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From the Slums to World Fame: Carl Larsson

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Tomorrow marks the 155th anniversary of the birth of the Swedish painter Carl Larsson. Larsson was born into the slums of Stockholm and went on to become one of Sweden's most loved artists, famous throughout the world for his scenes of Swedish life. Larsson also painted monumental works, of which the greatly debated "Midvinterblot" was his last. A little background on Larsson and "Midvinterblot" (Midwinter Sacrifice)...

1. For a time, Carl Larsson lived and worked in Paris, hoping to exhibit his works at the Salons. He was unable to complete his first painting, a large 3-meter canvas, due to lack of funds. His second work, though completed, didn't fare much better, as it was hung so high at the Salon of 1878 that no one could see it.

2. In his bedroom, Larsson kept a pistol that carried the inscription "Note: not loaded."

3. Larsson is most famous for his watercolors of his family and their home, Little Hyttnäs. Some were painted as sequential picture stories, for which Larsson is now considered to be one of the earliest Swedish comic creators.

4. A German publisher, Karl Langweische, printed a collection of Larsson's watercolors, drawings, and text as Das Haus in der Sonne (The House in the Sun) in 1909. The book quickly became one of Germany's best-sellers for the year, with 40,000 copies sold in just three months.

5. "Midvinterblot," a depiction of the sacrifice of the king to the winter gods to allow the return of spring, had been commissioned by the National Museum in Stockholm. The museum found fault with various aspects of the 6x14 painting during the preliminary stages and, upon completion, rejected the work. In 1987, the painting was offered to the museum for free, on the condition that it be placed on the wall for which it had been intended; the museum declined. Only after a successful exhibition of "Midvinterblot," on loan to the museum by a Japanese collector, in 1992 did the museum buy the painting and put it on permanent display.

6. Larsson's autobiography, published 12 years after his death, revealed that he had suffered with self-doubt, despair, and depression, a revelation that surprised admirers of his bright, cheery artwork. Larsson, though, had grown up "in dismal circumstances" and felt inferior to his classmates for the first several years of school. His first wife suffered a miscarriage and then died while giving birth to their second child, who also died soon after. With Karin Bergöö, Larsson had 8 children, but one, Mats, died at 2 months of age. Given such losses, the despair and depression are no surprise.

A larger version of the final sketch of "Midvinterblot" is available here; a large image of the final work on the wall in the museum is available here. To see the evolution from first sketch to completed work, visit the Wikipedia page.

The web site for the Carl Larsson house includes a gallery, articles, and a shop, as well as information about visiting.

'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
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]