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SciFiDramaQueen

5 Real-Life Battles Superman Fought (And Won)

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SciFiDramaQueen

With the powers of flight, steel-crushing strength, heat vision, and the good judgment not to be a total jerk about it, Superman is among our culture’s most altruistic and noble fictional creations.

Too bad he’s just a blob of ink.

Until technology and science figure out how to mold a real Man of Steel—and before you watch Hollywood’s latest attempt to reinvigorate the icon in theaters this weekend—check out these five ways the Big Blue Boy Scout actually made a real-world difference outside of the comics pages.

1. Superman vs. Looming Foreclosure

In 2010, a family living in the South came under financial duress after their small business collapsed. Unable to cover the second mortgage they took out, the bank initiated foreclosure proceedings.

As they began to prepare for eviction and sort through their belongings in the basement, one of them came across a stack of comics. Among the pile was a copy of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman. Published in 1938 and considered the Holy Grail of comic collecting, fewer than 100 are thought to have survived the decades.

After seeing what other copies had gone for online, they reached out to auction house ComicConnect to act as a broker. The book, which originally sold for 10 cents, went for an astounding $460,000, saving the family’s home with cash to spare.

2. Superman vs. the New York City Blackout

New Yorkers have often had to display superhuman levels of endurance. Among their most trying times: The 1977 citywide blackout that saw rampant looting, fires, and over a billion dollars in damages.

With information hard to come by, New Yorkers turned to the Daily News, which had somehow managed to keep its printing presses running without power. How? Because Warner Bros. was busy shooting scenes set in the Daily Planet at the paper’s building for Superman: The Movie and generously lent them the production’s generators: journalists toiled as powerful klieg lights lit up the newsroom. Superman may not have been able to save the city from a lot of grief, but his handlers kept its citizens from being left completely in the dark.

3. Superman vs. the Ku Klux Klan

Before George Reeves donned the cape for television, Superman fans across the country got their fix with the character’s popular radio drama. In addition to fighting the usual variety of villains, he came across one very real and very formidable threat: the racist diatribes of the Ku Klux Klan.

In a 1946 serial dubbed Clan of the Fiery Cross, Superman runs into a KKK stand-in and sniffs out their secret code words, handshakes, and ideologies. While the story was fictional, the details weren’t: Superman producers had been slipped facts about the clandestine organization by Stetson Kennedy, an activist who had infiltrated the group and was spreading information about their inner workings to a variety of news outlets.

While Kennedy later came under fire for allegedly exaggerating some of his efforts—even prompting the authors of Freakonomics, who had documented his undercover work, to issue a retraction—his dialogue with the Superman producers isn’t in dispute. In Superman, Kennedy had a resource to infantilize the Klan and mock their hate speech. Soon, its leaders saw kids play-acting with hooded robes and treating them with ridicule; Superman had broadcast a lecture on tolerance, and an entire generation of children was listening.

4. Superman vs. a Speeding Car

Costumes rarely instill the wearer with the attributes of the character. (And in some instances, actually deprive them of one important trait: dignity.) But for a Melbourne, Australia man, his choice of superhuman threads couldn’t have been more appropriate.

On his way back from his own bachelor party where he was dressed as Superman, Heng Khuen Cheok stumbled across a man who had just been hit by a car. Bleeding and dazed, the victim took one look at Cheok and likely thought he was hallucinating. His friends, fearing Cheok was a menace, tried pushing him away until he finally convinced them of his day job: an emergency room physician. Cheok tended to the man until an ambulance arrived.

5. Superman vs. Psychological Hurdles

For child psychologist Patty Scanlon, superheroes often act as a handy allegory for the dreams and aspirations of her patients. As recounted in the book Using Superheroes in Counseling and Play Therapy, Scanlon notes she’s helped several children with psychological issues by invoking the Man of Steel.

One composite patient, Jason, was having difficulty at school and was acting out aggressively toward peers. By exploring Superman’s earnest nature, Scanlon was able to impart lessons on human behavior and social functioning. Later, Jason’s parents reported he was doing better in school and making friends.

Once, Scanlon role-played as Superman and apparently got too edgy: “No, stop,” Jason retorted. “Superman wouldn’t do that. He’s nicer than that.” Seventy-five years after his debut, Superman is still saving the world, one juvenile delinquent at a time.

Hungry for more Superman knowledge? Jake Rossen has just the thing: Superman vs. Hollywood, his comprehensive account of the Man of Steel’s successes (and many, many stumbles) in Tinseltown.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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