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20 Things You Might Not Know About The X-Men

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20th Century Fox

Professor X and his team of mutant superheroes return to theaters this weekend in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, a time-twisting adventure that bridges the gap between the earlier series of X-Men films and the world of X-Men: First Class. The film is based on a 1981 story arc that unfolded in the pages of The Uncanny X-Men, in which one of the few surviving members of the team in a dystopian future travels back in time to prevent an incident that dooms both mutantkind and civilization as we know it.

If the arrival of Days Of Future Past has you thinking more than usual about Marvel's famous mutants, you'll have no shortage of food for thought with this list of 20 things you might not know about the X-Men, the upcoming film, and the story that inspired it.

1. When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first created the X-Men, the “X” in “X-Men” stood for the mysterious “X-Gene” that gave them their abilities (which normal humans lacked). However, the letter eventually came to stand for the “extra” powers they possessed.

2. In the Marvel universe, the term “mutant” refers to characters that were born with special abilities or developed them later in life without any external influence. “Mutates” is the term for characters whose genetic makeup was altered at some point by outside forces such as radiation or chemicals. For example, Spider-Man is a popular mutate (because he gained his powers due to a bite from a radioactive spider), while the original members of the X-Men are all mutants (because they developed their abilities without external stimuli).

3. The original name for the team suggested by Stan Lee was “The Mutants,” but publisher Martin Goodman didn't think readers would know what a “mutant” was, so it was changed.

4. Magneto was introduced as the arch enemy of the X-Men in the very first issue of The X-Men in 1963.

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5. Bald actor Yul Brynner inspired the look of Professor X, according to Stan Lee.

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6. Jean Grey was the first mutant Charles Xavier took as a student. She was 12 years old when she began learning to control her abilities under his tutelage. Several years went by before Xavier recruited his next student, Scott Summers (Cyclops), who was followed by Bobby Drake (Iceman), Warren Worthington III (Angel), and finally Henry McCoy (Beast). These five mutants became the original X-Men.

7. The first non-mutant superhero the X-Men encountered during their early adventures was Iron Man, who battled with Angel when the winged mutant turned evil for a short period.

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8. Stan Lee initially intended to make Magneto and Professor X brothers, with their relationship revealed later in the series. Lee never got around to writing that story point, though, and it never came to pass in the series.

9. The first new addition to the roster of X-Men was a non-mutant named Calvin Rankin (codenamed “Mimic”), who could copy the powers and abilities of any mutants in his vicinity due to an accident with powerful chemicals. He was initially introduced as a foe of the X-Men, then later joined the team—only to lose his powers and leave the team a few issues later.

10. Spider-Man was once offered membership in the X-Men in a 1966 issue of The X-Men, but the web-slinging hero turned down the offer, preferring to remain a solo act.

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11. Early in the X-Men series, Stan Lee conceived of a brief moment when Professor X confesses (in his own mind) to having a crush on his first student, Jean Grey. This moment in The X-Men #3 has been revisited once or twice by various writers, but is often ignored due to the controversial implications of such a student/teacher relationship.

  • 12. The first new mutants to be added to the team were Havok (the brother of Cyclops) and Polaris (eventually revealed to be the daughter of Magneto) in 1969.
  • They were added with the hope that it would spur increased sales for the lagging series. The changes failed to generate much new interest in the team, though.

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13. The cover of The Uncanny X-Men #141, the comic that kicked off the “Days Of Future Past” story arc, is one of the most frequent subjects of homage in the comics industry. Some of the series that have referenced the issue's iconic image of Wolverine and Kitty Pryde backed up against a poster depicting the “Slain” or “Apprehended” status of various X-Men have included Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man, Superboy, Darkwing Duck, Star Trek: The Next Generation, G.I. Joe, Captain America, and The Avengers.

14. In the original “Days of Future Past” storyline that the film is based on, the dystopian future filled with killer, mutant-hunting robots is the year 2013. 

15. The Guinness World Record for the best-selling comic book of all time is held by 1991's X-Men #1, which was published with five different covers and sold over 8 million copies. Guinness presented the award to Chris Claremont and Jim Lee (the issue's writer and artist, respectively) at San Diego's Comic-Con International in 2010.

16. Days Of Future Past director Bryan Singer had a two-hour conversation with The Terminator director James Cameron about time travel, string theory, and multiverses in order to get a better grasp on the continuity of the upcoming X-Men film.

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17. X-Men: Days Of Future Past marks the seventh time Hugh Jackman has portrayed Wolverine in a movie. This is the most times one actor has played the same superhero in movies that received a wide release. His closest competition is Samuel Jackson, who has played Nick Fury in six movies up to this point, as well as Patrick Stewart, who has played Professor X in six films.

18. In a 2003 issue of The Uncanny X-Men, a character mentions that mutants with the X-Gene are immune to the disease HIV/AIDS. No further explanation for their immunity has ever been given.

19. The mutant Quicksilver, who makes his big-screen debut in Days of Future Past, will also appear in the upcoming sequel to The Avengers, with Evan Peters playing the character in X-Men: Days Of Future Past and Aaron Taylor-Johnson playing him in Avengers: Age Of Ultron. After fighting over the legal rights to the character (who has been a prominent character in both superhero teams' universes), Fox and Marvel Studios agreed to have a different version of the character in each film. The version of Quicksilver in Days Of Future Past will not be able to mention his affiliation with The Avengers, while the Quicksilver in Age Of Ultron will not be described as a “mutant” according to the studios' agreed-upon restrictions.

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20. The initial, working title for X-Men: Days Of Future Past was “Hello Kitty,” a reference to the Kitty Pryde character played by Ellen Page in the film.

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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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May 23, 2017
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