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Some Strange Guy: Steve McCurry

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On Tuesday, American photographer Steve McCurry celebrated his 59th birthday. At the request of reader Nerak, today's "Feel Art Again" takes a look at the famed National Geographic photographer behind the magazine's "most recognized photograph, "Afghan Girl."

1. Steve McCurry produced some of the first images of the Soviet war in Afghanistan by disguising himself as a native and sneaking over the Afghanistan border. McCurry was usually passed off as a native by his traveling companions, who would claim he was "deaf and dumb." Leaving the country, McCurry was worried his film would be discovered and perhaps confiscated, so he hid it on his person, sewing it into his clothes and turban.

2. For more than 15 years after photographing the globally recognized "Afghan Girl," McCurry had no idea who she was. Finally, in 2002, McCurry and a National Geographic team set out to locate the June 1985 cover girl. Despite several initial false leads, McCurry instantly recognized Sharbat Gula when they were re-introduced: her piercing eyes and the scar on her nose were dead giveaways. To McCurry, Gula's portrait "summed up"¦the trauma and plight, and the whole situation of suddenly having to flee your home and end up in refugee camp, hundreds of miles away."

3. McCurry, who lives in New York City, had just arrived back in the States from China on September 10, 2001. He spent the next day photographing the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, first from the roof of his apartment building and later at Ground Zero. He photographed all day, dodging officials because he had not had time to obtain press credentials. "It was almost like Pompeii," he said. "There weren't any people at Ground Zero, but all the stuff they had been doing was just frozen in time."

4. On average, McCurry makes about 40 to 60 trips each year. The frequent flyer has become skilled at packing lightly; he reportedly carries just one small camera bag with him on each trip. Packed inside that bag are 3 or 4 Nikon camera bodies, 6 or 7 Nikkor lenses, Kodak film, lens cleaning tissue, a tripod, a small flash, a cable release, fluorescent filter, a Leatherman, and a Swiss Army knife (with a corkscrew).

5. McCurry doesn't rush his photographs; as he puts it, "If you wait, people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view." He instructs aspiring photographers to see their subjects and "relate to them as real people, not somehow quaint or foreign." In fact, McCurry is often viewed as the foreign one in his travels, saying of his subjects, "They just think of me as some strange guy from some other part of the world, with a camera."

Slightly larger versions of the two portraits shown above, "Tahoua, Niger, 1986" and "Jodhpur, India, 1997", are available.

Fans should check out McCurry's official site and his Magnum Photos site; the Steve McCurry Research Center; the McCurry galleries on Art Department and Musarium; the PDN Legends feature on McCurry; the George Eastman House podcast on McCurry and National Geographic's interview with McCurry; and National Geographic's follow-up on "Afghan Girl."

"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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]