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A Spanish Parisian in Mexico: Remedios Varo

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Readers Valerie and Liz requested a "Feel Art Again" post on Remedios Varo (1908-1963) as part of our quest to feature an artist from a different country for each post in June. Although Varo is described as just "an artist from Mexico," she was born and raised in Spain and then lived in Paris before finally settling in Mexico.

1. Remedios Varo's fantasy paintings often feature mathematical and scientific concepts, such as the square root of minus one, machinery, test tubes, and orreries. Her scientific interest and artistic talent were nurtured from a young age by her father, a hydraulic engineer. Varo's father helped her perfect her draftsmanship as well as taught her the correct use of the rule, carpenter's square, and triangle.

2. Most sources state that Varo was married twice: first to a French poet and then to an Austrian émigré. She was actually married three times, though. Varo met fellow painter Gerardo Lizárraga in art school. They married in 1930 and separated just two years later. She then married her French poet, Benjamin Peret; they separated in the late 1940s. Her final husband was Walter Gruen, the Austrian émigré, whom she married in 1953. Gruen's small fortune enabled Varo to devote herself to her art. As Gruen told her, "If you want, all you have to do is paint."

3. During the Nazi occupation of France, Varo and other artists were forced into exile from Paris. She settled in Mexico, where she tried to merely survive, painting furniture, designing costumes, making toys, constructing dioramas, and working as a commercial illustrator for Bayer Pharmaceuticals. She even made scientific drawings for Venezuela's Ministry of Public Health during an extended trip to the South American country in the late 1940s.

4. When Varo passed away in 1963 in the arms of her husband, Gruen, she left behind 39 paintings valued at an approximate total of $15 million. As late as 2005, though, the rights to ownership were still being fought over in the Mexican courts. Gruen, then 91, claimed to be the rightful heir as her husband, but his claim was denied because Varo had never legally divorced Peret. A Spanish niece, whom Varo reportedly barely knew, and the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City were also vying for the rights.

5. Some of the imagery in Madonna's 1995 music video, "Bedtime Story," was inspired by Varo's painting, "The Lovers."

Larger versions of Varo's "Papilla Estelar" (above left) and "Spiral Transit" (above right) are available.

Fans should check out the collection of Varo's work at IUPUI and Janet Kaplan's book about Varo, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys.

"Feel Art Again" usually appears three times a week. Looking for a particular artist? Visit our archive for a complete listing of all 250+ artists that have been featured. 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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
entertainment
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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]

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