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Daniel Clowes // Fantagraphics

The 4 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Daniel Clowes // 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. PATIENCE

By Daniel Clowes
Fantagraphics

Daniel Clowes // Fantagraphics

Sure to be one of the biggest releases of 2016, Patience is Daniel Clowes’s first graphic novel in six years and, at 180 pages, his longest to date. It’s also a somewhat unexpected leap into science fiction by a writer whose best known works, such as Ghost World, tend to be grounded satires about dejected outsiders. That’s not to say it is unusual for Clowes to dabble in different genres, be it horror (Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron), noir (David Boring) or even superheroes (The Death-Ray), but he always does it with his lugubrious yet funny spin, drawn in his iconically retro-'60s style.

Patience follows a young man named Jack whose only joy in life is his pregnant wife Patience. One day, he comes home from his usual day of pretending to have a job to find her dead. After initially being charged with the crime and then absolved, he obsesses over who could have murdered her for the next 20 years. When he finds a man who has invented a time machine, he now has the chance to go back and prevent Patience and his unborn baby from being taken away from him.

With his single-minded focus on changing his past, older Jack is like a lug-headed, psychopathic action hero in this story, but the book is truly about its title character, Patience. She is a tragic but assertive player in her own narrative. This is going to be up there in Clowes’s oeuvre of great works, but for fans of good time travel yarns, it deserves its spot in that canon as well.

2. INTERNATIONAL IRON MAN #1

By Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev
Marvel Comics

Marvel Comics // Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev

Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's 50+ issue run on Daredevil in the early 2000s is considered one of the definitive takes on that character. Now, the creative team has reunited to do the same for Iron Man with a new series, International Iron Man, that intends to explore Tony Stark’s past and his place in the “All New All Different” Marvel.

Stark recently learned that he had been adopted as a baby, and the identity of his birth parents is unknown. In this series, he’ll be searching for clues to his past, but he’ll also be exploring this slightly altered Marvel Universe for clues to its own secret history, accompanied by a key, mysterious figure in the post-Secret Wars Marvel universe: Victor Von Doom, who appears to be a longtime friend of Tony now.

Bendis and Maleev are a formidable comics team and, despite his popularity when played on screen by Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man is in need of a good, definitive take on the character. His original Cold War-centric origins have been recalibrated to Marvel’s rolling timeline, so we’ll be seeing some flashbacks to a grungy, college-age Tony partying in the 1990s in this first issue.

3. RETROFIT 2016 KICKSTARTER

By Box Brown, Jared Smith, and various cartoonists
Kickstarter

retrofit-kickstarter.png

Kaeleigh Forsyth and Alabaster Pizzo

Kickstarter

Small press publisher Retrofit began its life with a Kickstarter in 2011 with the goal of setting up a subscription mail service for their modest line of floppy-style comics. Now, nearly 50 comics and graphic novels later, the well-regarded publisher is taking to Kickstarter again to fund their 2016 line. The money they raise is intended to aid in printing costs and also in order to give more upfront money to the artists. They have some pretty impressive-looking books planned for this year, with a selection of indie cartoonists with unique voices like James Kolchaka, Leela Corman, Alabaster Pizzo, Kaeleigh Forsyth, and Eleanor Davis. Both digital and print subscriptions are available at different reward levels.

4. THROUGH THE HABITRAILS: LIFE BEFORE AND AFTER MY CAREER IN THE CUBICLES

By Jeff Nicholson
Dover Publications

Jeff Nicholson // Dover Publications

Jeff Nicholson first began serializing his dark office cubicle comic, Through the Habitrails, in 1989 in a comics anthology magazine called Taboo, which was edited by comics veteran Stephen Bissette. By 1992, he had released 14 individual, stand-alone installments that fit together as a complete graphic novel, but the definitive edition has never been published together—until now.

Nicholson’s comic is sort of like Dilbert if it had been written by Franz Kafka. It's a depiction of a corporate office where workers toil away while hooked up to machines that drain them of their creative juices, which are then used to power the gerbils that seem to run the company. The nameless hero of the story tries many times to escape his imprisonment only to find himself trapped even further.

This collected edition features an introduction and history of the comic by Bissette as well as a brief introduction by famed comics writer Matt Fraction. Nicholson, who retired from comics in 2004, provides some of his own context with an afterword.

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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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