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Living On Through Their Art

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Today is World Tuberculosis Day, designed to raise public awareness of the disease, which still claims the lives of about 1.6 million people each year. While the disease is most prominent today in third-world countries, it claimed the lives of many prominent artists in the past. Today's "Feel Art Again" features three Russian artists who all succumbed to the disease.

Marie Bashkirtseff

Born into a wealthy family, Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884) grew up travelling through Europe with her mother. After an education at the Académie Julian in France (one of the only schools that accepted women), Bashkirtseff became established as a feminist and "intellectual powerhouse." Writing for a feminist newspaper, Bashkirtseff penned her most famous line, "Let us love dogs, let us love only dogs! Men and cats are unworthy creatures." Although many of her paintings were destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, two of Bashkirtseff's most famous paintings have survived: "The Meeting," which depicts Parisian slum children, and "In the Studio" (shown), a portrait of Bashkirtseff and her fellow artists at work. (She's the one in black in the bottom right corner.) Bashkirtseff is most well-known for the journals she maintained from the age of 13, though. I Am the Most Interesting Book of All, her most popular journal, is still in print today. She passed away from tuberculosis at the tender age of 25. Bashkirtseff's burial monument is a full-sized artist's studio in France that the government has declared an historic monument.

Andrei Ryabushkin

Ryabushkin.jpgAndrei Ryabushkin (1861-1904) got off to an early artistic start, helping his father and brother—icon painters—during his childhood years. Ryabushkin was orphaned at the age of 14, but was soon afforded the opportunity to study at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, becoming one of the youngest students in the school. After studying under Vasily Perov, Ryabushkin moved on to the Imperial Academy of Arts, where he was disappointed with the classes. His final work at the Academy, "Descent from the Cross" (1892), didn't follow the guidelines and thus did not receive an award. However, the president of the Academy was so impressed with the quality of the work that he provided Ryabushkin with a stipend from his own money for the artist to travel and study abroad. Ryabushkin travelled through ancient Russian towns, gaining experience in the realistic, natural paintings of Russians for which he would become known. Because his paintings are not dramatic historical scenes, filled with action, depict social conflicts, or even considered (at the time) to be very "beautiful," Ryabushkin did not achieve great fame or acceptance during his life. Ryabushkin was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1903 and died within a year.

Boris Kustodiev

Kustodiev.jpgBoris Kustodiev (1878-1927) simultaneously attended theological seminary and received private art lessons. After deciding to pursue art full-time, Kustodiev studied painting, etching, and sculpture at the Imperial Academy of Arts. His first big break was his role as assistant to Ilya Repin for a large-scale canvas in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the State Council. During the early 1900s, Kustodiev travelled throughout Europe, visiting France, Spain, Italy, Austria, and Germany. In addition to his painting, Kustodiev also spent his time contributing to satirical journals and illustrating books, including Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls. Kustodiev, who suffered from tuberculosis of the spine, became a paraplegic in 1916. His friends and colleagues were amazed by his ability to remain cheerful and active despite his condition; Kustodiev himself remarked, "Now the whole world is my room." He continued to paint, engrave, illustrate books, and design sets for theatrical productions until his death 11 years later.

Larger versions of Bashkirtseff's "In the Studio," Ryabushkin's "Session of Tsar Mikhail Feodorvich with his boyars in his State Chamber," and Kustodiev's "Country" are available.

Fans of Bashkirtseff should check out her artwork (and portraits) on Wikimedia and her journals.

Fans of Ryabushkin should check out his artwork on Wikimedia.

Fans of Kustodiev should check out his artwork and this Kustodiev coloring page.

"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]