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Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

11 Things You Didn't Know About The Starry Night

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Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

With its seductive swirls, intoxicating composition, and enchanting color palette, Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night is one of the world's most beloved and well-known works of art. In its creation and eventual success, there's much more to this Starry Night than you might have known.

1. It Depicts Van Gogh’s view from an asylum.

After experiencing a mental breakdown in the winter of 1888, van Gogh checked himself in to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The view became the basis of his most iconic work. Of his inspiration, van Gogh wrote in one of his many letters to his brother Theo, "This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big."

2. He left out the iron bars.

Art historians have determined that van Gogh took some liberties with the view from his second story bedroom window, a theory supported by the fact that the studio in which he painted was on the building's first floor. He also left out the window's less-than-welcoming bars, a detail he included in another letter to Theo. In May of 1889, he wrote, "Through the iron-barred window. I can see an enclosed square of wheat ... above which, in the morning, I watch the sun rise in all its glory."

3. The village was more creative license than reality.

From his window, van Gogh wouldn't have been able to see Saint-Rémy. However, art historians differ on whether the village presented in The Starry Night is pulled from one of van Gogh's charcoal sketches of the French town or if it is actually inspired by his homeland, the Netherlands.

4. The Starry Night may be about mortality.

The dark spires in the foreground are cypress trees, plants most often associated with cemeteries and death. This connection gives a special significance to this van Gogh quote, "Looking at the stars always makes me dream. Why, I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star."

5. This was not Van Gogh's first Starry Night.

The Starry Night that is world-renowned was painted in 1889. But the year before, van Gogh created his original Starry Night, sometimes known as Starry Night Over The Rhone. After his arrival in Arles, France in 1888, van Gogh became a bit obsessed with capturing the lights of the night sky. He dabbled in its depiction with Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, before daring to make his first Starry Night draft with the view of the Rhone River.

6. Van Gogh considered The Starry Night a "failure."

Surveying the works that would become known as his Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Remy series, he wrote to Theo, "All in all the only things I consider a little good in it are the Wheatfield, the Mountain, the Orchard, the Olive trees with the blue hills and the Portrait and the Entrance to the quarry, and the rest says nothing to me."

7. Van Gogh unknowingly painted Venus.

In 1985, UCLA art historian Albert Boime compared Starry Night to a planetarium recreation of how the night's sky would have appeared on June 19, 1889. The similarities were striking, and proved that van Gogh's "morning star," as referenced in his letter to his brother, was in fact the planet Venus.

8. Van Gogh sold only one or two paintings in his life—and neither was The Starry Night.

The one known for sure to have been sold was the far lesser known The Red Vineyard at Arles, which was completed in November 1888, before the breakdown that sent him to the asylum. Belgian artist and collector Anna Boch purchased it for 400 francs at the Les XX exhibition in 1890. Today this historic painting is on display at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. But there is evidence that van Gogh sold a second painting. In his biography of the artist, historian Marc Edo Tralbaut talked about a letter from Theo saying one of van Gogh’s self portraits found its way to a London art dealer.

9. The Starry Night was twice owned by Theo's widow.

Following van Gogh's death in 1890, Theo inherited all of his brother's works. But when he died in the fall of 1891, his wife Johanna Gezina van Gogh-Bonger became the owner of Starry Night and scads of other paintings. It was van Gogh-Bonger who collected and edited the brothers' correspondence for publication, and she is credited with building van Gogh's posthumous fame, thanks to her tireless promotions of his work and exhibitions.

In 1900, van Gogh-Bonger sold Starry Night to French poet Julien Leclerq, who soon sold it to Post-Impressionist artist Émile Schuffenecker. Six years later, she bought the painting back from Schuffenecker so she could pass it along to the Oldenzeel Gallery in Rotterdam.

10. The Starry Night now lives in New York thanks to Lillie P. Bliss.

Bliss was the daughter of a textile merchant who used her grand wealth to become one of the foremost collectors of modern art in the early 20th century. Alongside Mary Quinn Sullivan and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, she helped found Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art. Following her death in 1931, The Lillie P. Bliss Bequest turned much of her collection over to MoMA, creating the nucleus of the museum’s collection in the midst of the Great Depression. In 1941, three pieces from Bliss's impressive collection were sold so that MoMA could acquire Starry Night.

11. The lights of The Starry Night seem to flicker because of how the human brain works.

In this Avi Ofer-animated TED-Ed video, Natalya St. Clair further explains how van Gogh's painting is an accurate depiction of turbulence, "one of the most supremely difficult concepts nature has ever brought before mankind."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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