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Florida's Corpse Bride

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Two Strange States entries simply weren't enough to contain the oddities in America’s favorite vacation destination. Here's another. Warning: You probably shouldn't read this one while you're eating lunch.

The Morbid Obsession of Carl Tanzler

Love for a woman inspired Edward Leedskalnin to create the beautiful Coral Castle. But for Leedskalnin’s Florida contemporary, Carl Tanzler, infatuation led him down a much darker, more disturbing path. 

Tanzler, also known as Count Carl von Cosel, was a German immigrant who came to Zephyrhills, Florida with his family in 1926.  However, he soon left his wife and children to take a job in Key West as a radiologist for the U.S. Marine Hospital. While there, he met a beautiful young woman 32 years his junior named Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos, better known as Helen (top, in a photo courtesy of the Florida Keys Public Library). Helen had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, and Tanzler visited her at her family’s home often, attempting to treat the disease with x-ray machines and other forms of untested science. Later, Tanzler professed his love for her, declaring that he had been searching for her his whole life.

Since he was a boy, Tanzler reported having visions of his ancestor, Countess Anna Constantina von Cosel, who died in 1765.  Tanzler claimed the Countess sent him an image of his one true love: a dark-haired woman, whom Tanzler said matched Helen exactly.

Sadly, Helen died in 1931. Her funeral was paid for by Tanzler, as was the mausoleum he convinced the family to build instead of having her buried. This allowed him the chance to visit her graveside every evening and sing her favorite Spanish tunes to her. While there, he claimed that Helen often spoke to him, calling to him from beyond the grave, begging him to take her home. And so he did, sometime in April 1933.

It wasn’t long after being exposed to the elements that Helen’s body began to decompose. After placing her in his bed, Tanzler tied her bones together using piano wire and clothes hangers. Later, he replaced the eyes with glass orbs, made a wig out of her hair as it fell out, and replaced her skin with a combination of plaster of Paris and silk soaked in wax. To help the torso keep its form, he stuffed it with rags. He put her in a dress, stockings, and gloves, and applied makeup to give her a more lifelike appearance. In order to mask the smell of the body, he regularly doused her in perfume. 

Tanzler lived with the corpse of his beloved for seven years, sleeping next to her every night. It wasn’t until 1940, when Helen’s sister heard rumors that Tanzler might have her sister’s remains, that the authorities were called in to investigate. Helen’s body was found and an autopsy was performed after which, as if she hadn’t already suffered enough indignities, her body was put on public display for three days and was viewed by over 6000 Floridians. She was later buried in an unmarked grave. 

In 1972, a doctor that attended the autopsy would make one final, disturbing revelation about the body—a tube had been found inserted in the vaginal area so Tanzler could simulate intercourse. This fact was not mentioned when Tanzler was arrested and charged only with “maliciously disturbing” Helen’s grave. It’s hard to believe, but many people at the time felt sorry for him, saying he was just “an eccentric romantic.”  Maybe if they’d been given the whole story...

Shortly after his arrest, the charges against Tanzler were dropped because the statute of limitations for his lesser crime was only two years. Following his release, Tanzler moved back to Zephyrhills where he spent the rest of his life selling postcards of pictures of Helen, telling curious tourists about his exploits, and showing off a wax copy of his beloved’s death mask. In a final creepy twist, Tanzler was found dead in 1952, near a life-size effigy of Helen wearing the wax death mask.

Believe it or not, there’s even more strangeness in Florida, so we might have to run another entry tomorrow. In the meantime, check out our Strange States archive here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

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]