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Ugly Jugs

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Last week at the Presurfer I saw a video of Alabama potter Jerry Brown making a jug. It was interesting enough that I went to YouTube to grab the video, and found a whole series of videos of the same guy, each more fascinating than the one before. Especially this one:

I was afraid of what would come up when I Googled "ugly jugs", but with safe search, I found just what I was looking for. Jugs with faces date back to antiquity, but became an American folk art tradition. The time and place this tradition began depends on your source, and the jugs had several purported purposes which could all be valid.

More ugly faces, after the jump.

Jerry Brown heard that slaves made ugly jugs to distinguish the different liquids inside. Jugs with faces were for the ones you couldn't drink, such as kerosene.

Potter Jim McDowell heard the history of the jugs handed down through generations. According to family lore, ugly jugs were used by slaves as grave markers, made ugly to scare the devil away. McDowell's face jugs include messages, like this one that says "Don't judge the color of my skin; judge me by the content of my character."
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According to Pawprint Pottery of Barnwell, South Carolina, ugly jugs were used to keep kids out of the moonshine. They were made as scary as possible for this purpose! These jugs with recycled porcelain teeth would do the trick.
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Potters provided jugs for bootleggers during the 1920s, but made them with ugly faces to show their support for Prohibition.

The Smithsonian Institution doesn't know what purpose the ugly jugs served, but places their origin in South Carolina in the mid 1800s.
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Most sources I found placed the face jug tradition as beginning in Edgefield, South Carolina, although they are also associated with Georgia and other southern states. Georgia artist Brian Wilson made these whistling face jugs.
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American Folk Art and Framing places the origin of face jugs in the piedmont region of North Carolina and Georgia. They feature works by many different artists, including this cross-eyed face jug.
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Clayton Bailey makes face jugs with runny noses!
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Here is the original video I saw of pottery artist Jerry Brown of Hamilton, Alabama, throwing a jug.

He also tells of his experiences in other short video clips, recorded to promote The Year of Alabama Artists.

Now I want an ugly jug. If they can scare away children and the devil, maybe they can ward off mosquitos and telemarketers!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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May 23, 2017
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