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Pleasant Peasants: Daniel Ridgway Knight

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The art of American ex-pat Daniel Ridgway Knight (1839-1924) captures the beauty of spring and summer, as seen with his "At Poissy "˜Your Health'." Although he lived and painted in France for more than 52 years, Knight is still claimed as an "American artist," as is his artist son, Aston Knight, despite a birth and life in France.

1. With the support of his grandfather, Daniel Ridgway Knight began attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1858, with Thomas Eakins and Mary Cassatt among his classmates. While Cassatt went on to become known as the only American to exhibit with the original Impressionists in France, Knight was actually the first of the Pennsylvania art peers to head to Paris, where he studied at l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts for two years. He also entered the atelier of Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre, under whom Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and James McNeill Whistler also studied.

2. A clear connection exists between Knight and the Philadelphia Sketch Club, of which he was a member until his death. Just what the original connection was, though, is up to some debate. While most Knight resources reference him founding the club in 1861, the club itself states he joined in 1864, four years after the club was formed by six other Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts students. And though he was a life-long member, he apparently wasn't always fond of attending meetings, since his wife "was commended by President Heaton for her firm insistence on Mr. Knight's attendance at Club meetings."

3. Working as a portrait painter during the honeymoon years of his marriage, Knight was able to save up enough money to move to France permanently. Once there, he befriended Renoir and Alfred Sisley and set to work on a historical painting of the 1358 uprising of French peasants. Unable to afford models, he used himself and his wife, who was pregnant with Aston, as the models for the fleeing nobles. According to some sources, the painting, "The Fugitive," was accepted to the Salon in 1873, making it his first Salon work. Other sources state he only began exhibiting in 1875, though.

4. Knight's work was in high demand throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, so year-round output was essential. To this end, he built "a studio of glass" attached to his house in Poissy. Henry Bacon wrote of the studio, "Here the artist can work in all weathers except the warmest, and in the winter with the snow upon the ground, is able to sit comfortably and finish pictures commenced in the summer, posing the model in a diffused light similar to that in which it had been begun by a country roadside." When the Knights moved in 1890 to a property overlooking the Seine, Knight built himself another glass studio.

5. During his career in France, Knight painted peasants almost exclusively. Yet he didn't like to depict their hardships; instead, he preferred to depict them during their happier moments. He believed that the peasants he depicted "are as happy and content as any similar class in the world. They all save money and are small capitalists and investors"¦ They work hard to be sure but plenty of people do that.

A larger version of "At Poissy 'Your Health'" is available here.

Fans of Daniel Ridgway Knight should check out his ARC gallery; Rehs Galleries' virtual exhibition of sold works; his "Flatboat Fishing" (1877); and the ARC gallery for his son, Louis Aston Knight.

Current Exhibitions featuring "Feel Art Again" artists:
Alfred Sisley: Impressionist Landscapes (County Durham, England: through September 21, 2008)
Monet to Picasso, feat. Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso (Salt Lake City, UT: through September 21, 2008)
Mary Cassatt: Friends and Family (Shelburne, VT: through October 26, 2008)
Philadelphia Treasures, feat. Thomas Eakins (Philadelphia, PA: August 2, 2008 - February 2009)

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

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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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.”