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10 Disabled Comic Book Superheroes

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One of the great things about comics is that characters can be physically disabled, yet still be superhuman. Here are some of the great disabled superheroes.

1. Dr. Mid-Nite

This DC Comics hero was introduced in 1941, teaming up with do-gooders like the Flash and the Green Lantern throughout World War II. Originally physician Dr. Charles McNider, he was blinded by a hand-grenade explosion (the work of organized crime). Though he had to renounce the surgery, he could see in pitch darkness for some reason, so he became a crime-fighter. As well as having an advantage during the night, he wears special pitch-black goggles so he can see during the day.

2. Captain Marvel, Jr.

Well, sort of. Elvis Presley’s favorite childhood hero was in reality Freddy Freeman, a newsboy who was crippled in an attack by the dastardly Captain Nazi.

The super-hero Captain Marvel (in reality a newsboy named Billy Batson – what’s with these double-initials?) took Freddy to Shazam, the wizard who had given him his powers, and he was granted the same powers (with a bolt of lightning) whenever he uttered the hero’s name: “Captain Marvel!” Sadly, when he uttered the same again, he would transform back into Freddy, de-powered and still crippled. As they often teamed up (and Junior presumably needed to introduce himself on occasion), this must have been an awkward arrangement. Nonetheless, Captain Marvel – published by Fawcett – became the top-selling superhero, the first one to outsell Superman. Junior, riding on his capetails, was published by from 1942 to 1953.

3. Thor

In 1962, nearly a decade after Fawcett stopped publishing the highly successful Captain Marvel titles, Marvel Comics (no relation) introduced another disabled man who can transform, with a bolt of lightning, into a hero with godlike power. In fact, it wasn’t so much god-like, as Dr. Donald Blake, GP (who can only walk with the aid of a cane) was transformed into Thor, the Norse god of thunder. As punishment for showing appalling pride, Thor had been sent to Earth by his father, Odin (king of the gods), in the fragile form of Dr. Blake – and to further humiliate him, didn’t even know he was a superhero until a visit to Norway first saw him transform into Thor. One of Marvel’s classic heroes (Kenneth Branagh, no less, is currently directly a movie), he is known to fans as one of the “big three” of their main super-hero team, the Avengers (along with Iron Man and Captain America).

4. Daredevil

Marvel Comics also created Daredevil, whose origin story must rate among the dumbest in comic-book history (no mean achievement). The story: athletic teenager Matt Murdock leaps in to save a blind man from being hit by a truck. However, the truck is carrying a canister of radioactive waste material that breaks open, bombarding Murdock with radiation. He is blinded, like the man he saved. However, thanks to radiation, his other senses are “mutagenically heightened” to superhuman levels. According to The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (published in 1983): “His sense of touch is so acute that his fingers can feel the faint impressions of ink on a printed page, allowing him to read by touch… and he can distinguish between identical twins at 20 feet by minute differences in smell.” Daredevil uses blindness to his advantage, happily swinging over the New York skyline. As he can’t see how high he is, he earns the label “the man without fear”. But instead of sight, he has radar sense, suggesting that he’s more of a bat-man than Batman.

5. The Chief

As followers of the X-Men movies (and for 40 years years before, the Marvel comics) would know, Professor Charles Xavier is the most unusual superhero: wheelchair-bound after an accident, his telepathic and psychic powers make him more than a match for most of the tough musclemen he confronted. Less famous is the Doom Patrol, another group of oddballs led by a wheelchair-bound genius (and first published by DC Comics in October 1963, only one month before the X-Men). Their leader was the Chief, alias Niles Caulder, who built several weapons, including flame-throwers, into his wheelchair. Sadly, the Doom Patrol didn’t catch on like the X-Men, and in 1968, they all died heroically. (As often happens in comics, most of them – including the Chief – were brought back to life several years later.)

