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Innovator, Inventor, and Painter: Jan van der Heyden

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The Dutch painter Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712) left a lasting mark not only on the world of art, but on the world of firefighting as well. The talented landscape artist actually made his living—and a prosperous one at that—as an inventor and civil engineer. He didn't generally consider himself a professional painter and, despite having patrons, still owned most of his work at the time he died.

Today, we'll take a look at both aspects of his life: painter and inventor.

1. Jan van der Heyden received no real training in the visual arts. According to a source, “his only instruction consisted of a few desultory lessons received from an unknown glass-painter...” His reported inability to draw figures (“He could draw neither man nor beast, nor ships nor carts...”) may have been tied to his lack of formal artistic schooling. To compensate, he partnered with Adriaen van de Velde, who painted most of the figures in van der Heyden's paintings until van de Velde's death in 1672, at which point he received assistance from Johannes Lingelbach and Eglon van der Neer.

2. Branspuiten-boek (The Fire Engine Book) was written and illustrated by Jan van der Heyden and published in 1690. The famous book was the first firefighting manual ever published. Van der Heyden had been fascinated by firefighting since he was a boy, when he witnessed a fire in the town hall.

3. Considered to have been “the preeminent painter of cityscapes in the Netherlands,” van der Heyden employed a few tricks to get the über-realistic details seen in his paintings. To create the texture of bricks, he would press a metal plate into the paint while it was still wet. Similarly, he used moss or a sponge to create leaves on the trees.

4. Van der Heyden is often credited with the invention of the fire hose. In 1672, he and his brother Nicolaes created “a fire engine fitted with pump-driven hoses, which transformed the efficiency of fire-fighting.” The following year, van der Heyden was put in charge of the fire department, where he reorganized the entire brigade.

5. Although van der Heyden's paintings are incredibly realistic, some of the scenes depicted are not actually real. Van der Heyden was one of the forerunners—or the inventor, according to some sources—of the “architectural capriccio,” or depictions of fictional locations. In some paintings, he would rearrange or redesign elements to suit his desires, but others “are pure architectural fantasy.” One of his more well known imaginary cityscapes is “An Architectural Fantasy with a Triumphal Arch,” which combines Gothic structures and an Italianate atmosphere.

6. In addition to serving as the director of the fire department and painting for the likes of Cosimo de' Medici, van der Heyden was employed as the superintendent of the lighting for Amsterdam. He designed “a comprehensive street lighting scheme” that reportedly introduced lamp posts; it remained Amsterdam's street lighting scheme from 1669 until 1849. Other towns around the world took cues from van der Hyden's design.

A larger version of van der Heyden's "View of the Westerkerk, Amsterdam" is available here.

Fans should check out the collections of van der Heyden's work at the Web Gallery of Art, the Art Renewal Center, Wikimedia Commons, the National Gallery, the Louvre, and Rijksmuseum Twenthe; the van der Heyden works that have been sold through Sotheby's; some of van der Heyden's sketches of fire damaged buildings; Peter C. Sutton's book on van der Heyden; and Rijksmuseum's "Fire!" exhibition on van der Heyden.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]