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Camera Fun - Making Crazy Art Using Christmas Lights

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It's that time of year -- strings of tiny lights are everywhere, and families are wandering around, checking out those lights. If you're like me, you bring your camera along on these light-viewing jaunts. And if you're like me, you use your camera to take boring old pictures of boring old lights. But if you have a decent digital SLR camera (or have a camera phone and are willing to make some compromises on which techniques you use; see below), you can do some nutty stuff -- and it's not hard at all. There's no Photoshop or digital stuff involved -- just clever use of your camera. You can, for example, make crazy pictures like this (note that for all images in this post, you can click for a larger version):

Want to learn how? Read on.

The Original Tree

First, you need a set of lights you can photograph. You'll get the best results when it's dark out, so the lights stand out. In my case, I chose a tree at the Grotto in Portland -- it has a nice, evenly spaced set of red lights on top, with green lights around the trunk. Here's what it looks like in a "normal" photograph:

Photo of tree, non-crazy

Fun With Zoom Lenses

In order to achieve that "jump to hyperspace" effect above, I first zoomed my camera all the way in and focused on the lights. Then, because I have a digital SLR (meaning it has a lens I can manually control, by twisting it), I simultaneously zoomed out and snapped a picture. I had to try several times until I got it just right -- sometimes the shutter didn't open at quite the right time, and sometimes my hands were shaky, making the effect a little wobbly (but sometimes the wobble adds a delightful squiggle -- more on that below). By using variations of this technique, you can make all kinds of freaky stuff happen; you can also experiment with zooming in while taking the picture, or try twisting the camera as you do the zoom. Another important factor is how much you zoom -- try shorter zooms, and also try lingering at one point in the zoom (it's easiest to linger at the beginning or end). Here are some examples:

Zoom - mild

Zoom - extreme

Zoom - sparse

Zoom - squiggle

Moving in Circles

Next up, try moving the camera in a circular pattern as you snap the picture. What you get is a wavy, loopy, or "waterfall" pattern the looks very abstract -- sort of like Jackson Pollock but with light. If you have different colors of light available, try playing with those -- you'll get much different results with white lights versus colored lights, and mixtures can be interesting too. If you can set your camera for a longer exposure (a second or more), this can give you different results (and sometimes ruin the photo, as eventually the frame quickly turns white with all the colors smeared all over it). I find it useful to zoom in first, to minimize the number of points you're working with. Play around. But basically, hold the camera out in front of you (don't try to look through the viewfinder) while moving it in a circle, and snap pictures as you move it. Take a bunch, then pause and check 'em out. Ignore the weird stares you get from passersby.

Circles - 1

Circles - 2

Circles - 3

Circles - 4

Circles - 5

Circles - 6

Circles - 7

Circles - 8

Circles - 9

Circles - 10

Circles - 11

Circles - 12

Walk on By

As you walk by lights, point the camera at them and take a picture. It helps if you're zoomed in. Alternately, you can sway the camera left-to-right. In either case, you'll get an arced blur of lights. You may want to throw in a little rotation (the aforementioned "circular movement") to get a squiggle effect while you're at it.

Walk on By - 1

Walk on By - 2

Walk on By - 3

Walk on By - 4

Walk on By - 5

Walk on By - 6

Walk on By - 7

Walk on By - 8

Stand Up

A final fun method is to move the camera up and down while standing still. You should get a thicket of light streaks, like this:

Stand Up

Notes on Cameras

If you don't have a fancy camera, some of these techniques don't work (for example, the zoom technique probably can't work on a phone camera). But even with the most basic camera, you can still try circles, swipes, or up-and-down camera movement. I tried circles using a camera phone and got surprisingly good results -- though I almost dropped the phone a few times.

If your camera allows it, try setting the exposure to manual (but try to keep autofocus on, as getting initial focus while walking around can be tricky). If you do set a manual exposure, I recommend starting out with a shutter speed of around 1/2 second, an aperture (aka f/stop) around f/5, and play with the ISO settings on your camera -- I had best results with an ISO around 800, but your mileage may vary. (Note that, of course, as you change the ISO settings your shutter speed will need to adapt.)

Show Your Work!

If you try this kind of tomfoolery, post the photos on Flickr or your favorite photo site, and post a link in the comments! Happy photographing!

Copyright Notice

All images in this post are copyright © 2011 Chris Higgins, all rights reserved. Please contact me if you'd like to buy a print or license a photo for commercial use.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
entertainment
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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]

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