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The True Master: Johan Jongkind

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Yesterday was the 118th anniversary of the death of Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819-1891). The Dutch artist isn't very well-known, especially in the U.S., but he had a significant impact on both Dutch and French art.

1. Johan Jongkind got his big break when the leader of the French Romantic school, Eugène Isabey, noticed his work in 1845, while Jongkind was still in the Netherlands. Isabey invited Jongkind to study under him in Paris; Jongkind was able to go thanks to a subsidy and allowance from the Prince of Orange, who later became King William III.

2. Although he did not experience much financial success during his lifetime, Jongkind received acclaim from critics and was highly respected by younger artists. Édouard Manet described Jongkind as "the father of modern landscape painting;" Jongkind later became known as the "father of Impressionism." Claude Monet, who was greatly influenced by Jongkind, referred to Jongkind as both the "true master" and explained, "I owe to him the definitive education of my eye."

3. Jongkind's friends—most of whom were also artists—made up for his lack of financial success. On April 8, 1860, they arranged an auction to raise money to enable Jongkind to return to Paris from the Netherlands. Works by 88 different artists, including Eugène Isabey, were sold. Once he returned to Paris, he remained in France for the rest of his life.

4. Jongkind was refused from the Salon exhibitions at least three times, including once in 1873, when his "Moonlight in Rotterdam" was rejected even though Jongkind had expected it to receive a medal. After the 1873 rejection, Jongkind never again attempted to exhibit at the Salon. In 1874, he refused to participate in the first Impressionist group exhibition, in part because of his feelings of rejection from the Salon.

A larger version of Jongkind's "The Seine and Notre-Dame in Paris" (shown above) is available here.

Fans should check out the association "In the steps of Jongkind in the Dauphiné;" the Jongkind gallery on ARC; and George Besson's biography of Jongkind (in French).

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

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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