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Chalk It Up To Imagination: Julian Beever

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At the request of reader John, today's post features the "Pavement Picasso," a.k.a. Julian Beever. While quite a lot has been written online about the UK artist (including a popular chain e-mail), very little actual information about Beever's life is available. Here's what we do know"¦

1. Julian Beever got his start on pavement creations while he was attending art school; he would make two-dimensional chalk drawings and receive pennies from passers-by. He began experimenting with anamorphic trompe-l'oeil chalk creations after seeing tiles being removed from a street, an effect he tried to recreate on paper.

2. When viewed in a photograph, Beever's creations appear amazingly realistic. Those who walk past them don't get quite the same view, though. The 3D effect works only from one certain angle, the place where Beever positions his tripod-mounted camera. From any other angle, the work is distorted and odd-looking.

3. For Beever, the pavement creation isn't the end result. He explains, "For me, I'm working toward building a photograph as my end result." Thus, much of his creation time is spent running between the camera and the drawing, verifying that each stroke is in just the right place to create the 3D look.

4. While most other artists would feel their time was wasted creating a work that can only truly be viewed from one angle and that is usually destroyed within a few days, Beever doesn't mind, since he sees the Internet as his true medium. Without the Internet, his work would be virtually unknown, but with the Internet, his work never really vanishes and it's viewed by way more people than if it was in a museum.

5. Beever studied at an art school and he can replicate the works of the masters, as well as paint formal portraits. He devotes most of his time and energy to the 3D sidewalk art for which he's known, though, because, "My art is for anybody. It's for people who wouldn't go into an art gallery. It's art for the people.

6. In the almost 20 years Beever has been producing pavement art, he has worked in at least 12 countries. Several of his projects have been chalk advertisements for big brands (Aveeno, Levi's, Sony), while others have been featured on TV shows around the globe. "Meeting Madame Butterfly" (above) was featured on an episode of the show "Concrete Canvas" here in the States.

A (slightly) larger version of "Meeting Madame Butterfly" is available here.

Fans should check out Julian Beever's web site and flickr gallery; the Aveeno video, the RAZR2 video, and the video from the WV Gazette; and the BBC's behind-the-scenes photo gallery. Also check out our previous trompe-l'oeil artist, Walter Goodman.

Current Exhibitions featuring "Feel Art Again" artists:
Picasso & His Collection, feat. Matisse, Renoir, Cézanne, Rousseau, & Picasso
(Queensland, Australia: through Sept. 14, 2008)
The Glass Experience, feat. Dale Chihuly (Chicago: through Sept. 1, 2008)
The Power of Place, feat. Maxfield Parrish (Vermont: through Oct. 26, 2008)
Georgia O'Keeffe and the Camera (Portland, ME: through September 7, 2008)

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. E-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with artist suggestions or details of current art exhibitions.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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