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Feel Art Again: November Artists II

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On Tuesday, I presented fascinating facts about six artists who were born in or who died in November. Wrapping up the list, today's post presents interesting tidbits about five more November artists. (This list, however, is by no means exhaustive; there are more than 60 artists who were born in or who died in November!)

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7. Camille Pissarro (death: Nov. 13, 1903), a French artist, had eight children with Julie Vellay. Two of the children died while still young, but the rest followed in their father's footsteps and also became painters. [His "Landscape in the Vicinity of Louveciennes" is pictured above.]

8. René Magritte (birth: Nov. 21, 1898) suffered tragedy at a young age. When he was about 14 years old, his mother drowned herself in the River Sambre. Magritte witnessed the retrieval of her body from the River; some believe this experience may have influenced a 1927-1928 series of paintings.

9. The Russian artist Pavel Korin spent over 40 years of his life working on his magnum opus, "Farewell to Rus." He produced large paintings in preparation for the great work, ordered a huge canvas, designed a special stretcher for the canvas, and spent years coating the canvas with multiple layers of special underlays. Yet, by the time Korin died on Nov. 22, 1967, he had not put a single brushstroke on the canvas.

10. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a French painter, was born on Nov. 24, 1864. He died shortly before his 37th birthday, at his family's estate. Supposedly, his last words were, "Le vieux con!" ("Old fool!"), as he watched his father trying to kill a fly in the room.

11. The American artist Clyfford Still (birth: Nov. 30, 1904) was very particular about the display of his works. He donated 31 paintings to the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, but only on the condition that they must be shown permanently in their own room and never loaned out. Approximately 750 more of his paintings have been in storage in Maryland since his death in 1980, due to a stipulation in his will that requires they be shown only in a gallery built to his specifications and under his terms.

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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