CLOSE
Original image
Robert Wilson IV/IDW Publishing

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

Original image
Robert Wilson IV/IDW Publishing

Every Wednesday, I write about the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, bookstores, digital, Kickstarter, and the web. Feel free to comment below if there's a comic you've read recently that you want to talk about or an upcoming comic that you'd like me to consider highlighting.

1. The Life After

By Joshua Hale Fialkov and Gabo
Oni Press

A comic about religion in the surveillance age

At the start of The Life After, a young man named Jude breaks the monotonous routine of his life, forcing his way off the bus he takes every day to chase after a woman he’s never met. What seems like a romantic moment of a guy getting up the nerve to meet the girl of his dreams quickly turns into an even bigger moment that begins to reveal Jude's world for what it really is. When he then meets deceased novelist Ernest Hemingway, the only other person who sees the world for what it truly is, that's when the comic really gets started.

Joshua Hale Fialkov is looking to tell a story about religion - being watched over by a higher power - in the surveillance age and he sets it in an afterlife where everything is a false, Matrix-like construct with faceless individuals monitoring and orchestrating every move. When he deals with big concepts about life and death, Fialkov manages to do it with a sense of fun and adventure. He is a respected writer whose star has been on the rise. After stints writing for DC and Marvel, Fialkov has been focusing on creator-owned works like his digital comic The Bunker, released through Comixology’s Submit program. Here he is working with the artist known as Gabo (real name Gabriel Bautista), whose cartoony but detail-oriented style helps balance the theological heaviness with a sense of sci-fi fun.

Here’s a preview.

***********************************************************

2. Benson’s Cuckoos

By Anouk Ricard
Drawn & Quarterly

A comic that's like 'The Office,' but with funny animals

Anouk Ricard is a French cartoonist most known for her award-winning series of children’s graphic novels, Anna and Froga. Her first graphic novel intended for grown-up readers is the office place comedy Benson’s Cuckoos.

Describing the comic as "The Office with funny animals" feels a little reductive, but there truly are a lot of similarities. It takes place within a company that is populated by comically disgruntled employees who work for a hilariously inappropriate boss. There’s even a budding office romance between Sophie (a dog) and Richard (a duck) that has as many false starts as The Office’s Jim and Pam. We are introduced to the cuckoo clock company through the new guy, Richard, as he tries to become accustomed to his eccentric co-workers. When he finds out that the guy he was hired to replace has gone missing, Richard realizes things are even stranger than he first thought.

Anouk Ricard’s humor is dry and subtle and she draws in a straightforward and simple style that manages to make these animals seem familiar.

Drawn & Quarterly has some preview pages here.

***********************************************************

3. Knuckleheads Vol. 1: Fist Contact

By Brian Winkeler and Robert Wilson IV with colors by Jordan Boyd
IDW

A bro with newfound superpowers has to put down the Xbox controller to save the world

In Brian Winkeler and Robert Wilson IV’s Knuckleheads, a slacker named Trevor K. Trevinski is granted superpowers by an alien who gives him a weapon called the “Crystal Fist” (it looks like a pair of brass knuckles made out of ice). What does Trev do with his newfound power? Mostly use it to play Xbox and get free Netflix. That is, until a giant Kaiju shows up and starts wrecking the city. Trev and his roommate Lance then find themselves unexpectedly propelled into action.

This previously digital-only comic draws its inspiration and humor from TV series like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and the British comedy Peep Show. It becomes an ensemble comedy once Trev saves a drunk British girl named Emma and a pizza delivery guy named Guy who both wind up sticking around for the adventure. Also, there's a dog with whom Trev’s Crystal Fist allows him to hilariously communicate. The humor is laden with pop culture references that may end up dating it, but it is refreshingly snappy and quite funny.

With this first collected print volume hitting comic shops via IDW Publishing, they are just the latest success story to get their start through Monkeybrain and the latest to see a widely released print collection come out thanks to the close relationship between the two publishers.

Here’s a preview.

***********************************************************

4. We Go Forward

By Shen Anigansen
Owl Turd Comix

A look at life within a side-scrolling video game

Webcomics inspired by video games are so prevalent these days that it’s easy to disregard them. However, We Go Forward, which artist Shen Anigansen posted to his Tumblr this week, is profound and touching. It draws on a common trope in side-scrolling video games — the fact that you can’t go backwards — and creates a clever and even sad little story from it.

It’s a quick read and beautifully drawn in a really pleasing 8-bit style so go read it now.

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
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
Original image
iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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