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Brian Stelfreeze/Marvel Comics

The 3 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Brian Stelfreeze/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. BLACK PANTHER #1

By Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, and Laura Martin
Marvel Comics 

In the early 2000s, it seemed like comics were always chasing legitimacy by courting writers from the outside. Sure, some of these writers created some good comics, like Jonathan Lethem’s Omega the Unknown or Gerard Way’s Umbrella Academy, but there were just as many forgettable vanity projects and simple failures on the part of a prose writer or a filmmaker to grasp the visual language and pacing of comics. Today, as comics publishers seem to have relaxed about it, legitimacy has arrived on its own, as most people have come to appreciate the quality of today’s comics and the influence they have on our popular culture right now. This week sees one of the most significant and honored writers to enter this world from the outside, Ta-Nehisi Coates, give us his take on Black Panther, a character who is about to gain the biggest level of public awareness in his history.

Coates is the author of the National Book Award-winning Between The World And Me and is a national correspondent for The Atlantic who has won many awards for his 2014 cover story “The Case for Reparations.” He is considered one of the best writers on race, politics, and social issues in America and he’ll likely be bringing a lot of those issues into his work here. In addition to being a superhero, Black Panther is also King T’Challa, ruler of a technologically advanced but often-embattled fictional African country called Wakanda. Coates’s partner on the series, artist Brian Stelfreeze, approaches his depiction of Wakanda as a “melting pot” of different African cultures from the Zulu tribes to ancient Egypt.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Black Panther’s debut in Fantastic Four #52. It also marks his big screen debut in next month's Captain America: Civil War. Until now, T’Challa has more often than not been a guest star in other books or an occasional member of the Avengers. However, when he has had his own series, he has boasted some runs by writers like Don McGregor, Christopher Priest, and Reginald Hudlin that are still highly regarded by fans today. These are strong acts in the Black Panther library to follow, but Marvel couldn’t have picked a more interesting writer to capitalize on T’Challa’s big moment in the spotlight.

2. WONDER WOMAN: EARTH ONE VOL. 1. 

By Grant Morrison, Yanick Paquette, and Nathan Fairbairn 
DC Comics 

DC’s Earth One series of graphic novels introduce retooled, modernized versions of their most iconic characters, freed from the narrative confines of continuity. Considering DC already rebooted their whole line of comics a few years ago and we’re constantly seeing updated origins for big characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, it can be hard to see what the purpose of the Earth One books actually is. What makes them stand out, besides their straight-to-hardcover format, is that they give mostly free rein and a clean continuity slate to a set of all-star creators. The long-awaited first volume of Wonder Woman: Earth One is written by super star Grant Morrison and drawn by popular DC artist and frequent Morrison collaborator Yanick Paquette. Any time Morrison, who wrote one of the definitive takes on Superman in All-Star Superman, gives us his take on a character, expect a modern sheen with layers of history underneath.

Wonder Woman’s cinematic debut in this month's Batman v Superman seems to be the most universally liked aspect of that film, making this a great time for a bookstore-ready Wonder Woman book to hit the shelves. Interestingly, it comes out around the same time as another retelling of Wonder Woman’s origins that may stand in stark contrast to this one. The recent comic series The Legend of Wonder Woman uses a decidedly young adult fantasy approach to tell Princess Diana’s early years, whereas Morrison and Paquette lean more adult than young adult. With nods to the character’s roots in both violent Greek mythology and her early kinky bondage comics by creator William Moulton Marston, there are some scenes here that have already given certain Wonder Woman fans pause. Paquette’s style of drawing statuesque pin-up girls make the first half of this book, set on the Amazonian island of Themyscira, seem like it is aimed solely at straight male readers. There are reasons for everything Morrison does, however, as he attempts to use elements of Marston's early, sexualized comics and Wonder Woman’s roots as an early feminist icon to try to get to a contemporary and perhaps nuanced view of Diana.

3. POE DAMERON #1

By Charles Soule and Phil Noto
Marvel Comics 

When original Star Wars fans like myself were anxiously waiting for the release of sequels like Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Marvel Comics helped fill in those long, three-year gaps with their (non-canon) monthly Star Wars comic. Nowadays, Marvel is once again producing Star Wars comics, and this time they are officially in canon (until someone at Disney or Lucasfilm decides they’re not). However, the way J.J. Abrams ended Episode VII doesn’t leave a lot of story gaps to fill, with main players Rey and Finn’s plot lines being tied up in cliffhangers. It’s hard to imagine Abrams and company wanting to reveal those characters’ next moves in a comic book rather than the next film.

With that in mind, Marvel’s first Force Awakens-related comic is Poe Dameron, an ongoing series that will be set before the events of the last film and will tell the adventures of the heroic Resistance pilot and his droid pal BB-8. As they have been doing with all their Star Wars books, Marvel has chosen big-name creators for this title. Writer Charles Soule has already had his hand in some other Star Wars comics like Lando and Obi-Wan and Anakin and artist Phil Noto is also already working on a Chewbacca solo series.

If you’re more of a BB-8 than a Poe fan, the little droid has a cute backup feature in this comic drawn by Chris Eliopoulos in his Calvin & Hobbes-inspired style.

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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
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!

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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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