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Eager to Escape This Theatre: Jean-Léon Gérôme

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At the request of reader Mike, today's "Feel Art Again" features Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), a French painter. Like John William Godward, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and Sir Edward Poynter, Gérôme was a painter in the Academic manner and painted scenes of Middle Eastern and Egyptian life. Shown above is his 1893 painting, "Painting Breathes Life Into Sculpture."

1. Jean-Léon Gérôme was a staunch supporter of the academic tradition of painting and was against new trends like Impressionism. He was strongly against the Manet memorial exhibition at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1884, writing, "I, for my part, was chosen by the state to teach the grammar of art to young students"¦ Consequently I do not think it right to offer them as a model the extremely arbitrary and sensational work of a man who, although gifted with rare qualities, did not develop them." Yet the exhibition still went off and, after it concluded, Gérôme admitted "it was not so bad as I thought."

2. Many of Gérôme's paintings are of exotic and foreign lands that he had traveled to over the years. He spent about a year in Italy when he was 19, having traveled there with Paul Delaroche, under whom he was studying. Later, he traveled to Constantinople (1853); Turkey and the Danube (1854); Egypt, Judea, Syria, and the Holy Places (1857); and the Middle East, a trip that included stops in Alexandria, Cairo, Giza, Suez, a safari to Mount Sinai, Petra, and Jerusalem (1868). By the time he traveled to the Middle East, Gérôme had learned Arabic, and was able to act as the leader and translator for his group.

3. Leaving a party in 1861, Gérôme became engaged in a violent exchange of words with an art dealer named Mr. Stevens. The argument escalated into a duel between the two men. While Mr. Stevens was experienced in duels, Gérôme was not, and it was probably only the advice of his doctor to stand sideways that prevented him from suffering any serious injuries. As it was, Mr. Stevens' bullet hit Gérôme's right wrist and lodged in his shoulder.

4. Throughout his career, Gérôme received many honors, including being elected to the Institut de France (on his fifth attempt) and as an honorary member of the British Royal Academy. He was also made an officer in the Legion of Honor; awarded the Grand Order of the Red Eagle, Third Class, by the King Wilhelm I of Prussia; received regularly at the Imperial Court as a guest of Empress Eugénie; and invited to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

5. "I begin to have enough of life," wrote Gérôme to a student on December 31, 1903. "I've seen too much misery and misfortune in the lives of others. I still see it every day, and I'm getting eager to escape this theatre." Just ten days later, Gérôme was found dead in his atelier in front of a portrait of Rembrandt and near his own painting, "The Truth." In a no-frills service of his own request, Gérôme was laid to rest in Montmarte Cemetery in front of the statue "Sorrow," which he had cast for his son Jean, who had died at age 27 in 1891.

A larger version is available here.

Fans should check out Jean-Léon Gérôme's virtual gallery and his galleries on ARC and Orientalist Art, as well as this YouTube video of his work.

"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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]