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Slightly Inhuman: Edward Hopper

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In honor of his 126th birthday, and at the request of reader Corrine, today's "Feel Art Again" post features Edward Hopper and his 1929 painting "Chop Suey," one of his many scenes of city life.

1. Though he's known for city scenes like "Chop Suey" and the famous "Nighthawks," Edward Hopper's first big break was with a watercolor of a seaside home. "The Mansard Roof" was painted in 1923, during his first summer in Gloucester, MA, and was bought for the Brooklyn Museum's permanent collection for $100—a decent amount at the time. Although he continued to vacation by the sea, Hopper's watercolor production had slowed by 1946; he explained his lack of watercolor production by saying, "I think it's because the watercolors are done from nature and I don't work from nature anymore."

2. Thanks to commercial artwork—which he loathed—Hopper was able to afford three trips to Europe, all of which centered around Paris. Unlike other artists who visited Paris, though, Hopper didn't get in with the "it" crowd. He remarked: "Whom did I meet? Nobody. I'd heard of Gertrude Stein, but I don't remember having heard of Picasso at all"¦ Paris had no great or immediate impact on me." While there, though, he did develop an affinity for the work of Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet and a dislike for Paul Cézanne's work.

3. The two types of scenes that comprise the bulk of Hopper's oeuvre—seaside houses and city nights—don't seem to have much in common. They're tied together, though, by Hopper's emphasis on light and shadows. Hopper once said of his fascination with light, "Maybe I am slightly inhuman"¦ all I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house."

4. As one of America's most well-known artists, Hopper's work has had a strong impact on pop culture. The house in Alfred Hitchcock's Pscyho was heavily influenced by Hopper's "House by the Railroad," which was the first painting in the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. Turner Class Movies sometimes runs animated clips based on Hopper paintings prior to films, including "The Sunny Side of Life," inspired by "Chop Suey." According to Sister Wendy, "there was a period when every college dormitory in the country had on its walls a poster of Hopper's "˜Nighthawks.'" And Madonna named her 1993 world tour after Hopper's 1941 painting "Girlie Show," even incorporating aspects of the painting into the performance.

5. Many scholars find "Chop Suey" particularly interesting because they believe the painting depicts a woman facing her doppelganger. Either way, the subjects of "Chop Suey" are less isolated and lonely than in most of Hopper's other city scenes.

A larger version of "Chop Suey" is available here.

Fans of Edward Hopper should check out the exhibit guides from the NGA, the Tate Modern, and the MFA; Gordon Theisen's Staying Up Much Too Late; the Edward Hopper Scrapbook; this YouTube video of Hopper paintings; Slate's slideshow on Hopper architecture; the Smithsonian's interview of Hopper; the ARC's Hopper gallery; and the Edward Hopper House Art Center.

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with artist suggestions or details of current 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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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