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Getting Close to Chuck

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Chuck Close (born 1940) is one of the most requested artists for "Feel Art Again." Referred to by some as the "rock star of contemporary art," Close is one of the most well-known contemporary portraitists. Shown above are his "Self-Portrait/Pulp" (2001) and his "Lyle" (2002).

1. As a child, Chuck Close was un-athletic and dyslexic, which led to him being considered "lazy and dumb." When he began taking private art lessons at age 8, though, he became the envy of his classmates because he got to draw and paint from nude models.

2. Close's first break at fame came while he was still an undergrad at the University of Washington. A desecrated flag that Close bought at a thrift store, painted, and inscribed with patriotic inscriptions received "substantial media coverage" upon being displayed at the Puyallup Fair. The American Legion was particularly upset by the flag, with some legionnaires even attempting to break down the door to get at it.

3. Most of Close's subjects are family and friends of the artist himself. Close admits he "was intent on painting really anonymous people." Unfortunately for him, "then they managed to become famous," which "kind of screwed up [his] game plan." One such subject was Philip Glass, whom Close painted in 1968. Glass later composed "A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close" for his friend.

4. At age 11, Close was sick with nephritis, "a nasty kidney infection," and spent most of the year in bed, which allowed him to further develop his artistic talents. Thirty-seven years later, Close's painting techniques changed due to another serious illness. On Dec. 7, 1988, Close suffered a collapsed spinal artery that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Through months of rehab and determination, Close eventually recovered enough movement to paint again, first holding a paintbrush in his mouth, then strapping one to his wrist, and finally strapping the brush to his hand.

5. After taking large Polaroid portraits of his subjects, Close then grids the photos and the canvas on which he'll paint, and enlarges the portrait into a pixelated-looking final product. Some have wondered if Close uses a computer to aid in his process, but Close has said, "I absolutely hate technology, and I'm computer illiterate, and I never use any labor-saving devices although I'm not convinced that a computer is a labor-saving device."

Larger versions of "Self-Portrait/Pulp" and "Lyle" are available from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Fans should check out the Chuck Close: Process and Collaboration site; Close's oral history interview for the Archives of American Art; the collections of Close's work at the Pace/MacGill Gallery and the Met Museum; Close's portraits of Brad Pitt for W magazine; Chuck Close and Robert Storr in conversation; NPR's 1998 interview with Close; this video of Close at work; and Chuck Close on Sesame Street.

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

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