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Courtesy of Brian Adams // Cool & Collected

Breaking the Mold: Kenner's Super Powers Collection

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Courtesy of Brian Adams // Cool & Collected

Star Wars was dead.

As unlikely as it may seem, that’s the situation executives at the Kenner toy company were facing in 1984. With George Lucas insisting that 1983’s Return of the Jedi would be the last Star Wars feature film for years—if not ever—interest in the company’s expansive toy line based on the space saga was beginning to fade. At the same time, sales of Mattel’s He-Man and Hasbro’s G.I. Joe lines remained brisk. Kenner was looking at a future without a franchise.

To improve their forecast, the company looked to another modern mythology: DC Comics. The publisher had a character library spanning five decades, an animated show (Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show), and dozens of monthly comics to maintain awareness of their brand. Amazingly, no one in the toy industry had ever pursued a line of 3.75-inch action figures based on some of the most recognizable fictional heroes ever created.

That familiarity led Kenner's Super Powers line to success. But their expansion to include some of DC’s lesser-known creations would ultimately be its undoing.

Kenner Super Powers via Facebook

From the moment of Superman’s debut in 1938, DC Comics (then known as National Periodical Publications) has been keenly aware of the value of licensing agreements. In those days, the Kryptonite-hating hero was depicted on paper dolls, wooden toys, and fan club tokens. His counterpart, Batman, enjoyed similar success as a brand ambassador, with merchandise for both spiking to coincide with both 1966’s Batman live-action television series and 1978’s big-screen version of Superman.

In the action figure realm, however, superheroes didn’t get a break until Ideal released costumes for their Captain Action line in the 1960s. Their utility player, Captain Action, could be dressed to resemble a number of comic book characters, including Superman and Captain America. Later, the Mego company would popularize a line of 8- and 12-inch dolls with soft-cloth costumes that echoed Hasbro’s large-scale G.I. Joes. While the scale was impressive, it made producing accompanying vehicles and playsets a tall order.

Mego evaporated in 1979, taking their DC offerings along with them. Despite the continued success of Hanna-Barbera’s Super Friends cartoon, no one had thought to capitalize on the characters' popularity with a small-scale line until Kenner reached out. With sales of Star Wars plastic dwindling, the company that had once marketed Play-Doh and the Easy-Bake Oven wanted another deep bench of action figures. The company's attempt to entice DC with a presentation prototype of Captain Marvel (a.k.a. Shazam) stuck on a stick so he could "fly" won them right to produce a full line of action figures.

Super Powers drew heavily upon the work of José Luis García-López, a Spanish artist who illustrated DC’s widely-referenced style guide of 1982. García-López’s style was spare but familiar, depicting the company’s characters in a way that made them accessible to licensees, without hard-to-replicate flourishes. Sculptors at Kenner eyed García-López’s drawings; consumers saw his work on the card backs that lined retail shelves.

Kenner Super Powers via Facebook

When Kenner's Super Powers action figures hit store shelves in 1984 with a 12-figure lineup—including the mandatory Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman—they were an immediate hit. At the action figure height standard of 3.75 inches, pioneered by Kenner with Star Wars and later aped by Hasbro for their G.I. Joe line, kids were drawn into a world with which they were already familiar, thanks to DC’s existing status in popular culture. The heroes could meet and deliberate in a Hall of Justice playset; Batman could jump into his Batmobile; in some foreshadowing of the more inane toy expansion ideas to come in the 1990s, Superman could deploy his Supermobile, an extraneous vehicle for a man possessing the ability to fly. (The box art lamely promised it "shields Superman from Kryptonite.")

bchick1022 via eBay

Kenner also launched an aggressive print and television marketing campaign, highlighting the ability of each figure to display an actual "super power" when kids squeezed their arms or thighs together. The Flash’s feet would begin to tremble; the Joker would smash his mallet over an unsuspecting adversary’s head.

As Kenner plotted a second wave of 12 figures, Mattel had taken notice. To compete for the attention of comic book enthusiasts, they secured a license from Marvel to produce a similar line they labeled Secret Wars. While both did well, Mattel faced criticism that they were too preoccupied with the toy behemoth that was He-Man and were devoting only minimal resources to their Marvel toys. The more ambitious Super Powers line drew on the imaginations of artists like George Pérez and Jack Kirby, with the latter’s characters (including Darkseid) driving the toy narrative for the second wave.

Yet Kenner wasn't above a little cost consolidation: When Super Powers rolled out as Super Amigos in foreign territories, their Riddler figure was nothing more than a repainted Green Lantern with question marks added to his torso.

Mattel

As the Super Powers lineup grew to 33 figures and several vehicles, Kenner saw potential to build on the popularity of their flagship line with ancillary products. They considered a rollout of 2-inch mini-figures, but the molds got lost in transit; they also plotted a line of plush dolls, but those never made it past the prototype stage.

Interest in the line began to wane in 1986. What had initially attracted Kenner to the license—a deep bench of characters that would fuel years of comic book, television, and movie releases—wound up being problematic for consumers. While Superman and Batman were among the most recognizable people real or imagined on the planet, DC’s supplementary library was not. Kids passed up toys like Kalibak, Red Tornado, and Tyr; retailers cut orders. So Kenner turned their attention to a line of Real Ghostbusters figures based on the animated series.

DC would go on to feed a near-endless array of figures throughout the 1990s and beyond, fueled by the success of Tim Burton’s Batman films and their animated offerings. Toymakers realized it was better to offer endless iterations of the same popular hero than put an unfamiliar face like Firestorm on shelves.

Despite those fumbles, Super Powers was never destined to be a footnote. Thanks to García-López’s attractive art and the efforts of sculptors, collectors routinely chase original figures and swap stories about characters that never made it past the prototype stage. The biggest homage to the line may have come in 2014, when Mattel released a line of oversized figures in Super Powers packaging to commemorate the series’ 30th anniversary. Sandwiched between Superman and Batman was the Riddler—deliberately colored and styled to look like the repainted Green Lantern he originally was, mangled ring finger and all.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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