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Going Down in History: Lois Mailou Jones

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At the request of reader Gillian, today's post features Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998). The first African American to be given a solo show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (in 1973), Jones had a fruitful career that lasted into her 90s.

1. "If I set out to do something, I'm going to do it. I discipline myself."

Lois Jones inherited her sense of discipline from her father, who attended Suffolk Law School at night for nine years, becoming the first black graduate of the school. Jones herself applied was disciplined in her studies, earning degrees from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Normal Art School, and Howard University. She also took courses at Harvard and Columbia.

2. "I wanted my name to go down in history."

First employed as a textile designer, Jones grew frustrated that she received no recognition for her work. At one point, a decorator told her, "You couldn't have done this, you're a colored girl." Jones realized she would need to change professions if she wanted her name to be known, and she began painting.

3. "Paris really gave me my freedom. I forgot my color. I forgot that I was black."

While working at Howard University, Jones went on sabbatical to Paris, where she produced between 35 and 40 paintings in one year. According to Jones, Paris was where she began to believe she was talented, because the Parisians only noticed her talent, not her skin color.

4. "When you met her standards"¦ she loved you like a mother."

Jones began teaching at Palmer Memorial Institute, a prep school for black students, whose art department she founded. She was then recruited to Howard University's art department, where she taught design and watercolor. By the time she retired in 1977, she had instructed at least 2,500 students.

5. "African American art will always be part of American art"¦ I don't want it to be viewed as something separate"¦"

Jones' fondest wish was to be considered just an artist, sans labels like "black artist" or "woman artist." Over the years, Jones had come up against racial and gender prejudices, sometimes being prevented from entering contests and having awards rescinded due to her race. As a result, she often entered out of town competitions so her race wouldn't be known to the contest judges and officials.

Larger versions of the three Lois Jones works shown above are available: left, center, and right.

Fans should check out Howard University's collection of Jones' work and Charles Rowell's interview with Jones.

"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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