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The Painter of Painters: Diego Velázquez

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Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660) is often touted as one of the world's most famous painters, with his 1656 masterpiece "Las Meninas" said to be one of the most famous paintings. Today, in honor of the 348th anniversary of his death, we'll take a closer look at the man and the masterpiece, both requested by reader Fign.

1. The true subject of "Las Meninas" is difficult to figure out and is still debated by scholars. The painting depicts Spain's infanta, Margarita, along with two ladies-in-waiting (meninas), two court buffoons, a mastiff, the duenna Marcela de Ulloa, and the quartermaster José Nieto. But wait, there's still more! Velázquez himself stands to the side, painting, while Margarita's parents, King Felipe IV and Queen Maria de Austria, are reflected in a mirror. This double portrait of the royal couple, reflected in the mirror, is the only known double portrait painted of them by Diego da Silva Velázquez.

2. By the time he painted "Las Meninas," Velázquez had been the court painter for 33 years. When he first moved to the court in Madrid, he was given 300 ducats (approximately 750 g of gold, or about €12000 in 2005) to cover moving expenses. To receive his position, he had completed a portrait of the king in one day, after which it was declared that no other painter would ever paint Felipe's portrait, and that all other portraits of the king would be withdrawn from circulation. In his first year with the court, he received a salary of 20 ducats a month, plus medical attendance, lodging, and additional payments for specific paintings; over the years, his salary grew and his position in the court rose. The king was particularly close with Velázquez and, after the painter's death, wrote "I am crushed" in the margins of a memo regarding a replacement court painter.

3. After a lengthy background check (into lineage, profession, family professions, etc.), Velázquez finally received the Cruz Roja (Red Cross) of the Orden de Santiago (Order of Santiago) in 1659"¦ but he's depicted wearing the red cross in "Las Meninas," which was painted three years prior. Apparently, King Felipe IV ordered that the cross be added to the painting after Velázquez received it, probably while Velázquez was still alive. Rumor has it that Felipe himself painted the cross into the masterpiece, but no one's really quite sure.

4. Velázquez has had a large influence on the art world. Not only was he called the "painter of painters" by Edouard Manet, but his "Las Meninas" has been oft-copied by other well-established painters. Pablo Picasso painted 58 variations (yes, 58!) of "Las Meninas," one of which was his largest work since "Guernica." In 1958, Salvador Dali created "Velázquez Painting the Infanta Margarita with the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory."

A larger version of "Las Meninas" is available here.

Fans of Diego da Silva Velázquez should check out his ARC and WGA galleries; Wikipedia's in-depth analysis of "Las Meninas;" the National Gallery's online exhibit; this "virtual reality journey" into "Las Meninas;" the "Las Meninas" 2008 Google doodle for Velázquez's birthday; this YouTube video of his work; and this YouTube video of "Las Meninas."

Current Exhibitions:
Forgetting Velázquez: Las Meninas (Barcelona, Spain: through September 28, 2008)
El Greco to Velázquez (Durham, NC: August 21 - November 9, 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
technology
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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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iStock
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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