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3 Artists Who Were Really Bad at Their Art

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By Clay Wirestone

Critics mocked. Audiences jeered. Yet these three artists still found fame.

1. The World’s Worst poet


Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

Scotsman William McGonagall loved Shakespeare—so much so that when he got the chance to star in an 1858 production of Macbeth, he embraced the opportunity. As the title character, McGonagall attempted to write a new ending to the tragedy. He refused to die in the play’s climactic battle, sword fighting well past his cue, until he was finally too exhausted to continue.

But McGonagall’s turn in Macbeth was just a prelude to the bizarre performances to come. A handloom weaver by trade, McGonagall faced a midlife crisis when the Industrial Revolution began to threaten his livelihood. Then, in 1877, the 52-year-old had a revelation: He was meant to write verse. Despite a lack of talent, McGonagall started churning out poems. The next year, he wrote Queen Victoria and asked for her royal patronage. When Her Majesty politely declined by post, McGonagall took the response as proof of interest. He set out on foot to visit Victoria in Balmoral, Scotland, some 50 miles away. When he finally arrived, McGonagall was rebuffed by a castle guard. Still, the trip wasn’t a total failure; McGonagall managed to sell the guard a booklet of his poems before returning home.

Over the years, McGonagall worked the streets of Dundee and gained a reputation for his horrible poetry. As word spread, he was hired by local circuses to ply his trade for paying audiences. But the response was not kind—most crowds felt compelled to throw eggs and vegetables at the poet after hearing his verse. Things got so rowdy after performances in 1888 and 1889 that officials finally banned McGonagall’s act, reportedly for the poet’s own safety.

But McGonagall would have none of it. He responded in verse: “Fellow citizens of Bonnie Dundee / Are ye aware how the magistrates have treated me? / Nay, do not stare or make a fuss / When I tell ye they have boycotted me from appearing in Royal Circus.”

Despite the vast quantities of produce hurled in McGonagall’s direction, Scotland’s worst poet did gain a handful of ironic fans—especially college kids in Edinburgh. Friends sponsored the publication of a book, Poetic Gems, and several equally terrible collections followed. McGonagall died penniless, but he’s still in print today. Tributes turn up in unlikely places, too. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling named the stern headmistress of Hogwarts Academy, Professor Minerva McGonagall, after the poet.

How bad is it? In The Joy of Bad Verse, Nicholas Parsons writes of McGonagall, “The experience is like that of being driven unsteadily down a meandering road in a rattling old banger, which finally turns abruptly into a brick wall.”

But judge for yourself. McGonagall’s most famous work, “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” begins:

“Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay! / Alas! I am very sorry to say / That ninety lives have been taken away / On the last Sabbath day of 1879, / Which will be remember’d for a very long time.”

An unpublished manuscript of McGonagall's poetry goes up for auction in May; it could sell for as much as £3000.

2. The World’s Worst sculptor

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Moscow’s monstrous bronze statue of Peter the Great has long been a source of controversy. Created by Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, the 315-foot-tall eyesore depicts an oversize Peter, improbably cloaked in Roman legionnaire garb, aboard a ship balanced on a tower-shaped wave. The statue is so deeply despised that activists once threatened to blow it up. According to some, the piece originally depicted Christopher Columbus, but the horrified United States government refused to accept it. The hideous work only found a home above the Moskva River thanks to Tsereteli’s connections—specifically, his friendship with Moscow’s former mayor.

The artist owes his career to his Rolodex. Born in Georgia, Tsereteli studied folk art and had a passion for giant, gaudy mosaics, but it was his work designing flashy resorts that got him noticed. After decorating the complex of Moscow hotels used for the 1980 Olympics, he was somehow named the People’s Artist of the USSR. But Tsereteli’s career didn’t truly heat up until after the fall of Communism, when he befriended Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow. With the politician’s blessing, Tsereteli began to erect huge, tacky monuments throughout the city.

Outside of Moscow, however, he’s found less success. Tsereteli’s statues honoring Franklin Roosevelt, Honoré de Balzac, and the Colossus of Rhodes were all turned down by their intended recipients. His memorial to the victims of 9/11 was at first welcomed by Jersey City, N.J., until residents saw what he was planning: a 100-foot slab with a gash in the middle, adorned with a metallic teardrop. After the gift was declined by city officials, the memorial was erected in nearby Bayonne, N.J., where Bill Clinton—a friend of Tsereteli’s—spoke at the unveiling. Of course, no amount of celebrity could distract from the quality of the art. As one 9/11 survivor put it, the piece looked like “a cross between a scar and a female sexual organ.”

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Such global disdain might shake the soul of a lesser man. But it hasn’t slowed down Tsereteli—he’s served as president of the Russian Academy of the Arts, runs his own gallery in the heart of Moscow, and just opened up the Zurab Tsereteli Museum of Modern Art in his hometown of Tbilisi, Georgia. As Russian writer Olga Kabanova told The Washington Post: “He’s become not a sculptor but rather some kind of natural phenomenon . . . we are in the state of a hostage who starts to like his captor.”

Of course, for his part, Tsereteli doesn’t think highly of his critics: “I try not to take any notice. I’m an artist. I know what I’m doing—and I will continue doing it.”

3. The World’s Worst soprano

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Most opera singers begin their training at a young age, perfecting their voices through decades of vigorous practice. Unfortunately for young Narcissa Florence Foster, familial opposition stalled her musical dreams. Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in 1868, Narcissa showed some promise at piano as a child. She gave a recital at age 8, but her father forbade further study when she reached age 17. In 1885, she eloped with a doctor, Frank Thornton Jenkins, but the union didn’t go as planned. The two divorced in 1902. Nearly destitute, Foster Jenkins eked out a living as a piano teacher until she came into her inheritance seven years later, at the age of 41.

That’s when things changed. At first, Foster Jenkins used her funds to study music privately, focusing her public efforts on music-appreciation clubs. But she wanted more. She performed her first solo recital in 1912 and enjoyed it so much that she began a series of yearly concerts. Accompanied by the improbably named Cosme McMoon, Foster Jenkins attempted to sing classic operatic fare, to the delight of her socialite audience. She wore elaborate costumes, some incorporating angel wings, which she changed several times during each performance.

The recitals became so popular that they consistently sold out. Songwriter Cole Porter and opera star Enrico Caruso were fans. According to McMoon (a bathhouse clerk who enjoyed bodybuilding when he wasn’t camping it up with Foster Jenkins), the audience made sure to applaud loudly during the worst passages, to drown out their laughter and spare the singer’s feelings. In 1943, Foster Jenkins was in a taxicab crash. To her delight, she found afterward that she could hit “a higher F than ever before.” She rewarded the driver with a box of cigars!

At the age of 76, public demand whisked her to Carnegie Hall. More than 2,000 people had to be turned away. But unlike her previously sheltered performances, this time reviewers were less charitable. As one put it: “Mrs. Jenkins has perfected the art of giving added zest by improvising quarter tones, either above or below the original notes.” On the other hand, no one denied the audience had a good time.

Her life’s goals accomplished, Foster Jenkins died a month later. Today her story lives on through the play Glorious!, and there’s a tribute album to her work titled Murder on the High C’s. But for all the celebration of her ineptitude, perhaps the New York World-Telegram obituary summed up Florence Foster Jenkins’s life best: “She was exceedingly happy in her work. It is a pity so few artists are.”

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here. 

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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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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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