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Jason Latour/Image Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Jason Latour/Image Comics

Every week I write about the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, bookstores, digital, 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.

Deep Dark Fears

By Fran Krause
Ten Speed Press

Illustrator Fran Krause had a great idea a few years back that he has since turned into one of the most popular webcomics on Tumblr. He encouraged readers to anonymously submit their deepest, darkest fears so he can turn them into beautifully painted cartoons, publishing a new one every Monday. Krause has now collected 101 of these into a new book called Deep Dark Fears.

The comics collected perfectly capture a whole slew of fears. There are ones many of us had as kids (getting caught in the escalator, waking up to something being in your room) and ones that feel familiar despite how specific and just plain unlikely they are (fear of your eye drops getting replaced by superglue, fear of getting into a car accident while picking your nose and fatally stabbing your brain). There are plenty that will make you squirm in your seat, but it's oddly comforting to read through these and see that other people are afraid of the same stupid stuff that you are.

Here is a fun collection of greatest hits. The Deep Dark Fears book is available everywhere—find out more at the website.

Secret Coders

By Gene Luen Lang and Mike Holmes
First Second Books

Award-winning graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang pretty much excels at everything he does, from literary historical fiction like Boxers & Saints to popular monthly comics like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Superman. He’s proven that he can write engaging comics for readers of any age, and in Secret Codersa new series of graphic novels he writes with artist Mike Holmes—he combines two things that he does very well: writing fun comics and teaching computer programming.

Yang, a former high school computer science teacher, is a big proponent of introducing kids to coding at an early age. (He even wrote an article for us this week with his own tips on how to encourage kids to get interested in this hobby.) In Secret Coders, two students try to get to the bottom of why their mysterious, Harry Potter-ish school is full of weird things like random numbers painted on the walls, four-eyed birds, and robotic turtles. The key to understanding it all lies in the fundamentals of binary code. 

Here’s a preview.

Lose #7/Dressing

By Michael DeForge
Koyama Press 

Every year we get to look forward to a new issue of Lose, Michael DeForge’s one-man anthology comic. Since he is so prolific, we not only get Lose #7 this week, but also a separate collection of assorted short comics called Dressing. Koyama Press describes Lose as the “laboratory” where DeForge works out his experimental storytelling ideas. While that’s true, this is really where he tends to showcase his best and most fully realized works.

Each issue gets better and better, and issue #7 follows suit—even adding full color for the first time in the series. The main story, which fills out most of the issue, is about a father and his grown daughter who share an apartment while he deals with a serious illness. Things take a DeForge-ian turn for the weird when they meet the dad’s doppelgänger (who happens to be a famous Hollywood action star). 

Meanwhile, Dressing is the real collection of odd experiments. There are many short comics here, including pieces that are more like illustrated prose, a format DeForge first dabbled in with last year’s graphic novella First Year Healthy. Deforge’s work is so different from anything else out there that it looks like it was made on another planet. Yet, it’s the unexpected humanity—his keen observations and sense of humor—that is embedded in all the weirdness that makes his comics a must-read.

Here’s a preview of Lose #7 and one for Dressing.

Southern Bastards Book One

By Jason Aaron and Jason Latour
Image Comics 

I previously wrote about Southern Bastards when the first issue came out, and since then it has won numerous awards and has been optioned for television. 

The comic begins with the story of aging Earl Tubb, who returns home to Craw County, Alabama to clean things up with his righteousness and his big ol’ stick. However, this isn’t really Earl's story, as becomes unexpectedly clear in the middle of this book. Jason Aaron and Jason Latour are telling a bigger tale about family, football, and southern culture. It’s as unflinching as it is reverent in its depiction of the South. Latour, who has become known more as a writer over at Marvel, is the key to this book’s success with his bold, distinct, art style full of grit, splatter, and the best use of half-tone dot shading in comics.

This week sees the first hardcover collection (containing the first two story arcs) of the series. After winning a Harvey Award this past weekend for Best New Series, this book is a great way for new readers to jump on.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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