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3 Modern Artists and the Politics that Affected Their Work

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This week we're lucky to have guest blogger Elizabeth Lunday, author of Secret Lives of Great Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You about Master Painters and Sculptors, spilling the dirt on the artists you thought you knew. We'll let her take it from here:

BY ELIZABETH LUNDAY. If you think politics were rough for Neoclassical artists, the Modernists had even more troubles. Modern art arose in part as a reaction to the carnage of World War I and became established just in time for the carnage of World War II. Here's how politics affected several Modernists artists:

1. Giving Credit Where it's Due

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Pablo Picasso's masterpiece Guernica was painted in 1937 in reaction to the bombing of the Spanish village of the same name during the Spanish Civil War—it's a devastating portrayal of the horrors of modern warfare and an indictment of fascism. Not surprisingly, the Nazis didn't like it. So when Germany occupied France, they looked on Picasso with some suspicion, and the artist endured an endless parade of German officials trooping through his studio. Picasso simply smiled and handed them all postcard reproductions of Guernica. Once the German ambassador picked up the postcard and sneered, "So you did that, Monsieur Picasso?" "No," Picasso said, "You did."

2. The Ultimate Survivor

Picture 5.pngFor some, history happens in the background; for others it kicks them in the guts. Take Marc Chagall. Raised in an insular Jewish community in Tsarist Russia, he escaped the pogroms by heading to Paris in 1910. Unfortunately, he went home for a short vacation in 1914 just in time for World War I to break out, making return to France impossible. When the Russian Revolution swept across his homeland, he had hopes that the government would embrace Modern art; instead, he nearly starved to death and faced exile to the gulags. He finally escape in 1922 and had a decade or so of peace until the Nazis declared him a degenerate artist and starting burning his work. He and his wife went into hiding after the occupation of France to avoid the concentration camps, managing to escape to the U.S. in 1941. The really amazing part? Through it all, Chagall continued to paint his joyful, life-affirming canvases.

3. Personal Mythologies

Picture 6.pngDiego Rivera became a die-hard Communist in Paris after World War I and spent his later years in his native Mexico promoting leftist causes. But apparently he felt the truth of his political actions needed some polishing. The result was a series of amazing tales about his political actions. He claimed, for example, that he planned to assassinate Mexican president Porfirio Diaz with a bomb he smuggled into the country in his sombrero. He also claimed that he'd spent six months fighting alongside Emiliano Zapato, that he became an explosives expert and blew up dozens of trains, and that he narrowly escaped death at a firing squad. None of this actually happened—in fact, rather than trying to overthrow Diaz's government, he was at great pains to make sure it continued to pay his scholarship.

secret lives of artists.pngCome back tomorrow for more great artist stories. And be sure to check out Elizabeth's wonderful new book Secret Lives of Great Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You about Master Painters and Sculptors.

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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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