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Changing Art Forever: Marcel Duchamp

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("Church at Blainville," "Sundays," "Portrait of the Artist's Father," "Nude Descending a Staircase")

Four readers requested a post on Marcel Duchamp, one of the most controversial and most discussed artists in recent history. A Google search yields almost 1.5 million results for the French and American artist, whose 121st birthday was yesterday. Much of the controversy and discussion revolves around Duchamp's "readymades," particularly "Fountain" (1917), but, as evidenced by the four works of art above, there is so much more to Marcel Duchamp than just a urinal.

1. Like Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp was well-schooled in more traditional artwork before he became known for his boundary-pushing works. As a boy, he received awards at school for his artwork and, upon graduation, he studied art at Académie Julian for a year. Jacques Villon, his older brother and a well-regarded painter, acted as his art mentor. Another brother, Raymond-Duchamp-Villon, was a sculptor while sister Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti was a painter. Grandfather Emile Nicolle was a painter and engraver.

2. Duchamp had varied interests and was particularly fascinated with math, mechanization, and technology. After visiting an exhibition of aviation technology, he remarked to Constantin Brancusi, "Painting is washed up. Who will ever do anything better than that propeller? Tell me, can you do that?" His upside-down bicycle wheel mounted onto a stool, now usually presented as art, wasn't originally intended to be art. Duchamp simply enjoyed watching it spin, just as he enjoyed "looking at the flames dancing in the fireplace." He also created several other pieces, like his "Precision Optics" pieces, which he explicitly said were not art.

3. For at least 25 years, Duchamp was thought to have given up art for a career in chess. He developed an obsessive fascination with the game to such an extent that it supposedly led his wife to glue his pieces to the board. They divorced four months later. He designed the poster for the Third French Chess Championship in 1925 and then finished the event at 50 percent, earning the title of chess master. When he felt he had reached his peak, after playing in the French Championships and the Olympiads, he became a chess journalist. Of chess, he said, "It has all the beauty of art "“ and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.

4. The art world was surprised to discover in 1966 that Duchamp had been secretly working on one final project for the last 20 years. The work, "Etant donnés: 1° La Chute d'eau, 2° Le Gaz d'éclairage" or "Given: 1. The Waterfall; 2. The Illuminating Gas," is a surprisingly beautiful tableau viewed through a peep hole. However, it wasn't revealed to the public until Duchamp's death in 1968, per his instructions. The tableau depicts a naked woman lying in front of a waterfall landscape.

5. A joker to the end, Duchamp had his tombstone enscribed, "D'ailleurs, c'est toujours les autres qui meurent" or "Besides, it's always other people who die.

Larger versions of "Church at Blainville," "Sundays," "Portrait of the Artist's Father," and "Nude Descending a Staircase" are available.

Fans should check out the Duchamp collections at the MoMA and Tate; the Marcel Duchamp World Community and Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp; Tout-Fait, an online Duchamp journal; a Walker Art Center interview of Duchamp; and Duchamp's Anémic Cinéma.

Current Exhibitions:
Marcel Duchamp: A work that is not a work "of art" (Sao Paolo, Brazil: through September 21, 2008)
2008 Biennale of Sydney, feat. Marcel Duchamp (Sydney: through September 7, 2008)

"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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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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