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7 More Superpowers The World Can Do Without

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In August, I revealed some of the more obscure superpowers of comic book heroes and villains over the years. The list attracted plenty of comments from people who named other ridiculous superhero powers, inspiring me to write a sequel. Here are seven more powers bestowed on superheroes "“ not just in comic books, but also on television "“ that should be remembered.

1. The Power to Stop Timepieces

A forgotten character from the Golden Age of comic books, Mister Midnite first appeared in Silver Streak Comics in 1939. While many writers were dreaming up cool powers for new superheroes to cash in on the success of Superman, the brains at little-known Comic House Publishers came up with Mister Midnite "“ alias "wealthy young sportsman" Neal Carruthers "“ who possessed a unique power. When he called out "Stop, time!" he could stop"¦time? Well, not exactly. He could only stop clocks. He only lasted two issues, perhaps because his publisher realized that there was only so much you can do with that power. Fortunately, he never had to battle Uri Geller.

2. Super-Ventriloquism

Another also-ran from the Golden Age, the Echo's power was to, er, throw his voice. This works well for him in his day job (he's a ventriloquist), but also in his work as an amateur detective, tricking villains by making them think that they're surrounded by cops, when it's really the Echo saying "We've got him covered!" "“ and making them think that the voice is coming from behind them. Best of all, you never see his lips move! He first appeared in Yankee Comics (1941) and somehow fooled crooks for the next two years. In reality, his name was Jim Carson, though his chemist brother, who helped him fight crime, somehow had the name Dr Doom. (Obviously, not the famous Fantastic Four villain.)

3. Independence Day Powers

In 1966, DC Comics came up with Dial H for Hero, which was about a teenager named Robby Reed who finds a special dial. When he dials H-E-R-O, it transforms him into a superhero "“ a different one each time. In 1981, the concept was revisited, when two teenagers accidentally found these dials in a haunted house and were magically transformed into adult superheroes. The cleverest part of this idea is that the heroes were invented by the readers themselves. The readers weren't paid any royalties (though they were sent a nifty Dial H for Hero t-shirt), but as the heroes never appeared more than once, they didn't miss out on much.

A pity, as it would have been great to see the further adventures of Balloon Boy, Blazerina, Raggedy Doll and Fuzz Ball (who can bounce around stomping on villains), Lavender Sky-Writer, or the Mighty Moppet (whose baby bottle squirts a liquid to shrink his enemies down to his size). But of the hundreds of dialed-up heroes, few were cooler than the Yankee Doodle Kid, whose super-patriotic powers would leave Captain America to shame. The Kid, one of Robby Reed's heroes from 1966, was a one-man Fourth of July machine, generating fireworks from his eyes, cherry bomb missiles and picture-display illusions from his fingers. Great for defending America against criminals"¦ then celebrating afterwards.

4. The Power to Spread Germs

lass.jpgDC also gave us The Legion of Substitute Heroes, with such heroes as Color Kid, Porcupine Pete, Double-Header (with two heads "“ and that's it) and Infectious Lass, whose power (which she can't fully control) is to carry assorted diseases and spread them to other people. While she boasts the spread of "bubonic plague, syphilus, Spanish flu, all manner of mutant sexual diseases," she's more likely to give you a dumb disease like gender re-alignment virus, which temporarily turned Color Kid into "Color Queen." Admittedly, this was meant to be ridiculous. The Substitute Heroes are the ones whose powers were too silly or useless to get them into the more prestigious Legion of Super-Heroes. And as the Legion of Super-Heroes has included the likes of Bouncing Boy, Dream Girl and Matter-Eater Lad, this must surely be rather insulting.

5. The Power to Transform Bad Words

Before they won the rights to use Spider-Man, the PBS educational show The Electric Company introduced a new hero called Letterman in 1971, in a series of animated cartoons. Letterman "“ "faster than a rolling O, more powerful than a silent E, able to leap a capital T" "“ would fly to the scene of a problem a fix it by plucking letters from his sweatshirt, changing bad words into good words. He would change "gun" to "bun", or "tickle" to "pickle" (revealing, presumably, that "tickle" is a bad word). If he had enough letters, no doubt he could change "superhero" into "what a ridiculous superpower."

6. The Power of Squirrels

squirrel-girl.jpgSpider-Man, Batman, Wolverine "“ some of the coolest superheroes have the abilities of the toughest or most fearsome animals. In 1992, Marvel Comics introduced high-school student Doreen Green, a mutant with the abilities of"¦squirrels. Though this is cooler than it might sound, as Squirrel Girl (what else?) has a semi-prehensile tail, a retractable knuckle spike, enlarged incisors, super-strength and an empathic bond with squirrels. Oh, and she's cute. With her powers, she has singlehandedly defeated Doctor Doom (the villain, not the Echo's brother), and is a valuable member of a team called the Great Lakes Champions. Still, a prehensile tail isn't quite as awesome as spiderwebs"¦

7. Magical Nose Hair

Oh yes. The Japanese cartoon series Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, which began in 2003, is about a 31st-century superhero of that name, with a magical yellow afro, who uses his nose hair to strangle or otherwise subdue his enemies "“ specifically an evil emperor who wants to turn everyone bald. (If only this villain could use his power for good deeds, like removing nose hairs.) Somehow, this ran for 76 episodes, each of which were even dubbed into English. If you thought Pokemon was as weird as Japanese animation could get, you might want to reconsider.

Mark Juddery is a writer and historian based in Australia. To see what else he's written, visit markjuddery.com.

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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