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The Art of History: The Farm Security Administration

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When the Farm Security Administration (FSA), part of the New Deal, began its photography program in 1935, the intent was not to create art, but to depict the challenges of rural poverty by "introducing America to Americans." Yet despite their historical significance and the propaganda-like nature of some of the images, most of the photographs that came out of the FSA's nine-year photography program are seen today as art. Since requests have been made for FSA photographers Dorothea Lange and Jack Delano, today's post will feature the FSA's three most famous photographers: Lange, Delano, and Walker Evans.

Jack Delano (1914-1997)

Delano was one of the FSA's most prolific photographers—at least 5,000 of his photographs have survived. But Delano was also a skilled musician (on the viola) and composer. Throughout his school years, he studied viola, composition, and solfeggio alongside graphic art and photography. During an FSA trip to Puerto Rico in 1941, he fell in love with the area and returned five years later to settle there. He then composed orchestral pieces for the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, ballets for Ballet Infantil de Gilda Navarra and Ballets de San Juan, and numerous other chamber, choral, and vocal pieces. He was also a producer and composer for films for the Community Division of the Department of Public Education. (Yesterday would have been his 98th birthday.)
Shown: An "open all night" gas station in Durham, North Carolina. (1940)

Walker Evans (1903-1975)

Evans.jpg Evans is probably the FSA photographer most recognized for his artistic ability. Several major museums have put on retrospectives and exhibitions of his work, including one exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art during his last year working for the FSA. The 1938 exhibition, "Walker Evans: American Photographs," was the first exhibition in the museum to be devoted to the work of a single photographer. Later that same year, he also began taking hidden camera photos on the New York subway. (The camera was hidden in his coat.) All of his work, with the exception of that done for the FSA, was given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1994. Fun fact: Evans got to know Ernest Hemingway while he was on a non-FSA assignment in Cuba in 1933.
Shown: Roadside stand near Birmingham, Alabama. (1936)

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

Lange.jpg Lange may have the longest lasting legacy of the FSA photographers. She co-founded Aperture magazine, and the entire Aperture Foundation, in 1952. (Ansel Adams was another co-founder.) In 1914, Lange had been awarded the highly prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, but she gave it up to record the relocation of Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Although she was supposedly on assignment for the civilian War Relocation Authority, the Army considered her photographs so critical that they impounded them.
Shown: Carrot pullers from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Mexico. Coachella Valley, California. (1937)

For larger versions, click on the images.

Fans should check out the Smithsonian's interviews of Jack (and Irene) Delano, Walker Evans, and Dorothea Lange and the Library of Congress archives of the FSA photos taken by Delano, Evans, and Lange.

"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
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]