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Feel Art Again: "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte"

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Several months back, a reader named Joseph suggested George Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" for, aptly enough, a Sunday afternoon. Since 'Feel Art Again' runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays, though, I figured today was as good a time as any. And, with the snowy forecast for tomorrow (at least here in PA), a cheery weather painting is just what we need. So, I'm proud to present "Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte" by Georges-Pierre Seurat.

1. George Seurat devoted two years to "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," spending afternoons in the park sketching figures. He completed approximately 60 studies for the 2x3 meter painting, and even reworked the original. He was most focused on color and light. Unfortunately, the pigment zinc yellow, which was new at the time, has darkened to brown over the years, changing the appearance of the lawn and other parts of the painting.

2. Seurat's interest in the study and emotion of color might possibly be traced back to his childhood home. With his parents and two siblings, he lived at 100 Boulevard Magenta.

3. Near the end of his life, Seurat secretly cohabited with Madeleine Knobloch, a young model. In February 1890, she gave birth to their first son. Seurat died of uncertain causes in March 1891, shortly before the birth of his second son, who died soon after birth. Supposedly, Seurat had only introduced Knobloch and his son to his parents two days before his death.

4. After his death, the contents of Seurat's studio were classified at his parents' request. They offered the contents to the Louvre, but were refused; the contents were then divided amongst Knobloch and some of Seurat's followers.

5. "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" isn't just Seurat's most famous painting, it is also one of the most famous and frequently reproduced paintings in the world. Like Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory," and Edvard Munch's "The Scream," Seurat's painting is often reference in pop culture. Stephen Sondheim wrote a Tony award-winning musical about it; the Looney Tunes, the Simpsons, and Sesame Street parodied it; it appeared in "Barbarella" (1968) and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986); and Nancy Cameron posed in front of a copy of it for the January 1976 issue of Playboy.

6. In 2006, the painting was recreated in modern clothes in Beloit, WI. The recreation took place on a Saturday afternoon on the bank of the Rock River to promote the "Saturday in the Park with Friends" event. Arranged by Friends of Riverfront, the event was a bigger hit than expected. Check out the photo collection on flickr to see how close to the original they got.

A larger version of the painting is available here.

'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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