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Drawing in Sand: Kseniya Simonova

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A performance by Kseniya Simonova on Ukraine's Got Talent has become a viral hit on the internet, receiving more than 6 million views. We've scrounged up some background information on the 24-year-old artist and her performance"¦

1. Kseniya Simonova wasn't trained as an artist and hasn't been practicing for very long, either. Her business was one of many to fall apart with the credit crunch, and she used her newfound time to begin drawing in sand. She started out drawing in the sand at the beach and had only been experimenting with the medium for about a year when she appeared on Ukraine's Got Talent.

2. Simonova's sand animation—a series of evolving images drawn in a sand-filled lightbox projected onto a screen—brought the audience and judges to tears with its depiction of the "Great Patriotic War" (as Ukrainians call the USSR's fight against the Nazis during WWII). Simonova received a standing ovation and was named the inaugural winner of the television competition, netting approximately $120,000.

3. The story in Simonova's winning animation travels through the German invasion of the Ukraine, from a couple under a starry sky through warplanes and chaos to the Ukrainian monument to their Unknown Soldier and ending with a mother and child saying goodbye to a soldier. WWII was an especially sorrowful time in Ukraine's history—the country lost between 8 and 11 million people, approximately 25 percent of its population. They suffered the largest loss of any country and attributed for about 20 percent of the total deaths during WWII.

4. Since the show, Simonova has returned to her hometown of Evpatoria, where she has stated she'll stay. She has no interest in traveling or growing her fame. According to Simonova, "I only entered because there was a child I know who needed an operation and I wanted to help. I did not mean to make the whole country cry." She used her prize money to set up a children's charity and buy "a modest home" for herself.

5. After videos of Simonova's performances appeared on YouTube, the praises for the young artist began rolling in. With her "brilliant display of a hitherto unknown art form," Simonova is "well on the way to becoming an international sensation." Freddy Nager at Jawbone.TV went so far as to say Simonova "has become the most popular artist in any genre or medium to emerge from the Ukraine since poet-painter Taras Shevchenko in 1840."

The image at top, which reads "You are always near" in Ukrainian, is the final image from Simonova's winning performance on Ukraine's Got Talent, shown in the YouTube video directly above. (If that player doesn't work, you can view it here.)

Fans should check out Kseniya Simonova's Facebook page; Russia Today's coverage of Simonova; and one of Simonova's other performances for Ukraine's Got Talent.

"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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