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Sanford Greene // Marvel Comics

The 4 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Sanford Greene // Marvel 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.

1. Power Man and Iron Fist #1

By David Walker, Sanford Greene and Lee Loughridge
Marvel Comics

Sanford Greene // Marvel Comics

Luke Cage and Danny Rand (a.k.a. Power Man and Iron Fist) are, along with Cage’s wife Jessica Jones, the backbone of Marvel’s new Netflix-verse of original programming. The pair have a long history together dating back to the late 1970s, when their flailing individual series were combined in order to stave off cancelation.

In recent years, the two characters have operated mostly separately—Danny in his own Iron Fist book, and Luke as the leader of The Mighty Avengers. This new Power Man & Iron Fist series comes with the added visibility provided by Cage’s appearance in Jessica Jones and his own upcoming show, but it is also led by an exciting creative team who are at a pivotal breakout point in their careers.

Writer David Walker took critics and fans by surprise with his 2014 comic adaption of Shaft for Dynamite Comics, which led to a job writing DC’s new Cyborg series. Sanford Greene, like Walker, has been working in comics for a number of years, but his star has been on the rise recently, especially after a turn on the Secret Wars tie-in Runaways. Both men are black, which is worth noting because comics publishers have a history of claiming diversity among their characters while still hiring white, male creators to work the books.

2. Frontier #11

By Eleanor Davis
Youth in Decline

Elanor Davis // Youth in Decline

Youth in Decline’s anthology Frontier dedicates each issue to one indie creator to tell a single-issue story, and their latest showcases one of its biggest contributors to date. Eleanor Davis is the New York Times bestselling author of 2014’s How To Be Happy. She is an accomplished and versatile cartoonist who has created award-winning comics for children as well as thought-provoking and challenging comics for adults.

“BDSM” in Frontier #11 tells a short story about two adult film actresses and deals with some thorny issues surrounding sexual submissiveness. Victoria and Lexa meet while filming an S&M video, and their attraction is apparent even as it blossoms in front of an all-male film crew who instruct them to degrade and hurt each other. Davis’s minimalist black-and-white art packs a lot of “acting” into each spare pen drawing, and the reader knows exactly what Vic and Lexa are really feeling even when they are trying not to show it.

Frontier #11 is available only through Youth in Decline’s website. For fans of up-and-coming indie cartoonists, it’s worth subscribing to this anthology because they have some really exciting contributors coming up.

3. Tomb Raider #1

By Mariko Tamaki, Philip Sevy and Michael Atiyeh
Dark Horse Comics

Dark Horse Comics

Tomb Raider continues to be a multimedia hit twenty years after the first video game turned its main character, Lara Croft, into a cultural icon. The newest game, Rise of the Tomb Raider, came out this past November, and Dark Horse has been steadily releasing tie-in comics. These have featured an impressive lineup of talented female writers, which is fitting for a character that has evolved from her original iteration as eye candy for boys into a legitimate feminist icon for girls.

Corinna Bechko, Rhianna Pratchett, and Gail Simone have all written for the comic, and this new series boasts a highly interesting and exciting choice: Mariko Tamaki, the award-winning writer of young adult graphic novels like Skim and This One Summer.

Tamaki is joined by artist Philip Sevy, a relative newcomer who brings some dynamic layouts. This issue sees Croft get caught up in search of a mushroom that can grant immortality (it may sound silly but it is played pretty straight in the comic). Tamara picks up some threads from the Rise of the Tomb Raider video game and builds on what Simone, Bechko, and Pratchet have been doing in the previous comics.

4. The Outside Circle

By Patti LaBoucane-Benson, Kelly Mellings and John Rauch
Anansi

Anansi

In The Outside Circle, Pete and his brother Joey are Canadian Aboriginals who are victims of a system that leaves them prone to the dangers of drug addiction and gang violence. When Pete is sent to jail for killing his mother’s abusive boyfriend in an act of self-defense, he sets into motion a series of events that lead both his and his brother’s life to ruin. As Joey ends up in a group home, Pete works his way towards rehabilitation through a traditional Native healing circle.

The fictional hardships Pete and Joey experience are based on years of true stories that writer Patti LaBoucane-Benson has encountered over the years working at the Native Counseling Services of Alberta. LaBoucane-Benson is Métis (Métis are indigenous Canadians of mixed First Nations and European ancestry), and this book is a result of her PhD study of a healing program for Aboriginal men. An academic study turned into a comic may not sound like exciting reading, but The Outside Circle holds together pretty well as a work of fiction thanks to the accomplished artwork of Kelly Mellings and John Rauch. The Outside Circle was released last year but may not have appeared in your local comic shop. It continues to be available on Amazon and elsewhere online.

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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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