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Moses and Mexico: Frida Kahlo

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Thursday's call for modern artist suggestions elicited a record number of comments (for "Feel Art Again," at least). We'll kick off our modern artists posts with Frida Kahlo, who was the most-requested artist with votes from readers Tommy, Gillian, Nerak, AMT, and lindsay m.

Next month will mark both the 101st anniversary of Frida Kahlo's birth and the 54th anniversary of her death. The Mexican artist, probably most well-known for her distinctive eyebrows, had a life full of suffering (including injuries, miscarriages, abortion, affairs, and heartbreak), which is reflected in most of her artwork. Some background on Kahlo and her painting, "Moses":

1. Frida Kahlo often told people she was born in 1910, 3 years after her actual birth, so that people would directly associate her with the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910. Kahlo became an embodiment of Mexican culture, especially indigenous culture, but she herself wasn't fully Mexican: her father was born Carl Wilhelm Kahlo in Germany, either of Jewish and Hungarian ancestry, as Frida claimed, or from a long line of German Lutherans, as some new research argues. Frida's mother, Matilde Calderón y Gonzalez, was of indigenous Mexican and Spanish descent.

2. Throughout her life, Frida Kahlo wore skirts to disguise her leg deformities. Polio at age 6 had left her right leg thinner than her left. Some scholars believe Kahlo also suffered from spina bifida. And, at age 18, Kahlo suffered 11 fractures in her right leg and a crushed and dislocated foot, among many other injuries, when her bus collided with a trolley car. She underwent as many as 35 operations over the course of her life as a result of the accident.

3. Although she grew up "surrounded by females" with several sisters, Kahlo became comfortable in male-dominated situations as well. As a child, she boxed, among playing other sports, and was one of only 35 girls in a class of 2,000 at the National Preparatory School, one of Mexico's premier schools, where she was enrolled in a pre-med program. While there, she also joined a gang and dated the gang's leader, Alejandro Gomez Arias.

4. Recuperation after the bus accident took over a year, during which time Kahlo gave up her pre-med program and began painting. Her father, an artist, lent her his oil pants and brushes, while her mom commissioned a special easel, so that Kahlo could paint in her hospital bed, and had a mirror placed in the canopy, enabling Kahlo's self-portraiture.

5. In 1939, the Louvre bought Kahlo's "The Frame," making it the first work by a 20th-century Mexican artist to be purchased by an internationally renowned museum. Despite such an accomplishment, Kahlo was still known for most of her life, and the 20th-century, as the wife of Diego Rivera, whom she married in 1929. Since the 1980s, though, Kahlo has been known for her own merit. Several biographies have been written and movies about her life have been made. Her former home, La Casa Azul, is now a museum. The largest exhibit ever of her paintings, held last summer for the 100th anniversary of her birth, broke all attendance records at Mexico's Museum of the Fine Arts Palace, although it was only open for 2 months. And, in 2006, Kahlo's "Roots" set an auction record for a Latin American work when it was sold for US$5.6 million.

6. Her complex 1945 painting, "Moses," presents the sun as "the centre of all religions." The top portion of the painting contains gods; the middle section is full of "heroes" like Alexander the Great, Martin Luther, Napoleon, and—most interestingly—Hitler, whom Kahlo called "the lost child." The bottom of the painting is filled with the masses and scenes relating to the process of evolution. In the middle is the infant Moses, with the third eye of wisdom. The painting was inspired by Sigmund Freud's Moses and Monotheism, which makes a link between Ancient Egyptian beliefs, Moses, and the origins of monotheistic religion.

A larger version of "Moses" is available here.

"˜Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Weird
Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]

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