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Feel Art Again: Irises

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Many late-nineteenth century artists became fascinated with Japanese woodblock prints and began producing works influenced by the Japanese art. The term Japonisme refers to those Japanese-inspired works, including paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, and Gustav Klimt. Today I present to you two works of art—the woodblock print "Iris Flowers and Grasshopper" by Hokusai and Vincent van Gogh's painting, "Irises"—and a comparison of the two great artists.

1. While Vincent van Gogh only lived to be 37, Hokusai's most important works were painted well past that age. "Of all I drew prior to the age of 70 there is truly nothing of any great note," wrote Hokusai at age 74.

2. Roger Zelazny's short story, "24 views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai," was inspired by Hokusai. The ballad "Vincent," by Don McLean, was inspired by Vincent van Gogh and includes the lines, "Starry, starry night / Paint your palette blue and gray."

3. Just as many of van Gogh's works were influenced by Japanese works, including those of Hokusai, his own work has influenced many other artists' work. Several paintings by Francis Bacon were based on van Gogh's "The Painter on his Way to Work."

4. Both Hokusai and van Gogh worked until the end. One of van Gogh's works was painted only 6 weeks before his death. Hokusai, at the age of 89, remarked on his deathbed, "If I had another five years, even, I could have become a real painter."

5. Hokusai employed many names, often related to changes in his work. Van Gogh, however, might have benefited from adopting a different name, as his name also belonged to several other members of his family: his grandfather, his stillborn older brother, his uncle (an art dealer), and his grandfather's uncle (a sculptor).

6. The most famous of Hokusai's work is, undoubtedly, "The Great Wave off Kanagawa." Vincent van Gogh's famous works include "The Starry Night," "Sunflowers," and "Irises."

A larger version of "Irises" is available here; a larger version of "Iris Flowers and Grasshopper" is available here.

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]