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Feel Art Again: Charles Willson Peale (part 2)

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'Feel Art Again' usually only appears on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but today is a special exception. In this three-part mini-series, we're looking at Charles Willson Peale's fascinating life and artwork.

Yesterday, we looked at the artist and his family, accompanied by one of his seven self-portraits, painted in 1822. Today, we'll delve into his role as a naturalist, his museum, and his self-portrait, "The Artist in His Museum." And tomorrow, we'll explore his role as an American patriot, accompanied by one of his most well-known paintings, "'George Washington at Princeton."

The Naturalist & His Museum

1. Charles Willson Peale was greatly interested in natural science and history; he organized the first United States scientific expedition in 1801. He later established the Philadelphia Museum, which was the first museum to display North American mammoth bones.

2. In 1822, the museum trustees requested Peale paint a full-length portrait of himself for the museum. The result was the large-scale (103.5x80 inches) "The Artist in His Museum," which Peale produced in just two months. Peale prided himself on painting likenesses with little preparatory work, but for "The Artist in His Museum," he painted two preliminary versions to get the self-portrait just perfect.

3. The detailed painting includes many objects that illustrate America, the museum, and the artist himself. In the foreground are a dead wild turkey, which had been brought back by Peale's son Titian, alongside Peale's taxidermy tools. A mounted bald eagle, which is now one of his few surviving specimens, can also be seen, along with an Allegheny River paddlefish, one of the first donations, which is marked "With this article the Museum commenced, June, 1784." The bones on the floor are from a mastodon; a reconstructed mastodon, the museum's main attraction, is behind the curtain. Filling the receding shelves are animal species organized by Linnaean classification; above them hang portraits (painted by Peale) of revolutionary heroes and notable Americans. Finally, in the background is a child, a representation of posterity benefiting from the museum's lessons in natural history.

4. Acknowledgments sent to museum donors used a similar structure as in "The Artist in His Museum." On the acknowledgments, a curtain marked "Nature" was held back to reveal a landscape with animals. The positioning of Peale in the painting, holding back the curtain, "has the effect of creating a dialectic between life and art, painter and audience, the individual and American culture at large, and finally past and present," according to a critic, David C. Ward. "The figure of Peale bridges these realms... further drawing attention to and heightening the impact of his creativity."

5. While visiting the eastern U.S., Davy Crockett visited Peale's museum and wrote: "...I was taken to Peale's museum. I shall not attempt to describe the curiosities here; it is above my bend." Another visitor, a Marylander named Anne Royall, remarked, "The museum was founded by Mr. Peale in 1784; this indefatigable man has done more since that time, than one would suppose could be done by a whole nation - the collection is endless..."

6. Upon Peale's death, the museum was sold to the showmen P.T. Barnum and Moses Kimball, who split it up. Today, much of the collection is in the Peale Museum in Baltimore. Rembrandt Peale founded the Baltimore museum and designed the building; it is now managed by the Maryland Historical Society.

A larger version of "The Artist in His Museum" is available here.

Don't forget to check back tomorrow for part three!

'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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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