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Let Me Take Your Photo: Gregory Crewdson

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As American photographer Gregory Crewdson celebrates his 46th birthday today, let's take a look at his life and methods. (Shown above is one of his untitled photographs from 2004.)

1. Remember that song "Let Me Take Your Photo" that played during Hewlett Packard's digital camera commercials? The song was the first single released by The Speedies, a punk rock band. Crewdson and his friends Eric Hoffert and Allen Hurkin-Torres had formed the band as teens.

2. During his childhood, Crewdson would sometimes try to eavesdrop on his psychoanalyst dad's sessions (his office was in the basement). Crewdson explains, "I could never really hear anything. All I knew was that it was secret and that it was forbidden. And there you have it. That's my work in a nutshell.

3. Crewdson's photography, often compared to cinematography, has been influenced by several films. Crewdson lists Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," "Rear Window," and "Shadow of a Doubt," plus Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," Charles Laughton's "Night of the Hunter," and Todd Haynes' "Safe" as among those that have impacted his work.

4. Crewdson remembers "almost exclusively" through images. He has said that he has a very difficult time thinking linearly: "That is why I would make a truly terrible film-maker. I can not think in terms of continuity. I have no idea what happens before or after my images.

5. Operating either on location or on a sound stage, Crewdson employs a production crew of about 40 people, including lighting, set, casting, and costume crews. The productions are underwritten by the three galleries that represent Crewdson, though the exact costs aren't disclosed. Whatever the expense, it's worth it, since Crewdson prints can sell for $80,000 to $150,000 each, in runs of 10.

A larger version is available here.

Fans should check out Crewdson's galleries on Luhring Augustine (his American gallery), artnet, and the Broad Art Foundation; aperture's interviews with Crewdson on his process and production; the Boston Globe's behind-the-scenes photos of a Crewdson shoot; CBS' "Portrait of a Photographer" video on Crewdson; Ovation TV's "Close Up" video on Crewdson; and these two interviews with Crewdson.

Current Exhibitions featuring "Feel Art Again" artists:
Gregory Crewdson: Beneath the Roses (Cincinnati, OH: through October 5, 2008)
Rothko (London, England: through February 1, 2009)
New York City Waterfalls (New York City: through October 13, 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: 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 feelartagain@gmail.com with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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technology
Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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