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Much About Mucha

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Reader Vanessa requested a post on Alphonse Mucha, the Czechoslovakian artist who started the Art Nouveau movement, known at the time as "le style Mucha". Although he is most well-known for his theatrical (Sarah Bernhardt) and commercial (Chambord) posters, Mucha was frustrated with such fame, because he felt that art existed only to communicate a spiritual method; he wanted to concentrate on, and be known for, projects that would ennoble art and his birthplace. His masterpiece, "Slovanská epopej" (The Slav Epic), is such a project.

1. Alphonse Mucha's childhood dream was to create a series of paintings in celebration of Slavic history. The 20 huge paintings that comprise "Slovanská epopej" took Mucha more than 18 years to complete and were made possible through the sponsorship of American millionaire Charles Crane. Mucha bestowed the series, which depicts the history of the Czech people (and Slavic peoples in general) to Prague in 1928. Just ten years later, during the war, the paintings were rolled up and stored away for 25 years before being put on display in 1963 in the castle at Moravsky Krumlov.

2. Although Mucha exhibited artistic interest and skill as a child, his early years were spent singing, as he attended the Church of St. Peter school in Brno (the capital of Moravia) on a choral scholarship. At age 18, he applied to the Prague Academy of Fine Arts, but they rejected his application, advising him: "Find yourself another profession where you'll be more useful."

3. While the Academy didn't recognize Mucha's talent, Count Khuen Belasi did. He hired the teenaged Mucha to decorate Hrušovany Emmahof Castle with murals. The count's brother, an amateur artist, also took note of Mucha's skill, and sponsored his formal studies at the Munich Academy of Art (which apparently didn't have the same opinion as the Prague Academy).

4. Mucha lived in Paris for some time, staying in a studio above a cremerie. There he met Paul Gauguin before Gauguin departed for Tahiti. Upon his return to Paris, Gauguin shared Mucha's studio.

5. During his career, Mucha tried just about every artistic pursuit possible. In addition to producing the paintings, posters, and advertisements for which he's famous, Mucha also illustrated and wrote books; created bronze sculptures; designed jewelry, carpets, wallpaper, and theatre sets; participated in the Lumiere brothers' cinematographic experiments; and took up photography. He even designed the postage stamps, banknotes, and other government documents for Czechoslovakia when it won its independence after World War I.

6. When the German troops marched into Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, Mucha was one of the first people arrested by the Gestapo, as his work and his Slavic nationalism were deemed "reactionary." During the course of his interrogation, he developed pneumonia; although he was later released, he never recovered. He died on July 14 of a lung infection. The Nazis banned the public from his funeral, but more than 100,000 Czechs attended anyway.

For more about Mucha: ARC's Mucha gallery, Ian Johnston lecture on Mucha & Art Nouveau,  and the judgment on a Mucha lawsuit.

A larger version of "Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy," part of the Slav Epic, is available here; a few of the other Slav Epic paintings are available here.

'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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]