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Feel Art Again: "Israel in Egypt"

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The British painter Sir Edward Poynter was born on this day in 1836. To celebrate his 172nd birthday, we'll take a look at his first great success, his large historical painting, "Israel in Egypt" (1867).

1. Like Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's paintings, Sir Edward Poynter's paintings are rich in architectural detail. Not surprising, since his father was Ambrose Poynter, a well-known architect. Poynter was accused of disregarding architectural accuracy in the creation of "Israel in Egypt," though. The background features the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Temple from Philae, the Obelisk from Heliopolis, and the Pylon Gateway from Edfu, buildings that span not only a great physical distance, but also different time periods.

2.Several members of Poynter's extended family were also well-known. His great-grandfather, Thomas Banks, was a sculptor. His wife, Agnes MacDonald, was one of the MacDonald sisters discussed in Judith Flanders' book, A Circle of Sisters. Her sisters included Alice, mother of Rudyard Kipling, the author and poet; Georgiana, wife of Edward Burne-Jones, the painter; and Louisa, wife of Alfred Baldwin, the industrialist, and mother of Stanley Baldwin, three-time prime minister.

3. Poynter was a well-respected authority in the art world. He served as the first Slade Professor (senior professorship of art) at the University of London from 1871-1875, as the principal of the National Art Training School (now the Royal College of Art) from 1875-1881, and as director of the National Gallery from 1894-1904, during which time he oversaw the opening of the Tate Gallery. He also served 23 years as the president of the Royal Academy, from 1896 until his death. His lectures as Slade Professor were published in 1879 as Ten Lectures on Art. In 1896, after becoming president of the Royal Academy, he was knighted and six years later he was made a baronet.

4. "Israel in Egypt" is a graphic depiction of Exodus I: 7-11, which reads:

But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific. They became so numerous and strong that the land was filled with them... Accordingly, taskmasters were set over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor. Thus they had to build for Pharaoh the supply cities of Pithom and Raamses. (NAB)

Poynter's depiction includes an Egyptian princess carrying a baby Moses. (To better see details, check out the larger version here.)

5. Poynter toiled on "Israel in Egypt" for three years, after which it was exhibited at the Royal Academy. Besides the architectural criticism, Poynter also received criticism for his choice of subject matter. As one reviewer from The Art Journal wrote, "the painter labours under the disadvantage of having chosen a disagreeable, not to say revolting subject." The piece was bought by Sir John Hawkshaw, a civil engineer, who added the additional complaint that the painting was unrealistic because, to move a granite sculpture of such magnitude, more slaves would have been necessary. To improve the realism of his piece and keep the customer happy, Poynter added more slaves to the procession, filling them in all the way to the right-hand edge of the canvas.

6. During the course of his career, Poynter dabbled in other artistic areas as well. He practiced as a designer in fresco, mosaic, stained glass, pottery, and tile-work. In 1892, he designed the reverse of the shilling and florin coins. He also decorated the ceiling of Waltham Abbey, in Essex, in 1860; executed 12 woodcarving illustrations for the Dalziel brothers' Bible Gallery, published in 1880; edited the illustrated art textbook Classic and Italian Painting, also published in 1880; and contributed drawings to Once a Week and other magazines.

A larger version of the painting is available here. A high-resolution version is also available, but it takes longer to load. A gallery of many of Poynter's works is available at ARC.

'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]