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"Radiance." Image credit: Matt Elson

How One Artist Is Using Mirrors to Create Perception-Shifting 'Infinity Boxes'

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"Radiance." Image credit: Matt Elson

An Infinity Box built by Los Angeles-based artist Matt Elson isn’t complete until people duck inside. Once they cross the threshold, the interior transforms into an immersive kaleidoscope flecked with candles, colored lights, and paper flowers. Whether the viewers laugh at their own reflections or gawk in wonder, the walls respond with endless variations of their shifting expressions—and if one person decides to stay inside while his or her viewing partner leaves, another spectator will pop in and transform the exhibition into something totally new.

Sticking your head into a cramped, dimly-lit box probably seems like it would be an isolating experience, but Elson, 59, insists his work is all about fostering human connection. Most pieces are built to fit two to four people's heads at a time, and once they pop their heads inside, they embark on a shared journey through the artist's psychedelic landscapes. “It’s really about being present with another person,” Elson tells mental_floss. “And it’s about being in the moment right here, right now, not distracted with anything else.”

Jason Ralph, actor, The Magicians (SyFy) inThe Delta of Venus

Menage a Trois

Elson has come a long way since his first try at an Infinity Box, which he built as an art student at the Pratt Institute. The foamcore sculpture had eye-holes for viewing two fields of mirrors at once. It was designed in such a way that it was impossible for the viewer's eyes to rest on a single focal point. "There were several different experiments going on at the same time," Elson says. "[It caused] massive confusion for the brain with a sort of seasick feeling afterward."

After he graduated from Pratt in 1982, Elson transitioned from physical art to computer graphics, receiving a Masters of Computer Applications at the New York Institute of Technology in 1987. Three years later, when he relocated to Los Angeles with his wife, he left the experimental box from his art school days behind.

Elson spent the next two decades working for some of the entertainment industry's biggest companies. He was at DreamWorks during the studio’s launch and assisted in Disney’s transition from 2D to 3D animation. But even after all his successes, the artist felt out of his element in front of a monitor. “I was tired of making things in small dark rooms by myself,” he says. So he went back to making fine art paintings like he’d learned to do as an undergraduate student.

And then a trip to Burning Man made him reconsider mirrors as a medium.

Infinity Box No. 1

Every year, tens of thousands of people participating in Burning Man build a temporary community in Nevada's Black Rock Desert and hold a week-long festival of art, electronic music, and "radical self-expression," all leading up to the symbolic burning of a towering, wooden effigy of their namesake mascot. Elson attended in 2010, and while wandering through the desert displays, he came across a piece created by artist Manu Kaleido. KaleidoAct used moving lights, shadows, and puppetry reflected in a large mirrored space to alter the viewer's sense of reality.

Inspired, Elson went home and started playing with the materials on a much smaller scale. One of the first things he did was hold two mirrors back-to-back and bring them up to his face. “That bifurcates the field of view,” he explains. “You get all this anomalous information that's in conflict and your brain’s trying to make sense of it.”

Using that concept as a starting point, Elson began construction on a full-sized box in April of 2012. Unlike creating something in a computer program, putting a box together required a true physical connection to his work. His decades of tech experience did come in handy, however. Since building his first box as a student, he'd learned geometry concepts from animating computer graphics that made planning out 3D structures a lot easier. He used that knowledge to design pieces that were as coherent and seamless in their final forms as they were when he envisioned them.

He was so eager to show off the first box in the Infinity Box series—appropriately titled Infinity Box No. 1—that he put together a quick version made from plywood and Gatorfoam within a month to display at a Thai massage parlor in Santa Monica. He finished an updated model of Infinity Box No. 1 made from wood and masonite a year later.

Elson has built 14 boxes in the years since, and that’s not including the replicas of his original designs. They’ve been showcased at Burning Man, the Science Museum in London, and most recently at the Hall of Magic in Brooklyn during an exhibit promoting the Syfy series The Magicians. According to Elson, more than 220,000 people have experienced his creations at his shows alone, and he has noticed similar patterns from the people who view them.

“What I really love is when I see people ... put their heads in a box and they’re there for 10 or 15 minutes just having a conversation,” Elson says. “The average length of time a person spends in front of a painting or a sculpture in a museum is on the border of a few seconds. They’re very short experiences, [but] people tend to really take their time with these [boxes].”

Different boxes evoke different themes. His sixth box, Radiance, is based on the story from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scripture in which Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna. “Arjuna saw the Universal Form of the Lord with many mouths and eyes, and many visions of marvel, with numerous divine ornaments, and holding divine weapons,” the passage reads. “Arjuna saw the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as (all in) One (and One in all) in the body of Krishna.”

The spirit of this story is what Elson aimed to capture in the box, which is a consistent crowd-pleaser. Viewers are treated to one of two perspectives, depending on which side they enter: One side, representing order, is covered with flowers and electric candles; the other side, representing chaos, is shot through with swirling rainbow lights. The mirrors are positioned in a way that slices the occupant’s face into 11 separate reflections.

“It takes a beautiful picture, and I think that’s one of the things people like about it,” Elson says. “But for me, it’s a deeper metaphorical layer of looking at the person and seeing the many aspects of them.”

Radiance—the "chaos" side.

Radiance—the "order" side.

Matt Elson at "The Magicians" exhibit.

After working on his Infinity Boxes for five years, Elson is now planning to turn them into something even more engrossing in partnership with Joe Jaroff. For his next project, he’s fully embracing the carnival funhouse concept and building pieces out of full-sized shipping containers. Participants will be able to walk inside the boxes and see reflections of their whole bodies scattered across the walls.

By completely enveloping the senses, Elson hopes the boxes will compel viewers to slow down and live in the present. “That’s the real goal,” he says. “Creating a space for people to be aware of their lives.”

Gryphon's Lair

Delta of Venus

The Unforeseen Consequence of Circumstance

Besos del Corazon
All images courtesy of Matt Elson.
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]