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10 Senior Citizens Who Made Great Art

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It's not just young whippersnappers who pop out classics! Sometimes it takes a lifetime of experience to produce works of art. These famed senior citizen artists, musicians, writers and otherwise creative dynamos didn’t let a few gray hairs stop them. Indeed, for several, success didn’t arrive at all until their later years.

1. Claude Monet 

Impressionist painter and water-lily fancier Claude Monet produced some his most famous work in his 70s and beyond. Yet his paintings also changed during this time, with a notable shift toward darker and more intense colors. This was partially explained by cataracts (after Monet had an operation to remove them in his 80s, he destroyed some canvases, possibly because he saw colors more accurately).

2. Henry Roth 

Author Henry Roth wrote Call It Sleep in 1934 at the tender age of 28—and then fell silent for 60 years. The novel was rediscovered in the 1960s, but Roth was nowhere to be found. He finally re-emerged with an acclaimed sequence of novels, called Mercy of a Rude Stream,  in 1994. He died a year later.

3. Elliott Carter 

Composer Elliott Carter worked until his death last year at the age of 103. His beguiling Symphonia: Sum fluxae pretium spei, one of his most-praised creations, was finished when he was 88. He wrote his first opera at 89. One of his last substantial compositions, "Three Explorations," premiered in 2011 and was inspired by T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets.

4. Anna Moses 

In her late 70s, farm wife Anna Moses found it increasingly difficult to keep up with her embroidery. Arthritis made the fine stitching difficult, so at the suggestion of her sister, she turned to painting. Her folk-art, “outsider” canvases became massively successful, and “Grandma Moses” became a cultural icon during her own life. She died in 1961 at the age of 101, having painted up to her last birthday.

5. Mary Wesley 

English novelist Mary Wesley came from an aristocratic family, and her life was full of rebellion, left-wing politics and troubled relationships. But she didn’t start to write seriously until she was in her 60s, and her first book, Joining the Queue, didn’t appear until 1983, when she was 70. She became a best-selling author, writing 10 more books distinguished by their depiction of class relations in Britain—and their frank sex scenes. “The young always think that they invented sex and somehow hold full literary rights on the subject,” she said.

6. Frank Lloyd Wright 

Iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright kept evolving throughout his long career; the bulgy form of the Guggenheim Museum is a great example of his late style. While conceived during the 1940s, the building didn’t go up until 1959. Wright kept a firm hold on the construction until his death the same year—he was 91.

7. Robertson Davies 

Canadian author, playwright, teacher, and newspaperman Robertson Davies didn’t really hit his groove as a novelist until he retired. Stepping down from his posts as professor and master at Massey College in Toronto in 1981, he promptly published The Rebel Angels. He was 68, and it became his most-loved book. But Davies kept publishing; his name was floated as a potential recipient for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993 (Toni Morrison won instead). He died in 1995, at work on yet another novel.

8. Manoel de Oliveira 

Born on the same day as Elliott Carter, Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is still ticking. Now 104 years old, his latest film, Gebo and the Shadowcame out last year. Although de Oliveira made his first film in 1931, he didn’t finish his second until 1963. And it wasn’t until the 1990s that he started turning out a movie a year.

9. Jean Rhys 

A troubled talent, Jean Rhys spent much of her life bouncing between various men and enduring intense poverty. She published on occasion, but the troubled circumstances of her life seemed overwhelming. That is, until she was rediscovered and her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (a takeoff on Jane Eyre) was published. She was 76. Widespread acclaim followed, along with its nastier cousin, celebrity. Her response was simple: “It has come too late.”

10. Quentin Crisp 

If Quentin Crisp made a masterpiece, it was likely his own life. The subject of Sting’s song “An Englishman in New York," the outspokenly flamboyant bon vivant published The Naked Civil Servant in 1968. He was 59. A TV adaptation starring John Hurt followed in 1975, and Crisp decided to ride his fame to America. He immigrated to New York City at the age of 72, writing books and making TV and movie appearances until his death at the age of 90.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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