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7 Works of Art That Are Taking a Beating

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by Stacy Conradt, Iowa State University

You guys might have read recently that Stonehenge was vandalized (followed a few days later by Carhenge!). When I read the headline, I immediately thought someone had toppled over the stones domino-style, or perhaps drawn graffiti on it (Kilroy was here?). What actually happened is that a couple of people attacked the central stone with a hammer and chipped off a piece the size of a large coin. That may not sound like such a big deal, but when you consider how ancient the mysterious structure is (it's been around since at least 2200 B.C.), it's pretty upsetting that anyone would try to alter or damage it. But that kind of thing happens more than you might think. Here are a few more antiquities or priceless artifacts that have been vandalized and/or stolen.

Michaelangelo's Pieta

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Anyone who took an art history class is familiar with Michaelangelo's Pieta, housed in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. The marble sculpture was created in the late 1400s for the French cardinal Jean de Billheres but was moved to St. Peter's in the 18th century. As you can see, the sculpture is of Mary holding Jesus after his crucifixion. Poor Mary has suffered quite a bit "“ first, four of her fingers were broken off in a move. They were restored in 1736, but this was only the beginning of Mary's troubles. In 1972, Laszlo Toth, a geologist, walked in and attacked the unprotected statue with a hammer while screaming, "I am Jesus Christ "“ risen from the dead!" He managed to take off Mary's arm at the elbow, chipped one of her eyelids and broke a piece off of her nose. He was never charged with vandalization because he was believed to be insane. After it was restored, however, Michaelangelo's Pieta has been encased in bullet-proof acrylic glass.

The Parthenon

Vandals don't always necessarily mean to harm these great works "“ sometimes they are souvenir collectors. Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, is best known for his collection of the Elgin Marbles. This is disputed, but one side of the story says that Elgin has permission to go into the Acropolis and make sketches, take casts and carry out digs, but he did not have permission to do so at the Parthenon itself. Although he intended to preserve the antiquities, Elgin discovered that he was unable to get many of the works out of the Parthenon without cutting them up into smaller chunks. In doing so, he caused quite a bit of damage to the pieces. The other side of the story, of course, says that Elgin had full permission to do everything. Unfortunately, the original copy of the document that outlined where Elgin could dig is no longer in existence "“ although an Italian translation of the document is. The validity of the translation is questioned for several reasons, though, so for now the mystery of whether Elgin was in the right or not remains just that.

Rokeby Venus

rokebyOur own Andréa could tell you more about this work than me, but here are the basics: The Rokeby Venus (AKA The Toilet of Venus, Venus at her Mirror, Venus and Cupid, or La Venus del espejo) is a painting done by Diego Velázquez and shows Venus posed on a bed, looking in to a mirror held by her son, Cupid.


In 1914, after suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested, fellow suffragette Mary Richardson attacked the painting, which was hanging in London's National Gallery, with a meat cleaver. She left seven large slashes on the painting, all of which were repaired by the National Gallery's restorer. Richardson received six months in jail as punishment and later said that she tried to "destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history." Also, she "didn't like the way men visitors gaped at it all day long".

The Mona Lisa

mona lisaAlthough the Mona Lisa is quite secure now, in 1911, a painter walked into the Louvre to check out the famous painting and discovered an empty space on the wall where it should have been. Security wasn't alarmed because they thought that the painting was somewhere being photographed for museum marketing. It wasn't. The museum was closed for a week while the theft was investigated. Two years later, it was discovered that a Louvre employee had hidden in a broom closet until the museum closed, then walked out with it hidden under his coat (if you've never seen it, the Mona Lisa is a lot smaller than you think it's going to be). The employee believed that the painting should be in an Italian museum, not a French museum. The Mona Lisa returned to her home at the Louvre in 1913.


1956 was particularly hard on Mona "“ first, a vandal doused the lower half of the painting with acid. A few months later a man threw a rock at her, which took off some of the paint near the left elbow. The Mona Lisa is now covered with bulletproof glass.

Michaelangelo's David

davidThe David was sculpted by Michaelangelo from 1501-1504, so honestly, I think it's surprising that it hasn't suffered more vandalism. In 1991, though, David almost lost his toes when a vandal attacked him with a hammer. However, there is a silver lining "“ scientists were able to do tests on some of the chipped-off pieces and determined where the marble originally came from, which gives restorers a better idea of how to clean and care for the marble.

The Scream

There's something about Edvard Munch's The Scream "“ it keeps getting stolen. Well, versions of it keep getting stolen "“ Munch created several different versions using different media. On the opening day of the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994, four men broken into London's National Gallery and took off with the version on display there, leaving a note that said "Thanks for the poor security." The undamaged painting was recovered a few months later.

In 2004, gunmen stole another version of The Scream, and another work of Munch's entitled Madonna. The paintings weren't recovered until 2006, and although they were damaged, they were in better condition than the museum had expected them to be in. The Scream had some moisture damage and Madonna had some tears and a couple of holes. The Munch Museum released a statement saying that although some of the damage may be impossible to repair, the overall integrity of the work has not been compromised.

The Little Mermaid

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You might argue that by putting a sculpture in an extremely public place, you're almost asking for vandalism. Such is the case of The Little Mermaid, a statue that sits on a rock in the Copenhagen harbour. It was unveiled in 1913 and has been the victim of vandals since the 1950s. She has lost her head at least twice and her right arm once, she was blasted entirely off of her rock in 2003, she's been painted on several times, and she has had several "additions" over the years, including a burka, a dildo, a bra and a head scarf.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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