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Grant Wood. American Gothic, 1930. The Art Institute of Chicago. Friends of American Art Collection.

15 Things You Might Not Know About American Gothic

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Grant Wood. American Gothic, 1930. The Art Institute of Chicago. Friends of American Art Collection.

Few paintings are as iconic as Grant Wood's American Gothic. The piece's staging is so embedded into American culture that even its countless parodies and homages are instantly recognizable. While this deceptively simple portrait has clearly captured the imagination of the nation, the story behind its creation and rise to fame makes it all the more compelling. 

1. It was instantly a big hit. 

American Gothic was submitted to the 1930 annual exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it won a bronze medal and a $300 prize. But that's not all. The Art Institute acquired the piece for its collection. From there, a picture of the prize-winning painting ran in the Chicago Evening Post, then in newspapers across the U.S., gaining fame and popularity with each printing. Eighty-five years later, American Gothic still calls the Art Institute home.

2. American Gothic made Wood famous.

Before this breakthrough, Wood was an unknown 39-year-old aspiring artist, living in the attic of a funeral-home carriage house that he shared with his mother and sister. Although he was toiling in obscurity, artistic training in Europe had taught Wood techniques that led to his big break. Following the success of American Gothic, he became a bit of a media scamp, often rewriting the history and meaning of his painting to best suit a given trend or narrative. And his fans became ravenous, sometimes traveling to his family's home, and walking right into Wood’s quarters uninvited. 

3. American Gothic's inspiration was a real and really distinctive home. 

In the summer of 1930, Wood was visiting Eldon, Iowa to attend an art exhibition. While there he was struck by a little white cottage with a "carpenter Gothic" window on the second floor that Wood found “pretentious” for such a humble home. He sketched out the house on an envelope, providing the base for what would become his most famous painting. 

4. It combined Americana with European technique.

Inspired by the window that recalled the cathedrals he'd seen in Europe during his training and travels, Wood posed his quintessentially American figures in a "rigid frontal arrangement" that recalls Northern Renaissance art, while mimicking that movement's close attention to detail. 

5. The farmer was really a dentist.

Seeking a model for the male in American Gothic, Wood asked a favor of his dentist, 62-year-old Byron McKeeby. It's likely McKeeby felt a bit obligated as Wood's constant craving for sugar—even putting it on lettuce—made him a client worth keeping happy. All that time in the exam chair gave Wood ample opportunity to examine McKeeby's strong hands. Of them, he said, "This is a marvelous hand. This has strength. This has character.” 

6. Wood found the wife close to home. 

The artist's first choice for a female model was his mother, Hattie. However, he was concerned that posing at length would be too much for her. So, in her stead his sister Nan sat in. But Hattie did contribute by lending her apron and cameo for her daughter's costume. 

7. None of the models posed together. 

Wood painted the house, his sister, and his dentist in separate sessions. 

8. Iowans weren't fans, to say the least. 

When the newspapers in Wood's hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, first presented an image of American Gothic, the painting sparked a backlash. This dour portrayal was not how the locals saw themselves, and they resented being presented this way to the world. One farm wife was so enraged by the painting that she threatened to bite Wood's ear off. Another suggested he have his "head bashed in." Wood was stunned by the acrimony, insisting he was a "loyal Iowan" who meant no offense, only homage.

9. American Gothic does not depict husband and wife. Maybe.

A popular caption for the painting in newspapers was An Iowa Farmer and His Wife, but that was not how the painting’s female model saw it. Nan told people the painting depicted a father and his daughter, perhaps because she resented being "married" to a man twice her age. Wood himself waffled on this point. 

10. Its meaning has shifted over the years.

Early on, writers like Gertrude Stein and Christopher Morley believed American Gothic satirized the provincialism of small-town America. But as the Great Depression damaged American morale, American Gothic was viewed as much-needed celebration of the nation's fortitude and spirit. Now, its purpose transforms with each new parody. 

Wood gave this confounding statement: "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life.” 

11. Wood's signature is hidden. 

Look in the bottom right corner of the farmer's overalls, and you'll see the artist's name painted along with the canvas medium (wood) and the year (1930) in a pale blue, almost illegible against its denim backdrop.

12. American Gothic fueled the rise of "Regionalism."

An American realist modern art movement that shunned urbanism in favor of the glories found in rural settings, Regionalism (or American Scene painting) hit the peak of its popularity in the 1930s thanks to Wood's works as well as those of Missouri's Thomas Hart Benton and Kansas's John Steuart Curry. Wood played into this brand, always sporting overalls, and proclaiming to the press, "All the good ideas I've ever had came to me while I was milking a cow." 

However, he was actually repulsed by farm animals. And it has been suggested that his penchant for overalls was all PR. Not just to play up his artist persona, but also to help hide—through this perceived manliness—his homosexuality

13. American Gothic's house is now a tourist attraction. 

Built in 1881 by Catherine and Charles Dibble, the Dibble House passed through owners for more than a century before Carl Smith donated it to the State Historical Society of Iowa in 1991. Since then, it has been transformed into a museum celebrating Wood and the painting that made him and the house famous. 

14. The windows weren't just pretty; they were practical. 

Wood may have found them pretentious, but the windows (one in the front of the house, one in the back) were hinged to allow the family to more easily move large furniture in and out, uninhibited by a narrow staircase inside. As extraordinary as they seem in a home instead of a larger structure like a church, it's believed the Dibbles picked their distinctive windows out of a Sears and Roebuck catalog. 

15. Every element has been mined for meaning. 

Some observers have suggested that the man pictured is no farmer at all, but a preacher using the pitchfork as a prop to rail against the devil and his dangers. Perhaps the curl of the woman's hair is meant to paint her as a sharp-tongued spinster. Is the rickrack on her apron meant to allude to old-school values, or mock her as out of date? Their expressions have been read as resolute or sullen. The window's curtains might mean a hidden secret. Do the geraniums in the background signify  melancholy? 

Wood never cleared up any of these points, and so the mystery and debate over American Gothic rages on decades after his passing.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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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
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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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