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Comic Book Heroes in Real Life

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Is there something about putting on the costume of a comic book super hero that causes people to become heroic?

During a protest last week in Bangkok, Thailand a LP gas truck was hijacked. Protesters parked the truck in front of an apartment building and opened a valve, ensuring that government police could not open fire on them. The hijackers were confronted by the tenants they endangered.

Then came Batman to the rescue! Out of nowhere, a person in the crowd, wearing a Batman suit and holding a video camera, jumped out and ran towards the truck, as seen in this video from Channel 3 news. The running Batman brought much-needed laughs and amusement to the stressed-out residents and protesters alike. The tension in the scene was lowered significantly.The Batman then climbed on the back of the gas truck and yelled, "Batman is here!", distracting the protesters in the area and brighten up the atmosphere.

While the crowd was distracted, a government official sneaked into the gas truck and drove it away. Batman made his exit on the back of a water truck that had been standing by, in case a fire had started.445superheroes.png

I read this story and thought, "Hasn't this sort of thing happened a lot lately?" And I was right. It appears that a Spiderman costume is most effective at inspiring heroic behavior -or maybe the most effective at inspiring worldwide publicity.


Kevin Godin-Prior of Manchester, England was on his way to a charity fundraiser when he stopped in a store and found a would-be thief attacking the shopkeeper. The 53-year-old mortgage consultant confronted the attacker and said, "You've made a big mistake here, mate. You don't know who you are dealing with." He then lifted his sweater and revealed the Spiderman costume he was wearing underneath. Godin-Prior fought the man and sustained minor injuries to his head and neck, but would not let the man go until police arrived.


An autistic boy in Bangkok was nervous about his first day of school. He climbed out onto the ledge of a third-floor balcony at the school and refused to come inside. Fireman Somchai Yoosabai learned that the boy loved comic book super heroes and went to the fire station, where he put on a Spiderman costume! Somchai keeps the Spiderman suit and an Ultraman suit to wear when speaking to children and conducting fire drills. As Spiderman, he was able to coax the 11-year-old off the roof and inside to safety.


Five-year-old Riquelme Maciel spotted smoke coming from a neighbor's house in Palmeira, Brazil. A baby was sleeping inside! The baby's mother, Lucilene dos Santos was afraid to enter the blazing building, but Maciel, who was wearing his Spiderman costume, rushed in and grabbed the one-year-old girl named Andrieli from her cradle. Maciel was hailed as a hero by neighbors and the local fire department.

duncan.jpgSurprisingly, Superman costumes don't figure in such heroics nearly as often. Andy Duncan didn't encounter any crimes in progress when he put on a Superman costume last week, but he felt heroic as he got on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend Lyndsay Linton in Leeds, England. Duncan made a grand entrance at the call center where Linton works, complete with theme music. She said yes, but asked for an upgrade on the engagement ring Duncan gave her.


Conversely, putting on the costume of a comic book villain seems to attract trouble. 20-year-old Spencer Taylor was arrested at a movie theater where The Dark Knight was playing. Police say he was trying to steal posters and other movie memorabilia. Taylor was wearing the costume and face makeup of the Joker. Police took two sets of mug shots, with and without the makeup.

In an unrelated case, army specialist Christopher Lanum was shot and killed by police while wearing a Joker costume. Lanum had allegedly stabbed and killed another soldier at Fort Eustis in Virginia. Police confronted Lanum and his girlfriend at Shenendoah National Park a few hours later. Police opened fire when Lanum pointed a gun at them. Friends say Lanum had been obsessed with the character of the Joker.


The hero-villain inspiration doesn't always hold true. In the case of Dr. Raymond Adamcik of Melbourne, Florida the super hero costume may have inspired villainous behavior. 54-year-old Adamcik was dressed as Captain America for a pub crawl. He was arrested for a number of charges including battery, disorderly conduct, drug possession, and trying to destroy evidence. He was accused of groping women and lewd behavior involving a burrito in his pants.

So maybe it isn't the costume after all. Maybe some people are just hero types, and others are not.

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”