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Dear Valentine: A Brief History of Great Love Letters

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For as long as people could write, it seems, the more romantic and less self-conscious have been penning love letters. But in the era of texting ("luv u") and tweeting and emailing, the visceral pleasure of a handwritten love letter is largely lost. What grammar school kid even gets an "I like you, do you like me? Check yes or no" note anymore? And sure, an email can explain the depths to which you love your "own dear boy," your "Best Beloved," or your "Dearest Creature," but it just doesn't look the same on the brightly glowing screen as it does scrawled on a scrap of notebook paper.

This Valentine's Day, take a bit of inspiration from these few famous love letters and pen your sweetie a love missive. You can even add an ironic "check yes or no" if you're feeling self-conscious about it.

Love letters spell trouble

Tales of thwarted love capture the human imagination like nothing else. So it's not surprising that the early 12th century story of Pierre Abelard and Héloïse has endured for generations.

Abelard was in his early 30s and one of the most promising philosophers and teachers in medieval Paris; young Héloïse was the clever and academic live-in niece of a respected churchman, Canon Fulbert. Claiming the upkeep of a home and the commute to Paris was too onerous, Abelard appealed to Fulbert: In exchange for room and board, he'd tutor bright Héloïse. Some claim that Abelard knew exactly what he was doing by securing a room with the Canon, but whether it was fate or the crafty work of a besotted suitor, it worked. They soon fell in love and, after a brief period of intense "study" sessions, Héloïse became pregnant. They married in secret and for a short time, it looked like things were going to turn out OK for the illicit pair. But that wouldn't make it a tragedy: With wounded pride and a vengeful heart, Canon Fulbert hired some men to find Abelard and castrate him.

With Abelard a eunuch and her child entrusted to the care of her family, Héloïse was given little choice but to take the vows; she later became prioress of her abbey, while Abelard's career as a philosopher thrived.

Abelard seems to have turned away from sensual love after the incident, but Héloïse continued to pour her romantic love for him into letters: "But if I lose you, what is left to hope for? What reason for continuing on the pilgrimage of life, for which I have no support but you and none in you except the knowledge that you are alive, now that I am forbidden all other pleasures in you and denied even the joy of your presence which from time to time could restore me to myself?"

In the more than 800 years since their deaths, the lovers' story, now the stuff of paintings and poetry, has cemented their place in the pantheon of great lovers. Their letters also remain—although there is some scholarly debate as to whether the two even wrote them. The real question is, as the couple has already passed into legend, does it matter?

Most mysterious love letters

Though he never married—he was, according to one woman he professed his love for, "very ugly and half crazy"—Ludwig Von Beethoven fell in love deeply and often, usually with women who were unattainable (either by reasons of social obligations or because they were already married). While Beethoven wrote a number of love letters, three stand out—the so-called "Immortal Beloved" letters.

beethovenThe three letters, written over two July days in 1812, are all the more stunning because their recipient not only never read them, but has also remained nameless for all history. The letters, addressed only to someone he called "Immortal Beloved," were discovered in his papers after his death.


In the first, dated the morning of Monday, July 6, Beethoven writes: "Love demands everything and is quite right, so it is for me with you, for you with me"¦" In the second, dated that evening, he "weeps" at the thought that the post only goes on Monday and Thursdays early in the morning—because he has already missed the first, his beloved won't receive word from him until Saturday.


The next day, he writes, "I can only live, either altogether with you or not all"¦. Your love made me the happiest and the unhappiest at the same time." He ends the last letter:

"Oh, go on loving me—never doubt the faithfullest heart
Of your beloved
L
Ever thine.
Ever mine.
Ever ours."

Attempts to conclusively determine the identity of his "Immortal Beloved" have generally come to naught, although some say the most likely candidate is Antonie Bretano, a Viennese woman who, true to Beethoven's form, was already married to a Frankfurt merchant. Others say she was Josephine von Brunsvik, an unhappily married Hungarian aristocrat who'd formed an attachment to Beethoven some years earlier. Still others claim it was the Countess Julia Guicciardi, to whom he'd dedicated his gorgeous "Moonlight Sonata." But no one believes the version put forward by Hollywood director Bernard Rose, in his 1994 Beethoven biopic starring Gary Oldman: That the Immortal Beloved was actually Johanna Reiss, the wife of Beethoven's brother and a woman who, outside the make-believe world, Beethoven actually hated.

