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15 Facts for Norman Rockwell's Birthday

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To millions, Norman Rockwell's name carries the warmth of nostalgia. With humor, candor, and an incredible eye for detail, he captured small-town Americana as no artist ever had before. Born 123 years ago today, Rockwell is now embraced as arguably the most adored painter of his era.

1. HE RECEIVED HIS FIRST COMMISSION AS A TEENAGER.

Rockwell’s career got off to a meteoric start. At age 14, this Manhattan native began taking classes through the New York School of Art. Within the next year, he joined the esteemed Art Students League, an organization which also boasts such icons as Georgia O’Keeffe and Maurice Sendak as alumni. Rockwell hadn’t even turned 16 when he received his first paid commission: a set of four Christmas cards requested by a neighbor.

After that little milestone, the artist would tackle his first major assignment in 1912. At just 18, Rockwell was hired to paint a dozen illustrations for the children’s book Tell Me Why: Stories about Mother Nature by Charles H. Caudy. This $150 gig helped set up a steady job as a staff artist and eventual art director for Boys' Life magazine, where he’d begin working before the year was out.

2. ROCKWELL’S BIGGEST INSPIRATION WAS PAINTER HOWARD PYLE.

Pyle’s sometimes known as “the father of American magazine illustration.” Appropriately, Rockwell—who became a world-famous magazine cover artist—considered him his personal "hero." Pyle wrote and illustrated several children’s books, many of which involved swashbuckling pirates. These buccaneers utterly captivated Rockwell, who later saluted them by throwing a Pyle-esque pirate into his 1959 painting Family Tree.

3. THE U.S. NAVY TURNED HIM AWAY—AT LEAST TO BEGIN WITH.

Once the U.S. entered World War I, Rockwell tried to join the Navy, which initially rejected him on the grounds of being 17 pounds underweight. Disappointed but resolute, Rockwell bulked up by eating bananas and donuts, eventually gaining enough mass to meet the Navy’s approval. His first military assignment involved painting insignias on airplanes at an Irish base. However, after shoving off for Europe, Rockwell’s ship was diverted to South Carolina. Down in the Palmetto State, he was recruited as an illustrator for the Charleston Naval Yard’s official periodical, Afloat and Ashore.

4. IN TOTAL, ROCKWELL PRODUCED 323 COVER PAINTINGS FOR THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.

Perhaps no association between an artist and a magazine has ever been more widely celebrated than this one. Rockwell’s work first graced the publication’s cover on May 20, 1916. He’d continue to supply the Post with memorable paintings until 1963.

5. THE ARMY USED HIS FOUR FREEDOMS SERIES AS AN EFFECTIVE FUNDRAISING TOOL.

On January 6, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave an historic State of the Union address. With the axis powers ominously looming, he held that everyone in the world deserved to enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

The president’s "four freedoms" address really struck a chord with Rockwell. Inspired, he created a quartet of paintings that portrayed these ideals in action. Today, the artist’s Four Freedoms series is one of his best-known projects. After these paintings were published in The Saturday Evening Post, the government toured the originals, enabling some 1.1 million people to view them. In the process, Rockwell’s four mini-masterpieces helped Uncle Sam sell nearly $133 million worth of war bonds.

6. THE BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA GAVE ROCKWELL A VERY SPECIAL THANK YOU IN 1939.

Before 3000 onlookers at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, BSA officials handed Rockwell a Silver Buffalo, the organization’s highest award. By that point, between his early job at Boys' Life and his continued Post covers, Rockwell had been painting heroic scouts on canvasses for the better part of three decades. From start to finish, his professional relationship with scouting lasted 64 years—Rockwell’s last BSA-commissioned illustration, The Spirit of ’76, was finished when he was 82.

7. ALL THREE OF HIS WIVES WERE SCHOOLTEACHERS.

1957's "After the Prom." James Vaughan via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Norman Rockwell definitely had a type. Marriage number one was to Irene O’Connor, a boarding house instructor and occasional model for his paintings. Wed in 1916, the couple split 14 years later. Then came Mary Barstow, a grade-school teacher who had three sons with Rockwell. After her death in 1959, he settled down once more, this time with retired educator Molly Punderson.

