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4 Public Works of Art Gone Terribly Wrong

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1. Diego Rivera’s “Man at the Crossroads”

The Moral: Never hire a communist to do a capitalist’s job.

During the Great Depression, Mexican artist Diego Rivera was on a roll. In 1931, he painted a massive mural for San Francisco’s Pacific Stock Exchange. And by 1933, he’d completed two more enormous murals of Ford’s assembly line for the Detroit Institute of Arts. But there was a disconnect in Rivera’s work. Although the artist was a vocal and committed communist, his art was decidedly capitalist. After a few friends pointed out the hypocrisy, Rivera decided to put his paintbrush where his mouth was.

Opportunity knocked in 1932, when the Rockefeller family hired Rivera to create one of his signature paintings in the lobby of the new RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. Their suggested theme for the work was “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future”—an allusion to the crossroads between industry and technology. Rivera’s final product depicted a crossroads, but hardly in the way the Rockefellers had intended. Instead, the sprawling 63-foot masterpiece illustrated two alternate futures: a communist heaven and a capitalist hell.

Rivera might have gotten away with his political statement if it hadn’t been for one detail—he painted his personal hero, Vladimir Lenin, into the piece. When building managers realized Rivera was filling their lobby with Red propaganda, they ordered him to cease and desist. To preserve the art, the Rockefellers asked Rivera to morph Lenin’s portrait into an unrecognizable worker. But when the artist refused (Rivera offered instead to balance the picture with a portrait of Lincoln), he was paid his full fee, then barred from the site. The mural was immediately covered, and months later, workers were ordered to destroy the piece altogether.

It wasn’t long before the artist got his revenge. Later that year, Rivera re-created the piece for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Only this time, he added a portrait to the capitalist side; it was of Nelson Rockefeller, holding a martini glass, under a swarm of syphilitic bacteria.

2. Robert Arneson’s “Portrait of George”

The Moral: If you’re going to put the Mayor on a pedestal, don’t build that pedestal with Twinkies.

In 1978, after mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated, the city of San Francisco wanted to commemorate its fallen leaders. Officials set about building a new convention center in Moscone’s honor, and held a competition for a proper memorial sculpture to be displayed in the lobby. Artist Robert Arneson quickly won over the selection committee with his proposal for a grinning, oversize bust of the slain mayor.

But when the sculpture was unveiled in 1981, it was met with gasps of horror. The audience wasn’t shocked by Moscone’s smiling head, but by its nearly 5-foot-tall pedestal, which was imprinted with five bloody bullet holes and graffiti that read “BANG BANG BANG” and “HARVEY MILK TOO.” Arneson even included an image of a revolver and a Twinkie—a reference to the assassin, Dan White, who’d tried to exonerate himself in court by arguing that junk food binges were to blame for his violent mood swings.

Arneson claimed he was trying to portray the totality of the crime, but San Franciscans wouldn’t have it. Mayor Moscone’s successor, Dianne Feinstein, denounced the work, and the city demanded its money back. 

A handful of people did appreciate the sculpture, though. A private collector purchased the piece immediately, and in 1997, “Portrait of George” resold for $155,000. Today, even Feinstein agrees the work would be “appropriate for a museum.” Just don’t count on it showing up in the Moscone Center lobby anytime soon.

3. Horatio Greenough’s “George Washington”

The Moral: Founding Fathers look less distinguished in the nude.

In 1832, Congress commissioned a giant sculpture of George Washington for the 100th anniversary of the President’s birth. They tapped artist Horatio Greenough for the job, and he seemed like a perfect fit. Not only did the Boston native come with a great reputation, but he’d also trained in Rome with the best European artists. Considering Greenough’s background, Congress assumed that his work might be classically influenced. What they didn’t expect was to see the Founding Father on a pedestal, naked as the day he was born.

To be fair, Horatio Greenough had good intentions. Inspired by ancient depictions of Greek gods, the artist wanted to portray America’s first president with the strength of Zeus, bestowing power on the people. But when Greenough unveiled his work in the Capitol rotunda, the audience didn’t get it. Instead of greeting the statue with thunderous applause, onlookers simply gawked and snickered at the half-naked George Washington. Wrapped loosely in a toga, the president looked out of character with his nipples and belly button exposed. Worse still, Washington’s arm was extended outward in a grand gesture, and many in the crowd joked that the embarrassed president was trying to reach for his clothes.

Congress was outraged. They tried to relocate the piece, eventually sticking it on the east lawn of the Capitol. By 1908, however, politicians had acquired a sense of humor about the sculpture, and the statue was moved to the Smithsonian. Today, it can be seen in all its naked splendor at the National Museum of American History.

4. David Černý's “Entropa”

The Moral: Not everyone appreciates racist, nationalist humor.

On January 1, 2009, the Czech Republic took over the revolving presidency of the European Union, and to commemorate the event, the government turned to Czech artist David Černý. For his piece, Cerný proposed working with 26 other artists, one from each EU member nation, to create a grand monument. But when “Entropa” was unveiled on January 12, the international community was scandalized. Rather than celebrating Europe, “Entropa” mocked each and every country.

“Entropa” is a huge map in which each nation is represented as a stereotype. Some are silly; others are blatantly offensive. Romania is depicted as a Dracula theme park; Germany is a network of motorways that resembles a swastika; Sweden is a large, IKEA-style box; Bulgaria is a collection of squat toilets. 

Upon seeing the work, the Bulgarian government immediately issued a formal complaint. The controversy grew when newspapers noticed that Cerný's “team” of international artists was nowhere to be found. Cerný soon admitted that they didn’t exist; his only collaborators were his two assistants. Outraged, Czech officials accused him of misappropriating state funds, but Cerný insisted that he’d always intended to return the money. Three days later, when the work was ceremonially presented to the public, Cerný formally apologized to the Czech government. He said his intention was “to see if Europe is able to laugh at itself.” Apparently, it can’t.

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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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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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