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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
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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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