8. ROCKWELL STRUGGLED WITH DEPRESSION.

Optimism may radiate from his paintings, but Rockwell’s days weren’t always so carefree. His second wife's alcohol abuse problem forced the family to relocate from Arlington, Vermont to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. There, she received regular—and expensive—therapy from psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. An immigrant from Germany, Erikson also conducted numerous sessions with Rockwell, who was prone to enter states of deep depression.

9. HE RECEIVED THE PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM IN 1977.

At the ceremony, Gerald Ford praised the 83-year-old Rockwell as an “artist, illustrator, and author [whose] vivid and affectionate portraits of our country and ourselves have become a beloved part of the American tradition.”

10. THE GOLDEN RULE IS NOW ON DISPLAY AT THE UNITED NATIONS.

One of Rockwell’s most poignant paintings, 1961’s The Golden Rule, shows an international and multi-racial crowd standing in unison behind the words “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Rockwell later said that, prior to creating this piece, he’d “been reading up on comparative religion. The thing is that all major religions have the Golden Rule in common. … Not always the same words, but the same meaning.”

To celebrate the United Nations’ 40th anniversary, then-First Lady Nancy Reagan presented its Manhattan headquarters with a large mosaic version of Rockwell’s The Golden Rule. Nowadays, it’s a much-admired fixture there. “[At] virtually any hour, you will find tourists, delegates and diplomats marveling before it,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says.

11. ONE OF HIS PAINTINGS VISITED THE WHITE HOUSE IN 2011.

Created for Look magazine, the main subject of The Problem We All Live With (1963) is 6-year-old Ruby Bridges. On November 14, 1960, she began attending a newly integrated elementary school in New Orleans. Given the hostile environment, U.S. Marshals were instructed to escort her.

In 1975, The Problem We All Live With became the first painting to be bought by Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum. Since then, however, it’s seen a bit of travel. Between June and October 2011, the painting was put on display in a West Wing hallway at the White House. With President Barack Obama at her side, Bridges herself was able to go and view it there.

“Every time I see it, I think about the fact that I was an innocent child that knew absolutely nothing about what was happening that day,” says Bridges, who has served as a Rockwell Museum board member.

12. STEVEN SPIELBERG AND GEORGE LUCAS ARE HUGE FANS OF THE ARTIST.

Both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg own impressive collections of authentic Rockwell illustrations. Apparently, there’s a bit of a friendly competition going on as well. When Spielberg learned that Lucas owned a genuine Rockwell oil painting, he decided to up the ante. “I copied [him] and got a Rockwell,” Spielberg said in 2010, “I went out and got a bigger Rockwell!”

Particularly impressive to the Star Wars creator is Rockwell’s mastery of visual narratives. “He was able to sum up the story and make you want to read the story, but actually understand who the people were, what their motives were, everything in one little frame,” Lucas said.

In July 2010, the two directors lent over 50 Rockwell paintings and sketches to the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of a temporary exhibit called “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg,” which ran until January 2011.

13. ONE OF HIS PAINTINGS RECENTLY SOLD FOR NEARLY $50 MILLION IN 2013.

Saying Grace depicts a boy and an older woman joining in prayer at a public restaurant. When Rockwell created it for The Saturday Evening Post in 1951, the job earned him $3500. Fast-forward to a December 2013 auction when an unidentified buyer shelled out $46 million to take it home. That sum more than tripled the previous highest price paid for a Rockwell—Breaking Home Ties had sold for $15 million in 2006.

14. HE’S BEEN NAMED THE OFFICIAL STATE ARTIST OF MASSACHUSETTS.

In 2008, the Bay State bestowed this posthumous honor upon Rockwell, who spent his last-quarter century in the Berkshires.

15. EVERY HOLIDAY SEASON, STOCKBRIDGE REENACTS AN ICONIC ROCKWELLIAN SCENE.

Rockwell once described his longtime home town as “the best of America, the best of New England.” For the record, Stockbridge loves him right back. Every year, on the first Sunday in December, the town goes to great lengths to stage a real-life copy of his 1967 oil painting Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas (Home for Christmas). For added authenticity, antique cars that perfectly match their illustrated counterparts are brought in, and thankfully, with very few exceptions, most of the buildings look much like they did in Rockwell’s day.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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