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MUSEO DELL'OPERA DEL DUOMO/Daily News

9 Other Museum Patrons Who Mangled Works of Art

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MUSEO DELL'OPERA DEL DUOMO/Daily News

On a trip to Florence, a 55-year-old from Missouri reportedly broke the finger off a 600-year-old statue at Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. While the thought of a guest clumsily tripping and damaging a piece may make art fans cringe, it's more common than you'd think. Here are a few more tales of museum patrons and art lovers who accidentally harmed precious works of art.

1. Come for the Martinis, Stay for the Monet

Museums occasionally rake in some extra cash by hosting private events, and in 2006 the Milwaukee Art Museum opened its doors for a Clear Channel shindig that must have sounded reasonable at the time: Martinifest, a semiformal event where guests got all the martinis they could drink for a flat $30.

Anyone who's ever been to an open-bar event can see where this one is headed. The crowd apparently had a deeper appreciation for gin and vermouth than for Picasso and Matisse, and things got predictably wild. By the end of the night, gin-soaked patrons had vomited on some of the works and even climbed on Gaston Lachaise's large bronze sculpture, Standing Woman. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran this gem of a quote from an eyewitness to the sculpture-scaling: "They were standing on it, grabbing the boobs, and somebody was just taking pictures with a cell phone." [Image courtesy of Lachaise Foundation.]

2. The Kids Love Rothko

Abstract expressionism is apparently the most irresistible kid-friendly force since Elmo, and something about Mark Rothko's Black on Maroon really speaks to young people.

Over the span of just a few months, two different tots got their mitts on the painting at London's Tate Modern. In the first incident, a child grabbed the canvas, which damaged the work by leaving a series of small dents in the piece. Three months later, a two-year-old snuck underneath the barrier that had been set up in front of the painting and left handprints on the work.

3. Careful with that Boom Mic

Bored toddlers aren't the only danger to the Tate's collections, though. Anish Kapoor's 2003 sculpture Ishi's Light sustained damages when a film crew cameraman banged into it with his tripod in 2007. The tripod chipped a hunk out of the fiberglass, resin, and lacquer work.

4. Modern Art? It Makes Me Want to Puke

A few little chips and tears seem trifling compared to the indignity Carl Andre's 1980 sculpture Venus Forge suffered at the Tate in 2007. A child became queasy while visiting the gallery, and vomited on part of the sculpture instead of making a beeline for the bathroom. Several of the work's steel and copper plates had to be removed for some (pretty disgusting) restoration work.

5. Child Pulls Off Frame-Up

French painter Ary Scheffer's 1854 work The Temptation of Christ is still in one piece, but the same can't be said for its antique frame. A curious child broke several pieces off of the frame while the painting was on display at National Museums Liverpool.

6. Bubblicious: The Bane of the Art World

In February 2006, the curatorial staff at the Detroit Institute of Arts made an alarming discovery: someone had slapped a hunk of gum on Helen Frankenthaler's abstract painting The Bay. After some investigation, museum administrators learned that a 12-year-old boy had affixed the chewed gum on the painting during a school visit to the museum. (Something's telling us that the incident ruined future field trips for everyone.) Luckily, the museum found the gum quickly and was able to remove it, even using a magnifying glass to pull remaining bits of gum off of the individual strands of the canvas weave.

7. Mind the Barbed Wire

If you think encasing a museum's collection behind barbed wire might help alleviate some of this unwanted touching, think again; it might just make things worse. Consider Tracey Emin's 2005 work Self Portrait: Bath. One element of the work involves a neon light wrapped in barbed wire, which led to a problem when a visitor to Edinburgh's Gallery of Modern Art got a little too close while viewing the piece. The barbed wire got caught in the visitor's clothing, so when he walked away part of the work dragged along behind him. The museum ended up spending $2,000 to repair the damages.

8. Keep Your Balance

In 2010, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art finally got to put Picasso's The Actor back up on its gallery walls after a three-month hiatus. That January, a patron lost her balance and fell into the 1904 painting, opening up a six-inch gash in the lower right-hand corner of the canvas. Luckily, art restoration experts were able to repair the canvas in time for the Met's large Picasso exhibit.

9. Watch Your Shoelaces

This one could have been a hilarious pratfall if it hadn't done so much unfunny damage. In 2006, Nick Flynn was visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge when he tripped over his untied shoelaces and took a tumble down the museum's main staircase. Flynn flailed his arms in an attempt to catch his balance, but the stairs didn't have a handrail, just smooth marble walls.

The first thing the 42-year-old Flynn managed to catch in his attempt to right himself was a 300-year-old Chinese vase that was displayed unprotected in a windowsill. Unfortunately, when Flynn hit the vase, it ricocheted into two other vases from the same era of the Qing dynasty. The stumble ended up smashing all three vases—which were worth around £100,000—before Flynn came to a rest.

Pretty embarrassing for Flynn, right? The humiliation didn't stop there. Two months after the incident, he was arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage and even spent a night in jail after museum officials began to worry that he'd smashed the vases on purpose. In the end, the museum didn't press charges against Flynn, and the restored vases are back on display—in a custom-built case to protect them from any further falls.

Portions of this story originally appeared in 2010.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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