CLOSE
Original image
Daniel Clowes // Fantagraphics

The 4 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

Original image
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.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
iStock
Animals
arrow
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES