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Dwight D. Eisenhower Library

4 Presidents Who Painted for Fun and Profit

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Dwight D. Eisenhower Library

A president recovering from a term or two in the highest seat of executive power in the United States is a prime candidate for some downtime. After all, four to eight years in the Oval Office has turned many a president’s hair gray; it makes sense that they’d want to relax and unwind for a bit, maybe pick up a calming hobby or two. For four presidents in history that we know of, and likely a few more that we don’t, painting has been a comfort both before their executive years and after them. We’re lucky enough today that some of their works have made it into the public sphere, allowing appreciators of both art and history to admire the more artistic outputs of our previous presidents.

1. Ulysses S. Grant

GrantArchives.com

The esteemed Civil War Union general and 18th president seems to have had a head start in the art world relative to his fellow president-painters. In 1840, when he was as young as 18, Grant had already completed a watercolor landscape as a gift for Kate Lowe, his girlfriend at the time. Upon arriving at West Point Academy for cadet training, the future military hero more formally studied painting under Romantic artist Robert Walter Weir. As president, he took pride in his ability not only to command armies, but to create art as well.

2. Dwight Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower Library

Eisenhower, already having served as a soldier and the president of Columbia University in his time before assuming the United States presidency, came to painting later in life than Grant. While observing Thomas E. Stephens painting a portrait of his wife, Mamie, he was struck with curiosity, but not necessarily any desire to emulate the artist’s work. When Stephens optimistically sent the Columbia University president a complete painting kit of his own, Eisenhower enjoyed the challenge of experimentation, but remained unconvinced that he had the innate skill necessary to make it as a painter. Not until Eisenhower was 58 years old, Chief of Staff of the Army, and influenced by his good friend and fellow politician Winston Churchill—an avid painter himself—did he take up the hobby seriously. (He may also have been acting on doctor’s orders: Major General Howard Snyder is said to have advised the president to take up the leisurely pursuit as a means of relieving stress.) Once he did, he devoted serious attention to the work, sometimes spending up to two hours trying to get a color “right.”

Although Eisenhower’s artistic streak didn’t begin until his later years, over the course of his life, he produced at least 250 known paintings, many of them technically unskilled but demonstrating significant, sincere effort. He claimed to have had more time to paint as president than as a private citizen because his time was better scheduled, and the hard work paid off: In 1967, Eisenhower traveled to New York to visit an exhibition of his paintings at the Huntington Hartford Museum. Richard Cohen, a reporter who spoke with him that day, was impressed with his charm but was hesitant to praise the paintings themselves. When asked about the “symbolism” of one of his works, Eisenhower responded sharply, “Let’s get something straight here, Cohen. They would have burned this [expletive] a long time ago if I weren’t the president of the United States.” Always humble about what he called his “daubs,” Eisenhower certainly wasn’t your typical sensitive artist.

3. Jimmy Carter

The Carter Center

Of all the politicians-turned-painters on this list, Jimmy Carter is either the biggest sell-out or the biggest artistic do-gooder of all. After stepping down from the presidency, Carter founded the eponymous Carter Center; in partnership with Emory University, the human rights organization aims to “prevent and resolve conflicts, enhance freedom and democracy, and improve health.” To that end, the foundation organizes fundraising events like charity memorabilia auctions, selling luxury vacations, signed photos, fine jewelry, and Carter’s own artwork—a surprisingly popular draw for wealthy collectors.

Carter’s paintings seem to specialize in scenic and naturalistic imagery, like the portrait study of a bird pictured above, and the former peanut farmer also dabbles in woodwork, selling items like the above handmade black cherry wood stool. He’s also made the jump to stationery: I personally received a holiday card from the Carter Center two years ago, urging me to make a donation, with a neat illustration of the Carter family home printed across the front—a Jimmy Carter original that far outshone other generic Christmas cards (although I don’t remember donating any money).

Whatever the medium, Carter’s work can turn quite a profit, albeit for charity: In 2012, a Jimmy Carter original painting sold at auction for $250,000. It was a considerable victory for human rights, but perhaps less of a personal victory for Jimmy Carter when you consider that he was outsold in 2010 by current Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whose photograph went to the highest bidder for $1.7 million. In 2009, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin also managed to score a $1.1 million sales deal for an original painting of his, which makes you worry that the next Cold War might be fought with charcoal and oil pastels.

4. George W. Bush

Gawker Media

Despite only having vacated the White House a single president ago, George W. Bush has since produced a considerable portfolio of amateur animal paintings. The existence of dozens of still lifes and sunsets painted by the same hand that so recently signed acts of legislation would have stayed under wraps if not for a hacker called “Guccifer,” whose early 2013 attack on email accounts belonging to the Bush family netted private photographs of the collection. While a handful of casual photos isn’t the best medium by which to admire the subtle nuances of the younger Bush’s brushstrokes, you get the gist anyway: George W. Bush really, really likes to paint dogs. Perhaps his best-known work is this painting of the family dog, Barney, which was published alongside an obituary for the late Scottish terrier in 2013:


Gawker Media

It was the first of Bush’s dog paintings to make it into the public eye; thanks to Guccifer, it’s far from the last. According to Bonnie Flood, a Georgia artist who spent a month working exclusively to teach the former President how to paint, he’s painted over 50 dogs—really a staggering amount, on a ratio of dog per time spent out of office.

George W. may eventually have wearied of his canine creations, as his oeuvre shows an expansion into cats, landscapes, churches, fruit, and, courageously, nude self-portraits (SFW). There’s a lot to be said about these paintings, as appraisal of Bush’s painting skills seems to be as divisive as his presidency was, but for what it’s worth, Bush’s painting teacher thinks he has “real potential” and “will go down in history as a great artist.”

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technology
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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