6. Puck

Introduced by Marvel in 1983, Puck was a dwarf with no superhuman powers, but great acrobatic and fighting skills – a character suggested to writer-artist John Byrne by his wife. He soon became one of the most popular members of the Canadian superhero team Alpha Flight, whose fans included other sufferers of dwarfism. However, comics being what they are, he couldn’t stay just a “normal” guy. Writer Bill Mantlo, Byrne’s successor, gave him a new origin story: he was previously a (very tall) adventurer, who had been turned into a dwarf by a demon. Oh, and he was immortal. Byrne was not happy with this. “The whole ‘demon inside’ thing [was] based, apparently, on the single reference Puck had made to being in constant pain, something which Bill failed to grasp was an effect of the condition – achondroplasty… which caused Puck's dwarfism.” Immortal or not, Puck was killed (along with most of Alpha Flight), and at time of writing, is still dead.

7. Oracle

Barbara Gordon was formerly Batgirl, fighting crime with martial arts and a skintight costume. She even appeared in the 1960s Batman television series, played by Yvonne Craig. By day, she was Barbara Gordon, a mild-mannered librarian with Clark Kent spectacles. This changed, however, in the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke (written by Alan Moore), when she was shot in the spine by Batman’s insane foe, the Joker. After that, her appearances focused on the tragedy of her new, wheelchair-bound life. But this eventually gave way to her new identity, Oracle. As super-smart as she was previously super-athletic, she oversees crime-fighting missions from a computer console, guiding her able-bodied (and mostly female) operatives, the Birds of Prey.

In 1993, Batman himself had his back broken by a tough criminal, and conducted his detective work from a wheelchair, replaced in the cape by an able-bodied crime-fighter. Unlike Oracle, however, his disability was only temporary.

8. Iron Man

For a multi-millionaire genius and playboy, Tony Stark has had a rough time. Wounded in the Vietnam War (though that has since been updated to the Iraq War), he designed an iron chest-plate to sustain his weak heart. Though he was later fitted with a pacemaker, his armor remains. Nonetheless, his problems continued. He has been an alcoholic, clinically dead (twice), lost his mind, and been on the run from authorities. He was also shot – not by a super-villain, but by an unhinged girlfriend. As his doctor dramatically announced, “Tony Stark will never walk again!” At first, the concept of a paraplegic superhero (while not exactly new) was well portrayed. In his secret identity, he felt helpless. Nonetheless, this was still a comic book, so he continued to fly around as Iron Man, moving his legs with the aid of high-tech armor. “I’ve only solved one problem,” he said. “There’s still a whole world I’m going to have to face without the armor.”

Writing stories around this wasn’t so easy. Within a year he was walking again, thanks to a “biochip implant” in his spine developed by a brilliant team of scientists (or more accurately, a desperate writer).

9. Echo

A Native American heroine, created in 1999 as one of Daredevil’s foes (though later an ally), Echo was thought to be mentally disabled as a child and was sent to a special school. But when she was able to replicate an entire song on a piano, she was moved to a school for gifted children. This must have been confusing, but it soon turned out that she was deaf, but has “photographic reflexes” – the ability to perfectly copy other people's movements. After study, this turned her into an amazing fighter and athlete. She also became one of the few superhero cross-dressers, disguising herself as a masked swordsman called Ronin. Readers were kept guessing for some time at the identity of the mysterious Ronin, and when Echo finally revealed herself, some of them were surprised – mainly because she had somehow hidden her deafness all that time.

10. Komodo

The Lizard, a Spider-Man villain, was really Dr. Curt Connors, a one-armed scientist who was hoping that he could regenerate his arm (like reptiles do) by injecting himself with lizard serum. This gave him an arm, but also turned him into a human lizard, taking away his mind. Fortunately, he was cured (though he never replaced his arm), and continued life as a respectable scientist, despite occasional lapses into reptile form. One of his graduate students, an amputee named Melati Kusuma, stole the serum to replace the legs that she lost in a car accident. In her case, she didn’t lose her mind in the process. Kusuma — Komodo — was introduced by Marvel Comics in 2007, as a trainee member of the Avengers.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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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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