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13 Disturbing Pieces of Art from History

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The media is often criticized for showing violent and disturbing imagery. Movies, TV, video games, tabletop RPGs, comic books, and various other things have all gone through periods where they're blamed for exposing children to dark and unsettling things. But as these fine art examples prove, violent and disturbing imagery is nothing new.

(Obviously, this article contains some disturbing content.)

1. Peter Paul Rubens - Massacre of the Innocents

Painted in 1611, Massacre of the Innocents is Rubens' interpretation of Herod's order to kill every young male in Bethlehem, as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. Featuring nude men ripping babies out of the arms of their mothers and then murdering the children in front of them, the painting is certainly not for the squeamish.

2. Théodore Géricault - Anatomical Pieces


This is but one of a series of works featuring disembodied body parts (including a painting of a pair of severed heads, equally as unsettling as this one) painted by French artist Théodore Géricault. The most disturbing part is that all the paintings were based on real model remains Géricault acquired from the Paris Morgue.

3. Andy Warhol - Big Electric Chair


Andy Warhol is most famous for his pop art pictures of soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, but he also dabbled in some darker works, including his chilling piece, Big Electric Chair. The painting is based on a photograph of the former execution chamber at Sing Sing prison in New York. For more daring readers, Warhol also released artworks featuring police photos of suicides and car fatalities. Feel free to look those up on your own.

4. Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Triumph of Death


An army of skeletons attacks peasants and royalty alike in Bruegel's The Triumph of Death. Every inch of the painting presents some new horror committed by the army of death, and many easily missed details can be seen by looking at a full-sized representation of the piece. Although it's commonly mistaken as being a depiction of the Black Plague, it was actually painted over 200 years later.

5. Odilon Redon - Smiling Spider


If you're arachnophobic or just generally not a fan of small, many-legged critters, you might want to avoid some of Odilon Redon's works. This is just one of a couple of paintings displaying the emotions of a weirdly human-faced spider. Even if you're okay with spiders or downright love the little guys, this thing is still creepily unsettling.

6. William Adolphe Bouguereau - Dante and Virgil in Hell


Although it shares traits common with contemporary vampire stories, this painting by Bouguereau is 50 years older than even Stoker's Dracula, and is essentially an exact interpretation of an event described in Canto XXX of Dante's Inferno. While touring the eighth circle of Hell, Dante and Virgil look on as Capocchio, a heretical alchemist, is bitten on the neck during a fight with Gianni Schicchi, a con artist who stole a dead man's inheritance.

7. Hieronymous Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights


This is but a detailed view of just one part of Bosch's famous Garden of Earthly Delights. The original is a triptych--a single work split among three panels--and the section here is merely from the bottom-right of the right-hand panel. Like Bruegel's Triumph of Death, the numerous details in this work really benefit from a high-resolution image. (Warning for readers with slower connections: That file is nearly 100mb in size.)

8. Francisco Goya - Saturn Devouring His Son


In Greek mythology, the titan Cronus (Saturn in Roman texts), fearing that he would be overthrown by his children as he had usurped his own father, began swallowing each of them whole. (They're later purged, still alive, by Zeus.) However, in Goya's take on the tale, painted as a mural on the wall of his own house, a deranged-looking Cronus violently consumes them piece by piece instead.

9. Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare


Fuseli's most famous painting, The Nightmare, may not seem creepy in the traditional sense. The incubus, by today's standards, looks a little like a cartoonish gremlin, for example. But the dream-like, surreal quality of the piece has kept its legacy alive. Even during the artist's lifetime, the work was so popular that he created an even creepier alternate version.

10. Giovanni Boldini - Spanish Dancer at the Moulin Rouge


While Boldini is primarily known for his portraiture, he also did paint some original works. It may be hard to see what's creepy about this particular work at first. It helps to know that the title is sometimes pluralized and called Spanish Dancers at the Moulin Rouge. If that's not doing it for you, look at the hand over the dancer's shoulder at the left side of the painting and follow it right.

11. Caravaggio - Judith Beheading Holofernes


In the deuterocanonical Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, Judith charms Holofernes with her beauty, gets him drunk, and then decapitates him, just like an episode of Game of Thrones. While the story has inspired hundreds of artists throughout history, Caravaggio's is easily one of the most gruesome interpretations.

12. Salvator Rosa - The Temptation of Saint Anthony


According to a biography of St. Anthony by Athanasius of Alexandria, Anthony was attacked and killed by demons in a cave on his trip across the Egyptian desert, only to later be revived. When he re-entered the cave, the demons turned into monstrous creatures who attempted to kill him once more. While this is a very popular subject for artists throughout history, Rosa's take, especially on the forms of the demons, is very surreal and nightmarish.

13. Francis Bacon - Painting (1946)


Described as either one of the greatest painters of the 20th century or a complete madman, depending on who you ask, Francis Bacon's work was nothing if not creepy. Painting, containing various images reminiscent of a butcher shop, was created completely by accident, according to the artist himself. Originally intended to be a chimpanzee standing in tall grass and a bird landing nearby, Bacon said that he then unintentionally painted what you see above.

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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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