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Walt Disney Studios

11 Things to Know About Iron Man

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Walt Disney Studios

Iron Man 3 opened in theaters Friday, so it's a good time to put the spotlight on Marvel's wildly popular, high-tech hero, Tony Stark. After making his debut in the March 1963 issue of Tales of Suspense, Iron Man has risen from relative obscurity to mainstream celebrity—particularly over the last few years, thanks to the success of Marvel's live-action movie universe.

Just in case you weren't an early adopter of all things Iron Man, here are 11 things you should know about Tony Stark and his armored alter ego.

1. While Stan Lee initially came up with the idea for a “quintessential capitalist” hero and many of the character's traits, he didn't write the story in Tales of Suspense #39 that introduced Iron Man to the world. A looming deadline forced him to hand over the scripting duties for that issue to Larry Lieber, and it was Lieber, cover artist Jack Kirby, and interior artist Don Heck who shared the bulk of creative duties for the issue. Kirby is credited with the design of Iron Man's first armor, while Heck is credited with the look of Tony Stark, Pepper Potts, and the other characters introduced inside the issue.

2. Lee modeled Stark on famed businessman Howard Hughes, with all of the real-world industrialist's playboy habits, but without the mental instability that characterized Hughes' later life.

3. Turning Stark into a popular hero began as a personal challenge for Lee, who saw the character as a direct contradiction of everything Marvel's readers usually looked for in superheroes. A wealthy businessman who made weapons for the military, the character was introduced at a time when the Cold War was at its peak and the publisher's readers were tired of war and the ills associated with capitalism. 

4. Stark was one of the first Marvel superheroes to develop a relatively large following among female readers. According to Lee, an overwhelming majority of the fan mail Marvel received from female readers for many years was directed at Tony Stark.

5. While the attack and subsequent kidnapping that prompted Stark to create the Iron Man armor originally occurred during the Vietnam War, the incident has been retroactively shifted forward in time to the Gulf War, then again more recently to the war in Afghanistan.

6. According to his fictional biography, Stark was admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at age 15, and graduated only two years later with Master's degrees in physics and engineering.

7. The injury that initially forced him to create the chestplate of the Iron Man armor (in order to prevent a piece of shrapnel from entering his heart) has been repaired multiple times throughout Stark's life in the comics, only to have a similar injury—or something more debilitating—afflict him later, forcing a return to the life-sustaining origins of his armor. At one point, the majority of Stark's autonomous functions (breathing, heartbeat, etc) were controlled by the arc reactor embedded in his chest due to the extensive injuries he received over the years.

8. Stark initially changed the color of his armor from metallic gray to gold (and later to red and gold) on the advice of a former girlfriend, who said the color would make him less frightening to the people he's trying to help. 

9. During the modern era of Iron Man adventures, Stark was appointed Secretary of Defense by the U.S. President, and spent more than a year in that role before resigning. He initially agreed to take the position in order to monitor how Stark Technology was being used by the nation's military.

10. Stark was ranked the fifth wealthiest fictional character of all time by Forbes in the most recent edition of the publication's annual “Fictional 15” list.

11. Iron Man was one of the five founding members of The Avengers in the Marvel Comics universe, teaming up with Hulk, Ant-Man, Thor, and Wasp to defeat Loki in The Avengers #1. (Captain America didn't join the team until several issues later, but was given “founding member” status.) The team's first headquarters was a New York City mansion given to them by Stark, and the team was funded through the Maria Stark Foundation, a nonprofit charity named after Stark's mother.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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