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5 Superhero (and Supervillain) Origins

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We've read their comics, watched their movies, TV shows and cartoons, and dressed like them for Halloween. But where did our favorite superheroes come from?

1. Superman

Arguably America's first superhero, the Son of Krypton made his debut in June of 1938 in Action Comics. Being, as he was: faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive (we're confused by that metaphor, too) and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, Superman represented an entirely new kind of American hero. No longer satisfied with idolizing self-made men, pioneers, and various and sundry presidents, American kids suddenly seemed to need a hero who was incredibly powerful and, with his easy sense of right and wrong, deeply not human.

2. Lex Luthor

Lex-Luthor.jpgEvery hero needs a nemesis and that role in Superman's life was soon filled by mad scientist, wealthy businessman, and occasional presidential hopeful Lex Luthor. Of course, the Lex of the 1930s looked nothing like the slick tycoon you're accustomed to, largely because, at the time, he sported a clown-esque shock of red hair. It wasn't until 1941 that Lex acquired the smooth pate we've all come to know and love. However, later editors would revise what was originally a simple fashion decision into something much deeper.

In the 1960s, the story of Superman and Lex's relationship was stretched back in time to have them meeting up and, naturally, fighting during their teenage years. During this re-writing of history, it was revealed that Lex lost his hair as a child in a freak chemical plant explosion, which, inexplicably, he blamed on Superboy. Filled with the sort of animosity only a member of the Hair Club for Men could truly appreciate, Lex vowed to destroy the man who caused his baldness. In fact, in a November 1962 issue, the now-grown Superman intimates that Lex might have been the world's "greatest benefactor" were it not for the explosion that turned him into a bitter criminal.

3. Batman

batman.jpgThe year after Superman premiered, Detective Comics came out with their own, very different superhero. Who was he? The Batman, that's who. For Bruce Wayne, fighting crime wasn't about flying, punching people to the moon, or burning holes in things with his eyes. No, Batman was more honest than that. Just an average guy in peak physical shape (later revised to peak physical shape and ninja training), Batman got by on his wits"¦ and a never-ending supply of thematically named accessories—Batmobile, Batplane, Batmarine, the list goes on and on. He was the first superhero to indulge in a secret hideout, constructing the Batcave as a base of operations and the first to take on an underage protégé, touching off both a major comics trend and decades of snickering innuendo.

4. The Joker

joker.jpgA major innovation in his own right, the Joker's introduction in Spring of 1940 marked the arrival of the first true supervillain. Sure, Lex Luthor came first, but evil business honchos are a dime a dozen. The Joker represented comics' first foray into literally insane bad guys that were at once writhing in high camp and utterly terrifying. All three men involved in the creation of Batman claim individual credit for the Joker, citing various inspirations from the 1928 film adaptation of Victor Hugo's "The Man Who Laughs" to personal experience as a practical jokester. Of course, the Joker's "jokes" tended to lean a bit more toward the homicidal than anything being perpetrated by turn of the century schoolboys—like the Grinning Death, a rigor mortis"“stiffened smile brought on by the Joker's specially developed poison gas.

5. Wonder Woman

wonder-woman.jpgAlthough she's certainly earned her role as a feminist icon, the origins of Princess Diana the Amazon aren't exactly as "feminist" as we might think today. Created in 1942 by psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman was indeed intended to be a role model for comics-reading little girls. But Marston's intentions were a little different from what you might expect.

In a 1943 issue of The American Scholar magazine, he explained Wonder Woman as an attempt to show little girls that women could have fun adventures while still being "tender, submissive, and peace-loving." The character was actually inspired by two real women: Marston's wife, Elizabeth, and their polyamorous lover, Olive Byrne—which puts quite a twist on Wonder Woman's original catch phrase, "Suffering Sappho!" Then there's all the bondage. Early Wonder Woman books were chock-full of women tying up men, men tying up women, and lots of women tying up each other. Wonder Woman even told stories about how much the Amazons liked to play bondage games. Spanking, for the record, was also rather prevalent (the Amazons apparently had a whole penal system 2in-the-beginning.jpgbased around it) and Marston made it clear in interviews that this was intentional"¦a love of light S & M just being one more trait of his ideal woman.

This piece was written by Maggie Koerth-Baker and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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