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5 Artistic Rivalries That Got Ugly

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by Elizabeth Lunday

1. Voltaire exposes Rousseau as a Deadbeat Dad (5 times over?!)

They say you're not paranoid if someone's really out to get you. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was paranoid, but Voltaire was really out to get him, too. The two philosopher/writers started sniping at each other in the 1750s. At the time, Voltaire was an established leader of French philosophical circles and Rousseau (yet to write The Social Contract and Émile) was just a newbie. But the balance of power began to shift when Voltaire moved to Rousseau's native city of Geneva in 1754. Although Rousseau had left Geneva in 1728, he remained devoted to the city's strict Calvinist standards, which included a ban on public plays. So when he heard Voltaire was not only putting on private dramas but also urging city authorities to admit plays into the city, Rousseau wrote an outraged letter condemning theatricals. In return, an annoyed Voltaire wrote to his philosopher friends saying that Rousseau had only criticized the theater because Rousseau had written a bad play.

Rousseau went off the deep end. He dipped his pen in vitriol and scratched out a letter to Voltaire that began, bluntly enough, "I do not like you, sir." He went on to outline all the (perceived) slights he'd received from Voltaire and concluded, "In a word, I hate you." Voltaire thought Rousseau had lost his mind and publicly advised his fellow philosopher a course of soothing baths and restorative broths. Henceforth, Voltaire would miss no opportunity to slam his enemy. He mocked the plots of Rousseau's novels, insinuated Rousseau had inflated his resume, and bashed Rousseau's book Julie as "silly, middle-class, dirty-minded, and boring." Finally, in 1764, Voltaire wielded the most powerful weapon he possessed—a secret about Rousseau he'd picked up in Geneva. Using a pseudonym, Voltaire wrote an open letter accusing Rousseau of abandoning his five children at the door of an orphanage. The accusation was shocking—and true.

Rousseau, in a politician-worthy statement of denial, could only claim, "I have never exposed, or caused to be exposed, any infant at the door of an orphanage." He was telling the truth, but only because the children had been taken inside the orphanage. Further scrambling to justify his actions, Rousseau responded with his book Confessions, now recognized as one of the first true autobiographies. An ugly quarrel, it seems, marked the invention of a new literary form.

2. 100 Years of Attitude: Mario Vargas Llosa punches Gabriel García Márquez in the face

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Colombian Nobel-prize winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez and Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa together helped to revolutionize Spanish-language literature with their forays into magical realism. The two met in 1967 and immediately became inseparable. In 1971, Vargas Llosa wrote a book-length study of García Márquez' work. García Márquez became the godfather of Vargas Llosa's son.

Then, at a 1976 film premiere in Mexico City, García Márquez spotted his pal Vargas Llosa sitting a few rows back and went to greet him.

"Mario!" he exclaimed with open arms, just before Vargas Llosa punched him in the face.

The two authors have neither spoken to, nor seen, each other since. For years, that is all anyone has known about it. What hasn't been known, however, is why. The men have only said the quarrel was "personal." Much of the speculation has focused on politics. (At one time, both were supporters of Fidel Castro, but Vargas Llosa grew disillusioned with the dictator.) Others have suggested Vargas Llosa was jealous of his friend's world fame. But the cold war hit the papers again this January after a Spanish newspaper announced that the 40th-anniversary edition of García Márquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude would include an introduction by Vargas Llosa. Headlines announced that the feud was over—except that it wasn't. García Márquez' literary agent explained that Vargas Llosa had only allowed an out-of-print 1971 essay about García Márquez to be included in the volume. Hardly a reconciliation, but it meant the feud was news once again. And that's when the story behind the Mexico City fight started to come out. Turns out, the quarrel wasn't about literary fame or political leanings. As we all should have guessed, it was about a woman.

The trouble started, sources say, when Vargas Llosa fell madly in love with a Swedish stewardess. He ran off to Stockholm with her, leaving behind his wife, Patricia (who was, incidentally, also his first cousin). Devastated, Patricia went to her husband's best friend for advice. The first thing García Márquez reportedly did was suggest she divorce her husband. Then he "consoled" her. (It has been suggested this "consolation" involved more than a pat on the back.)

Eventually, Vargas Llosa returned home from Sweden and reconciled with his wife. Apparently, Patricia told all. The authors' next encounter was at the theater. After landing his punch, Vargas Llosa supposedly shouted, "How dare you come and greet me after what you did to Patricia in Barcelona!" And while neither author has confirmed this version of the events, the brouhaha has Latin American literary types buzzing yet again.

3. Lillian Hellman vs. Mary McCarthy

One January night in 1980, playwright Lillian Hellman (The Children's Hour, The Little Foxes) sat up in bed while watching The Dick Cavett Show. Novelist and critic Mary McCarthy was on the program discussing books when Cavett asked her which writers she considered overrated. "Lillian Hellman," McCarthy promptly replied. "Everything "¦ every word she writes is a lie, including "˜and' and "˜the.'"

