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6 Professional Painters from the Animal Kingdom

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Note: This article was originally published in 2009. We're knee deep in server migration this week, so forgive us for reposting a few oldies/goodies.

Humans are not the only species to create art. You can argue all day about what is art and what isn't, but some animals are selling their creations, which puts them a notch closer to being true artists than most of us! Here are six different species of professional artists.

1. Koopa the Turtle

Koopa is a turtle belonging to artist Kira Ayn Varszegi. Kira taught Koopa many tricks over the years, such as standing on his hind legs and painting. Watch a video of Koopa in action. During a 5-year painting career, Koopa produced 827 paintings, which you have to admit is fast work for a turtle! He is retired now due to some health issues, although some of his paintings are still for sale. You can keep up with Koopa through his MySpace page or through Kira's blog.

2. Stewie the Tamandua

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Stewie the tamandua was what most of us would call an anteater. Stewie and his companion Pua (also a trained tamandua) appeared in one of the Dr. Dolittle sequels. In addition to acting, Stewie had a talent for painting. Watch Stewie learn to paint in this video. Unfortunately, Stewie died of an autoimmune problem in February of 2008. But he lives on in photos and artwork.

3. Cheeta the Chimpanzee

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It's no surprise that many apes, our nearest relatives, create art. Probably the most famous simian painter is Cheeta, the retired star of many Tarzan movies. Cheeta, now 76 years old, lives at the C.H.E.E.T.A. Primate Sanctuary in Palm Springs, California, and his main hobby now is painting. You can buy one of Cheeta's masterpieces for $125 plus shipping costs, which will help support the sanctuary.

4. Smithfield the Pig

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Smithfield the Vietnamese potbellied pig always showed an aptitude for learning new things. A resident of Richmond, Virginia, he paints pictures by holding a brush in his mouth. In addition to painting, Smithfield makes personal appearances for groups and on TV, where he performs his repertoire of tricks like posing for pictures and playing musical instruments. He has survived two bouts of cancer, which left him with a hole on the top of his snout. You can buy Smithfield's paintings through his website.

5. Cholla the Horse

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Cholla is a mustang-quarter horse mix who displays an unusual talent for painting -for a horse, that is. Cholla was 19 years old before he took a brush in his mouth. He was distrustful of humans for many years until his owner Renee won him over and he began to follow here everywhere, even watching her as she painted the fence. When Renee gave him paintbrushes and a heavy-duty easel, his art career took off. The sales of Cholla's artwork benefits an entire list of charities.

6. Hong the Elephant

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Hong is one of many elephants involved with the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project. Rescued from an abusive owner, she lives at the Maetaman Elephant Camp in Thailand, where a total of nine elephants have learned to paint. Unlike other animal artists, the elephants produce representative paintings instead of abstract art!

Originally, Khun Anchalee Kalmapijit, the Operations Director, learned elephant painting from the Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang.  Khun Anchalee initiated elephant artists learning to paint for the first time ever in Chiang Mai in 2000.  At the beginning, she and the mahouts trained the elephants to hold the brush by putting it into their trunk.  For a while, the elephants refused to hold the brush, they were uncomfortable with the strange brushes placed in their trunks and let them fall to the ground.  It took some time for them to accept it because elephants naturally pick up things by rolling their trunk and holding.  After the elephants could hold the brush by their trunk, they were given brushes with color.  Then, the elephants chose to draw lines up, down or put dots on the paper.  Their practice compares to how a human first learns to write "“ practice, practice, practice.  The elephants keep doing these until they have the skill to draw a proper line.  This step takes many months depending on how often they practice.  Some time later, when the mahouts want the elephants to paint a portrait or flowers, they put the lines that elephants can do together and train them to remember with lots of practice, bananas and sugar cane.

Watch Hong create one of her paintings in this video. When you buy an elephant painting, you help support the elephants and their sanctuaries.

I wonder how my house cats and hermit crabs would do with a set of watercolors...

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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