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Chip Zdarsky/Archie Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Chip Zdarsky/Archie 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.

The Story of My Tits

By Jennifer Hayden
Top Shelf

The title of Jennifer Hayden’s graphic novel memoir, The Story of My Tits, is frank and direct. A survivor of breast cancer, Hayden tells the story of her complicated relationship with her own body, from worrying about being flat-chested as a teen to opting for a double mastectomy after finding a tumor in one breast as an adult. The book, Hayden’s first, is timed to coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month and is sure to be considered a major debut this year.

This is not just a book about Hayden’s own struggles with breast cancer, though, and it is not until over 200 pages in that we see her get her first mammogram. Early in this large and densely illustrated book, Hayden’s mother suffers the loss of one breast to cancer, followed years later by her mother-in-law succumbing to the disease. As with many people, cancer affects members of Hayden’s family before the specter of it threatens her own future.

This is not to say the book is weighted down with death. More than anything it is full of life and humor and some especially creative and clever cartooning. Her quirky, pen-drawn style—very similar to the work of the great Roz Chast—is full of effortless jokes and insightful commentary on both life and death.

Here’s more information from the publisher.

Paper Girls #1

By Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson
Image Comics 


Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang first worked together on a Swamp Thing short story in 2000, when both were just starting their comics careers. They now reunite as industry superstars for a new Image Comics series called Paper Girls. Set in the 1980s, this book is peppered with nostalgic flavor. We’re introduced to four 12-year-old girls who stumble across a mystery they can’t begin to understand while out delivering papers in a sleepy suburb of Cleveland. One part Stand By Me, one part War of the Worlds, this 40-page first issue sets up an intriguing premise and ends with a patented Brian K. Vaughan cliff-hanger that will leave you wanting more.

Vaughan has been quite busy recently after having taken a few years off from making comics. Now he adds Paper Girls to his current science fiction hit Saga, the recently completed award-winning mini-series The Private Eye, and the freshly started We Stand on Guard. Meanwhile, Chiang is coming off an acclaimed run on DC’s Wonder Woman.

Check out a preview here.

All New, All Different Marvel

Various titles by various creative teams
Marvel Comics 

For the past few months, Marvel comics have been pre-empted by the line-wide 2015 event called Secret Wars. The event began with the effective obliteration of the Marvel Universe, which was replaced by a patchwork planet called "Battleworld." The Secret Wars mini-series was supposed to have ended by now to make way for a re-launch of the whole Marvel line, but it has been plagued by numerous delays, leaving Marvel no choice but to bring the universe back before we actually find out how that happens.

So this week, the "All New, All Different Marvel" (the publisher's words) begins with new #1 issues for a smattering of titles such as Amazing Spider-Man, Invincible Iron Man, and Doctor Strange. Marvel is not rebooting the continuity of their universe, but what makes these new books “All New” and “All Different,” and how the ending of Secret Wars factors into them, remains to be seen.

These books feature familiar Marvel creators, in some cases shuffled onto different titles. Dan Slott is still in charge of Spider-Man, but longtime Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis is trying his hand at Iron Man for the first time. Jason Aaron, writer on some of Marvel’s biggest recent books, such as Thor and Star Wars, joins fan favorite artist Chris Bachalo, most recently of Uncanny X-men, on a new Doctor Strange book that will likely ramp up excitement for the 2016 film.

Here are previews for Doctor Strange, Amazing Spider-Man, and Invincible Iron Man.

Jughead #1

By Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson
Archie Comics


This new Jughead solo series is the latest example of how willing the people behind Archie Comics are to take surprising creative risks. It's written by one-half of the creative team behind the raunchy and subversive Sex Criminals comic, Chip Zdarsky. Zdarsky, who has been known more in the past for his social media hijinks and his illustrations for Canada's National Post than for his comics work, was already snatched up by Marvel this year to write their new Howard the Duck comic. Artist Erica Henderson has also had a big year at Marvel drawing Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and she joins Zdarsky to bring their comedic sensibilities to Archie’s best friend, Jughead Jones.

This modern Jughead still wears that little crown hat and loves burgers more than anything, but his lazy, quizzical demeanor is now portrayed as zen and enigmatic with a standoffish sense of cool. This first issue sees Jughead mobilized against his will to become political when the school replaces his beloved cafeteria lasagna with a healthier alternative. If you ever wanted to see an Archie parody of Game of Thrones, there’s a dream sequence here that will make your day.

Take a look at the preview here.

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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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