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The Artist as Model: Alfred Rich for William Orpen

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Yesterday was the 154th birthday of Alfred William Rich (1856-1921), an English watercolorist. Although Rich painted for more than 30 years, portraits of him are more readily available online than his own work. Rich is featured prominently in several works by Sir William Orpen (1878-1931), including Orpen's 1911 painting, "The Model," shown above. Some fascinating facts about Rich and Orpen:

1. Education

William Orpen was considered "something of an infant prodigy," entering the Metropolitan School at age 7, Dublin's School of Art at age 11, and the Slade School of Art at age 17. Alfred Rich also began his artistic studies at a young age, but he didn't receive the schooling Orpen did: Rich was self-taught from age 8. Only after 20 years as a heraldic painter did Rich study at the Slade School.

2. Methods

The two painters may have attended the same school, joined the same group (the New English Art Club), and been friends, but Rich and Orpen had very different work methods. Rich disliked working in a studio, or on an easel in general; he preferred sitting in a camp chair, with stretched paper on a board flat on his knees. Orpen, on the other hand, was a master in the studio, to the point that his process was something of a production line. With two sitters, one at each end of his studio, Orpen would work on one portrait while his palette for the other was being cleaned by an assistant.

3. Lovers

Alfred Rich's love life was apparently scandal-free; the only mentions of any women connected to him refer to his wife, whom he remained married to until his death. William Orpen's love life was quite a different story. Originally engaged to Emily Scobel, a model at the Slade School, Orpen became "besotted" with Grace Knewstub and broke off his engagement to Scobel. Orpen and Knewstub married and had three daughters, but their marriage was unhappy, and Orpen became known for his affairs. He carried on a long affair—that produced a daughter—with Evelyn St. George, a wealthy married American. The two were referred to as "Jack and the Beanstalk" by the press, since Orpen was just over 5 feet tall and St. George was over 6 feet tall. When a decade-long affair with another mistress, Yvonne Aubicq, came to an end, Orpen gave his spurned lover his newest Rolls-Royce, along with the chauffeur.

4. Fame

Orpen was considered "the most popular painter of his day" and "the most famous painter in Britain" and regularly raked in $10,000 a portrait, making him one of the most successful portrait painters. He was once offered $5 million to paint a series of 300 portraits in New York, but turned it down because he was getting enough work at home. Rich doesn't seem to have been as successful, financially or in fame, but he had strong opinions about those who were. While Rich was critical of his colleagues, he only had good words for the artist Peter de Wint, of whom he said, "No artist ever came nearer painting a perfect picture."

5. Friendship

"The Model" isn't the only William Orpen painting to feature Alfred Rich. Both artists were members of the ">New English Art Club, and so Rich appears in both Orpen's "The Selecting Jury of the New English Art Club, 1909" and "Le Café Royal à Londres" (1912). Additionally, on a letter from Orpen, Orpen drew a humorous picture depicting a large Rich sitting with a small Orpen on his knee.

6. Self-Portraits

Rich appears not to have painted any self-portraits, but Orpen is known for his self-portraits, most of which are self-mocking (like the drawing of him and Rich) or allegorical. Apparently, Orpen was "intensely self-conscious of his looks" due to a conversation he overheard between his parents in which they discussed why he was so ugly when their three other sons were so good-looking. Orpen, who nicknamed himself "ickle Orps," said, "I began to think I was a black blot on the earth." In addition to the many self-portraits he produced, Orpen also wrote two memoirs: "An Onlooker in France 1917-1919" (about his time as an official war painter in the First World War) and "Stories of Old Ireland and Myself" (1924). Rich also published a written work, though his was a 1918 treatise on watercolor painting.

A larger version of William Orpen's "The Model," featuring Alfred Rich, is available here.

Fans of Rich should check out his "Emmanuel College, Cambridge", "A Garden Near Hazelhurst", and "Lewes, Sussex"; as well as his works at the Tate and the British Museum.

Fans of Orpen should check out his 1910 self-portrait; the portraits and self-portraits of him at the National Portrait Gallery; the collections of his works from the Telegraph, the Tate, and the National Gallery of Victoria; his official paintings from the First World War; and his letters to friend Beatrice Glenlavy.

"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]