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Diane Arbus' Photos and the Stories Behind them

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Thirty-seven years ago today, Diane Arbus committed suicide in her New York City apartment by ingesting barbiturates and then slitting her wrists. She was only 48. Most people are familiar with the famed photographer's work, especially her photographs of "freaks," but few know the stories behind those iconic images. So today, we'll take a look at the people on the other side of Arbus' lens.

1. Arbus' "Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967" has captured imaginations and inspired other creepy twin images, like the twins in The Shining. But the Wade twins are far from creepy; the Arbus photo is a bit of an anomaly. Their parents "thought it was the worst likeness of the twins [they'd] ever seen." Arbus found the girls at a Knights of Columbus hall during a Christmas party for twins and triplets, though no one's quite sure how the photographer knew about the event. Today, the image is the tenth most expensive photograph and the girls are still recognized, especially at Arbus exhibitions. Lucky for them, they own the original, which their dad remarks is "their 401(k)."

Giant.jpg2. In "Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970," Arbus captured Eddie Carmel crammed into his parents' living room. Carmel was actually normal height all through his childhood. As a teen, though, he began to grow uncontrollably as a result of acromegaly. The condition, then incurable, was caused by a tumor that had developed on Carmel's pituitary gland. He grew to be 8'9" and received some fame for his condition, starring in B-movies, putting out two 45 records, and appearing in the Ringling Brothers Circus as "The Tallest Man on Earth." He died at age 36, only two years after Arbus took his photo.

HandGrenade.jpg3. Colin Wood, the son of tennis player Sidney Wood, was caught "in a moment of exasperation" by Arbus, becoming one of her most recognizable subjects as "Child with toy hand grenade in Central Park, New York City (1962)." Wood, who only learned of his notoriety at age 14, hated the image during his youth, especially after a classmate photocopied it and plastered it around school. Now, he simply thinks of it as a great conversation starter. To him, Arbus "captured the loneliness of everyone. It's all people who want to connect but don't know how to connect." He believes that's also how she felt about herself.

Baby.jpg4. "A very young baby, NYC 1968" is somewhat unremarkable compared to other Arbus photographs, but the back story is just as interesting. The photograph was one of several Arbus took of babies for Harper's Bazaar in 1968. The baby in question is Anderson Cooper, current CNN correspondent and son of Gloria Vanderbilt. Prior to publication, an editor called Vanderbilt to make sure she didn't mind the printing of her son's name with the photograph. They were worried she might "find the picture a little disturbing." She gave the okay, and today it hangs in the bedroom of Cooper, who thinks it's "great."

Click on the images to see larger versions.

Fans of Diane Arbus should check out the Arbus photos at Christie's; the books Hubert's Freaks (Gregory Gibson), Diane Arbus: Revelations, and Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph; this YouTube tribute; All Things Considered's piece on "The Jewish Giant"; and Present at the Creation's piece on "Identical Twins".

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions. Thanks to reader Gillian for suggesting Diane Arbus.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]