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Drawing on Cars: Scott Wade

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Since it's that time of year when pollen coats car windows, today is a good day to honor reader Ginger's request for a "Feel Art Again" post on Scott Wade. Wade has gained fame for his "dirty car art," such as his "Impermanent Albert" (shown above).

1. Comparing his creations to sand mandalas, ice sculptures, jack o'lanterns, and sand castles, Scott Wade explains, "I don't do this to try and create immortal works of art. We aren't going to be around forever, and nothing we do is going to last forever as much as we'd like it to. We need to learn to let go of that I think, and just enjoy what's here."

2. There's another reason behind Wade's work besides learning to enjoy the impermanent: conservation. Wade and his wife don't like to wash their cars as often as would be necessary to keep them clean because, "We live over the Edwards Aquifer and we want to preserve it."

3. Wade and his family live off Roadrunner Road, a mile and a half of unpaved road north of San Marcos, Texas. The road is covered in caliche, a mix of limestone dust, gravel, and clay. Each week, Wade's Mini Cooper accumulates such a thick coating of caliche that he can barely see through the windows, which is when Wade works his magic.

4. Within a few days of creating his Web site, Wade had become "a darling of Internet bloggers." Now, his services are in demand—in addition to performing at art festivals such as Luminaria (San Antonio, TX) and the upcoming Atlanta Arts Festival, he's been hired for a number of commercial ventures as well. Wade has created pieces for Ford Escape, CMT's Country Fried Home Videos, Inside Edition, American Profiles magazine, the National Biodiesel Board Conference, Mitsubishi, and Mattel.

5. Wade is skilled at reproducing famous works of art in his unique medium. He did a combination of Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" and Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night," as well as reproductions of C.M. Coolidge's "A Friend in Need" (Poker Dogs), Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring," Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus," Mt. Rushmore, and Grant Wood's "American Gothic." He has even spoofed Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam."

A larger version of Wade's "Impermanent Albert" is available here.

Fans should check out Wade's Web site and Wade featured on "Texas Country Reporter" (video) and CBS' "The Early Show" (video).

"Feel Art Again" usually 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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