CLOSE
Original image

Feel Art Again: "The Roses of Heliogabalus"

Original image

Alma-Tadema---Roses-of-Heliogabalus.jpg

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's "The Roses of Heliogabalus" is one of his most famous paintings, and also a representation of one of the most well-known stories about the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus. As the second part of our feature on Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, today's post will focus on "The Roses of Heliogabalus" and the emperor himself. (If you missed it the first time around, check out Tuesday's post for details on the artist.)

1. "The Roses of Heliogabalus" depicts guests of Emperor Heliogabalus being suffocated by a shower of rose petals for the entertainment of the emperor. The original tale of the event mentions violets as the flowers of death. At the time of the painting, though, roses were symbolic of sensual beauty, corruption, and death, which may be why Tadema chose to use them.

2. For "The Roses of Heliogabalus," Tadema ordered roses from the Riviera even though it was winter. For four months, he had blossoms delivered weekly to his London studio so he could achieve the realistic look for which he became famous.

3. Heliogabalus, also known as Elagabalus, was born Varius Avitas Bassianus. He served as a priest of the god El-Gabal; at age 14, due in large part to his grandmother's finagling, he became emperor. Four years later, at the age of 18, he was assassinated, which some sources also attribute to his grandmother's finagling.

4. Despite his short life, Heliogabalus managed to marry at least 5 women, one of whom was a Vestal Virgin. He also referred to a male charioteer, Hierocles, as his "husband" and supposedly married another male athlete, Zoticus, in a public ceremony in Rome.

5. According to some accounts, Heliogabalus offered a significant sum of money to whomever could make him a woman. He was also said to have worn make-up, removed bodily hair, and worn wigs to prostitute himself, first in taverns and brothels, and then out of the imperial palace. Upon being greeted by Zoticus with, "My Lord Emperor, Hail," Heliogabalus replied, "Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady." However, the veracity of many of the claims about Heliogabalus is unknown; a black propaganda campaign had been waged against him after his death. Many stories, including the one that inspired Tadema's painting, are considered to be false or at least exaggerated.
A large version of the painting is available here.

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
quiz
arrow
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image
SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES