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Iconic America: Grant Wood

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Today is the 67th anniversary of Grant Wood's death; tomorrow is the 118th anniversary of his birth. At the request of readers Meredith T. and gmsc, today's "Feel Art Again" features "the only artist in Iowa with an international reputation," who died just one day shy of his 51st birthday.

1. Grant Wood's most famous painting, "American Gothic," was first exhibited in 1930, catapulting the artist to instant fame. He became known as one of the most eligible bachelors in his hometown of Cedar Rapids until 1935, when he married Sarah Maxon. Wood's marriage to the actress and opera singer, which his family and friends had been against from the start, was tumultuous, resulting in a divorce just 4 years later.

2. While "American Gothic" may look like a simple painting, it has spurred debate and inspired strong emotions ever since its first exhibition. Some people, most notably Gertrude Stein, viewed the painting as a satire; Iowans were upset to be shown as "pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers." The painting so upset Iowans, especially farmers, that one farmwife threatened to bite off Wood's ear and another informed him that he should have his "head bashed in." Later, though, the painting became accepted as a "depiction of steadfast American pioneer spirit." Wood himself insisted that he was a "loyal Iowan" and that the painting was not meant to be a derogatory representation of Iowan farmers, but just a depiction of generic small-town Americans.

3. During World War I, Wood served the country in Washington, D.C., where he put his artistic skills to use making clay models of field gun positions and painting camouflage on artillery pieces. Other jobs in his pre-fame days included teaching in a one-room school house and a high school, working in a silversmith shop, and decorating house interiors.

4. In addition to producing many works of his own, Wood also fostered the artistic talents of others. He co-founded the Stone City Art Colony in 1932 with the aim of helping artists survive the Great Depression. Housed in a large mansion, the colony lasted just 2 summers but included some 80 artists. As a Works Progress Administration director around the same time, Wood was in charge of the 34 artists working at the University of Iowa, overseeing a significant outpouring of artwork.

5. "American Gothic" may be Wood's most famous work, but he was certainly no one-hit wonder. He enjoyed a successful career—in fact, he was so well-respected that he was commissioned for a stained-glass window for the Cedar Rapids City Hall even though he had never worked in stained-glass before. He traveled all the way to Munich, Germany, to learn stained-glass techniques.

6. One of Wood's works is depicted on the Iowa State Quarter, which debuted in 2004.

Larger versions of "American Gothic" (above left) and "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" (above right) are available.

Fans should check out the American Gothic House Center; the interactive Grant Wood's Studio; the World of Grant Wood; the Grant Wood Art Gallery and CRMA's Grant Wood collection; the collection of Wood's work on Museum Syndicate; the Grant Wood papers at the Smithsonian; this coloring page version of "American Gothic"; the Grant Wood Scenic Byway; and Devorah Sperber's "After Grant Wood (American Gothic) 2".

"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
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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