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Marvel

Wednesday is New Comics Day

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Marvel

Every Wednesday, I'll be highlighting the five most exciting comic releases of the week. The list may include comic books, graphic novels, digital comics, and webcomics. I'll even highlight some Kickstarter comics projects on occasion. There's more variety and availability in comics than there has ever been, and I hope to point out just some of the cool stuff that's out there. If there's a release you're excited about, let's talk about it in the comments.

1. X-Men #1

Written by Brian Wood, art by Olivier Coipel
Marvel

About 6 months after Marvel relaunched (but not quite rebooted) all of their major titles, the long-awaited first issue of Brian Wood's X-Men is here. There are no shortage of X-men comics out there, but what makes this one different is that Marvel and Wood have chosen to put together an all-female team of mutants. With another writer in charge this might have had the stink of T&A gimmickery, but Wood's track record of writing strong, progressive women makes him one of the best choices to write this comic. Plus, he's been putting out top-selling work recently for Dark Horse Comics on licensed properties like Conan and Star Wars, which makes this a good time in his career to be put in charge of one of Marvel's most high profile books.

This X-team will be led by Storm, once again sporting her tough, '80s mohawk. She'll be joined by Kitty Pryde, Rogue, Jubilee, Psylocke and Rachel Grey. Fan favorite artist Olivier Coipel will be on board for the first four issues until a new art team takes over. Wood, in interviews, has promised lots of sci-fi action, Sentinels, an orphaned baby, an apocalyptic threat, and a challenge to the double standards of how comic book heroes and heroines' sex lives are portrayed.

2. In The Kitchen With Alain Passard: Inside the World (and Mind) of a Master Chef

By Christophe Blain
Chronicle Books

You may not know it, but culinary comics are actually a thing. Comics about chefs and cooking have their own category in Japanese manga, cartoonist Lucy Knisley has done a couple of books about her love of food, and now, available for the first time in English, cartoonist Christophe Blain has written and illustrated the first graphic novel about the life and work of a master chef.

Over the course of three years, Blain shadowed celebrated French chef Alain Passard, giving us a peek into his everyday life and cooking philosophy. Passard caused a stir in 2001 when he decided to no longer serve meat and instead only vegetables grown organically from his own garden at his renowned, three star Paris restaurant, L'Arpége. Blain shows how Passard grows and picks vegetables from his garden and then prepares them in the kitchen. And yes, there are many illustrated recipes included.

3. The Wake

Written by Scott Snyder, art by Sean Gordon Murphy
DC Vertigo

The Wake is a new 10 issue limited series set in a post-apocalpytic future where a marine biologist named Lee Archer is brought to the Arctic by Homeland Security for help in dealing with a shocking underwater discovery.

Both writer Scott Snyder and artist Sean Gordon Murphy are relative newcomers that have first made their mark via DC's Vertigo imprint. Snyder, who is now the writer for DC's flagship Batman title, got his big break writing Vertigo's highly acclaimed, bestselling American Vampire series. Murphy came to most readers' attention with the Grant Morrison written mini-series Joe The Barbarian and more recently with Punk Rock Jesus, a mini-series he both wrote and drew about a rebellious clone of Jesus Christ.

These days, Vertigo seems like it has become less the home of great, long-running original epics like Preacher, Y: The Last Man and Scalped and more a safe place for short-run creative projects by DC loyalists like Snyder and Jeff Lemire, who has a new mini-series launching this year as well.

4. A Squeak from the Void

By Mimi Pond
Webcomic here

Mimi Pond has been a cartoonist and illustrator for over 30 years. She is also a screenwriter who has written for a number of television shows, most notably she wrote the first full-length episode of The Simpsons. This is her first webcomic, which she posted to her Typepad blog last week (yes, I too was surprised that there are still Typepad blogs out there). It's a quick read—it will take you all of 5 minutes—but it might stick with you a bit.

It starts out unassumingly enough as Mimi, her teenage daughter, and a couple of cartoonist friends decide to take a drive out to see a "hamster Show" whatever that might be. In the end it invokes some reflection on our culture of snark and irony and how it can unfairly victimize those who are sincerely devoted to a subject the rest of us just don't get. Give it a read.

5. Thor God of Thunder Vol. 1: The God Butcher

Written by Jason Aaron, art by Esad Ribic and Dean White
Marvel

While Brian Wood's X-Men may just be starting this week, a lot of the Marvel NOW books have reached the 6 month period where they get collected into hardcover format. One of the best comics of that first wave of relaunches is Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic's Thor: God of Thunder. Aaron takes the novel approach of telling a story that spans three eras of Thor's very long lifetime as a creature referred to as the "God Butcher" pops up repeatedly, bringing with it the threat of extinction to gods of all kinds. In the age of vikings, we see Thor as a young, brash and hedonistic warrior. In the present we see Thor as the spacefaring Avenger and noble hero. And in the distant future, we see old, bearded, one-eyed Thor as the last living Asgardian, holding back the god-killing demons that are scratching at the walls of his kingdom.

Ribic's artwork, aided by Dean White's pastel-rich colors, is breathtaking with its epic sense of scale. This is possibly the most exciting Thor has been in comics since Walt Simonson reinvigorated and redefined the character back in the 1980s.

MEANWHILE, IN COMICS NEWS THIS PAST WEEK:

- Did you hear about the guy who found a copy of Action Comics #1 inside the wall of a house he was fixing up?

- Blue is the Warmest Color became the first film based on a graphic novel (Julie Maroh's Le Bleu set Une Couleur Chaude) to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

- The Reuben Awards were held on May 25 to honor outstanding cartoonists working in areas of the field such as television animation, newspaper comic strips, greeting cards, comics, webcomics and more. Brian Crane of Pickles and Rick Kirkman of Baby Blues shared the award for Cartoonist of the Year.

- Long running and much revered comics and illustration blog, Drawn!, shut down after 8 years of many great contributors showcasing art and artist discoveries from across the web. Founder John Martz explains that the time has passed for blogs of the content curation type in an age where said content is already spreading rapidly via Twitter and Tumblr. It's a sad but familiar theme in the blog world these days but I'm not convinced that blogs like that no longer have their place.

- And finally, there's a Kickstarter for a new coffee-table book about comics great Jack Kirby that is being organized by his son, Jeremy. It's already well beyond its goal but it's not too late to contribute.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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