CLOSE

How a 1928 Silent Film Influenced the Creation of the Joker

The shock of green hair. The sickly pale skin. The frozen, Cheshire grin. Everyone knows the trademarks of Batman's greatest foe, the Joker. The king of the comic book villain heap may look like a hellish circus attraction, but the origin of the character doesn't have its roots in some deep-seated fear of clowns shared by creators Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson. No, the story behind that nightmarish crimson rictus actually began with a silent German Expressionist film called The Man Who Laughs.

Based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same, the movie is about a young man named Gwynplaine (played by Conrad Veidt), whose father is sentenced to death after offending King James II. But the family's torture didn't end there; the king also ordered Gwynplaine's face be permanently disfigured into a grotesque grin, courtesy of Dr. Hardquanonne. Gwynplaine eventually grows into becoming a traveling actor, who makes money by showcasing his disfigurement to a curious public, all while falling in love with a blind woman named Dea.

Gwynplaine isn't the same homicidal lunatic that his comic book doppelgänger is, but take one look at Veidt's makeup and it's easy to see where the idea for the Clown Prince of Crime started to form. The way Batman creator Bob Kane tells it, the Veidt inspiration was there from the very beginning:

"Bill Finger and I created the Joker. Bill was the writer. Jerry Robinson came to me with a playing card of the Joker. That's the way I sum it up. But he looks like Conrad Veidt — you know, the actor in The Man Who Laughs, [the 1928 movie based on the novel] by Victor Hugo. There's a photo of Conrad Veidt in my biography, Batman & Me. So Bill Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, 'Here's the Joker.'"

Well that's Kane's recollection of the Joker's creation, anyway. However, there's some debate over how much of a contribution each man made to the character's first appearance in Batman #1. Robinson has gone on record saying he created the character almost from the ground up before it was tweaked to look more like Gwynplaine only after Finger showed him an image of Veidt in costume. Until his dying day, Kane insisted Robinson's main contribution was the character's namesake calling card design and little else. In the early days of comics, you'd be hard-pressed to find any two creators agree on who came up with which character, but the influence The Man Who Laughs had on the Joker's origin can't be questioned.

How intertwined is the character of Gwynplaine in the Joker's history? Sixty-five years after the Joker's debut, DC Comics released a graphic novel depicting the character's first run-in with the Dark Knight. The book's title? Batman: The Man Who Laughs. In the book, writer Ed Brubaker and artist Doug Mahnke took the Joker back to his roots, with a visual depiction of the character that is almost indistinguishable from Gwynplaine. Even Heath Ledger's take on Joker from The Dark Knight took a note from Hugo's creation by portraying his frozen smile as the result of scarred disfigurement, rather than simply being the byproduct of his unhinged temperament, like it has been in the comics in the past.

Though the Joker has evolved, in the nearly 80 years since his debut, the character still owes his very existence to the ghoulish grin Veidt brought to the screen back in 1928.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
iStock
arrow
Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
Original image
iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES