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11 Comic Book Superpowers The World Could Do Without

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Wikimedia Commons

From rainbow breath to incredible weight gain via donuts.

1. The Power to Eat Things

If you're desperate for heroes with mediocre superpowers, look no further than the Legion of Super-Heroes, the 30th-century superhero squad that started out in 1958. Packed with uninspiring members, the legion featured the likes of Bouncing Boy (who could bounce around like a ball), Chlorophyll Kid (who could make plants grow faster) and Dream Girl (who could tell the future through dreams). But the strangest of all was Matter-Eater Lad, who just ate things. Matter-Eater Lad's finest moment was stopping an indestructible machine from destroying the universe by eating it. The storylines were that good. In 1993, DC Comics decided that the character was too silly for the newer, grittier style of comics, and he was rewritten as the Legion's personal chef, who didn't really get involved in the combat.

2. The Power of Having Eyes on Your Fingers

Batman Wiki

Ten-Eyed Man was a Batman villain with, uh, ten eyes. He was blinded in an accident, but had a sinister doctor attach optic nerves to his fingers. When imprisoned, the police put his hands in a box so he couldn't see. This was very effective in preventing his escape. This super-villain concept was revived with the second Ten-Eyed Man, but he was eventually felled when Batman poured hot oil on his hands, which blinded him.

3. The Power to Talk Loudly

Wikimedia Commons

If Black Bolt told a joke, he'd bring the house down. Of course, if he said anything at all, he'd bring the house down. As King of the Inhumans, a mysterious super race based on the moon, Black Bolt packs a great set of lungs. So great, in fact, that he causes utter destruction with his "quasi-sonic" scream, even with the faintest whisper. As a result, the soft-spoken superhero usually keeps quiet, speaking only when he needs to destroy things. While it might seem like an inconvenient power, old Bolty doesn't seem to mind. When he isn't occupied with superheroics, he quietly rules his kingdom with his wife, Medusa, who no doubt can't believe her luck: a husband who won't talk back! The books have yet to reveal what happens when he gets the hiccups.

4. Detachable Body Parts

Since the 1940s, there have been no less than seven superheroes called Captain Marvel. But the strangest might be the one briefly published by M.F. Publications in 1966. As a robotic superhero, Captain Marvel could will his body parts in different directions, just by yelling the command: "Split!" This allowed him to fight numerous villains in various locations all at once. His feet would separate and karate kick evil-doers, while his left and right hands would be jabbing and punching in different parts of the room. Presumably, he could also use his torso to hip-check villains, Black Knight-style. It was never really made clear how any villain worth their salt could be overcome by a disembodied finger or foot—and since the comic hasn't been published for over 40 years, we'll probably never know. Although robot Captain Marvel is the least famous of the Captains Marvels, he hasn't been forgotten. Some readers view the books as camp classics.

5. Rainbow Breath

DC Wikia

Admittedly, I have no idea what this does, but according to the text—when used with other powers like "X-ray strength", "speed-squared" and "shame-vision"—it's "enough to topple most 21st century Western economies." Maybe, but the Lucky Charmed halitosis still sounds pretty dumb. Rainbow breath is just one of the 1,204 super-powers (including "nuclear poop-vision" and "larynx-freezing vision") that belong to Seth, a monstrous, genetically-engineered hillbilly who fights the influential superhero team The Authority (published by Wildstorm Productions) in 2002. So, how do you take down a force like Seth? The Authority finally beat him by finding his failsafe mechanism and transforming him into seven chickens (yes, seven chickens), all of which were then eaten by his own family.

6. The Power to Stop A Watch

A forgotten character from the Golden Age of comic books, Mister Midnite first appeared in Silver Streak Comics in 1939. While many writers were dreaming up cool powers for new superheroes to cash in on the success of Superman, the brains at little-known Comic House Publishers came up with Mister Midnite (alias "wealthy young sportsman" Neal Carruthers), who possessed a unique power. When he called out "Stop, time!" he could stop time? Well, not exactly. He could only stop clocks. He only lasted two issues, perhaps because his publisher realized that there was only so much you can do with that power. Fortunately, he never had to battle Uri Geller.

7. Super-Ventriloquism

Another also-ran from the Golden Age, the Echo's power was to, er, throw his voice. This works well for him in his day job (he's a ventriloquist), but also in his work as an amateur detective, tricking villains by making them think that they're surrounded by cops, when it's really the Echo saying "We've got him covered!"—and making them think that the voice is coming from behind them. Best of all, you never see his lips move! He first appeared in Yankee Comics (1941) and somehow fooled crooks for the next two years. In reality, his name was Jim Carson, though his chemist brother, who helped him fight crime, somehow had the name Dr Doom. (Obviously, not the famous Fantastic Four villain.)

8. Independence Day Powers

Via

In 1966, DC Comics came up with Dial H for Hero, which was about a teenager named Robby Reed who finds a special dial. When he dials H-E-R-O, it transforms him into a superhero—a different one each time. In 1981, the concept was revisited, when two teenagers accidentally found these dials in a haunted house and were magically transformed into adult superheroes. The cleverest part of this idea is that the heroes were invented by the readers themselves. The readers weren't paid any royalties (though they were sent a nifty Dial H for Hero t-shirt), but as the heroes never appeared more than once, they didn't miss out on much.

A pity, as it would have been great to see the further adventures of Balloon Boy, Blazerina, Raggedy Doll and Fuzz Ball (who can bounce around stomping on villains), Lavender Sky-Writer, or the Mighty Moppet (whose baby bottle squirts a liquid to shrink his enemies down to his size). But of the hundreds of dialed-up heroes, few were cooler than the Yankee Doodle Kid, whose super-patriotic powers would leave Captain America to shame. The Kid, one of Robby Reed's heroes from 1966, was a one-man Fourth of July machine, generating fireworks from his eyes, cherry bomb missiles and picture-display illusions from his fingers. Great for defending America against criminals, then celebrating afterwards.

9. The Power to Accurately Imitate Sounds

Wikimedia Commons

Green Arrow and Batman villain Onomatopoeia has the ability to replicate any sound heard around him. He's essentially a tape recorder, but without the charm. Some highlights of Onomatopoeia's powers include sounding like a gun, the snapping of a belt buckle, or the dripping of a faucet.

10. The Power to See in the Dark (While Being Completely Blind in Normal Light)

DC Wikia

Doctor Mid-Nite can see in perfect darkness—Which is cool! Doctor Mid-Nite cannot see anything if there's even the slightest bit of light—Which is not cool. He has to wear special goggles to see in the light, and this accessory is a natural target for enemies who want to gain the upper hand on the poor Doctor.

11. The Power of Squirrels

Marvel Wikia

Spider-Man, Batman, Wolverine—some of the coolest superheroes have the abilities of the toughest or most fearsome animals. In 1992, Marvel Comics introduced high-school student Doreen Green, a mutant with the abilities of squirrels. Though this is cooler than it might sound, as Squirrel Girl (what else?) has a semi-prehensile tail, a retractable knuckle spike, enlarged incisors, super-strength and an empathic bond with squirrels. Oh, and she's cute. With her powers, she has singlehandedly defeated Doctor Doom (the villain, not the Echo's brother), and is a valuable member of a team called the Great Lakes Champions. Still, a prehensile tail isn't quite as awesome as spiderwebs.

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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