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Tony Cliff // First Second

The 3 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Tony Cliff // First Second

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.


By Tony Cliff
First Second

Tony Cliff // First Second

Animation and comics have obvious similarities, and it's natural for many creators to successfully bounce back and forth between the two industries. You can usually pick out a comic drawn by an animation pro based on its emphasis on stagecraft and the fluidity of the action. Tony Cliff’s background in animation is apparent when flipping through pages of his Delilah Dirk series, which has a Disney-like feel to its lighting, character design, and set pieces. This week, the sequel to Cliff’s 2013 hit Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant hits stores with the continued story of two unlikely friends chasing adventure across 19th century Europe.

In Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling, the brash, thrill-seeking Delilah and her level-headed, loyal companion Selim are humiliated by a traitorous British solider. To exact her revenge, she must go undercover as her true self, the daughter of British aristocracy, something that was unknown to her friend Selim. This is another delightfully illustrated entry in the series, full of vivid action sequences and great attention to historic detail, but the book’s true strength is in its depiction of the friendship between Delilah and Selim, who are opposites in every way. Their interactions are comical and heartwarming, and Delilah’s hot-temper is perfectly complemented and kept in check by Selim.


By Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota
Oni Press

Lucky Penny, the new graphic novel by writer Ananth Hirsh and artist Yuko Ota, first appeared on the duo’s popular anthology webcomic, Johnny Wander. It's a light romantic comedy about a 20-something named Penny who we first meet on a really bad day in which she loses both her job and her apartment. But that’s okay, she just moves into a storage unit and takes a job at a laundromat where she has to take orders from a 12-year-old kid whose parents own the place. Things start to look up, however, when she meets a cute, shy boy named Walter who works at the local community center.

The pacing of the jokes, the touches of magical realism, and Yuko Ota’s manga-like artwork may make some think of it as a Scott Pilgrim knock-off. While the inspiration is obviously there, Ota’s work is so rich, detailed, and funny that it deserves consideration on its own merit.


By Kaitlyn Narvaza
LINE Webtoon

Kaitlyn Narvaza // LINE Webtoon

LINE Webtoon has their finger on the pulse—not only of what young readers (particular women) want to read, but also of how webcomics should be presented and monetized. The South Korean portal has been around for 13 years, and over time it has evolved its presentation format to adapt to new technologies and reader preferences. Starting from static horizontal comic strips, they first shifted to semi-animated Flash-based comics and then to pioneering the long, vertical format seen in many of today’s webcomics, adding sound effects and animation that are triggered by scrolling. Traditionally huge with Korean audiences, they’ve recently expanded their influence to the West with English translations of some of their most popular comics, and have even snagged a license deal with LucasFilm to produce their own Star Wars comic.

An enormous financial success, LINE Webtoon pays all its creators, secures licensing deals for them, and ensures that they retain the copyrights on all their work. They also make an effort to give new talent an opportunity to find an audience with their open platform called Discover. Their first big breakout star of that program was 21-year-old San Diego State University student Kaitlyn Narvaza, whose debut comic, Where Tangents Meet, became a global hit.

Now 22 years old, Narvaza is returning as a featured cartoonist with a new comic called Siren’s Lament. This dreamy romance is about a young florist named Lyra who is saved from drowning by a merman. When she makes a deal that goes wrong for both of them, they both become part-human and part-siren. Narvaza draws in a manga-influenced style and uses the vertical scroll of the page to great effect—she even incorporates an original soundtrack that gently plays while you read along.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]