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Joss Whedon on Super Heroes, Killing Characters, and Existing Outside the Pop Culture Mainstream

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Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment

In John Ford’s 1950 Western Wagon Master, the protagonist, Travis Blue, is asked whether he has ever drawn his gun on anyone. “No, sir. Just snakes,” Blue answers. Later, after he shoots the villain dead, someone questions him. “I thought you never drew on a man?”

“That’s right, sir,” the hero responds coolly. “Only on snakes.”

Joss Whedon says it’s one of the first cool-hero quips he remembers, and it has stuck with him all of these years. When a hero finally defeats his enemy, he says, “I think it’s a given that they’re going to have a zinger or callback prepared.”

It’s obvious that the Western genre has been a major influence on Whedon: While at Wesleyan University, he studied under Richard Slotkin, a renowned academic who has written extensively on the frontier and its relationship to culture and the media. Although Firefly, the prematurely canceled Fox series about a renegade crew of space smugglers, might be the only Whedon project to make the influence of American Westerns explicit, all of his work seems interested in telling stories about outsiders and their struggles with using their unique powers.

Though Whedon says that “American narrative has always structured itself around losers,” superhero movies require acquiescence to their own set of genre rules. With Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hits theaters May 1, Whedon found himself facing the challenge of making a sequel to his wildly successful 2012 blockbuster The Avengers that would both feel new and still please the series’ longtime fans.

A few weeks ago, I received a heart-stopping notification that “@JossWhedon is now following you on Twitter!” As a lifelong devotee of nearly every one of his projects (I have photographic evidence of dressing as Dr. Horrible for Halloween as a teenager), I couldn’t resist sending him a direct message. In an act of celebrity magnanimity previously unprecedented, Mr. Whedon agreed to an interview.

It has become a clichéd suggestion to “never meet your heroes.” Unfortunately, that’s a life lesson I’ll still need to struggle through at a later juncture as I was privileged to learn that Whedon is as funny, forthcoming, insightful, self-deprecating, and kind as any of his projects might lead one to believe—a modern renaissance man who knows his Macbeth as well as he knows his Marvel, and who turned “cult classic” into mainstream cool with old-fashioned talent and hard work.

Can I ask what you’re working on now? I imagine you’re the type of person who likes to have something going at all times.

Yeah, and I’m trying desperately to be the person who doesn’t have something going at all times. I’m trying to take a vacation for the first time in several years and we’ll see how it goes. I’m nosing around ideas, but I don’t have a job, I don’t have a deal, I don’t have a pitch; I have this beautiful artistic void that I don’t get to have a lot. So I gleefully can answer that question with, “nothing.”

Of course, all of your fans are going to think every free moment you have is spent gearing up for Dr. Horrible Two.

That is not the case. Everything is “bring back this,” “bring back that,” which is great, because they’re not tweeting “For the love of God, don’t make any more of that.” And Dr. Horrible Two is very much in the mix … But I also think this is an opportunity for me to create something new, really new, and it’s been a while. Because I did two Avengers movies, the S.H.I.E.L.D. show, and Much Ado About Nothing, none of which were original to me. So that’s a long time.

What’s it like when you’re sitting down to write for characters that already exist versus characters of your own mind? Do you approach it differently?

Not really. I mean, there’s a set of parameters. And so much of my writing has been for television that as soon as you have the person and there’s a task, the parameters are there. So writing a movie like The Avengers, where half the cast or more was already in place, was not that different. When you’re sitting down and creating something completely out of the whole cloth, you have more question marks, but at the end of the day you’re just trying to find the coolest tradition of the thing you want to convey. And if you know who’s going to be playing that or what the character is, those are boxes you would have had to check anyway.

With something like The Avengers, when so much of it was already set up by the prequel movies and, I imagine, restricted by the deals that have already been made, did you feel your vision was roped in? Did you feel limited?

Well, limited and freed. A certain amount of questions get answered by the structure of a superhero movie: We’re doing this and this and this with this guy. And some of it, well, it just eliminates work. Because you know, "Well, we have to get from A to B, and this guy has to come along and this guy has to do this thing and he can’t do that because he needs to be there." So there’s a certain amount of feeling hemmed in. And then there were a few things I wanted to do that I couldn’t and that’s frustrating, but it definitely helps as much as it hurts.