Hellman may have been 74 years old, nearly blind, and unable to walk, but she could still use the telephone. She called her attorney and ordered him to sue McCarthy— along with Cavett, the show's producer, and the station—for $2.25 million in libel. The result was a public slug-fest, with all of America's writers taking sides. Norman Mailer tried to act as a peacemaker via an article in The New York Times, but it only proved to annoy both sides. Hellman even offered to drop the suit if McCarthy publicly apologized, to which McCarthy responded, "But that would be lying."

To the surprise of everyone, including Hellman's attorneys, the New York Supreme Court refused McCarthy's request to dismiss the case on May 10, 1984. Sadly, Hellman didn't have long to enjoy her victory; she died less than two months later. McCarthy, who'd been facing financial ruin, was less than satisfied, complaining, "I didn't want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court." Since then, the case has been remembered in legal circles as raising important free speech issues. As Harper's magazine quipped, "If you can't call Lillian Hellman a liar on national TV, what's the First Amendment all about?"

4. Dueling Pianos: Johann Mattheson almost kills George Frideric Handel

Johann Mattheson met fellow composer George Frideric Handel in 1703, when the 21-year-old Handel moved to Hamburg to take the position of violinist and harpsichordist for the opera-house orchestra. This made Handel something of a young celebrity, but Mattheson was something of a celebrity himself, being a former child prodigy and a popular local composer. The two hung out quite a bit, and Mattheson even gave Handel advice on writing his first opera.

But the friendship hit a roadblock in December 1704, when Mattheson premiered his third opera, Cleopatra. Mattheson not only wrote and conducted the piece but also sang the part of Antonius. (Busy guy, Johann.) During the first three-quarters of the performance, Mattheson was on stage. But half an hour before the end, Antonius commits suicide, which left Mattheson at loose ends. Deciding to take over at the harpsichord, he headed for the orchestra pit and whispered to Handel, then tickling the ivories, to scoot over. A very much miffed Handel refused to give way.

History doesn't note the effect of the musicians' brawl on the performance, but it does record that Mattheson challenged Handel to a duel. According to Mattheson, the two retired to the street, took up swords, and started slashing. Also according to Mattheson, his sword broke when it struck one of Handel's large metal coat buttons, which is the only reason George's life was spared. Either way, Handel went on to bigger and better things (Messiah, for one), while Mattheson remained in Hamburg churning out oratorios. Watching Handel's rise from afar, he once complained that Handel had stolen the melody from one of his operas. (Probably a true charge, actually, as Handel was notorious for "borrowing" melodies.) Finally, toward the end of his life, Mattheson filled his autobiography with stories of his world-famous buddy, taking as much credit as possible for himself.

5. Domed for Failure: Lorenzo Ghiberti vs. Filippo Brunelleschi

The trouble between famed sculptors Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti started in 1401, and, according to some art historians, the Italian Renaissance started then, too. It was the year the two up-and-coming artists were among those asked to enter a competition to design a pair of bronze doors for the baptistery at the Florence Cathedral. Ghiberti ended up getting the job, but the details are debatable. He claimed the committee voted unanimously in his favor, but there's evidence that when officials asked the two artists to work together on the project, Brunelleschi scoffed at the offer and stormed off to Rome to study Classical architecture.
Who would have known, then, that Ghiberti and Brunelleschi would find themselves in competition again in 1418—this time to design a dome for the same cathedral. When the artists displayed their models, it was no contest. Brunelleschi's dome was not only architecturally elegant, it was structurally superior. Ghiberti, however, was the town's golden boy, so while Brunelleschi was given the main responsibility for the project, Ghiberti was awarded the same salary just for assisting.

That's how matters stood at the dome until 1423, just as a major piece of structural support was to begin construction. Armed with a cunning plan, Brunelleschi began complaining of a pain in his side and staggered home to bed. Naturally, the workmen turned to Ghiberti. While the bewildered artist tried to figure out Brunelleschi's model, the supposedly ill artist sat at home issuing reports of his imminent death. Then, miracle of miracles, Brunelleschi made a complete recovery. Rising from his bed a healed man, he inspected Ghiberti's work and announced it a shoddy piece of construction that would cause the entire structure to collapse. He ordered Ghiberti's work demolished and executed his own plans, which elegantly solved the structural problem.

Soon thereafter, Ghiberti was fired from the cathedral project. He never again attempted architecture, concentrating instead on refining his sculptures. Meanwhile, Brunelleschi saw the cathedral completed in 1436. It was the first dome ever built without a supporting frame, the largest dome in existence at the time, and remains the largest masonry dome in the world.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition 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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Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


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To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.