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Joshua Cotter/Fantagraphics

The 4 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Joshua Cotter/Fantagraphics

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. Nod Away

By Josh Cotter
Fantagraphics

Josh Cotter // Fantagraphics

In the near-future of Joshua Cotter’s Nod Away, the world is outraged when it's revealed that the central hub of the “innernet” (an Internet that is streamed telepathically) turns out to be the brain of a little girl named Eva. The public demands a more humane solution, and Dr. Melody McCabe is one of the scientists assigned to the problem on an international space station that is also tasked with finding a new planet to colonize. Meanwhile, a bearded and disheveled man awakes amidst an alien landscape—how he connects to Dr. McCabe, Eva, and the space station is one of the fascinating mysteries of this new graphic novel.

Cotter’s first book—2008’s Skyscrapers of the Midwest—was a critically acclaimed portrayal of childhood as told through a pair of anthropomorphic sibling cats. His second book, Driven By Lemons, was more of an experiment in comics formalism, with collected sketches forming a stream-of-conscious narrative. Nod Away, his first book in six years, fuses some of Driven’s formalism with a more traditional science fiction narrative that explores the nature of consciousness. Cotter originally serialized the comic on the Study Group Comics website, but this print edition from Fantagraphics adds some new pages.

In the time since his first two books, Cotter’s cross-hatched style has become cleaner and more confident, but his real strength is in his characters, all of them victims of their “innernet”-focused society.

2. Batman: Harley & Ivy Deluxe Edition

By Paul Dini, Bruce Timm and various
DC Comics

DC Comics

These days, Harley Quinn is one of DC Comics’ most popular characters. Judging from the trailers, this summer’s Suicide Squad film is going to propel her back into mainstream consciousness for the first time since she was introduced on Batman: The Animated Series in the 1990s. As the Joker’s girl Friday, dressed head-to-toe in her harlequin costume, Harley was a breakout character in that show but her transition into comic books has been surprisingly slow.

Harley’s creators, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm (the brains behind Batman: The Animated Series), returned to her in 2007 for a mini-series called Harley and Ivy, where she teams up with her partner-in-crime and best friend, Poison Ivy. This new hardcover collects that series, as well as a variety of one-shots from the years that featured the Timm version of Harley, and they all are either written by Dini or drawn by Timm.

3. Was She Pretty?

By Leanne Shapton
Drawn & Quarterly

Leanne Shapton // Drawn & Quarterly

A good writer can suggest rich and interesting backstories for characters with just a sentence. A good artist can do the same thing with a single drawing. In Was She Pretty?, Leanne Shapton does this in every two-page spread by giving us a simple sketch of a person paired with a tantalizing snippet of story like this: “Colleen was Walter’s ex-girlfriend from med school. She loved to dance with men at weddings.” Sometimes, the next page will jump to the ex of that ex, following a daisy chain of former lovers. Each page lets the reader's imagination fill in the details, and it’s a brilliantly simple use of form that allows the reader to relate to the stories in just the right way.

Shapton is a successful illustrator and author who uses form to tell a story. Was She Pretty? was Shapton’s first book, originally published in 2006 by Sarah Crichton Books and now reprinted by Drawn & Quarterly.

4. Love and Rockets: New Stories 8

By the Hernandez Brothers
Fantagraphics

The 8th annual edition of Love and Rockets: New Stories contains some continuations from the previous issue, like Jaime’s retro-sci-fi Princess Animus and the latest chapter in the long-running Locas story of Maggie and Hopey. Plus, Gilbert concludes his movie-within-a-comic adaptation of Aladdin starring the buxom Fritz and Mila. The Hernandez Brothers are usually associated with their grounded character studies painted with touches of magical realism, but they just as often play with over-the-top science fiction executed with a wacky B-movie aesthetic, and this volume is full of that.

Most notable about this volume, however, is that it will be the last book in this 100-page format. The next issue will return to a slimmer, 32-page format, most likely with a new #1 issue and presumably a more frequent publishing schedule.

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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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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