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Joe Flood // First Second

The 5 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Joe Flood // 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 Brian Gordon
Andrews McNeel Publishing

Brian Gordon // Andrews McNeel Publishing

Parents of young kids who spend any considerable amount of time on social media have probably seen fellow parents share one of Brian Gordon’s Fowl Language comics to their feed. His single-panel strips about the frustrating, soul-crushing joys of parenting feature a cute family of ducks whose dad is the put-upon hero, always trying his best, but often at his wit’s end. The daddy duck is a stand-in for the author, a former illustrator for Hallmark greeting cards and creator of their popular Chuck & Beans comic. Brian Gordon went out on his own in 2013 with this webcomic that has garnered praise and has been shared all over Facebook by highly visible users like George Takei.

Gordon’s gags appeal to a pretty mainstream category of young parents on Facebook who love sharing exasperating stories about their kids for others to relate to and commiserate with.


By MK Reed and Joe Flood/Maris Wicks
First Second

First Second

Comics can be a great educational tool for kids, especially when they’re done right. First Second Books—who know what they’re doing when it comes to educational and all-ages graphic novels—is starting a new series focused on teaching science to middle schoolers, and they’ve recruited some top-notch talent to work on them.

Maris Wicks is becoming a go-to cartoonist for science-related comics after previous books like Human Body Theater and Primates, her graphic novel (with writer Jim Ottaviano) on primatologists like Jane Goodall. In Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean, Wicks explores the biology and ecology of coral reefs with her color-infused charm. Writer MK Reed and artist Joe Flood take a similarly light and humorous look at the history of dinosaurs and the scientists who discovered them in Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers. These two books are the first entries in this new Science Comics series, with a third about volcanoes coming out later this year. They’re made for kids but should be a delight for anyone curious about these subjects.


By Lee Bermejo, Jorge Corona, Khary Randolph, and Rob Haynes
DC Comics

DC Comics

If you don’t normally read Batman comics, then you may not be aware of how many Robins there are out there. As of this writing, there are at least four young men who have all worn a Robin costume at one point or another. DC Comics recently decided to double down on the Robin quantity while also balancing the lack of diversity with a new series called We Are Robin, in which the Robin moniker gets taken up by a legion of semi-organized Gotham City teens. At the center of the huge cast is Duke, a young orphan whose parents went missing during The Joker’s most recent attack on the city. While he is parentless like Robins of the past, Duke doesn’t look like your typical boy wonder, and neither do the other Robins in this book—which include young men and women of various races and ethnicities. A notable absence from the book is Batman himself, whose presumed death has left a vacuum that these kids feel the need to fill.

Writer Lee Bermejo uses a texting motif throughout to keep his large cast in communication with each other, and regular series artist Jorge Corona brings a nice exaggerated style of cartooning that helps give it a slightly different look and feel than most other DC comics. This first collected volume of We Are Robin hits stores this week.


By James Kochalka
First Second

James Kochalka // First Second

I wish I could have my kids write this review because Glorkian Warrior is their jam these days. James Kochalka’s unabashedly silly series has been a big hit in my household, and I previously recommended it in a list of comics to give to early readers. The third and final volume, The Mustache of Destiny, introduces the Junior-Junior Glorkian Warriors, a flying mustache, and a cup of coffee that our hero thinks can talk. Plus, we finally meet the previously mentioned but never-before-seen Glorkian Super Grandma.

Kochalka is best known for his influential diary webcomic American Elf, which he produced on a daily basis from 1998 until 2012. He tends to balance adult fare like the comic-turned-animated series SuperF*ckers with kid stuff like this series. He has a great handle on what gives kids the uncontrollable giggles, and he shows that off in these hilariously off-kilter books.


By Keiichi Arawi

Keiichi Arawi // Vertical

Nichigou (translated as “Everyday” or “My Ordinary Life”) is a Japanese manga comedy about the day-to-day events of an ensemble of middle school students that is peppered with random moments of the surreal (like a talking cat and an android named "Nano").

Originally serialized in Japan in 2006, the popular manga was made into an equally popular anime in 2011. This first English adaption arrives in the U.S. about 5 years later than originally planned, after its first two U.S. licensors went out of business during the U.S. manga downsizing of that time period. It finally makes it to American bookstores thanks to highly regarded manga publisher Vertical, who plans to release all ten volumes of Nichigou.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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]