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15 Fascinating Facts About Picasso's Guernica

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You already know Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica is among his most revered works, but do you know how and why he created the anti-war masterpiece?

1. GUERNICA WAS A COMMISSIONED PAINTING.

As the 1937 World’s Fair approached, members of Spain’s democratic government wanted the Spanish pavilion at Paris’ International Exposition Dedicated to Art and Technology to feature a mural that would expose the atrocities of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his allies. Naturally, these organizers set their sights on one of Spain’s most celebrated painters, Pablo Picasso, who had first gained recognition in the 1910s with his adoption of cubist artistic expression.

2. PICASSO HADN’T BEEN TO SPAIN IN OVER THREE YEARS.

Picasso didn’t have to go far to work on a piece for the Paris exhibition—he had lived in France since 1904. An expat who was vocal about his opposition to the militant autocracy of his home country, Picasso crafted the tribute to the war-torn Spanish city without having set foot within the nation’s borders since 1934. He would never return to Spain.

3. FRANCO’S FORCES BLAMED THE BOMBING DEPICTED IN THE PAINTING ON THEIR RIVALS.

Picasso’s painting depicts the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica on April 26, 1937. Franco’s German and Italian allies in the Spanish Civil War carpet-bombed Guernica, a stronghold of Republican opposition to Franco’s Nationalists, for hours. Casualty estimates vary from 200 to 1000 deaths. To make matters worse, Franco and his allies blamed the horrific attack on Republican forces.

4. AN ARTICLE IN THE TIMES INSPIRED PICASSO.

Picasso didn’t witness the Guernica atrocities firsthand, but he was deeply moved by a report of the event written by South African-British journalist George Steer for The Times. The article, titled, “The Tragedy of Guernica: A Town Destroyed in Air Attack: Eye-Witness’s Account,” was attributed in print to “Our Special Correspondent.”

5. HE BEGAN WORKING ON THE PAINTING AT THE LAST MINUTE.

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Picasso was so affected by Steer’s Guernica story that he scrapped all pending plans to devote himself to the pavilion mural. The artist began work on what would be one of his earliest politically inclined pieces on May 1, 1937, approximately three weeks before the scheduled launch of the exhibit. Guernica was not completed until early June, about two weeks after the pavilion opened.

6. PICASSO SIMULTANEOUSLY PUT TOGETHER ANOTHER CRITIQUE OF FRANCO.

The fact that Picasso cranked out what is now known as one of the most famous paintings of the 20th century in just over a month is impressive enough in its own right, but Guernica wasn’t even the sole focus of the artist’s attention during this time. In January 1937, Picasso had published a set of etching and aquatint prints, collectively titled The Dream and Lie of Franco. On June 7 of the same year, around the same time that he delivered Guernica to the Spanish pavilion, Picasso added a second batch of images to The Dream and Lie of Franco.

7. AN EARLY VERSION OF THE PAINTING WAS MORE EMPOWERING.

Unsurprisingly, Guernica evolved between its inception and completion. One of Picasso’s earliest drafts of the painting included a raised fist, a universal symbol of solidarity in resistance to oppression. Opponents of Franco’s reign had embraced the emblem during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso depicted the fist empty-handed at first, then grasping a sheaf of grain. Ultimately, he deleted the image altogether.

8. ANOTHER STAGE OF GUERNICA INVOLVED COLOR.

Guernica is one of history’s most recognizable grayscale paintings, but at one point during the piece’s development, Picasso entertained the idea of adding color to the project. He included a red teardrop sprouting from a crying woman’s eye, as well as swatches of colored wallpaper. None of these elements made the final cut.

9. PICASSO REFUSED TO TALK ABOUT THE PAINTING’S SYMBOLISM.

Scholars have long tried to decode the significance of the symbols in Guernica, especially the horse and bull figures. Naturally, Picasso was probed to explain the use of these creatures in his painting. He never offered anything more revelatory than “This bull is a bull and this horse is a horse,” adding, “If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.”

10. EARLY REVIEWS OF THE PAINTING WEREN’T ALL POSITIVE.

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Today, Guernica is celebrated as one of Picasso’s premiere achievements. But it wasn’t always hailed as a masterpiece. Among the piece’s leading detractors were American critic Clement Greenberg (who called Guernica “jerky” and “compressed”), French painter and communist Edouard Pignon (who maligned the painting for its misplaced political message and lack of empathy for the working class), French philosopher Paul Nizan (who shared Pignon’s sentiments, and further called Guernica a product of the bourgeoisie mentality), and American abstract painter Walter Darby Bannard (criticizing in particular the painting’s counterintuitive scale).

11. NAZI GERMANY TOOK POTSHOTS AT GUERNICA.

Due to both Guernica’s antifascist message and Adolf Hitler’s personal aversions to modern art, the official German guidebook for Paris’s International Exposition recommended against visiting Picasso’s piece, which it called “a hodgepodge of body parts that any four-year-old could have painted.”

12. YEARS LATER, GERMANY USED THE PAINTING IN A MILITARY CAMPAIGN.

Apparently misunderstanding the nature of Guernica and its antiwar stance, the German military used the painting in an ill-conceived recruiting advertisement in 1990. The ad featured the slogan, “Hostile images of the enemy are the fathers of war.”

13. THE PAINTING INSPIRED A PICASSO EXCHANGE WITH A GESTAPO OFFICER.

Almost as famous for his biting wit as he was for his artistic prowess, Picasso once treated a German Gestapo officer to a sharp rejoinder in reference to the painting’s depiction of the atrocities of fascism and war. When asked by an officer about a photo of the painting, “Did you do that?” Picasso is said to have replied, “No, you did.”

14. THE PAINTING WAS VANDALIZED BY AN ANTIWAR ACTIVIST.

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At one point its long residency at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, Guernica suffered an act of politically-charged defacement. In 1974, Tony Shafrazi—who would later become a respected art dealer—spray-painted the words “KILL ALL LIES” over the painting. Upon his apprehension by museum security, Shafrazi famously shouted, “Call the curator. I am an artist.”

15. THE PAINTING WAS COVERED UP DURING A SPEECH MADE BY COLIN POWELL.

From 1985 to 2009, the United Nations adorned the entrance of its Security Council with a tapestry reproduction of Guernica. In February 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a televised speech on site at the UN, testifying in favor of America’s imminent declaration of war on Iraq. A large blue curtain covered the tapestry during Powell’s speech.

Conflicting reports attributed the decision to obscure Guernica both to journalists thinking the violent imagery would be unpleasant for viewers of the broadcast, and to the Bush Administration deeming the display of such a recognizable antiwar painting inappropriate for the backdrop of Powell’s promotion of military action.

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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
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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