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Great Christian Art by Really Lousy Christians

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by Elizabeth Lunday

If you want to paint a saint, it's best to hire a sinner.

Artist: Caravaggio
Sins: murder; punching a monk in the gut

Religious art in the late 16th century had become pretty standard stuff, full of beautiful Madonnas, chubby cherubs, and handsome saints. But Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio changed all that by painting what he knew best —debauchery.

After moving to Rome in the late 1580s, Caravaggio began rendering baroque Biblical scenes with remarkable realism. In the case of "The Calling of St. Matthew," for example (pictured), he portrayed the apostle in a dirty Roman tavern surrounded by downtrodden patrons. According to police records, Caravaggio spent plenty of time in these Roman taverns himself, drinking, brawling, and once throwing a plate of hot artichokes into a waiter's face.


Church officials put up with Caravaggio's wild behavior in exchange for his amazing work—until he crossed the line to murder. In 1606, the hot-tempered artist killed a Roman thug named Ranuccio Tomassoni in a fight following their tennis match. Recent research suggests the tennis game was actually a kind of duel over a woman, and that Tomassoni bled to death after Caravaggio tried to castrate his enemy on the court. The artist would have gotten into serious trouble, but wealthy patrons smuggled him out of town.

Caravaggio wound up in Naples, where he thrived as an artist for several years. Then he shocked everyone by leaving to join the Knights of Malta, an order of elite warrior monks famed for their religious devotion.

Less than four months after taking his vows, however, Caravaggio's temper got the better of him again, and he wounded a fellow monk in a quarrel. Once more, his friends smuggled him back to Naples.

Oddly, the Church never gave up on Caravaggio, and in 1610, friends in Rome sent word that a pardon was in the works. Caravaggio headed north, but he caught a fever and died on July 18, at age 38. He left behind a bizarre artistic legacy: No fewer than 12 of his paintings show figures being beheaded—a reflection, perhaps, of his own violent life.

Artist: Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Sins: debauchery; giving the Virgin Mary an "awkward phase"

annunciationDante Gabriel Rossetti had two contradictory goals in life. One was to indulge his hedonistic impulses to such an extent that his fellow Victorians would faint. The other was to revitalize Christian art. Rossetti achieved the first goal by drinking heavily, taking several lovers, throwing the best parties in town, and filling his ramshackle house with exotic pets such as kangaroos, armadillos, and wombats.


The second goal proved trickier for a man who'd never made it to church. In paintings such as 1850's "Ecce Ancilla Domini" ("The Annunciation," pictured), Rossetti set out to realistically depict a young woman's encounter with the divine. He painted the Virgin Mary as a gawky teenager, recoiling in terror from an angel. The portrait horrified devout Christians, and the work was denounced as blasphemous in sermons and editorials.


The criticism so hurt Rossetti that he never exhibited publicly again. But his painting of the gangly Mary ultimately freed him. Without the pressure of public life, Rossetti was able to do and paint what he wanted. He picked up an addiction to sleeping pills, had an affair with his best friend's wife, and created some of the most fascinating religious works in history, including "The Passover of the Holy Family," "The Seed of David," and "Mary Magdalene."

Artist: Salvador Dalí
Sins: orgies; possibly hoodwinking the Pope

daliAlthough born to devout Catholic parents, surrealist master Salvador Dalí was an atheist who indulged his every outlandish whim. This included teaming up with his salacious wife, Gala, to throw anything-goes orgies, dubbed "erotic Masses." Although his paintings of melting clocks, such as 1931's "The Persistence of Memory" (pictured), made Dalí famous, so did his ridiculous publicity stunts. He once showed up for a lecture in a diving helmet and insisted upon giving his talk while wearing it. Another time, he created a spectacle by driving around in a white limousine filled with cauliflower.

