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Titanic Hero: Colin Campbell Cooper, Jr.

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Colin Campbell Cooper, Jr., (1856-1937) would have celebrated his 153rd birthday this past Sunday. The American impressionist was described by a critic as "understand[ing] the beauty of the city as reflective of the spirit of the age."

1. On April 15, 1912, Colin Campbell Cooper and his wife Emma were passengers on the RMS Carpathia when the transatlantic passenger steamship arrived on the scene of the RMS Titanic crash. Cooper and Emma assisted in the rescue of survivors. Later, Cooper painted several scenes of the rescue.

2. Cooper was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Design in 1912, but not without some challenges first. Cooper had originally been nominated in 1907, but was one of the 33 out of 36 nominees who were rejected. The 92 percent rejection rate sparked a feud in the academy between the progressives and the conservatives, which eventually lead to Robert Henri and other progressives leaving the "staid academy" to hold their own exhibitions.

3. The New York Times wrote in 1911 that "first and foremost in enthusiasm for the modern New York of today, the city of towering skyscrapers and fevered street traffic, is Colin Campbell Cooper, who may be considered the skyscraper artist par excellence of America"¦" Cooper was one of the first painters to use skyscrapers as an integral part of his subject matter.

4. In a dusty corner of the Santa Barbara City Hall basement, several unframed paintings by Cooper were discovered in 1981. Cooper had maintained residences in NYC and Santa Barbara, Calif., simultaneously for several years while he served as dean of the School of Painting at the Santa Barbara Community School of Arts.

5. During the 1930s, Cooper began writing plays, novels, and illustrated books, as well as an autobiography, In These Old Days. He also founded a Santa Barbara theater, The Strollers, where several of his plays were staged. His plays were also performed by local theater companies throughout California.

Larger versions of Cooper's "Cathedral at Carcasonne" and "Washington Square Park" are available.

Fans should check out the collections of Cooper's work in University of Rochester's Memorial Art Gallery and artnet, as well as his paintings "New York Public Library," "A Garden Path," "View of New York City," and "Flat Iron Building."

"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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