crockett, Black Diamond, Imp, Trooper, and Ginseng. Wallis didn't just love live pugs, though; she also had 11 pug-shaped pillows arranged at the foot of her bed. The pillows were replicas of a needlepoint done by actress Sylvia Sidney and sold for $13,800 after the duchess' death.

At least one funny story sprang from the duchess' lifelong love of pugs. Famed photographer Richard Avedon got an opportunity to photograph Edward and Wallis during a 1957 stay at the Waldorf Astoria. Avedon didn't want to take another bland, guarded picture of smiling members of the royal family, so he got creative. After remembering that the couple were dog lovers, he told a long, sad story about seeing a taxi run over a pup. He then snapped the picture right as their faces looked the most concerned. The photo, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, is one of Avedon's more memorable works.

4. She Stayed in Hitler's Guestroom

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Wallis and Edward ran afoul of the rest of the royals (and much of the British government) during World War II. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor made a high-profile trip to Nazi Germany during 1937 to see how the German people lived under Hitler's regime; they even stayed with the Fuhrer as his personal guests. When tensions flared during the early days of World War II, the couple was still said to entertain fascist friends in their French home.

Others thought that the Nazis were gleaning information about French defenses from the loose-lipped duchess. Some of the rumors were pretty steamy: people speculated that German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had been Wallis' lover during the mid-1930s and sent her 17 carnations a day as a reminder of how many times they slept together.

The British intelligence community became so worried that Wallis and Edward were Nazi sympathizers that they decided to make a preemptive strike against any future leaks. Edward received a new assignment—the relatively low-risk governorship of the Bahamas. The couple spent five years there in a Napoleon-like exile. Wallis hated life in the Bahamas and made frequent shopping trips to the U.S., which irked many British citizens who were having to deal with severe rationing and ongoing blackouts.

5. Madonna Wants to Play Her

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In February 2009, rumors started to circulate in the British press that Madonna wanted to make a musical about Wallis Simpson's life and play the starring role. Sources close to the singer reported that Madonna closely identified with Simpson following her divorce from director Guy Ritchie. Apparently Madonna identifies with the idea of a tabloid-mocked American marrying a British institution, but the project isn't in production yet.

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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