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Ivan Aivazovsky's "The Ninth Wave"

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Yesterday marked the 108th anniversary of the death of the Armenian painter Ivan Aivazovsky. Aivazovsky is most famous for his seascapes, which constitute more than half of his oeuvre. Karly Briullov's "Last Day of Pompeii" (previously featured on 'Feel Art Again') had a significant impact on Aivazovsky, influencing some of his work.

1. As a young boy growing up in Theodosia, Ivan Aivazovsky was known to draw in charcoal on the whitewashed walls throughout the town. Luckily, his graffiti did not land him in trouble, but instead attracted the attention of the town-governor, who then helped Aivazovsky attend high school and later the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts to further develop his talents. Aivazovsky graduated the Academy at age 20,with their highest honor, the gold medal.

2. Aivazovsky honed his skill for seascapes with hands-on experience. In 1836, he participated in training exercises of the Baltic Sea fleet. By a Tsar's edict, he was attached to the Chief Naval Staff "with the title of painter to the Staff and with the right to wear the uniform of the naval ministry." He was so revered by the navy that, in 1846, they marked the tenth anniversary of his artistic career with a special squadron of battleships sent from Sevastopol to congratulate him.

3. In 1840, Aivazovsky traveled to Rome, where he became friendly with Nikolai Gogol. He also received high praise from the Roman critics, newspapers, and even Pope Gregory XVI. The pope purchased Aivazovsky's "Chaos" and hung it in the Vatican where, according to the Art Gazette, "only the pictures of the world's greatest artists are considered worthy of a place."

4. Joseph M.W. Turner, who himself is known for his marine paintings, saw Aivazovsky's "The Bay of Naples on a Moonlit Night" in 1842 and was so struck that he wrote a rhymed poem (in Italian) to Aivazovsky:

In this your picture
I see the moon, all gold and silver.
Reflected in the sea below...
And on the surface of the sea
There plays a breeze which leaves a trail
Of trembling ripples, like a shower
Of fiery sparks or else the gleaming headdress
Of a mighty king!
Forgive me if I err, great artist,
Your picture has entranced me so,
Reality and art are one,
And I am all amazement.
So noble, powerful is the art
That only genius could inspire!

5. Between 1845 and 1890, Aivazovsky traveled to Istanbul 8 times, first upon invitation of Sultan Abdülmecid. He was later commissioned as a court painter by the Sultans Abdülmecid, Abdulaziz, and Abdulhamid. In 1895, Aivazovsky was so devastated by the massacres of Armenians ordered by Sultan Abdulhamid that he threw into the sea the medals he had received from the sultan.

6. Aivazovsky, who believed "to live means to work," was one of the most prolific and successful artists of his time. He painted more than 6,000 works by his death in 1900, and had even started a new canvas, "The Explosion of the Turkish Ship," on the last day of his life.

7. A minor planet, discovered by a Soviet astronomer, Nikolai Stepanovich, in 1977 was named after 3787 Aivazovskij in honor of the artist.

A larger version of "The Ninth Wave" 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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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