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10 Cultural Giants Who Died Coinless

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The notion of the starving artist is nothing new, and whether it was because they toiled in obscurity, were swindled or the victims of financial mismanagement, some of the most famous contributors to culture sadly perished in poverty.


1. Vincent van Gogh
Though his life was short, Vincent van Gogh left the world with almost 2000 creations, almost all of which were unappreciated in his own time (he only sold one painting during his life and was supported by his brother Theo). Despite the fact that he is now considered a master painter with an almost immeasurable impact on art and culture, Van Gogh died penniless in 1890 at the age of 37 by his own hand. He is quoted presciently observing, "I can't change the fact that my paintings don't sell. But the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture."


2. Mathew Brady
The "Father of Photojournalism" is best known for his invaluable photographs of the American Civil War. Though he was a successful and well-known portrait photographer before the war began (Abraham Lincoln's likeness on the $5 bill is modeled after Brady's portrait of him), he spent around $100,000 during the war on his photographs, which numbered in the thousands. The pictures brought the truth and grotesque horror of the war to the doorsteps of all Americans - a marked change from the propaganda and half-truths coming from print journalists at the time. Unfortunately, after the war no one wanted to be reminded of the horrors of it, and Brady was unable to sell his photographs or recoup his losses. Eventually Congress bought his collection for a mere $2,840, but Brady's life had already been ruined by poverty and alcoholism, and he died in relative obscurity in 1896.

3. Joe Louis

The world heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949, Louis is still considered by many as the greatest boxer of all time. Unfortunately, most of his fabled earnings (estimated around $4.6 million) went to his handlers. Joe Louis' extreme generosity in regards to his family (including paying back the city of Detroit all of the welfare funds his family had received), investments in failed businesses and terrible bungling of his taxes (he owed the IRS one million dollars at the end of the 1950s) by his manager's personal accountant, left Joe sorely in arrears.

Eventually, public outcry at the mistreatment of the star lead the government to ease up on their claims, allowing Louis to pay taxes in proportion to his current income, which Louis helped create by appearing as a guest quiz shows, and even as a greeter at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, although the champion died in 1981 still haunted by his debts.

4. Franz Schubert 
Like van Gogh, Schubert was exceptionally prolific in his short life as a classical composer (he died at the age of 31, just one year after the death of his contemporary, Beethoven). Also similarly to van Gogh, Schubert's works were of little interest to those of his age, and considered inferior to Bach and Beethoven. Because of his financial difficulties, Schubert often lead a rather bohemian and at time nomadic lifestyle, but it did not slow down his production. His music influenced later composers such as Brahms and Mendelssohn, and the complexity and beauty of his melodies are now thought to be on par with Mozart (you may recognize one little song of his called "Ave Maria"), solidifying his place in the canon of neglected geniuses who died in obscurity.

5. William Blake
William Blake was another artistic luminary working in obscurity in his day. Though he died poor and unknown, he did not have any debts. Blake was one of the first artists of the 18th century to rebel against Rationalism and move forward into the Romantic Age, and was unsurprisingly considered "mad" because of it. At the time of his death Wordsworth wrote of him, "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."

Blake was known not only for his paintings but also for his fantastic engravings that illustrated his poetry. Despite attempts at exhibitions of his works, no interest was attracted at the time, which did not deter (thankfully) Blake from continuing to produce. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields in 1827.

6. Edgar Allan Poe
Without a doubt now one of the most recognizable names in literature, Edgar Allen Allan Poe was one of the first writers to attempt to make a living on just that, and unfortunately embodied the Romantic notion of life as a starving artist because of it. Facing a myriad of rejections early in his career, even after Poe was published (in 1839 with a volume of short stories, "Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque") he initially received no money for his work. Despite the relative success of stories such as "The Gold Bug," Poe was unable to make enough money to support his family. Whether attempting to start his own magazines or simply working at journals that ultimately failed, Poe's revenue stream seem to have a life-long curse of bad luck. His beloved wife died in 1847, and two years later Poe was hospitalized and died in utter poverty under famously mysterious circumstances.

7. Oscar Wilde 
Though Wilde was a celebrity of the age and his works sold well, he was known to have extravagant spending habits. After his imprisonment he had been given a very small yearly allowance from the estate of his deceased wife, and was not helped at all by his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas, who had at that time just inherited a large sum. Living essentially in poverty in Paris, he was known to wander, bumping into old friends and spending what little cash remained on alcohol. Reportedly, when a doctor attending to him during his last days asked to be paid for his services, Wilde joked that he would die as he had lived - beyond his means.

8. Sammy Davis, Jr.
The famous Rat Pack singer is reported to have made over $50 million in his lifetime, but died in 1990 $15 million in debt (much of it, like in the case of Joe Louis, was owed to the IRS). Though he made around $1 million a year at the height of his career, the notorious "swinging world" of the Rat Pack nearly bankrupted Davis.

According to Matt Birkbeck's book "Deconstructing Sammy," Davis actually rejected surgery in 1989 on his throat that may have saved him, because of his dismal finances. He reasoned that without his voice he couldn't sing and therefore couldn't make any more money. Birkbeck spoke to NPR in 2008 to talk about Sammy's regrettable decline from superstardom to poverty.

9. Johannes Vermeer
Vermeer was a 17th-century painter with eleven children, massive debt and a habit of working very slowly and painstakingly on his paintings (the most famous of which is probably the "Girl With a Pearl Earring"). After his death some of his paintings (he created about 40 in his lifetime) were sold with the names of other artists on them to make them more valuable. It took three centuries for Vermeer to be recognized as a master painter of the Dutch Golden Age for his use of light, tranquility and the unusual subject matter of peasants that populated his works. Though he did have patrons who paid him, he never made much and lived on the verge of poverty much of his life, eventually leaving his family in debt when he died at age 43.

10. Stephen Foster
Though you may not be familiar with Stephen Foster's name, you undoubtedly know his songs. Foster is considered the "Father of American Music," penning the works "Camptown Races," "Swanee River," "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Oh! Susanna" among many others, some of which function as current state songs. Foster's melodies were popular in his time (and remain so today, despite some controversy), and he wished to make a living as a professional songwriter. Unfortunately, the lack of copyright laws or a structure for the payment of royalties meant Foster made very little to nothing on performances and reprints of his work. Foster died at the age of 37 with 38 cents in his pocket.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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