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10 Things to Know About Thor

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Marvel's god of thunder returns to the big screen this weekend in Thor: The Dark World, and even though we've already had two films featuring Chris Hemsworth as Thor, it's understandable if your level of expertise is far from godly when it comes to the Silver Age superhero. 

The creation of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber (Lee's younger brother), and Jack Kirby, Thor was one of several iconic Marvel characters to debut in the early 1960s, and was based on the hammer-wielding Norse god of thunder and protector of the Earth. And much like in Marvel's cinematic universe, he was also one of the founding members of The Avengers in the pages of Marvel's comics. 

Here are 10 more things to know about Thor.

1. The character Thor made his first appearance in the August 1962 issue of Journey into Mystery. His premiere in issue #83 of that series wasn't the only big thing to happen in the Marvel Comics world that month, though: Also hitting shelves was Amazing Fantasy #15, the comic that introduced Spider-Man to the world.

2. In just a few years, Thor's popularity rose to the point where Marvel applied to have the comic-book character's full title (and the full title of the series), The Mighty Thor, protected by a trademark. The publisher was granted the trademark by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 1970.

3. Thor: The Dark World was filmed in England under the working title “Thursday Mourning,” a reference to the day of the week originally known as “Thor's Day.”

4. According to Norse mythology, Thor and the other gods of Asgard gain their immortality from eating the magical Golden Apples of Idunn, which grow in Asgard and can only be picked by the goddess Idunn. This is also the case for the Marvel Comics version of Thor, who has periodically returned to Asgard in order to renew his immortality.

5. The magical hammer Mjolnir isn't the only weapon Thor relies upon in the Marvel Comics universe. His enchanted Belt of Strength is also an important—if frequently overlooked—element of his arsenal, as it enhances his strength to almost double its otherwise impressive level. In Norse mythology, these two items are accompanied by magical, iron gloves that allow him to wield Mjolnir.

6. While Thor's powers have changed over time like most other comic-book superheroes, the mechanics behind his ability to “fly” have remained relatively (by comic book standards, at least) stable over the years. In the Marvel Comics universe, when Thor needs to get from one place to another through the air, he throws his hammer into the sky and hangs on to the strap. The hammer then pulls him through the air to his destination. When he needs to hover in mid-air, he twirls the hammer around like the rotor of a helicopter, which keeps him suspended above the ground. 

7. One of the many magical enchantments affecting Thor's hammer, Mjolnir, is that only those deemed worthy to wield its power are able to lift it. Several other characters over time have displayed this worthiness by wielding Mjolnir, including (but not limited to) Captain America, the alien Beta Ray Bill (the first character to wield Mjolnir outside of Marvel's Norse gods), and the human Eric Masterson (who briefly assumed the role of Thor). A sliver of Mjolnir was also wielded by Throg, a former football player who was turned into a frog and then assisted Thor during the period when he had been transformed into a frog by Loki (but more on that later). 

8. The Mighty Thor we're familiar with now was not the first version of Thor to appear in the pages of Marvel's comics. A short-lived series about the character Venus—based on the Roman goddess—introduced a character based on Thor.

9. In both Marvel's comics and Norse mythology, Thor's affection for Earth stems from his mother's influence. Thor is the child of Odin and the feminine personification of Earth, known as Gaea in Marvel's universe (and various other mythologies) and as Jörð in Norse mythology (her other Norse names include Fjörgyn and Hlóðyn). Thor was originally not made aware of his true mother's identity, and was told he was the child of Odin and Frigga. 

10. Thor once spent several issues of The Mighty Thor as a frog after falling prey to one of Loki's magical schemes. The story, which was penned by celebrated Thor writer Walter Simonson in 1986 and lasted for four issues, saw Thor end up in Central Park and lead a clan of frogs into battle against a horde of rats. He eventually returned to Asgard to reclaim his identity, but not before leaving a shard of Mjolnir behind for one of his amphibian allies, a frog named Puddlegulp. That frog eventually became a warrior known as Throg, and wields a pint-sized version of Mjolnir as part of Marvel's recent “Pet Avengers” team.

And there you have it, folks: Ten facts you can bust out before (or after) watching Thor: The Dark World in order to show your comics cred. However, if you really want to seem like a bona fide fan of Marvel's god of thunder, make sure you learn how to pronounce “Mjolnir” correctly. It's sort of a big deal.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]