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Strange Geographies: Venetian Graffiti

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One thing that surprised me about Venice was that graffiti was everywhere. There's almost as much art on the streets as there was in churches and museums, which might be because Venice is a city of blind alleys and dark corridors, a warren of hiding places that are perfect spots for taggers and street artists to do their thing. Initially it was a little shocking to see so much spray-paint applied to the exterior of twelfth-century cathedrals and otherwise beautiful crumbling walls and even on people's front doors -- but once I stopped being offended I started being fascinated. While the oil-and-canvas masterworks hanging in the city's galleries may reflect of Venice the Renaissance era, it's what's painted on the outside of the museum wall that reflects what Venetians -- at least the ones wielding cans of spray-paint -- are thinking now.

The tag below is what got me started taking pictures of graffiti in Venice. I had walked halfway down this alley just to see that it dead-ended at a canal, and turned back, speed-walking to get somewhere more photogenic, when I spotted this and stopped. I stood there for a bit, looked at it, caught my breath. Then went back to the end of the alley where it hit the canal, and found a beautiful shot of boats reflected in emerald water. Which is to say: these are words for a photographer to live by.

A lot of what might be considered graffiti in Venice are actually directional signs, spray-painted on walls by locals sick of giving tourists directions.

The shot above manages to combine two of Venice's major genres of graffiti: directions and political statements. Here's some more local politics:

The obligatory American gangsta-slang tag:

And the obligatory anti-American tag:

And thank goodness:

There were a fair number of hearts, love notes, and generalized hopes for peace and love:

The paranoid crazies are out and wielding sharpies:

The gondola drivers must be crazy.

"Venice is a fish."

Sorry, Daniele. You've been outed:

I'm not sure what this means, but I kind of like it.

And speaking of children, I came across some young graffiti artists making their mark. (Sure, it's only chalk now ... )

I thought this was cool.

Whoa! I found this in the park Napoleon had built for himself when he invaded and took over in the late 18th century. (I doubt it's original.)

Another bonus if you like graffiti: the paintings in the museums stay the same, but the graffiti changes every few months.

What do you think? Is it sacrilege or is it interesting?

You can check out more Strange Geographies here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]