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Feel Art Again: Albrecht Dürer's "Self-Portrait at 26"

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Albrecht Dürer was a master of self-promotion, as he began his artistic career at age 13 with a self-portrait. Thus he's the perfect painter to discuss today, at the beginning of both Self-Promotion Month and German-American Heritage Month.

1. Dürer painted three widely-known self-portraits: one at age 22, one at age 26 (above), and one at age 29. In the portraits, he progresses from a young, effeminate boy to a Christ-like man.

2. By 1515, when Dürer exchanged works with Raphael, he had gained an international reputation. Giorgio Vasari, a Florentine artist, wrote that Dürer was the "truly great painter and creator of the most beautiful copper engravings," a point which he stressed several times. Today, Dürer is considered by many to be the greatest German Renaissance artist.

Continue reading "Feel Art Again"...

3. Dürer was bitter that Germans still considered artists to be craftsmen. He felt himself to be an "artist-prince" like many of the notable Italian artists and his self-portraits show a man sure of his own genius.

4. German by birth, Dürer favored Italy over his home country, a favoritism that is evident in many of his paintings. In this self-portrait, the landscape is reminiscent of the scenes from his trip to Italy. He is dressed according to Venetian fashion and the compositional structure is similar to that of Florentine portrait painting. At the end of a second trip to Italy, Dürer wrote to a friend, "O, how cold I will be away from the sun; here I am a gentleman, at home a parasite."

5. The full beard that Dürer sports in this self-portrait was actually rare for men of his age at that time. Several years later, Dürer wrote an ironic poem in which he described himself as "the painter with the hairy beard."

See last week's installments of 'Feel Art Again' here and here. And if there's a painting you're dying to know more about, let Andréa know by leaving a comment. She'll see what she can do.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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