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Only the Creepiest Photos Ever Taken

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Mourning is a strange thing, and different cultures deal with it in vastly different ways. But there are reasons people associate the Victorians with morbidity and death, and one of them is memento mori.

The fact is, postmortem photographs like this were taken more than any other kind of photograph in the Victorian era -- especially in the U.S. -- and in many cases these carefully arranged, meticulously staged pictures were the only ones ever taken of their subjects. From Stanley Burns' book Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America:

These photographs were a common aspect of American culture, a part of the mourning and memorialization process. Surviving families were proud of these images and hung them in their homes, sent copies to friends and relatives, wore them as lockets or carried them as pocket mirrors. Nineteenth-century Americans knew how to respond to these images. Today there is no culturally normative response to postmortem photographs.

So, given your lack of a "culturally normative response" to these pictures, dear reader, we advise the faint of heart among you to click elsewhere.

"Child in Coffin at the Death Room"

From "This portrait appears to have been taken in the formal parlor of a family home. The parlor, or "death room," was an important part of funerary rituals for most of the 19th century, the place where deceased family members were laid out for final respects. This image dates to c. 1890-1905, a time when many funerals were still taking place at home. Soon, however, death would begin to leave the home and by end of World War I most Americans will receive their health care in doctor's offices and hospitals and most funerals will take place in funeral homes. As the funeral "parlor" came into vogue, the home parlor was rechristened a "living room." A 1910 issue of Ladies Home Journal declared the "death room" to be a term of the past."

Also, did you notice the strange silhouette on the right side of the picture? That's the photographer's assistant, holding the casket lid open for the shot.

For me, though, more intriguing than the dead are the living who pose with them -- usually stoic and reserved, it's the little bit of emotion their faces betray that make these portraits so compelling ... and heartbreaking. (Above and below: siblings with their brothers.)


Another common theme in Victorian-era postmortem photography was the staged scene of mourning, which was often highly melodramatic, like this one, "Orphans at Their Mother's Grave":
The photograph above also reveals another Victorian preoccupation: spirit photography. Likely a double-exposure featuring an "actress" portraying the childrens' mother, this style seems to me a highly theatrical way to deal with one's grief.

Another style was the photograph in which the dead were posed to look alive -- the first in this series, at the top of this post, is an "eyes-open" example. The use of props like this man's newspaper was less common; perhaps it was included to distract from the unnatural rigidness of his hands, among other giveaways.

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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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