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The Poet-Artists

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In 1999, UNESCO declared March 21 to be World Poetry Day. The holiday—which promotes the reading, writing, publishing, and teaching of poetry throughout the world—has existed in some form since 1905. Since poetry and the visual arts tend to go hand-in-hand, today's "Feel Art Again" features 4 poet-artists.

Xu Wei

Today, Xu Wei (1521-1593) is considered the founder of modern painting in China, but for himself, painting actually didn't rank top on his list. Xu is quoted as saying, "I am best at calligraphy, with poetry second, essays third and painting fourth." The artist had a life of tragedy and disappointments, which was only exacerbated by his mental illness. (Some scholars believe he suffered from Bipolar Disorder.) Among his personal traumas: his mother died when he was 14 and he failed the civil service examinations each of the 8 times he took them. He attempted suicide at least 9 times, once axing himself in the head and another time drilling both his ears. Becoming paranoid that his wife, Zhang-shi, was having an affair, Xu murdered her and was subsequently jailed for 7 years. In addition to painting and penning poems, Xu also wrote 4 plays, most of which deal with women's issues. Xu is thus considered by some to be an early women's rights advocate (despite his murder of his wife).
Shown is Xu's "Chrysanthemums and Bamboos."

William Blake

Blake.jpgWilliam Blake (1757-1827) has been described as "a glorious luminary" who is "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced." Blake believed in racial and sexual equality, themes that were reflected in both his art and his writings, including Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), in which he condemned enforced chastity and loveless marriages and defended women's rights to complete self-fulfillment. Blake's wife Catherine was illiterate when they married, but Blake taught her to read and write and trained her as an engraver. She became his most-valued assistant. Known for the visions he claimed to have seen since the age of 4, Blake was considered somewhat of an eccentric. One dealer, believing "Blake was too eccentric to produce a popular work," commissioned another artist to execute one of Blake's ideas. Visions weren't exclusive to Blake, though; after his death, his wife claimed to be regularly visited by his spirit, and would make no business decisions without first "consulting Mr. Blake."
Shown is Blake's "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun" (1805).

Washington Allston

Allston.jpgWashington Allston (1779-1843) has been referred to as the "American Titian" for his use of colors. The artist graduated from Harvard, where his "fashionable attire" earned him the nickname "The Count." During travels to Rome in the early 1800s, Allston met both Washington Irving and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who became his lifelong friend. In 1811, Allston travelled to Europe again, accompanied by Samuel F.B. Morse, one of his students who went on to invent Morse Code. Popular with the artistic and literary minds of his day, Allston's work influenced Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne's wife Sophia Peabody. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of Allston: "One man may sweeten a whole time. I never pass through Cambridge Port without thinking of Allston. His memory is the quince in the drawer and perfumes the atmosphere." Allston made a lasting impact on the artistic world by coining the term "objective correlative" and on the city of Boston, which named a neighborhood after him.
Shown is Allston's "Coast Scene on the Mediterranean" (1811).

Jean Arp

Arp.jpgThe French/German artist Jean Arp (1886-1966) was known as both "Jean" and "Hans": he referred to himself as "Hans" when speaking in German and "Jean" when speaking in French. In 1915, Arp moved to Switzerland from his birthplace of Alsace-Lorraine to take advantage of Swiss neutrality. He was summoned to the German embassy to possibly be drafted into the army anyway, though, but he came up with a creative method to dodge the draft. On the draft paperwork, Arp filled in every blank with the date, then drew a line below all the dates and added them together. Removing all his clothes, Arp went to the embassy to hand in the paperwork and was told to go home. Beginning in the 1930s, Arp focused mainly on writing essays and poetry, but still painted and sculpted on some occasions. UNESCO commissioned him in 1950 to paint a mural at their building in Paris.
Shown is Arp's "Sculpture to be Lost in the Forest" (1932).

Larger versions of all four works of art are available; just click on the images to access the larger versions.

Fans of Xu should check out his biography and his works on Wikimedia.

Fans of Blake should check out Blake's letters and poetry; the National Gallery of Victoria's Blake collection; Blake's notebook; the Tate's interactive feature; the Friends of Blake site; the William Blake Archive; Blake's choral compositions; and Blake's written works on Project Gutenberg.

Fans of Allston should check out his written works on Project Gutenberg; his art work on Wikimedia and ARC; his Lectures on Art, and Poems, The Sylphs of the Seasons, and Monaldi: A Tale; and Jared Bradley Flagg's The Life and Letters of Washington Allston.

Fans of Arp should check out the collections of his work at the MoMA and the Tate.

"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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]