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The Accidental Leftie: Sir Frederick Burton

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Yesterday marked the 109th anniversary of the death of Sir Frederick William Burton (1816-1900). The Irish painter worked almost exclusively in watercolors and chalks, but his works, such as "Meeting on the Turret Stairs" and "The Child Miranda," sometimes look as though they were done in oils.

1. At the young age of 21, Frederick Burton exhibited three portraits at the Royal Hibernian Academy and was subsequently elected an associate of the group. Just two years later, at age 23, Burton became a full academician. He began exhibiting at the Royal Academy in London in 1842, and was also a member of the Royal Irish Academy, the Archaeological Society of Ireland, and the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours.

2. Painting wasn't exactly an easy task for Burton. As a result of a childhood accident, Burton's right hand and arm were useless, forcing him to become left-handed and paint exclusively with his left hand. Additionally, Burton's eyesight was so weak that he frequently had to take extended breaks from his work.

3. In 1874, Burton was appointed director of London's National Gallery. With the acceptance of the position, Burton stopped painting, leaving his "A Venetian Lady" unfinished. According to most sources, Burton never painted again, instead focusing on the Gallery until he retired in 1894. (He was succeeded by Sir Edward Poynter.)

4. Burton is considered to be responsible for many of the National Gallery's most important purchases in the 19th century, including works by Leonardo da Vinci, Sanzio "Raphael" Raffaello, Diego Velazquez, William Hogarth, and Johannes Vermeer. All in all, Burton made more than 500 acquisitions for the Gallery's collection.

5. Burton was an extremely popular painter, receiving "greater praise from The Times than any painter during his lifetime." According to one source, there were "few Irish celebrities of the period he did not paint or draw;" his subjects included George Eliot. In addition to being popular with the public, the media, and celebrities, Burton was also honored by Trinity College and the monarchy. He was knighted in 1884 and received an honorary doctorate of law from Trinity five years later, in 1889.

Larger versions of "The Meeting on the Turret Stairs" (1864) and "The Child Miranda" (1864) are available.

Fans should check out Burton's portrait and his "Head of a Girl."

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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