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10 Artists Who Work in Trees

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Trees are exceedingly useful. They clean our air, cool our communities, and make the landscape beautiful. We use them for food, shade, building material, fuel, erosion control, barriers, and many other things. Some look at trees and see an art medium, a canvas to express something we wouldn't otherwise see. And there are quite a few different ways of using trees as art. Despite the title, these artists don't sit in trees and paint; they make art out of trees.

1. Tommy Craggs

British chainsaw sculptor Tommy Craggs recycles fallen trees or trees culled for woodland management. Some can be purchased; others are permanent installations carved from stumps. Craggs' work made the news in 2012 when people reported a "guerrilla sculptor" had carved three stumps in a forest in North Yorkshire. They were actually commissioned sculptures by Craggs. The stump pictured above is called King Hollow of The Abbey Road.

2. David Kemp

Ancient Woodsman

West Cornwall artist David Kemp is inspired by landscapes, whether natural or man-made. He recycles materials into new artworks. His tree sculpture called The Ancient Forester was commissioned by Grizedale Forest in North West England for their outdoor sculpture collection. Photograph by Flickr user Linda Hartley.

3. Joseph Wheelwright

Sculptor Joseph Wheelwright works in trees, stone, bones, and other natural materials. He casts some of his tree sculptures in bronze as well. See how he takes an entire tree and uses its natural shape to bring out a form. The sculpture shown here is called Pine Tree Figure.

4. Walter Channing

Walter Channing began his art career when he rescued wood from building demolitions because he hated to see good wood go to waste. From these materials, he made furniture and artworks. This later led to using discarded tree trunks as an art medium. Oh, and he's also the founder of Channing Daughters Winery, which uses one of Channing's upside-down tree sculptures on their wine labels.

5. Axel Erlandson

Circus Tree

Axel Erlandson was a pioneer in tree shaping, or taking living trees and making them grow into artworks. He was a farmer in California and began this hobby in 1925. He opened a tourist attraction in 1947 called The Tree Circus, where he transplanted his tree sculptures. Many of his trees still exist, although Erlandson died in 1964. You can see them at what is now Gilroy Gardens theme park in California, or see more pictures here. Photograph by Flickr user Jay Peeples.

6. John Krubsack

John Krubsack made furniture from wood, but in 1907, he started an experiment to see if he could grow a chair instead of putting one together. He planted 32 box elders from seed and grafted the trunks together as they grew. Krubsack shaped the trees for seven years until a chair shape emerged, and only four sets of tree roots remained  as the legs of the chair. He "harvested" the completed chair after eleven years. "The Chair That Grew" was exhibited at the 1915 World's Fair and was featured in Ripley's Believe It or Not, and is now displayed at Noritage Furniture in Embarrass, Wisconsin.

7. Peter Cook and 8. Becky Northey

Pooktre Tree Shapers is the collaborative tree art of Peter Cook and Becky Northey. They grow plum trees that are shaped into functional furniture, such as tables and chairs, and artworks that are shaped like people or abstract designs. Some are specifically grown to be harvested and sold; others are permanent living sculptures.

9. Richard Reames

Richard Reames is a arborsculptor who shapes trees, promotes the art of tree shaping, and teaches tree shaping. Reames' website includes some how-to pages, such as how to grow your own chair. In the pictures above, he built a "branch office" by adding a platform to living trees and shaped the growing branches into walls around the floor.

10. Tim Knowles

Tim Knowles is a multimedia artist. In 2005-2006, he designed a project called Tree Drawings, in which trees themselves created art! Knowles attached drawing implements to the branches of various types of trees and set an easel nearby. The action of the wind and weather aided the trees in their drawing. Then each finished work was exhibited next to a photograph of the tree in the process of drawing.

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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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]