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Feel Art Again: Jacques-Louis David's "Madame Récamier"

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Today marks the 230th birthday of one of France's most famous socialites, Juliette Récamier. Married at age 15, Juliette was an established member of upper-class Parisian society by the time she commissioned Jacques-Louis David to paint her portrait in 1800, at age 23. Both Juliette and Jacques-Louis led interesting, and influential, lives during the 18th and 19th centuries.

1. When Juliette, at the young age of 15, married Jacques Récamier, a man 30 years her senior, rumors quickly circulated. The most interesting: Récamier was actually Juliette's natural father, who married her to make her his heir.

2. Jacques-Louis David was raised by architect uncles who, along with his mother, wanted Jacques-Louis to also become an architect. Jacques-Louis, however, wanted to be a painter, and later stated, "I was always hiding behind the instructor's chair, drawing for the duration of the class."

3. Between 1770 and 1774, Jacques-Louis David attempted each year to win the Prix de Rome, an art scholarship to the French Academy in Rome. Each year, he lost; he once attempted to starve himself to death in protest of the decision. Finally, in 1774, he won.

4. Juliette grew frustrated that Jacques-Louis worked slowly and wanted to rework her portrait, so she commissioned one of his pupils to paint her portrait instead. Jacques-Louis then told her, "Women have their whims, and so do artists; allow me to satisfy mine by keeping this portrait." The portrait was never finished.

5. Despite its unfinished nature, the portrait and its subject influenced French style: the type of sofa on which Juliette reclines in the portrait became known as a récamier, after Juliette, and the European fashion for Greek attire was sparked in part by Juliette's attire in the portrait.

6. Both Juliette Récamier and Jacques-Louis David were exiled from Paris, though not at the same time. Juliette went first to Lyon, her birthplace, and then on to Rome and Naples. Jacques-Louis was hit by a carriage and died shortly after of deformation to the heart in 1825. Despite his family's pleas, his body was not allowed to return to France for burial, so he was buried in Brussels instead. His heart, however, was buried in Paris.

'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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