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Painting His Dreamworld: Sir Edward Burne-Jones

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Tuesday was the 110th anniversary of his death, so let's take a look at the life of Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), the English pre-Raphaelite who often wished that he could have been the contemporary of Botticelli.

1. Attending Exeter College (at Oxford) in 1853, Edward Jones met William Morris and the two instantly became friends, referring to each other as Ned and Topsy. The two remained friends for more than 43 years, until Morris' death. The best friends even brought their families together in 1874 for a joint-family portrait by Frederick Hollyer.

2. Jones may today be as well-known for his long-lasting friendship with William Morris as he is for his art, but he didn't always have loving people in his life. His mom died only 6 days after Jones was born, and his father became so upset by her death that he couldn't even bring himself to touch his only child. Jones was raised "by a rather severe Low Church housekeeper," a sad reality that he escaped by creating a fantastic dreamworld, later reflected in his paintings.

3. College was the pivotal point in Jones' life. Besides meeting Morris, Jones also became an agnostic (he originally planned to take Holy Orders), began painting, developed a fascination with Arthurian legend (seen in his paintings), and met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who became Jones' mentor and friend. Not bad, considering Jones didn't even complete his course of study at Exeter, though he did later receive an honorary degree (1881) and was made an Honorary Fellow (1883).

4. Like Sir Edward Poynter, Jones married "one of the remarkable MacDonald sisters." Georgiana MacDonald was training to be a painter when she married Jones in 1860, but after the wedding she switched to woodcuts. Rumor has it that Jones' good friend Morris also fell for Georgiana, after she was already married to Jones, but she turned him down. Her marriage to Jones was not without its problems, though: Jones had an affair with his model, Maria Zambaco, from 1868 to 1870 that supposedly ended with Zambaco attempting suicide in public. Georgiana also caused Jones to be unhappy about his baronetcy (created in 1894); he told his friends that her contempt for the honor was "withering."

5. Jones was a highly strung, nervous man who, upon completion of a major work, would suffer a nervous collapse. Although he took the extra surname "Burne" to set himself apart from all the other painters named Jones, he was mostly unknown to the general public until the mid-1870s, since he was reluctant to exhibit in public. A Grosvenor Gallery exhibit in 1877 was his big breakthrough: he exhibited "Mirror of Venus" (above) along with two other paintings and became famous overnight. By the 1880s, he was considered one of the greatest living artists.

6. After two years of declining health, which began with the death of Morris, Jones passed away in 1898. The Prince of Wales made possible a memorial service at Westminster Abbey six days later, the first time such an honor had ever been bestowed on an artist.

A larger version of "Mirror of Venus" is available here.

Fans should check out Jones' sketchbook, list of paintings, and ARC gallery (with personal letters and obituary); his memorials, written by his wife; the BM&AG Burne-Jones Resource Site; his son Philip, also an artist; and his MySpace page (created by a fan).

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 discuss.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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