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Creatively Speaking: Marc Tyler Nobleman

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Boys of Steel - jacket final 300 dpi.jpgOur Creatively Speaking series of interviews continues this week with Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of the recently published Boys of Steel - The Creators of Superman. I got to know Marc first through his wonderful cartoons, one of which you'll see tomorrow in our latest caption contest as we prepare to give away THREE copies of Boys of Steel. Part YA picture book, part biography, Marc's new book follows the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, as they struggle through their teenage years in Depression-era Cleveland. Marc says he grew up thinking he'd, too, become a superhero because his last name already sounded like one. In researching Boys of Steel, he dug up details that haven't been published before. He was the first to find photos of the building in which Joe Shuster lived and where he and Jerry Siegel forged the Man of Steel; it was demolished in 1975 before the city of Cleveland knew its significance. You can check out those photos and more are over at or check out Marc's blog here.
Check out my full interview with Marc below and be sure to tune in tomorrow for your chance to win one of three copies we'll be giving away!

DI: You're an illustrator as well as an author. But for this book, Ross
MacDonald drew the wonderful illustrations. Who came up with the original
idea for the book and how did the work get doled out?

MTN: The idea was mine. I wrote the manuscript on spec and sold it. My editor and I suggested various illustrators to one another and we ultimately agreed on Ross - and he agreed to do it! I don't think of myself as an illustrator, actually - that implies more talent than I have. I am a cartoonist - a humorist who can eke out crude little pictures to go with my words, as long as those pictures don't include cars, chandeliers, pre-war buildings, and others things I am no good at drawing.

DI: Joe and Jerry were turned down by publisher after publisher, for more
than three years. This is a familiar story (I head that J.K. Rowling was
turned down by every publisher in the U.K. before Scholastic, of all
companies, took a chance on HP). Did you have trouble getting this book
deal? What was the process like?

MTN: This is yet another thing I have in common with Jerry, Joe, and J.K. - my work, too, has been rejected in somewhat alarming numbers. BOYS OF STEEL received 22 nos. In the end, however, two great publishers expressed interest - for me, a win-win situation. There are a lot of picture books on textbook names - Columbus, Roosevelt, King, etc. - but mine had a pop culture angle. So whenever possible, I queried editors who I thought would have such a sensibility. One editor I approached because she had done a picture book on the childhood of Dr. Seuss, and she ended up being the one who took BOYS OF STEEL.

DI: Boys of Steel is obviously for young adult readers. Did that make
writing such a biography harder or easier?

MTN: It looks like it's for young readers, but I describe it as an all-ages book. However, yes, it is compact and stylized, not a comprehensive biography, so in that regard I had to be selective about what info to include. The idea and the research had been in me for so long that it was not difficult to pare it down to the key beats. In fact, the original manuscript focused only on one night--the night of Jerry's "epiphany"--and the following day, when Joe first drew Jerry's concept. But I expanded it to about a decade, roughly 1930-1940, addressing the rest of their lives in the text-only afterword.

DI: In the book, you imply that Joe and Jerry were the first to come up
with the idea of a hero who would be a stranger in a regular place rather
than a regular person in a strange place (like Tarzan or Buck Rogers). Was
there really no precedent for this type of hero?

MTN: To be sure, Superman was composed of elements of previous characters. But while Tarzan and Buck Rogers were in unfamiliar settings, both were still on their home planet, and both still interacted with others of their kind. Superman was the last of his race, far from home. He was also a benevolent alien - something new in science fiction at the time. Another element of Superman that felt new was that his HERO identity was the real him and his CIVILIAN identity was fabricated. This has fluctuated over the years, especially with Smallville, where Clark Kent is portrayed as the real him and Superman is/will be the "new" aspect.

DI: I always assumed the S on Superman's costume was for Superman, or
perhaps steel. If it was actually for Siegel and Shuster, as you mention,
which came first: the S-branding or the name Superman?

MTN: I don't state it is ONLY for "Siegel" and "Shuster." (In the book, that is a direct quotation from them, by the way.) It just so happened to be the first letter of both their names AND "Superman." The name "Superman" came first, then the "S," which they then happily realized could also stand for themselves.

DI: Joe and Jerry naively sold all rights to the character, along with
their first story for a measly $130. Was this common during those days?
Did authors frequently give up their rights to make a deal?

MTN: It was the Great Depression. Any job was hard to come by, and any gig could be your last for who knows how long. As I write in the afterword, for every Superman there were dozens of characters who went nowhere, so viewing through the lens of the time, it's hard to fault creators for selling an idea to make a quick buck. To Jerry and Joe's credit, however, they began to ask for renegotiation in 1938--yes, the same year Superman debuted, so after he had made a big splash but before a real indication that he had staying power. I don't believe Jerry and Joe were as naive as is often assumed.

DI: In the 1940s, Jerry and Joe wrote some strips with Superman capturing
Hitler and Stalin and delivering them before the world. Something to the
two of them being Jewish in any of this? Payback?

This was a one-off strip done for LOOK magazine in 1940 (which I mention in my afterword). I would guess that it was payback on some level, but probably more of a provocative gimmick. Jerry and Joe did not mention their Judaism in any interview I have seen or heard. I don't think religion was a dominant part of their lives or a particularly strong influence on their work.

DI: While on the Jewish theme, let's talk about Superman's Kryptonian
name, Kal-El, which in Hebrew means "all that is God" or "all that God
is," as you mention in the book. Did the boys know Hebrew well?

MTN: They were first-generation Americans. I don't know how often they heard Yiddish or Hebrew at home. Again, they didn't discuss Judaism in interviews I know of. Jerry's widow is still alive and this would be a great question to ask her.

DI: Like many visionaries, from Mozart to John McTammany, Joe and Jerry
died rather penniless. In the book, you write that in the 1960s Jerry had
to take work as a mail clerk for $7,000 a year. As for Joe, his brother
Frank had to support him. To add insult to injury, their names were taken
off the comics. How did the folks at DC comics sleep at night?

MTN: There are two sides to this, of course - the creators' and the company's. In March 2008, I blogged about what Jerry and Joe did right, what they did wrong, what DC did right, and what DC did wrong (in my flawed estimation). To the first of those four categories, I would now add what I mentioned above: how they (Jerry in particular) pushed for renegotiation almost immediately after Superman's debut. For the first few years of Superman, Jerry and Joe were making a great salary, especially for the times. Not enough to retire on, I'm sure - but something to build on. I don't know what happened to that money. Superman was so extraordinarily successful that I do agree with their efforts to obtain a greater share of the profits - but DC was not acting illegally. Immorally, perhaps, but not illegally. And as I note in the afterword, when they settled with Jerry and Joe in the 1970s, it was on moral grounds. I think it was brave of Jerry and Joe to continue to fight for themselves against a big corporation and it was admirable that DC did ultimately give the families security, even if it didn't come as early as most of us with tender hearts would have liked. How did they sleep? The early management slept just fine, I'm sure. Things became more enlightened in the 1970s.

DI: What are you working on now?

MTN: A picture book on Bill Finger, the uncredited co-creator of (and I would even argue the dominant force behind) Batman, plus several other nonfiction picture books that have similarly fascinating stories but which do not involve superheroes. Watch my blog for details as they develop!

Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]