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Feel Art Again: "Gathering Pansies"

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Gathering Pansies

In January, we discussed Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and one of his paintings, "The Roses of Heliogabalus." His second wife, Lady Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema, was also an accomplished artist. Since "Feel Art Again" has been suffering a dearth of female artists and spring is almost upon us, now is a good time to take a look at Lady Alma-Tadema's "Gathering Pansies."

1. Originally, Laura trained in music and those close to her "thought that she would show some originality as a composer." She took up painting upon meeting Lawrence Alma-Tadema, though, and became a successful painter instead. Her step-daughter Anna and both her sisters, Emily and Ellen, were also painters.

2. Laura met Lawrence at the home of Madox Brown, under whom her sister Ellen was studying. At the time, Laura was 17 and Lawrence was 33, a recent widower, but he fell in love with her at first sight. After Lawrence relocated to England at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Laura began taking painting lessons with him, and it was during a lesson that he proposed. They married in 1871, two years after they first met.

3. Unlike some artists, Laura received great recognition during her lifetime. She was one of only two English women to exhibit at the Paris International Exhibition in 1878. From the German government she received a gold medal in 1896, when the Emperor bought one of her paintings for the Empress.

4. As a well-respected artist and as the wife of a successful artist, Laura was well-connected in the art world. She was frequently painted by Lawrence after their marriage and both she and Lawrence, along with Sir Edward Poynter and other contemporaries, are featured in Henry Jamyn Brooks' painting, "Private View of the Old Masters Exhibition, Royal Academy, 1888." She was also friends with Dante Gabriel Rossetti (previously featured on "Feel Art Again").

5. Laura painted some classical subjects like those for which her husband was famous, but she specialized in sentimental domestic and genre scenes of women and children. Most of her paintings are in 17th-century Dutch settings.

6. Although Laura painted professionally for 35 years, from her first success at the Paris Salon in 1873 to her death, she produced only 100 known signed works.

A larger version of "Gathering Pansies" is available here.

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday and Thursday.

Suggestions, especially of pre-1900 female artists, are always welcome.

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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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