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Yours, Mine, & Ours: Collaborative Art, part 2

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Last Saturday, "Feel Art Again" featured collaborative art projects from secrets on postcards to traveling sketchbooks. Today, we're focusing on those collaborative art projects that decorate or beautify public areas.

New York City's Urban Forest Project (2006) had 185 designers and artists, as well as 22 mentor/student pairs, create posters employing the idea or form of trees. The resulting posters were displayed throughout Times Square and were recycled into Jack Spade totebags and sold once the display was over. 186 posters are viewable, and downloadable as PDFs, on the project's web site.

Deckchair Dreams is an ongoing project in its third year at London's Royal Parks. This summer, 23 artists and celebrities designed deckchair canvases along the theme "The Rare and Wonderful Things of the Royal Parks." The project aims to brighten the parks while also raising money, through the sale of the deckchairs, for the Royal Parks Foundation. The current canvases can be viewed and purchased on the project's web site.

AbZOOlutely.jpgOne of the most common collaborative public art projects entails the decoration of large, sculptured animals that are then placed throughout a city. Baltimore had crabs, Norfolk had mermaids, and CowParade and Buddy Bears were global. The animals are usually only a temporary installation, often followed by an auction to raise money for a charity or organization. In 2006, the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia had "AbZOOlutely," the first time a city has used a whole "zoo" of animals instead of just one or two. Throughout the fall, 50 decorated animals were displayed throughout the area and served as a scavenger-hunt of sorts. AbZOOlutely culminated in an auction. The proceeds from the auction, the accompanying raffle, and sales of AbZOOlutely merchandise—nearly $80,000—benefited the community fund, preservation and beautification, and the Philadelphia Zoo. The project's web site includes photos of the animals, results of the auction, and the map.

Of course, these lists of collaborative art projects have not been exhaustive. So let us know if there's a cool one we missed, or what kind of animals inhabited your town.

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with suggestions of artists or details on current exhibitions.

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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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