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It's Your Art: The NYC Waterfalls

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Since June 26, four massive man-made waterfalls have been in operation in New York City. The waterfalls were designed by world-renowned artist Olafur Eliasson. There is less than a month left to view the installations, which are only up through October 13.

1. Erecting four 90- to 120-foot waterfalls along the East River was no small feat. Costing $15.5 million, the waterfalls required 64,000 square feet of scaffolding and more than 20 permits from various agencies. With such work involved, it's no wonder Olafur Eliasson employs a small army of helpers: his "laboratory" has about 15 engineers, architects, and technicians on staff, in addition to the approximate 30 artists, assistants, and mathematicians on his payroll.

2. Eliasson's life has been remarkably culturally diverse. The artist is from Denmark, but is of Icelandic heritage, and spent his summers as a youth in Iceland. He speaks four languages fluently, though "not flawlessly," and commutes to his studio in Berlin from Copenhagen. With his art historian wife, Eliasson has two adopted children from Ethiopia.

3. The NYC waterfalls are located at four of the few locations deemed logistically and environmentally possible for the project: beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, between Piers 4 and 5, Governor's Island, and Pier 35. Still, the falls were destroying plants along the promenade, according to the Brooklyn Heights Association. The city has thus scaled back the hours of operation for the falls, which draw 35,000 gallons of water per minute.

4. As a teenager, Eliasson learned a few breakdancing moves from a friend's brother. Soon, he was spending his days practicing; he recalls, ""¦for months and months I just moved around like a robot." After forming a group with two friends, Eliasson began competing internationally and became a Scandinavian breakdancing champion.

5. Eliasson is a humble artist, shying away from the celebrity-driven publicity that focuses on the artist instead of the artwork. Many of his installations are interactive to some degree and often have titles that convey the viewer's importance ("Eye See You" and "Take Your Time," for example). When the waterfalls began operating, Eliasson said, ""¦it's not my work of art anymore. It's your art. It's really about the public. This is the moment it becomes a part of the city."

Larger versions of the waterfall images are available here.

Fans should check out Eliasson's Web site; the waterfalls' site and visitor's map; WNET's documentary, "The Waterfalls: Making Public Art;" New York mag's details on how the falls work; online Eliasson exhibits from the MoMA and SFMOMA; the MoMA's interview with Eliasson; and this video of "The Weather Project" at the Tate Modern.

Current Exhibitions featuring "Feel Art Again" artists:
New York City Waterfalls (New York City: through October 13, 2008)
Modern Masters, feat. Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso
(Savannah, GA: through September 22, 2008)
Pat's Quilts, feat. P. Buckley Moss (Waynesboro, VA: through September 30, 2008)
Sol LeWitt (Mountainville, NY: through November 15, 2008)
José Clemente Orozco: The Graphic Work (Boca Raton, FL: September 17 through
December 7, 2008)
Sol LeWitt: Drawing Series... (Beacon, NY: through September 2009)

Special thanks to ARTINFO for the exhibition details.

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions. Or join the debate on the definition of art.

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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]