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From Virgil to Beyoncé: 5 Great Moments of Artistic Patronage

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Throughout the centuries, the patronage system has allowed for the redistribution of wealth from the business class to the creative class—the members of which were often assumed to be starving and in need of such redistribution. The basic conceit is that a wealthy individual, family, or business pays the living wages of a playwright, musician or artist (often providing food and shelter) so that person can concentrate solely on their creation. In return, the artist often dedicates their works to their patron. In this way, the business arrangement has the potential to make both parties immortal.

This week, the New York Times wrote about a modern iteration of patronage—one between a large corporation and an already very successful musical artist. Pepsi and singer Beyoncé have struck a $50 million deal, which includes a “creative content development fund,” for Beyoncé’s various endeavors. Why not just pay Beyoncé for traditional advertising wherein her face appears on billboards and she shakes her booty in a commercial or two? “This way feels less polluting. It feels like there are more good things around it. It creates an all-around good will,” explains behavioral economist Dan Ariely, the author of The Upside of Irrationality.

The downside is, of course, that art and consumerism become intertwined—but history teaches us that, for better or worse, art and business have always been intrinsically combined, often to aid the creation of timeless masterpieces. Here are a few examples.

1. Gaius Maecenas/Horace, Virgil

Virgil. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

During the golden age of Latin literature, the Roman diplomat Maecenas was a benefactor of poets Horace and Virgil. His endowments to the men allowed for the writing of Virgil’s "The Georgics" and Horace’s "Satires 1," "Epistles 1," and "Odes 1-3." It is unclear how Virgil first came to meet Horace, but scholars believe he was the one who introduced the statesman to Horace, the son of a freed slave. It is also believed that Virgil composed his didactic poem about agriculture and public life, "The Georgics" (a seven-year undertaking), under order from Maecenas, who wished to see the Roman Empire return to a more traditional bucolic lifestyle.

Horace did much of his writing at a small estate with eight slaves and five tenanted properties called the Sabine Farm, gifted to him by Maecenas. The farm gave Horace the security to continue his writings in peace, and in return Horace addressed the first book of each of his series, Satires, Epistles and Odes, to his benefactor.

2. The Medici Family/Michelangelo

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The politician and businessman Lorenzo de' Medici (humbly nicknamed Lorenzo the Magnificent) was famous for inviting artists to live in his Florentine palace while they were under his patronage.

Michelangelo was likely introduced to the patron by his sculpting teacher, who was part of the Medici creative cabal at the time. The 15-year-old, who would later go on to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, moved into the palace in 1490. In addition to giving him housing, Lorenzo provided the teenager with a stipend and gave his dad a job as a house clerk. Michelangelo was raised among Lorenzo’s children and nephews, two of whom later became Popes (Leo X and Clement VII). It is a boon to grow up in proximity to the powerful: both men later employed the artist for various projects around the Vatican.

3. Isabella d’Este/Leonardo da Vinci

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Perhaps the most well-connected woman in Renaissance Italy, Isabella d'Este was the patron of the artists Mantegna, Titian and Leonardo da Vinci. At some point she commissioned each of the men to paint her portrait. She is well known as Leonardo's muse, and her portraits look strikingly similar to his best-known piece, hanging in the Louvre today.

4. Queen Elizabeth/Shakespeare

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Queen Elizabeth’s devotion to England’s most famous playwright is so well known it has become the sub-plot of several award-winning movies. In reality, the Queen was a devoted fan of the theatre and a generous supporter of Shakespeare’s work. In return, he immortalized the virgin Queen in his works, most notably as the “fair vestal throned by the West” in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream.

5. Pepsi/Beyoncé

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Pepsi's $50 million patronage of Beyoncé is expected to provide the singer and clothing designer—who earns approximately $40 million a year—with the ability to pursue creative endeavors free from the shackles and constraints of the market. “Pepsi embraces creativity and understands that artists evolve,” Beyoncé said in a statement to the Times. “As a businesswoman, this allows me to work with a lifestyle brand with no compromise and without sacrificing my creativity.”

In return for their generosity, the soda brand has already announced they will put the singer’s face on a series of limited edition soda cans and that she will appear in a new television ad.

Other things that could be financed through Pepsi’s “Beyoncé fund” could include live events, videos, or a “cool photo shoot,” as Lee Anne Callahan-Longo, the general manager of Beyoncé’s company Parkwood Entertainment, told the Times.

Instead of a farm or a roof over her head, Beyoncé is getting the gift of limited but generous resources and the ability to get a little bit wacky with how she represents Pepsi. You’re in good company in the annals of history, B. We’re expecting no less than a 21st Century Mona Lisa in sequins.

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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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