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Get a Closer Look: Yves Tanguy

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At the request of reader Peter, today we will take a look at Yves Tanguy (1900-1955), a French-American surrealist who passed away on this date 54 years ago.

1. In 1922 or 1923, Yves Tanguy was so affected by a Giorgio de Chirico painting, "Le cerveau de l'enfant" (1914), that he took up painting himself, although he had never received any formal training. Upon glimpsing de Chirico's painting in a gallery window while he was riding a bus, Tanguy actually jumped off the moving bus to get a closer look.

2. Not much is known about Tanguy's creative process, unlike many other modern artists, because Tanguy was lax to discuss artistic opinions and theories. He explained, "I believe there is very little to gain by exchanging opinions with other artists concerning either the ideology of art or technical methods." He went on to say that, "Geography has no bearing on it, nor have the interests of the community in which I work."

3. André Breton was one of Tanguy's first patrons. In the late 1920s, Breton commissioned Tanguy to paint 12 pieces a year. Tanguy painted less once he had a fixed income, though, so he wound up completing just 8 paintings for Breton. In later years, their friendship faded; according to one source, the friendship became difficult to maintain after Tanguy's second marriage because Breton and Tanguy's new wife, Kay Sage, a fellow surrealist, hated each other.

4. Tanguy was close friends with Pierre Matisse, a gallery owner and the son of famed artist Henri Matisse. They were classmates at the Lycée Montaigne in Paris, and Matisse later became Tanguy's dealer. After the death of Tanguy's wife in 1963, eight years after Tanguy's death, Matisse scattered their ashes on a beach in Brittany, near where Tanguy grew up.

5. Except for one short period, Tanguy never executed preliminary sketches for his work. As he explained, "I found that if I planned a picture beforehand, it never surprised me, and surprises are my pleasure in painting." Instead, Tanguy practiced automatism, describing his process thus: "The painting develops before my eyes, unfolding its surprises as it progresses. It is this which gives me the sense of complete liberty and for this reason, I am incapable of forming a plan or making a sketch beforehand."

A larger version of Tanguy's "Hands and Gloves" (1914), shown above, is available here.

Fans should check out the Yves Tanguy site and the Tanguy galleries at the Art Renewal Center and Art in the Picture.

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at artist suggestions, with details of current exhibitions, or for sources or further reading.

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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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