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15 Things You Might Not Know About Christina’s World

Who is the woman in Andrew Wyeth's striking painting Christina's World, and why is she sprawled in a field, looking longingly toward a far-off farmhouse? For decades, these questions have drawn in viewers, but the true story behind Christina's World makes the 1948 painting even more intriguing. 

1. There Was a real Christina. 

The 31-year-old Wyeth modeled the painting's frail-looking brunette after his neighbor in South Cushing, Maine. Anna Christina Olson suffered from a degenerative muscular disorder that prevented her from walking. Rather than using a wheelchair, Olson crawled around her home and the surrounding grounds, as seen in Christina's World

2. Olson's spirit inspired Wyeth's most popular piece. 

The neighbors first met in 1939 when Wyeth was just 22 and courting 17-year-old Betsy James, who would later become his wife and muse. It was James who introduced to Wyeth to the 45-year-old Olson, kicking off a friendship that would last the rest of their lives. The sight of Olson picking blueberries while crawling through her fields “like a crab on a New England shore” inspired Wyeth to paint Christina’s World

"The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless," he wrote. "If in some small way I have been able in paint to make the viewer sense that her world may be limited physically but by no means spiritually, then I have achieved what I set out to do." 

3. Pages and pages of sketches preceded the painting. 

Wyeth was obsessed with getting the position of Christina’s arms and hands just right. Today these sketches are tenderly preserved for posterity. 

4. Olson was not the painting's only model. 

The concept, title, pink dress, and slim limbs were modeled after Olson, who was in her mid-50s when Christina's World was created. But Wyeth asked his then 26-year-old wife to sit in as a model for the head and torso. 

5. Christina's World was one of several paintings Wyeth did of Olson.

She was a recurring muse and model for Wyeth, captured in paintings like Miss Olson, Christina Olson, and Anna Christina. 

6. Christina's World was met with little fanfare. 

Wyeth’s timing wasn’t quite right. He finished the painting in 1948, which meant the magical realism masterpiece debuted at a time when Abstract Expressionism was all the rage. 

7. Wyeth was initially unhappy with Christina's World. 

Though it would become his best-known work and an icon of American art, Christina's World was described by Wyeth as “a complete flat tire” when he sent it off to the Macbeth Gallery for a show in 1948. He also wondered if the painting would have been improved if he “painted just that field and have you sense Christina without her being there.”

8. Nonetheless, Christina's World found a major supporter. 

Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, was so taken with Wyeth’s work that he purchased Christina's World for $1800. While the early critical reception was lukewarm to cool, the painting's prestigious position at MoMA fortified its reputation. Today it’s one of the museum's most admired exhibits. 

9. Christina's World's place in the art pantheon is still a matter of debate. 

Though undeniably iconic, the painting has long been undermined by vocal detractors. Art historians have often snubbed Wyeth's works in their surveys, and some naysayers have attacked the painting's widespread popularity, deriding it as "a mandatory dorm room poster." Meanwhile, critics have chastised Wyeth's attention on Olson's infirmity and characterized it as exploitation. Still others claim there was no art in rendering realistic imagery in paint. 

10. Christina's World was Olson's favorite Wyeth painting. 

One person who didn’t object to Wyeth’s depiction of Olson was Olson. In her book about her husband's work, Betsy James Wyeth recounts a conversation she had with Olson about the piece, writing:

Christina's World remained her favorite to the end. Once when I asked her why, she simply smiled and said, 'You know pink is my favorite color.' 'But you're wearing a flowered pink dress in Miss Olson and holding a kitten. I thought you loved kittens.' 'Course I do, but in the other one Andy put me where he knew I wanted to be. Now that I can't be there anymore, all I do is think of that picture and I'm there.' 

11. Christina's World's farmhouse is a real place.

It was Olson's home, which she shared with her younger brother, Alvaro. But Wyeth took some liberties with its architecture and surrounding landscape to better emphasize the scope of Christina's journey.

12. Today the farmhouse is a national landmark. 

The Olson house has won comparisons to Monet's garden at Giverny because of the plethora of paintings and sketches it inspired. In the 30 years from their first meeting to Christina's death, Wyeth created over 300 works at the Olson house, thanks to the Olsons allowing him to use their home as his studio. Explaining the house's hold on him, Wyeth said, "In the portraits of that house, the windows are eyes or pieces of the soul almost. To me, each window is a different part of Christina's life." 

For all this, the Olson House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011. As part of the Farnsworth Museum, you’ll be able to visit the Olson house starting on Memorial Day weekend, 2016. Until then, the house is closed for vital infrastructure upgrades.

13. Christina's World made Olson famous. 

Shortly after the painting made its MoMA debut, one overzealous admirer walked into Olson's home, came upon her resting, and asked for an autograph. Twenty years later, her death made national news, reviving interest in Christina's World

14. MoMA has only loaned out Christina's World once. 

Following Wyeth's death in 2009 at the age of 91, the museum allowed Christina's World to visit its creator's birthplace, Chadds Ford, Penn., where the Brandywine River Museum exhibited the polarizing painting for two days in memorial before returning it to New York.  

15. Wyeth is buried near his painting's birthplace.

Down the hill from the Olson house lies a cemetery, where Andrew Wyeth's grave can be found in the family plot of Alvaro and Anna Christina Olson. Wyeth's tombstone faces up toward the house at an angle that closely resembles that of Christina's World. According to his surviving family, it was his final wish "to be with Christina."

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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