Well you can’t kill off characters with six-movie deals.

Yeah, no. Killing off a franchise character, it’s not done! It is simply not done!

Has Disney’s involvement led to a new set of criteria? When they came in, did it make a difference on the creative side?

Well, they have strong policies about "nobody smokes," but nobody was anyway … They come in with notes obviously, which is a certain amount of pressure, but they’re pretty hands-off and quite supportive.

You made the choice to introduce two new characters in the new film with the twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. Were there other characters you thought of including in The Avengers: Age of Ultron? I think you said previously that the reason you didn’t include Ant-Man in The Avengers was because it would have been a “too many cooks” scenario.

Ant-Man was already in development long before I got to Marvel … But for me the twins represented “the old” in the sense that they’d always been Avengers when I was reading the books as a kid, and “the new” in terms of they would, by necessity, be younger and have a different perspective on things—a different style, a different visual style, their powers would manifest differently. It would be something to just really freshen up the experience because there comes a point where it’s all about punching. And you want to do something a little more left of center.

Are there any current TV shows or movies that you’re watching and enjoying or are inspired by?

It’s so cute that you think I could do that. [laughs]

Well you said you were unemployed!

I’ve been unemployed for almost a week.

That’s enough time to binge-watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

I’ve just been grabbing my kids' faces, touching them, and being like, I remember you! I can see you in my hands! And they’re like, “Dad you’re not blind.” And I’m like, Nooooo, this is better.

So I’ve missed a lot. I haven’t seen much of late. I’m several years behind. Most major popular TV shows I either haven’t seen or didn’t really want to, and at some point I feel like I’ll have to catch up again. But, except for a brief intersection where I seem to be creating some of it, I’ve actually never been much of a pop culture maven.

That’s so funny, because you are like the king of pop culture and yet you sort of exist outside of it and beyond it.

As a kid, I was there listening to the show tunes and the movie scores and reading comic books at bedtime. I wasn’t really paying attention to what was on or being listened to … It’s not like I didn’t see Star Wars or anything, but I’m going to slide very easily into crotchety old manhood. I’m going to wear that really well. Yet another long answer that is: nope!

People don’t really stay dead in Marvel movies. I think we’ve had to deal with Loki dying four, five, 12 times. Coulson coming back. Fury comes back mid-film in Captain America: The Winter Soldier ... How many more times do you think a character’s death can have an impact if it doesn’t have a permanent effect?

A lot of people come back in The Winter Soldier. It’s a grand Marvel tradition. Bucky was supposed to die. And the Coulson thing was, I think, a little anomalous just because that really came from the television division, which is sort of considered to be its own subsection of the Marvel universe. As far as the fiction of the movies, Coulson is dead.

But I have to say, watching the first one with my kids—I had not watched the first one since it came out—and then watching it with my kids and watching Coulson die but [thinking], Yeah, but I know that he kind of isn’t, it did take some of the punch out of it for me. Of course, I spent a lot of time making sure he didn’t. And at the time it seemed inoffensive, as long as it wasn’t referenced in the second movie, which it isn’t.

There’s a thing where you can do that so many times and there’s nothing at stake. But it’s difficult because you’re living in franchise world—not just Marvel, but in most big films—where you can’t kill anyone, or anybody significant. And now I find myself with a huge crew of people and, although I’m not as bloodthirsty as some people like to pretend, I think it’s disingenuous to say we’re going to fight this great battle, but there’s not going to be any loss. So my feeling in these situations with Marvel is that if somebody has to be placed on the altar and sacrificed, I’ll let you guys decide if they stay there.

Loki’s redemption in Thor: The Dark World was pretty amazing, and then a little bit less amazing…

Well, yes! I mean, I can’t speak for [them]. Although I did work on that movie, it wasn’t my film, but I think there was no way on God’s green and verdant earth they were going to kill Loki.

So, I don’t know if this is kosher to ask, but of the other Marvel movies, do you have a favorite?

Of the Marvel movies besides mine? I think it’s probably still the first Iron Man. That’s where it all started and it’s never more exciting than when it starts. But they all have a place in my heart. Except Iron Man 2; it doesn’t have a place in my heart.

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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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