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"Ghost Babies" and the Macabre World of Post-Mortem Photo Collecting

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Boingboing recently published an excellent and very in-depth article on the strange world of post-mortem photo collecting -- something I know a bit about, tangentially, because I'm a collector of old photos myself. I don't buy "PMs," as they're colloquially known (unless there's something incredibly interesting written on them -- that's kind of my thing), but plenty of other people do, as evidenced by their booming trade on eBay. As Mark Dery writes in the boingboing piece: "When Marx wrote, in The Communist Manifesto, that capitalism "has left remaining no other nexus between man and man" than the "naked self-interest" of the cash nexus, he never imagined the eBay listing whose description assures, "You are bidding on a cabinet card measuring 8 X 6 inches of a sweet baby in repose after death. He/she is laid out for viewing on a bed or table covered in lace, and dressed in a long white christening dress. This may have been the only photo taken of this precious child."

A "great" post-mortem photo (always antique -- never modern) can fetch hundreds of dollars or more, which has made them so popular amongst photo sellers that hucksters on eBay often try to pitch photos of people who almost certainly are not dead as PMs. It all seems rather incredible, but rather than excoriating these collectors as hopelessly out-there weirdos, Dery asks why -- why are we so fascinated by them? His conclusions are insightful. "The 20th century," he writes, "bore witness to the medicalization of dying, the professionalization of funeral rituals, and the repression of death in everyday life. Death decamped to the hospital, and the ritualized leave-taking of the Loved One moved from its traditional domestic theater--the front parlor--to the funeral parlor, stage-managed not by the eerily named undertaker but by the more antiseptic-sounding funeral director."

In the here and now, antique postmortem images are riveting because they emblematize the Authentic in an ever more mediated world. In a time when we interact, more and more, through Tweets, text messages, and Facebook pokes and likes, the black-and-white dead of the 19th Century condense raw emotions; at a moment when the here-and-now seems increasingly like a fading afterimage of our vivid imaginative lives on the other side of the screen, they confront us with the inescapable fact of embodiment, more corporeal for the dead weight of death, more real for the trickling blood, blood that dried 100 years ago but through the necromancy of photography looks blackly wet all over again, every time we look at it.

"The post mortem photograph is a relic of a past that has been erased by modernity," says Michael Sappol, author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in 19th-Century America. "And in that lost world, people had more direct and less mediated experiences of sweat/blood/piss/grime/dust/phlegm/pus. And less mediated (less medicated) experiences of death, with a lot more suffering."

The taboos of sex and death switched places in the last hundred years. The Victorians would've been shocked at the erotic images you find everywhere in the 21st century, but didn't flinch when it came to making images of their dead loved ones. I'd like to think that the people who collect those photos are just as interested in this lost way of life -- or rather, way of death; a set of rituals that now seem alien to us -- as they are in the gruesome ghost babies themselves.

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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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