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Illustrating Childhood: Maurice Sendak

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"Feel Art Again" has gotten a little off schedule due to the plethora of information available about Ernie Barnes and Maurice Sendak. We'll be working this coming week to get back on track.

In honor of last weekend's big screen premiere of the classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are, today's "Feel Art Again" post features on the artwork of the man behind the masterpiece, Maurice Sendak.

Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

Arguably Maurice Sendak's most popular work, Where the Wild Things Are was originally titled Where the Wild Horses Are, with none of the monsters for which Sendak is now known. Sendak had picked the title first, because it sounded "poetic," but changed course when, as he says, "it became very plain that I couldn't draw horses, nor would I ever be able to draw horses. And a whole book of horses was hopeless." Instead, Sendak created a book full of monsters inspired by his "detested Brooklyn relatives," the type who would "lean way over with their bad teeth and hairy noses, and say something threatening like, "˜You're so cute I could eat you up.'"

Although the book has received some criticism for perhaps being too frightening for children, it has clearly hit home with readers: since Where the Wild Things Are was first published, more than 2 million copies have sold and it has been translated into 15 different languages. It was even brought to the stage as an opera by Sendak himself in 1979.

Purchase from HarperCollins here.

In the Night Kitchen (1970)

Sendak_NightKitchenIn the Night Kitchen is the second book in Sendak's loose trilogy—which also includes Where the Wild Things Are and Outside Over There—that explores "how children master various feelings"¦ and manage to come into grips with the realities of their lives." Sendak wrote and illustrated the book around the time he moved to Connecticut from New York, right after he suffered a heart attack; the book was a way for him to "say goodbye to New York" and his parents, and to "tell a little bit about the narrow squeak [he] had just been through."

Like many of Sendak's books, In the Night Kitchen references Sendak's own childhood fears. Sendak, who lost the majority of his European relatives in the Holocaust when he was a child, drew the chefs of the night kitchen with Hitler-esque mustaches. Their attempt to bake Mickey into a cake alludes to the gas chambers of Hitler's death camps. The book was the 21st most frequently challenged book of the "˜90s, according to the American Library Association, not because of the Holocaust references, but instead due to the main character's nudity for most of the book. Some librarians have gone so far as to draw diapers onto the boy, Mickey.

The book served as the namesake for Sendak's theater company, The Night Kitchen, which he co-founded with Arthur Yorinks in 1990. The company aims to produce plays for children that don't talk down to them.

Purchase from HarperCollins here.

Outside Over There (1981)

Sendak_OutsideSendak's most personal work, Outside Over There is an homage to Sendak's older sister, Natalie, who is the book's Ida. The book draws inspiration from Sendak's "babyhood," when he was cared for by Natalie, and from the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932. At the time, Sendak was "4 years old, sick in bed, and somehow confusing myself with this baby. I had a superstitious feeling that if he came back I'd be O.K., too." Sendak had a lasting obsession with the case that ended last year, when he traded one of his drawings for "one of the tiny reproductions of the kidnapper's ladder that were sold as souvenirs at the New Jersey trial."

Purchase from HarperCollins here.

Brundibar (2003)

Sendak_BrundibarBased on a 1938 opera by Hans Krasa, a Jewish Czech composer, Brundibar was written by playwright Tony Kushner (a good friend of Sendak) and illustrated by Sendak. The opera was first performed in 1942 at a Jewish orphanage in Prague. Soon after, Krasa and the children at the orphanage were taken by the Nazis and placed in the Terezin concentration camp. With the help of other talented artists at Terezin and the permission of the Nazis, they performed the opera 55 times at the camp, including a performance for Red Cross representatives sent to inspect the camp. The Nazis even recorded the children for a propaganda film before they sent the group to their deaths at Auschwitz. For the picture book, Sendak and Kushner wove the opera's historical background into the original story, adding shades of Hitler and the Nazis to Brundibar, the villain of the story.

For Sendak, Brundibar represents the sadness he felt about losing his family members during the Holocaust. He considers the book his "crowning achievement" and "last great collaboration."

Purchase from Barnes & Noble here.

For larger versions of the book covers, click on the images.

Fans should check out the Maurice Sendak Gallery at the Rosenbach Museum and their Sendak videos; the collection of Sendak sketches at R. Michelson Galleries; the Maurice Sendak Papers at the University of Southern Mississippi; the envelope featuring original Sendak illustrations; Sendak's interviews with Paul Vaughan (video) and Hank Nuwer; Rolling Stone's 1976 profile of Sendak; his "Descent into Limbo" talk at MIT (video); HarperCollins' "Browse Inside" version of Where the Wild Things Are; the official site for the Warner Brothers production of Where the Wild Things Are; and the Terrible Yellow Eyes blog (artwork inspired by Where the Wild Things Are).

Current Exhibitions:
Where the Wild Things Are: Original Drawings by Maurice Sendak (NYC: through November 1, 2009)
There's a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak (San Francisco: through January 19, 2010)


"Feel Art Again" 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. Or you can head to our Facebook page, where you can do everything in one place.
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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