The evolution of love

When most people think of Charles Darwin, they don't usually think "˜romance'—the author of Origin of the Species is far more well known for his theory of human evolution than for his reputation as a lover.

It's true that Darwin wasn't exactly sentimental. In 1838, seven years after his momentous voyage to Tierra del Fuego on the Beagle—a trip that planted the seeds of what would become his master work—the scientist decided he'd like to get married.

Darwin came to this decision after drawing up a pro-con list. Under "marry," he wrote, "constant companion" and "better than a dog anyhow." Under "not marry," he wrote, "conversation with clever men at clubs."

Ultimately, the pros outweighed the cons and he became engaged to his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood.

His love letters aren't sappy, but they do reflect his honest love for Emma and the genuine excitement he felt at his impending nuptials: "How I do hope you shall be happy as I know I shall be," he wrote, just days before their wedding. "My own dearest Emma, I earnestly pray, you may never regret the great and I will add very good, deed you are to perform on the Tuesday: my own dear future wife, God bless you"¦"

The couple had 10 children together and for the most part, their marriage was quite happy; even so, Emma, a devout Christian, worried desperately about what effect Darwin's scientific theories would have on his immortal soul and the souls of people who agreed with him.

Presidential love letters

Woodrow Wilson was the 28th President of the United States, a noted scholar, and the man who led America through the First World War. He was also a prolific love letter writer.

woodrow-edithDuring and before his first marriage to Ellen Louise Axeson, Wilson wrote hundreds of exceptionally beautiful and passionate love letters. After Ellen died in Wilson's second year in the White House, the president was devastated; but one day, riding about town, as the story goes, he caught sight of a beautiful woman and engineered a way to meet her. Wilson met Edith Bolling Galt (pictured), a Washington widow, and fell in love hard and fast—one Secret Serviceman said he was like a "schoolboy in his first love experience."


While wooing Edith, Wilson penned a series of love letters, some signed "Tiger" (Wilson was a Princeton alum, but this was before the university took on the tiger as its mascot.) In one, Wilson wrote, "You are more wonderful and lovely in my eyes than you ever were before; and my pride and joy and gratitude that you should love me with such a perfect love are beyond all expression, except in some great poem which I cannot write." In another, he pines, "Please go to ride with us this evening, precious little girl, so that I can whisper something in your ear—something of my happiness and love, and accept this, in the meantime, as a piece out of my very heart, which is all yours but cannot be sent as I wish to send it by letter."

Wilson certainly isn't the only American president to turn a bit mushy with a pen—or feather quill—in hand. In President Harry Truman's letters to Bess Wallace before they were married, he writes, "I suppose that I am too crazy about you anyway. Every time I see you I get more so if it is possible. I know I haven't any right to but there are certain things that can't be helped and that is one of them. I wouldn't help it if I could you know."

President Ronald Reagan wrote to Nancy Reagan after 31 years of marriage, "I more than love you, I'm not whole without you. You are life itself to me. When you are gone I'm waiting for you to return so I can start living again." Their correspondence was published in the 2002 book I Love You, Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan.

And of course, some of the most famous presidential love letters were between John Adams and his wife, Abigail. Between debating public policy and the direction of American independence, the two exchanged sweet, affectionate, silly, and often deeply affecting endearments: "Dear Miss Saucy," he writes, "I hereby order you to give me as many kisses and as many hours of your company as I shall please to demand, and charge them to my account."

Love letters from HAL

According to London's Daily Telegraph, one of the world's first computers wasn't built to crunch numbers—but to write love letters. In 1952, when scientists wanted to test the capability of Manchester University's Mark One computer, they devised a software program that would have the computer search a database of tender nothings and spit out love verses. The researchers would tack the best ones up to a communal office board, including missives like, "MY LUST TEMPTS YOUR FOND ARDOUR. MY LIKING ARDENTLY CARES FOR YOUR HUNGER." If you're stuck for a sweet something to write to your dear darling, let the Mark One do it for you.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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