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Feel Art Again Returns: Henryk Siemiradzki

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Yesterday marked the 108th anniversary of the death of Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902), a Polish painter known for his Graeco-Roman and New Testament scenes. We'll kick off a new season of "Feel Art Again" with an overview of this talented Polish Academician.

1. Although Henryk Siemiradzki's passion was his art, he was also a talented scientist. Under pressure from his family, like so many artists, Siemiradzki studied in the Physics-Mathematics School of Kharkov University, graduating with the degree of Kandidat. (The degree of Kandidat is a post-graduate scientific degree that is roughly equivalent to a Master of Science or a PhD, depending on who you ask.)

2. In 1872, Siemiradzki heard of the Vesuvius eruption and traveled to Naples (he was already in Italy, having visited Verona, Venice, and Florence) to see "this extraordinary phenomenon." He found inspiration for his art at Pompeii, which he described as a "sole and rich mine" that delivers artistic inspiration "in large amount." He would return to Pompeii several times; his "Night at Pompeii" was painted almost 10 years after his first visit to the site.

3. Siemiradzki, a Catholic, was honored in 1876 with a request from the Holy Synod to work on frescoes for the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. He completed a cycle of murals focusing on the life of Alexander Nevsky, a Russian saint, as well as scenes from Christ's life. Vasily Surikov, previously featured on "Feel Art Again," was among the leading Russian artists also working on the Cathedral. Unfortunately, all the artwork was destroyed in 1931 when the Soviets demolished the Cathedral to build a monument to socialism, the Palace of the Soviets.

4. "Pochodnie Nerona (Åšwieczniki ChrzeÅ›cijaÅ„stwa)," translated as "Nero's Torches (Leading Light of Christianity)," was painted in 1876. As a result of that painting (shown above), Siemiradzki received the title of professor from the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and was accepted into the Legion of Honour. Three years later he gifted the painting to the newly established Polish National Museum in Krakow.

5. Just last year, in April 2009, a rare Siemiradzki painting entitled "The Patrician's Siesta" sparked a fierce bidding war at auction. The painting's top estimate was $100,000, but it managed to bring in more than $1 million ($1,078,000 to be precise) for Contra Costa Hospice in California.

A larger version of "Nero's Torches" is available here.

Fans should check out the collections of Siemiradzki's work at the Art Renewal Center, the Gallery of Polish Painting Masterpieces, and Wikimedia; "Princess Marie Lubomirska" at the Detroit Institute of Arts; "Imitating the Gods" at the National Gallery of Armenia; and "Cremation of Pagan Chief" at the New York Public Library.

"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
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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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