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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
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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
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]