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Is Superman a Democrat? On Politics and Superheroes

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Is Superman a Democrat? Is Batman a Republican? And more to the point, what’s up with spandex-clad superheroes dabbling in real-life politics?

The short answer is it’s nothing new. Ever since Superman and his keister-kicking ilk hit newsstands in the late ‘30s and ‘40s, comic book plotlines have reflected the wars and political struggles going on in the real world.

Take, for instance, the cover of the first issue of Captain America from 1941, which featured everyone’s favorite Spandex-clad patriot punching Hitler in the face—certainly a political statement at a time when a well-organized portion of the country did not want the U.S. to enter World War II.

Since then, superheroes have brushed shoulders with world leaders, politicians and U.S. presidents dozens of times—with predictably mixed results.

In Action Comics #309 in 1963, John F. Kennedy helped protect Clark Kent’s secret identity (“If I can’t trust the president of the United States, who can I trust?” Superman cooed), and in The Amazing Spider-Man #583 in 2009, Obama fist-bumped Spidey at the inauguration on Capitol Hill.

Things were slightly less flattering for U.S. presidents in the ‘70s, at the height of both the Watergate scandal and disillusionment about the Vietnam War. In Captain America #180 in 1974, the Cap discovered that then-president Richard Nixon (or, rather, his thinly-veiled doppelganger) was the leader of the evil Secret Empire. Disgusted, our hero renounced his U.S. citizenship, renamed himself “Nomad,” chucked his red, white and blue spandex and went rogue. (Four issues later, in April 1975, the Cap returned, having reached an epiphany that he could support American values without blindly supporting the government.)

Flash forward 35 years and not a whole lot has changed. In Action Comics #900, published this past April, Superman also renounced his U.S. citizenship after being scolded by the president’s national security advisor for supporting the peaceful protesters in Tehran, contrary to U.S. policy. Our Man In Red Undies scoffed at the rebuke: “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy,” he said, and then proceeded to go on a political diatribe about the world being “too small” and “too connected” to be constrained by ideas of nationalism. Then, shocking Superman fans everywhere, the Man of Steel uttered the un-utterable: “Truth, justice and the American way is not enough anymore,” he said. Gasp!

While Superman’s spurning of his famous catchphrase sent some fans into an indignant rage, his political transformation has actually been a long time coming. In the first Superman flick back in 1978, Clark Kent told Lois Lane that he was fighting for “the American way,” and Lois laughed in his face—a clear nod to audiences who were less than thrilled with the direction America was taking at the time. In the 2006 movie Superman Returns, the movie’s screenwriters wrote the phrase “American way” out altogether, arguing that it “means something different than it did 50 years ago,” according to an interview with Comic Book Resources. In the movie, Perry White, the editor of The Daily Planet, asks Superman if he still believes in, you know, “truth, justice—and all that stuff.”

Captain America has been getting into muddy political waters lately, too. Just last year, in Captain America #602, the Cap and his co-hero, Falcon, stumbled onto a small-government, anti-tax rally, where someone was holding a placard that read, “Tea Bag the Libs Before They Tea Bag YOU!”

Falcon, who’s black, described the scene as “a bunch of angry white folks.” Shortly after publication, Michael Johns, a board member at the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition demanded an apology from Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada for besmirching the Tea Party’s image. Quesada apologized publically saying, as he has many times before, that Marvel does not make intentional political statements.

While real-life politics are mirrored in comic book plots, comics should be “no one’s soap box,” Quesada said later in an interview with comics writer Kiel Phegley. “Yes, we have characters that have certain attributes built into them, like political beliefs and religious affiliations, but we try to handle those as carefully as possible, and when we present one side of a coin, I encourage my editors and creators to fairly show the other side.”

Perhaps DC, then, which created the ever-elusive Batman, has hit the nail on the head. The question of Batman’s political loyalties remain, for some reason, one of the most hotly contested subjects among politico-comic geeks online. Some claim that Bruce Wayne, a billionaire vigilante, is clearly a libertarian, while others, citing the Dark Knight’s fierce opposition to both guns and the death penalty, say he’s surely a Dem—an argument that still others say was refuted in 2008, when Republican senator John McCain said Batman was his favorite.

A few years ago, Christopher Nolan, who directed the most recent Batman movies, almost put the debate to rest. Batman, Nolan said, was modeled on Theodore Roosevelt, a turn of the century Republican, whose famous quote, Speak softly and carry a big, uh, Kevlar bat suit, certainly applies.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]