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What Makes a Photograph Timeless?

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Taking a good photo is harder than you think. After all, there’s a reason your latest camera phone snap hasn’t landed in any museum yet. Take your camera off “Auto,” put away the fuzzy filters, and follow these instructions to take photos that turn heads.

Know the Rule of Thirds

If you want something to be the center of attention, don’t make it the center of your photo. The focal point should be a little off to the side. Imagine if your shot was divided by a 3x3 grid of squares (like a tic-tac-toe board). The centerpiece should be at an intersection, near a corner.

Use the Space

Moving the subject off-center can make your photo more interesting, but it can also leave awkward space on the opposite side. Good photos tend to balance the photo with a second, less eye-grabbing focal point on the opposite side.

Find a moment

Your photo will only look as good as the moment it captures. The best photos are rarely staged or posed.

Color is your friend—and your enemy

Don’t underestimate color. It can emphasize important details or highlight distracting objects in the background. Our eyes love contrast, and they’ll be drawn toward any surprising colors, for better or for worse. (That’s why so many wedding photos are made black and white. A monochrome color scheme helps you focus on the happy couple.)

Aim to frame

Look for natural borders that isolate the subject. A natural edge (like a ring of trees around a lake) will create symmetry and direct your viewer’s attention to the focal point. While you’re at it, keep fine details away from the corners. You don’t want anyone’s eyes to drift off the photo. You may also want to darken the corners a little—it’s an effect called “falloff.”

Quiet all that background noise

Purge your pics of any clutter. A busy background or foreground can distract your viewers from the subject and change the mood you’re going for. No matter how much editing you do later, if you don’t get it right while the camera is in hand, the photo won’t work.

Look for lines

For whatever reason, our eyes love lines. We look for them in every image. Find some!

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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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