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The Quick 10: 10 Faberge Egg Surprises

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While those of us who do the egg-decorating thing will likely content ourselves with store-bought dyes and stickers this Sunday, there is a certain set of people whose Easter décor is more likely to contain rubies and diamonds. Faberge Eggs started out as a little Easter morning present from Tsar Alexander III to his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna, in 1885. She was so delighted by the first one that a new tradition was born. Alexander III's son, Nicholas, carried on that tradition when he married. Although the eggs were encrusted with jewels and are now practically priceless works of art, I think the best part of them are the little surprises contained inside. It's kind of like finding the prize at the bottom of the cereal box"¦ a cereal box made of precious metal and covered with expensive gems, yes, but kind of similar nonetheless. Here's what you would find if you cracked open 10 Faberge Eggs.

1. The Hen Egg was that very first egg Empress Maria received; the one that started it all. It appeared to be a plain, white enamel egg, but looks can be deceiving. Inside the egg was, naturally, yolk made of gold, to be precise. Inside the yolk was a little golden hen. You might think it ends here, but no "“ inside the hen were two tiny but pricey gifts "“ a diamond miniature of the royal crown, and a tiny ruby egg pendant that could be hung on a necklace. The Hen Egg itself is still around, but the tiny presents within the golden hen have been missing for a number of years now.

2. The Diamond Trellis Egg is a work of art before you even open it. It's carved from a pale green jadeite and wrapped in a trellis of rose-cut diamonds. Hidden inside was a tiny little elephant made of ivory and gold, also covered in rose-cut diamonds and brilliant diamonds. The really cool thing? He was a little wind-up toy. The elephant came with a key and when the Empress was so inclined, she could wind him up and watch him walk. These little hidden treasures were apparently hard to hold on to (or small enough for thieves to pocket), because the elephant has also been lost to history.

3. Rosebud was the first egg Nicholas II presented to his wife. His dad had died in 1894 and he ascended to the throne, marrying Alexandra Fyodorovna. Alexandra was terribly homesick, especially for the rose garden Rosenhöhe, Darmstadt, so Nicholas arranged for the egg to open to reveal a yellow-enamel rosebud that looked just like the ones she missed. The rosebud opened to reveal a ruby pendant and tiny golden crown studded with diamonds and rubies to represent her new Empress of Russia title. They are "“ you guessed it "“ both lost.

4. The Lilies of the Valley Egg marks where the "surprise" started to get really creative. Instead of the egg simply opening to reveal something tiny inside, the surprise on this egg is that a twist of a pearl button on the egg makes three portraits pop up from the inside "“ Nicholas, of course, so Alexandra could gaze on the adoring face of her husband "“ and their two oldest daughters, Olga and Tatiana. Pretty crafty!
5. The Trans-Siberian Railway Egg sounds pretty complicated, don't you think? And it was. Made of onyx, silver, gold and quartz, the egg contained a miniature clockwork replica of a train made out of gold and platinum. It had five cars and a gold key to wind it up. This egg and its surprise are actually still on public display, should you ever find yourself with a little time to kill in Moscow. It's at the Kremlin Armoury museum.

6. The Bay Tree Egg stands at not quite a foot tall, but what it lacks in height it makes up for in luxury. You've got a treasure chest of gems here: diamonds, citrines, amethysts, rubies, agate and pearls. Not to mention gold, enamel and feathers. When Tsar Nicholas gave this egg to his widowed mother in 1911, she would have had to closely examine the leaves on the egg (shaped to look like a tree) to find a little gold winding mechanism tucked inside. When she turned it, the top part of the egg rose up and a tiny little feathered nightingale popped out to sing a little ditty, flap its wings and move its beak. When he was done singing, the bird and the top of the egg all descended back down. I hope my mom isn't expecting something equally amazing"¦
7. Here's one you can check out if you're in the Virginia area. Housed at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Peter the Great Egg is made of red, yellow and green gold; platinum; rose-cut diamonds; rubies; enamel and crystal. There are four miniature watercolors on it. And that's just the outside of the egg. When the egg is opened, a little mechanism makes a miniature gold model of Peter the Great's monument on the Neva rise up to rest on a base of sapphire.

8. Don't think that these little surprises were easy for Faberge to make "“ he toiled long and hard on them. The Peacock Egg took three years of trial and error before it was ready to be given to the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. When the crystal egg was opened, a golden tree was revealed with a golden peacock perched in its branches. The coolest part? It could be removed from the tree and wound up, where it would walk around and spread its tail feathers.

9. The Czarevich Egg could have been a sad tale, but there's actually a happy ending to it. Sort of. At the time, the royal family thought little Alexei was going to die of hemophilia at any given moment. They even had his death certificate all drawn up and ready to go. The Czarevich Egg could have been a tribute to Alexei's short life, but it ended up being a tribute to his survival "“ he held on and his health improved greatly. The blue lapis lazuli egg opened to reveal a miniature watercolor portrait of young Alexei in his sailor suit, one of his mother's favorites. You can see it in Richmond, Virginia, at the Virginia Collection of Fine Arts. So why do I say there's "sort of" a happy ending? The egg was an Easter present in 1912; Alexei and his whole family were murdered in 1918. He was just 13.

10. The Rock Crystal Egg is seriously intricate. First of all, a 27-carat Siberian emerald sits on top of the egg. That would be enough for me, you know? But inside the egg was a golden support that held not one painting, not two paintings, not even three paintings "“ there were 12 teeny, tiny little paintings of palaces and buildings that had special meaning for Empress Alexandra. These included the palace where she was born, the Winter Palace where she and Nicholas were married, and favorite vacation homes. It was very sentimental to the Empress and she kept it in her study at the Winter Palace. The egg is now at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

If your Easter basket is more likely to contain dyed chicken eggs from the grocery store and a carton of pastel, speckled Whopper eggs, don't worry "“ you're in good company. There will be no rubies or hidden miniature portraits at the Conradt household. Hope you all enjoy your weekend, whether it includes pearls or Peeps!

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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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