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Night Study: Raoul Dufy

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October is smack in the middle of marching band season, so today's post features the 1949 lithograph "The Band." The artist behind "The Band" is Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), a French artist requested by reader cinthya.

1. Raoul Dufy began his artistic career through night classes at his local École des Beaux-Arts. During the day, he was working as a book-keeper and/or errand boy, perhaps for a coffee importing company (there isn't really a consensus among sources). He then received a scholarship from his town, Le Havre, to attend the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

2. Dufy, known for his bold use of colors, had two key theories about color. His first, the theory of "couleur-lumiere," was his idea that "light is the soul of color, without light, color is lifeless." His second was the belief that black is actually the color of absolute light, not the negation of color. Near the end of his life, Dufy began using black as a dominant element in his compositions as a result of this belief.

3. Producing more than 3,000 works during his life, Dufy did not limit himself only to paintings. In 1909, he created a series of woodcuts for Guillaume Apollinaire's book of poems, Bestiaire, and in 1912 he began producing textile designs for the firm Atuyer, Bianchini & Férier. He was frequently commissioned by couturier Paul Poiret to create printed textiles, often for dresses. In the 1920s, he worked on ceramic decoration, while in the 1930s he produced designs for large-scale tapestries and furniture fabrics. He even produced decorative engraving schemes for the Corning Glass Company.

4. In 1947, Dufy traveled to the United States (Boston, MA, to be specific) to receive cortisone treatment for his multiple-arthritis, as it had gotten so bad over the last 10 years that he could no longer paint. While the treatment didn't cure him, it did relieve his symptoms enough that he could return home to France and resume painting.

A larger version of "The Band" is available here.

Fans should check out the Dufy collections at the Tate and the Weinstein Gallery; this video of Dufy works; and this exploration of Dufy's use of color.

"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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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