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Alberto Ponticelli/Huffington Post

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Alberto Ponticelli/Huffington Post

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.

1. Living Level-3

By Joshua Dysart, Alberto Ponticelli, Jonathan Dumont, Pat Masioni and Thomas Mauer
Huffington Post

In 2007, writer Joshua Dysart travelled to Uganda where he spent a month visiting AIDS hospices and interviewing child soldiers to research a comic he would create for DC called Unknown Soldier. This level of commitment and his penchant for writing politically minded comics led to him being invited by the World Food Programme to travel with them to Syria and Iraq to write a comic that would document the struggle of bringing food security to refugees in both countries.

Dysart reunited with his Unknown Soldier artist Alberto Ponticelli to illustrate this story about a fictional aid worker dealing with the fallout from ISIS's takeover in areas of Iraq. The result is a four-part comic running this week on the Huffington Post called Living Level-3 (the name refers to the most severe classification for a humanitarian crisis; the WFP is currently dealing with five simultaneous L-3s in the world). In addition to the comic, Dysart is blogging about his experience in Iraq.

2. American Monster #1

By Brian Azzarello and Juan Doe
Aftershock Comics 

In Brian Azzarello and Juan Doe’s American Monster, a severely scarred and nearly faceless soldier returns from war and cleans up a small town full of drug dealers and corrupt politicians. What sounds like a well-and-good premise for a rote action flick promises to reveal murky levels of pathos and moral ambiguity as we learn more about this man.

Azzarello broke onto the scene with the classic thriller 100 Bullets and soon became a mainstay at DC Comics where he is currently co-writing the 3rd installment of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series. He’s joined on this book by artist Juan Doe, who is probably a new name to most readers despite his 10 years of making mostly covers for Marvel and DC. This could be a breakout book for both him and the publisher, Aftershock Comics, which is new to the scene but pulling in some big name creators for its books.

3. The Envelope Manufacturer

By Chris Oliveros

Last year Chris Oliveros, founder of the prestigious Montreal-based publisher Drawn & Quarterly, surprised the indie-comics world by stepping down from his role in the company to focus on making his own comics. Oliveros got into comics 25 years ago as a self-publishing cartoonist, and he now comes full circle with a self-published graphic novel (that will be distributed by Drawn & Quarterly) called The Envelope Manufacturer.

The book is about a small business owner dealing with the stress of staying afloat amidst a changing economic landscape, a subject that somewhat mirrors Oliveros’ life and career. He began this book as a series of comics back in the early days of Drawn & Quarterly before getting caught up in the machinations of running a company. His first order of business after retiring from D&Q was to revisit and completely redraw it as a 104-page black-and-white graphic novel. Oliveros has a subtle, European-influenced cartooning style that is simpatico with the stable of D&Q cartoonists he has worked with in the past; just looking at the cover of this book brings to mind the entire history of that company.

4. Frank in the 3rd Dimension

By Jim Woodring

Jim Woodring has been making surreal, wordless comics starring Frank since the 1990s, and now he’s taking the character to a new level with a 3D book called Frank in the 3rd Dimension. This 26-page hardcover promises a series of scenes that contain “150 layers per drawing in order to round and 'sculpt' each image into full, volumetric 3-D.” In this age of digital comics, this is a book you will need to physically interact with in order to appreciate. At 63, Woodring is one of the great cartoonists to come out of the early days of Fantagraphics, and he is still prolific to this day, working with the publisher to bring his weird and innovative comics to life.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]