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The People's Artist: Qi Baishi

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Thursday was the 53rd anniversary of the death of Qi Baishi (1864-1957), who is considered an “obscure Chinese artist” by westerners but “the Picasso of China” by the Chinese. So, in the hopes of educating the west about this influential Chinese painter, today's post is devoted to Qi Baishi.

1. Copying figures and motifs from The Mustard Seed Garden, a famous Qing Dynasty painting manual, Qi Baishi taught himself to paint. He was never formally trained at an art school, though he went on to teach at them, but he did find professional artists to mentor him. It was in training with his mentors that Qi realized art was something he could actually pursue professionally. The first paid painting gig he landed was as a family portraitist. He went on to become the most popular 20th-century painter in China, as well as a skilled seal-carver and calligrapher.

2. Qi is perhaps known as much for his clever titles and inscriptions as he is for his painting skills. The painting of baby chicks, shown above, is titled “The sex of the chicks not yet determined,” while a painting of two chicks fighting for the same worm is inscribed “Friends in the past.” It's probably no surprise, then, that Qi was also a poet. He formed the Longshan poets society in 1895 with several of his friends, who then elected him the director. His poetry collections, Jieshanyinguan Shicao and Baishi Shicao, were published in 1928 and 1933, respectively.

3. During the Sino-Japanese war, Qi was adamant that he did not want the Japanese purchasing his work. In 1937, when they gained control of Beijing, Qi locked his door and refused to admit any guests. He posted a sign outside that read, “Old Man Baishi has had a recurrence of heart sickness and has stopped receiving guests.” (Some sources say he went so far as to put a sign stating, “Old Man Baishi is dead.”) He also quit his job teaching at the Beijing Art College.

4. Qi is most famous for his paintings of flowers and animals, especially prawns, many of which were created while he was over the age of 70. Interestingly, though, Qi actually preferred painting landscapes, and considered his landscape painting skills superior to his skill at painting birds, flowers, and other objects.

5. If you research Qi on the internet, you may come across reports that he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1956. Pretty impressive for a painter, right? Well, those reports are wrong—Qi didn't receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1956 (in fact, it wasn't awarded to anyone that year) or any other year. What he actually received in 1956 was the World Peace Council's International Peace Award... which is still pretty impressive.

6. Westerners received a bit of a surprise this past March when it was announced that Qi is the third best-selling artist at global art auctions, based on Art Price's market data. Qi's $70 million in auction sales last year comes behind only Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, who each had $220 million in auction sales last year. While he is virtually unknown in the US and the UK, Chinese art lovers have been collecting Qi for years, with Qi's work in “every important Chinese collection.” Qi's past sales have been almost exclusively in Chinese auction houses, which makes his spot on the best-selling list even more of an accomplishment.

Larger versions of the four works shown above are available: the first landscape, the birds in the tree, "The sex of the chicks not yet determined," and the second landscape.

Fans should check out the collections of Qi's paintings at China Online Museum, About.com, and China Page; a sampling of his woodblock prints; and CCTV's documentary, "Civilization and Innovation: Qi Baishi."

"Feel Art Again" usually 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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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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