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The Incredible Work Habits of 12 Great Artists

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What does it take to make great art? Work habits and muses may vary.

1. Salvador Dali

Dreams were the greatest muse of the surrealist painter. So Dali concocted a trick to wake him in time to remember these visions. As he drifted off, he'd hold a key, his hang dangling over a metal plate. When slumber made his hand go limp enough to drop the key, its clanging on the plate would rouse him to return to work. Now that's how you power nap!

2. Gerhard Richter

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The German visual artist considers himself a willing slave to routine. Each day begins with a walk at 6:15. After making breakfast for his family, Richter goes to his studio until lunch, which is always the same: yogurt, tomatoes, bread, olive oil and chamomile tea. Then he returns to work until it is time for dinner. The routine has paid off—in February, Richter’s 1986 work “Abstraktes Bild” auctioned for $46.3 million, the highest price ever paid for a living European artist.

3. VINCENT VAN GOGH

Unlike Richter’s limited menu, Van Gogh wasn’t picky. At various times he was known to eat his paints and drink turpentine.

4. Willem de Kooning

The Dutch American abstract expressionist was so dedicated to his work that he and his wife Elaine went back to their easels right after completing their wedding vows. Typically, de Kooning rose late in the day, and worked late into the night fueled by a stream of strong coffee and by untold cigarettes.

5. Andy Warhol

The king of Pop Art was an incorrigible pack rat, who filled his four-story townhouse with an array of knickknacks and junk. But when it came time to work, he'd clean up by shoving anything on his desk into a box, which would likewise be pushed aside. Since his death in 1987, Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum has made it their mission to open and inventory the contents each of the 610 boxes Warhol left behind.

6. Henry Darger

One man's trash is another man's inspiration. This reclusive outsider artist, whose work became famous after his death in 1973, fueled his muse by collecting garbage that stood out to him and regularly attending Catholic masses. Sometimes, he'd go to Mass as many as five times a day.

7. Leonardo da Vinci

Since he was far too busy to waste time sleeping, it's said da Vinci partook in polyphasic sleep. Leonardo would take a 15-to-20-minute nap every four hours, which meant he spent two hours or less sleeping each day.

8. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

He worked hard he played hard. This 16th century Italian painter was notorious for the month-long drunken binges that he'd go on in celebration of completing a piece. Sometimes these bacchanals turned violent thanks to a short temper paired with the sword he carried.

9. J.M.W. Turner

Part of the Romanticism movement of the late 18th century, this English painter brought unexpected elements into his landscapes. He stunned onlookers when he smashed powdered tobacco into a still wet work to better suit the lighting of the Royal Academy. Turner was also rumored to spit on his works as a means of binding the pigments. Plus, he grew one of his nails long, the better to help him scrape away paint to create a signature texture.

10. Michelangelo

The High Renaissance master would sometimes let out his frustrations on his statues, screaming at them and thrashing their stone limbs. Take that, David! Attempting to coach up his works wasn’t Michelangelo’s only quirk. He was an infrequent bather and often slept in his clothes.

11. GEORGIA O’KEEFFE

Unlike Michelangelo, O’Keeffe wasn’t crazy about her clothes. The painter supposedly liked to work in the nude.

12. GRANT WOOD

Wood created his iconic painting American Gothic while living in the attic of a funeral home carriage house. To make the digs even stranger, Wood replaced the door to his place with a coffin lid equipped with a dial that let visitors know if he was sleeping, home, or having a party. This little eccentricity pales in comparison to Wood’s other quirk – the artist was such a sweets junkie that he even dumped sugar on his lettuce.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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