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Theft, Jungles & Naïveté: A Look at Henri Rousseau

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Tomorrow is the 164th birthday of the French painter Henri Julien Félix Rousseau, also known as "Le Douanier" (the customs officer). Rousseau received no formal training, only began painting seriously as an adult, and was often criticized for his lack of skill, yet he's still being discussed in art classes and museums almost 100 years after his death. Some interesting tidbits about his life and work...

1. Henri Rousseau was arrested twice. At age 19, he was arrested for "an act of petty theft," for which he spent a month in jail and lost his job as an attorney's scribe. In 1907, 44 years after his first arrest, Rousseau was arrested for participation in a bank fraud. He was granted an early release to finish "Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo," according to some accounts, or, according to other accounts, simply because of his hapless naïveté, which he demonstrated with his paintings.

2. Pablo Picasso once discovered a Rousseau painting being sold on the street as a canvas to be painted over. He realized Rousseau's genius and met with him soon after; the two became friends. Picasso later took several photos of Rousseau, including one that was a double-exposure of Rousseau in his studio and his painting, "Monkeys in the Jungle."

3. The nickname "Le Douanier" (the customs officer) was jokingly bestowed upon Rousseau by his friends because of his day job as a customs clerk collecting tolls. He never achieved the rank of "Douanier."

4. Though Rousseau's passion lay in painting, he also dabble in literature and music. He wrote a five-act play, "La Vengeance d'une orpheline russe," as well as a waltz, "Clémence," named for his first wife. After his retirement in 1893, he earned some extra money by playing a violin in the streets and giving children music lessons.

5. Rousseau never attended art school or received art instruction, stating that he had "no teacher other than nature." He did, however, receive "some advice" from more established painters. Most observers and critics in his day thought he painted like a child and didn't know what he was doing.

6. Although Rousseau is most famous for his jungle scenes and served 4 years in the army, he himself never traveled through jungles or exotic landscapes. He took inspiration from illustrated books, the botanical gardens in Paris, and "taxidermified" animals, as well as his army friends' stories of foreign lands.

A larger version of "Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)," one of Henri Rousseau's more famous paintings, 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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