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DC Comics

Wednesday is New Comics Day

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DC Comics

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. Superman Unchained #1

Written by Scott Snyder, art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams
DC Comics

You may have heard there's a movie called Man of Steel hitting theaters this weekend. If you follow the ins and outs of the comics industry, you may also be aware of talk that the box office returns from this weekend's opening could either send DC Comics and its parent company, Time Warner, into an organizational tailspin (even more so than they already seem to be in) or launch their original superhero back into his rightful place at the top of the sales charts (although it's debatable whether successful comic book movies lead to noticeable increases in comic book sales, anyway). In anticipation, DC is moving some pieces into position this week to try to capitalize on a best case scenario.

That best case scenario involves having good, accessible Superman comics ready the minute moviegoers step out of the theaters, adjust their eyes to the sunlight, and seek out their nearest comic book shop. There haven't been a lot of those recently, but DC hopes Superman Unchained #1 will be that comic and they've put their most popular writer with their most popular artist on it to make it so.

Jim Lee has drawn Superman before. but writer Scott Snyder, who is currently in charge of the flagship Batman book, is getting his first chance at the character now. He has said that he's approached this comic as if he only has time to tell one Superman story—the best one he can possibly tell—before he "gets booted out of comics forever." 

So, if everything clicks into place, you may have the opportunity to experience two great Superman stories this week.

Preview the first couple of pages here.

2. The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys #1

Written by Gerard Way and Shaun Simon; art by Becky Cloonan
Dark Horse Comics

Yes, Gerard Way was the lead singer of the now defunct rock band, My Chemical Romance. And yes, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys was the name of their last album. This is a comic book sequel of sorts to that album that will bring an end to that story. But what you need to understand is that Gerard Way once went to art school, and he wanted to make comics long before he got into the music business. In fact, this story started as an idea for a comic.

Way also wrote a comic back in 2007 called The Umbrella Academy that was one of the most unique and enjoyable superhero comics to come out in the last 10 years and has solidified his credibility as a comic book writer to watch for. Now that My Chemical Romance has broken up, Way is refocusing his attention on making comics.

This six-issue mini-series brings to an end Way's story about a war between the Killjoys and a "megacorporation" called Better Living Industries. Caught in between is The Girl, who is the only one that can stop them both.

Way is joined by superstar artist Becky Cloonan who is most recently known for her run on Conan and her exquisitely drawn fantasy comics "Wolves" and "The Mire." Being from a similar school of aesthetics as Way's Umbrella Academy collaborator Gabriel Bá, Cloonan is a perfect choice for this book, not to mention that at this point in her career, everything she does is worth checking out.

You can read a 6 page preview here.

3. The Sleep of Reason: An Anthology of Horror

Edited by C. Spike Trotman; various writers and artists
Kickstarter

The Sleep of Reason is a new horror comic anthology that has just launched a Kickstarter to raise funds for production. They're already more than halfway to their goal at the time of this writing and have plenty of time to go, but they have a number of stretch goals for backers and a nice bonus program for each contributing artist that increases by $50 for each extra $5000 that is raised.

The anthology is being edited and organized by cartoonist C. Spike Trotman, best known for her long-running webcomic Templar, Arizona. Trotman is a well-known figure in the webcomics community and is no stranger to Kickstarter (The Sleep of Reason is her third project). She's pulled together an impressive list of contributors including Evan DahmGabby SchulzKC GreenMeg Gandy, and Carla Speed McNeil. Not to mention a cover by Michael DeForge. The hook behind the anthology is that it will be a collection of horror stories that avoids the usual tropes of the genre: no vampires, no zombies, no "easy solutions," nothing that could possibly be considered familiar. 

You can watch the creepy video and read more about the project on its Kickstarter page.

4. Six-Gun Gorilla

Written by Simon Spurrier, art by Jeff Stokely
Boom! Entertainment 

Either this book has you at the title and cover image (by the amazing Ramon Perez) or it doesn't. If gun-toting gorillas are your thing, read on.

Six-Gun Gorilla is actually a long-lost pulp character from 1930s British magazine Wizard and is now in the public domain. In fact, no one even knows who originally wrote and came up with this character. Writer Si Spurrier pounced on the opportunity to take him and put his own spin on the concept. 

In its original incarnation, Six-Gun Gorilla was a weirdo western about a gorilla whose master is murdered by an outlaw gang, so he takes his master's Colt pistol and goes off seeking revenge. Spurrier, with artist Jeff Stokely, bring the gorilla into the future—the 22nd Century to be precise—and to another planet, colonized by humans and battered by civil war. Spurrier has gotten a lot of critical acclaim for his work on the recent X-men: Legacy book for Marvel. He excels at weird sci-fi concepts and this six-issue mini-series looks to be pretty out there.

There's an extensive preview here and you can read Spurrier's thoughts about the comic on his Tumblr here.

5. Tiny Tiny Stories


Written by Sloane Leong with various artists
Tumblr 

Sloane Leong is an illustrator, colorist and webcomic creator who recently started a Tumblr where she collaborates with various artists to produce these "tiny" short stories. Some are as short as one strip, others not much longer than three. They seem to often follow a theme of a journey being interrupted by conflict. Each reads like a little poem but the real attraction is the breathtaking way they are illustrated by the artists she is working with. Contributions by Ryan Andrews and Charles Huettner (both posted above) with their pointed use of otherworldly coloring just pop off the screen, not to mention other fantastic contributions from Brian Fukushima, Rosie Liao, Steve LeCouilliard, and Emily Carroll.

It's an interesting format that they are all working in and perfect for the Tumblr platform where beautiful, sharable images thrive and get reblogged forever and ever. There's only two pages of strips so far as they've only been going for about a month now. Go read them here.

MEANWHILE, IN COMICS NEWS THIS PAST WEEK: 

Marvel announced a new Mighty Avengers comic title that shows one of the most diverse casts of characters we've probably seen in a major superhero team.

- Heidi MacDonald at The Beat addresses a few of the most recent gender issues that have come up in the comics industry with an article titled "The Week in Women: Do We Write About Gender Issues Too Much?"

- The case of comics writer Gary Friedrich vs. Marvel Comics over the right to claim ownership over the character of Ghost Rider took an unexpected turn when a Second Circuit Court judge ruled there is "a genuine dispute" over the ownership of that character, overruling a previous decision. 

- Voting for the Eisner Awards ends at midnight tonight. If you work in the comics industry, you can vote online here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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