After Hitler invaded Europe, Dalí and Gala fled to the United States. To everyone's surprise, Dalí returned to his Catholic roots and began creating Christian art. He painted a Madonna and Child called "The Madonna of Port Lligat," using Gala as his model for the Virgin Mary. He also went on to complete two versions of Jesus' crucifixion and the Sacrament of the Last Supper. The Church readily embraced his new paintings, and in 1949, Dalí enjoyed a private audience with the Pope.

Not surprisingly, both critics and friends found the idea of Dalí expressing a religious side laughable. Many suspected that he was attempting to win the favor of the staunchly Catholic General Francisco Franco in Spain. Artists such as Picasso had denounced the fascist dictator, but Dalí defended him—which allowed Salvador to return to Spain, while Picasso couldn't. Others suspected that money was his major motivation. Indeed, Dalí claimed that postcards of his 1955 painting "The Sacrament of the Last Supper" sold more "¨than postcards of all the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael combined. Or maybe Dalí really did "¨have a spiritual side. Wouldn't that be surreal?

Artist: Rembrandt
Sins: lust; having his lover arrested

samaritanLike Caravaggio, Rembrandt liked his religious art to be realistic. His 1633 etching "The Good Samaritan" (pictured), for instance, even includes a dog defecating in the foreground. Surprisingly, his patrons liked his down-to-earth touches, and Rembrandt's art became hugely popular with members of Amsterdam's Dutch Reformed Church, a branch of Calvinism. They didn't commission his work, believing that art might distract worshippers from sermons, but many rich Calvinists enjoyed showing off Rembrandt originals in their homes.


What the pious Dutch didn't like were Rembrandt's relationships with women. In 1635, he painted his wife, Saskia, as a prostitute in a tavern, literally sitting in the lap of the prodigal son. His art was strange, but his personal life was stranger. Things became especially fraught after Saskia died in 1642, leaving behind a newborn son. A woman named Geertje Dircx took over as Rembrandt's nurse, housekeeper, and lover. But when the artist started up with yet another servant, Geertje took him to court for breach of promise. Bad idea. The outraged painter used his influence to have her imprisoned for theft. Meanwhile, church officials summoned his other mistress before a local council and charged her with living in sin.


All of this hurt Rembrandt's reputation as a religious painter tremendously. Because the pious Calvinists wanted nothing to do with him, Rembrandt lost his patrons and died in poverty in 1669. One of his last paintings was "Return of the Prodigal Son." This time, the painting depicts the end of the story, when the son—his clothing just rags and his shoes just scraps of leather—returns to his father to seek forgiveness.

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Sin: forbidden love

In the 1470s, the Roman Catholic Church was taking notice of the talents of young Leonardo da Vinci, but they hesitated to give him his big break. Rumor had it that the artist was gay, and at the time, Italian law punished homosexuality with exile, branding, or burning at the stake. In April 1476, after years of whispers, someone anonymously accused Leonardo of sodomy, and Florence police promptly arrested him.

last_supperLuckily for Leonardo, the case was dropped, ostensibly because someone higher up had pulled some strings. Not surprisingly, he left Florence soon after and took up a post with the Duke of Milan, who didn't seem to care about the artist's sexuality. Leonardo continued to paint religious art, including "The Last Supper" (pictured), and in general, the Milanese adopted a don't-ask-don't-tell attitude towards him. Of course, the artist did raise some eyebrows when his "student"—a handsome young man known as Salai—moved in with him.

In 1513, with nearly 40 years of scandal-free work under his belt, da Vinci finally found himself in the good graces of the Church, and he was invited to work for the Vatican. It was a great honor, but Leonardo didn't feel obligated to give the Pope what he asked for. Instead of painting Madonnas, Leonardo produced several odd depictions of John the Baptist that were modeled on his lover, Salai. The half-naked paintings featured seductive smiles and boyish faces, and they rattled his employer. In 1516, King Francis I of France invited Leonardo to become his court painter, and the Vatican was happy to see him go. When Leonardo died in 1519, he left the bulk of his property to Salai.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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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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