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Nicola Scott/Image Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Nicola Scott/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.

Black Magick #1

By Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott
Image Comics 

Black Magick opens with a group of half-naked men and women performing an ancient Wiccan ritual in a park. Suddenly, a cell phone starts ringing, and one of the women has to leave to perform her duties as a homicide detective. This is a police procedural with a dash of the occult, and it's described by writer Greg Rucka as “witch noir.” You’ll want to give this one a chance due to the creative team who have been preparing this book for years—and it shows.

Greg Rucka is an acclaimed writer whose other comic for Image, Lazarus, is one of the standouts in a quality publishing lineup. Detective Rowan Black is the kind of strong but flawed female lead he’s been successfully writing since books like Whiteout and Queen & Country in the late 1990s. Nicola Scott has been primarily drawing comics for DC like Wonder Woman and Earth-2. This is her first time working on a creator-owned comic for Image, and it may be the book that makes her a star. The book is stunningly realistic and painted in noirish black and white washes that occasionally give way to surprising hints of color. See for yourself in this extensive preview.

Hellboy & the BPRD 1953: The Phantom Hand & The Kelpie

By Mike Mignola, Ben Stenbeck and Dave Stewart
Dark Horse Comics 

Both Hellboy and even its main spin-off title, B.P.R.D., are deep into epic story lines that have been building for years. They may not be the easiest comics for new readers to dip in and out of, but that doesn’t mean Mike Mignola won't give opportunities for the casual reader to try. This new one-shot combines two self-contained short stories from Hellboy’s early days with the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. If you’re new to Hellboy, or just prefer to pick up an occasional story with minimal investment, this book encapsulates a lot of what is great about the comics.

“The Phantom Hand” and “The Kelpie” are both set in 1953 and are delightfully eerie tales in the vein of early 20th century short stories like “The Monkey’s Paw.” Hellboy is just barely an adult as he tags along with his adoptive father and B.P.R.D. director Trevor Bruttenholm in England to investigate a ghost story involving a disembodied hand. Hellboy creator Mike Mignola is joined here by artist Ben Stenbeck, with whom he has recently collaborated on the Frankenstein Underground series.

Titan

By François Vigneault
Study Group Comics

Like the best futuristic science-fiction, François Vigneault’s webcomic Titan has a lot to say about the world that we live in right now. When João da Silva, a middle manager, is sent to inspect a mining site on the moon of Saturn, he finds himself faced with union gripes and a growing unrest between the genetically-enhanced Titan workers and their Terran management. João must find a way to increase profits or else lay off 250,000 Titans. The problem is, the way the Titans' bodies have adapted to the moon's gravity makes them twice the size of normal humans and incapable of physically moving or functioning on Earth. Therefore, what do you do with thousands of large, angry, and unemployed Titans?

Vigneault publishes Titan on the webcomic collective Study Group Comics (whose website he also art directs). When complete, it will be a 200+ page graphic novel, but in the meantime it's serialized in chunks. It has an intriguing social and political premise, and an unusual romance between João and Phoebe, the Titan liaison who towers above him, is just beginning.

Check out the first four parts of Titan here and, if you like what you read, consider supporting the artist on Patreon so he can finish this work.

Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu Vol. 1

By Junji Ito
Kodansha Comics 

Junji Ito is the author of horror manga like Uzumaki and Gyo. He has an intricate style that is perfect for depicting every detail of his terrifying subject matter. The weird thing is that his latest book, Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu, is a slice-of-life memoir about learning to co-habitate with his girlfriend and her two cats, but Ito still applies his horror aesthetic for comedic effect. Since cats can be inherently creepy, this approach may actually be pretty appropriate.

Welcome to Showside

By Ian McGinty
Z2 Comics 

Ian McGinty has gained popularity working for Cartoon Network on shows like Adventure Time and Bravest Warriors, but now he has developed a comic of his own creation, published through creator-friendly Z2 Comics. Welcome to Showside is sure to appeal to that same Adventure Time audience and there is already an animated pilot based on the comic. (Featuring the voices of not only McGinty himself but Henry Rollins, too!)
Welcome to Showside is about a kid named Kit who finds out that his father is the Shadow King and wants him to follow in his footsteps and destroy the world. All Kit wants to do is ride his skateboard and hang out with friends, but now he has this to deal with. Here’s a preview.
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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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