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Shigeru Mizuki/Drawn & Quarterly

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Shigeru Mizuki/Drawn & Quarterly

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.

Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler

By Shigeru Mizuki
Drawn & Quarterly

Shigeru Mizuki’s manga biography of Hitler, translated to English for the first time and released this week by Drawn & Quarterly, is a rare, non-Western view of the Nazi leader written by a Japanese man who technically fought on the same side during the War.

Mizuki lost his drawing arm in World War II and still went on to become one of Japan’s greatest manga artists, creating the extremely popular series GeGeGe no Kitarō as well as historical manga like the multi-volume history of Japan, Showa. As in Showa, Mizuki mixes photo-realistic backgrounds with cartoony characters. At first it may seem too comedic for subject matter like this, but his exaggerated rendition of Hitler not only provides a safe distance from his evil, but also accentuates every aspect of him—from his unpredictable, irrational anger to his bufoonish demeanor as a young vagrant.

The Japanese have a complicated view of WWII, but Hitler, to them, was a figure far removed from their war in the Pacific. At the time this book was first released in 1971, his crimes and motivations were relatively unknown to the younger Japanese generation. Yet, if not for their alliance with Germany, Japan’s military involvement would not have escalated to the point of national and, for Mizuki, personal catastrophe. Mizuki says in the book's intro, “My destiny would have been different…So how could I not be interested in Hitler, and in knowing what sort of man he really was?" 

Our Expanding Universe

By Alex Robinson
Top Shelf

Back in the ’90’s, Alex Robinson self-published a black-and-white mini-comic called Box Office Poison that did for indie comics what the work of Kevin Smith and Ed Burns did for indie film at the time. Along with people like Bob Fingerman and Terry Moore, Robinson was at the forefront of a new wave of comics that told character-driven, slice-of-life stories that would soon appeal to an audience outside of the typical comic-buying crowd of that era. In its 600+ page graphic novel incarnation, Box Office Poison was a bookstore hit and is one of the most revered graphic novels of all time.

Where Box Office Poison was a funny, heartfelt look at 20-somethings discovering adulthood in Brooklyn in the 1990s, Robinson’s newest book, Our Expanding Universe, is a funny, heartfelt look at 40-somethings discovering parenthood in Brooklyn in 2015. Framed by narration that explains the birth of the universe, we get to know three longtime friends who find their personal universes forever altered by the impending arrival of two babies. The readers who found that Box Office Poison spoke to them at the perfect moment in their lives will likely feel the same about this story of nannies and ovulation cycles, even if they aren’t parents themselves. In fact, Robinson has the non-breeders well represented with Brownie, the wise-cracking single friend who is defiantly against having children. All of Robinson’s characters are believable and sympathetic despite their flaws, and he excels at showing them in conversation—something that is hard to do in a comic book. Not only does he pull it off, but this is one of the best books of the year.

Platinum End: Chapter One

By Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
Viz

The creators behind two best selling manga—Death Note and Bakumanare back with a new book that is serialized in Japan’s Jump SQ magazine and simultaneously made available digitally through sellers like Comixology. 

Platinum End begins with a young student named Mirai attempting suicide by jumping off a building, only to be caught by an angel. The angel offers him two gifts: the power of flight to escape his troubles and the power to make anyone fall in love with him. Mirai notes that these are potentially demonic gifts for an angel to bestow, but he accepts them anyway.

This first issue is 70 pages long and does a great job setting up its premise. Takeshi Obata’s detailed artwork is stunning, and fans of Death Note will want to get on board for this one. 

101 Artists To Listen To Before You Die

By Ricardo Cavolo
Nobrow 

Choosing 101 musicians that have influenced his life in some way, Ricardo Cavolo created two-page spreads for each performer. These consist of colorful portraits and handwritten anecdotes about his personal relationship to their music (Cavolo had his own Spanish translated to English and then rewrote the text for this edition). The range of artists includes Bach, Muddy Waters, Dolly Parton, Iggy Pop, Wu-Tang Clan, and Skrillex. 

It’s a unique combination of words and pictures that will make you consider all the important musicians in your own life—and maybe introduce some new ones to you.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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