Original image

Welcoming Daybreak with Maxfield Parrish

Original image


Today, I'm fulfilling another reader request, this time for America's most-reproduced artist, Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966). Readers Hoya, Nerak, Vanessa, and Johnny Cat all asked for "Feel Art Again" coverage of the prolific illustrator whose colorful works are so well-known that there's even a color—Parrish blue—named after him. So, a little more about the man and "Daybreak," his 1922 masterpiece that he referred to as his "great painting."

1. While his colors may be famous, Frederick Maxfield Parrish started out working in black and white. His lengthy illustration career began with one commission: to illustrate Mother Goose in Prose, an 1897 work by L. Frank Baum. The book actually launched both men's careers, since it was Baum's very first.

2. Parrish had several tricks for creating his unique paintings and illustrations. For his landscapes, which he began in 1931, he usually built models of the landscapes and tested several lighting setups. Once he determined the best view, he would photograph the set-up to use as the basis for the painting. He was able to accurately depict the flow of geometrically patterned clothing by photographing someone (usually himself) draped in a large piece of cloth featuring the pattern in stark black and white. The photo would be made into a transparency and then projected onto the canvas for Parrish to trace and fill in the black portions with graphite. Color-wise, he mentally assessed the color components of each work and then painted them separately, separating each layer of color with varnish. And finally, to add depth, Parrish would layer cut-out objects or figures onto canvases, covering them with thick, clear glaze.

3. The naked figure in "Daybreak" is Parrish's youngest child, his daughter Jean; the reclining figure is Kitty Owen, the granddaughter of William Jennings Bryan.

4. Even in his own day, Parrish was immensely popular, the highest paid commercial artist and muralist in the U.S., illustrating for the best magazines as well as creating advertisements for the top brands. "Daybreak" was commissioned in 1920 for the sole purpose of reproduction, to be distributed to the American public as a color lithographic print. It went on to be the most reproduced painting in American history. One 1925 survey estimated that as many as 1 in every 4 households had a "Daybreak" print on its wall. It has outsold both Andy Warhol's "Campbell's Soup Cans" and Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper." The original was purchased in 2006 at a Christie's auction for $7.6 million, a Parrish record.

5. Parrish's second child of four, his son Maxfield Parrish Jr., made significant contributions to the creation of the first self-developing camera at the Polaroid Corporation.

6. Norman Rockwell, an American illustrator revered in his own right, once said of Parrish, "When I was in art school I admired him. He was one of my gods."

A (slightly) larger version of "Daybreak" is available here.

Fans of Maxfield Parrish should check out The Knave of Hearts and The Arabian Nights, both of which he illustrated, as well as Alma M. Gilbert's essay Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe.

Current Exhibits featuring "Feel Art Again" artists:
Frida Kahlo (San Francisco: June 14 - Sept. 28, 2008)
Alphonse Mucha (Madrid: through Aug. 31, 2008)
The Glass Experience, feat. Dale Chihuly (Chicago: through Sept. 1, 2008)
The Power of Place, feat. Maxfield Parrish (Vermont: through Oct. 26, 2008)

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. E-mail us at with details on current art exhibits or suggestions of artists to cover.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
Original image

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]