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Brittney Williams // Boom! Box

The 4 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Brittney Williams // Boom! Box

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. MARY WEPT OVER THE FEET OF JESUS

By Chester Brown
Drawn & Quarterly

Chester Brown // Drawn & Quarterly

If you’re familiar with Chester Brown’s work, the inflammatory subtitle to his latest graphic novel—“Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible”—makes it a sequel of sorts to his last book, Paying For It, an autobiographical account of his own experience with hiring prostitutes. It is also a follow-up to Brown’s unfinished adaptations of the Gospel of Matthew he published in the '90s as backup features in his comics Yummy Fur and Underwater.

Brown is a supporter of sex workers' rights and he is also a skeptical Christian (born and raised in a Baptist household). He looks to tie these aspects of his life together by pointing out the considerable instances of prostitution described in the Bible. It goes a step further, however, when Brown takes all the stories he’s illustrated here—which include those of Bathsheba, Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth—and points out that these were the only women included in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus. Brown uses this as a Da Vinci Code-like clue to explore a controversial theory about Mary, Jesus' mother.

This is a book that many will probably dismiss out of hand, but Brown is one of the greatest and most fearless cartoonists working in comics right now, and his quietly humorous approach to difficult material like this makes it easy to immerse oneself in. In addition to the comics, Brown closes the book with a nearly 100-page, hand-lettered afterword that references reading he had done on this subject and presents his true overall thesis: God actually rewards disobedience of His laws.

2. GOLDIE VANCE #1

By Hope Larson and Brittney Williams
Boom! Box

Brittney Williams // Boom! Box

In the new four-issue “girl detective” series Goldie Vance, the action takes place in a Florida resort during a slightly fantasized version of the 1960s. Guys are racing for pink slips and girls are lusting after astronauts, but the cast of this comic is much more diverse than you might expect given its period setting. The star of the book is a young woman who works as a valet in her father’s hotel but also helps the resident detective solve a plethora of cases involving guests. Goldie is smart and plucky and is all about solving problems, whether it's the case of a missing necklace or the love lives of her fellow employees.

Hope Larson is the author of such acclaimed graphic novels as Mercury and the adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. Larson has just been announced as the new writer of DC Comics’ Batgirl series, so Goldie Vance almost acts a bridge into further monthly detective comics for her. She typically draws her own graphic novels, but this book also marks a move towards collaborating with another artist. Brittney Williams is the artist on Marvel’s Hellcat series and draws in a delightful style reminiscent of pre-CGI Disney that pops with color and ‘60s pizzazz.

This book is the latest entry in Boom! Studios’ all-ages imprint, Boom! Box, that already boasts such hits as Lumberjanes and Giant Days.

3. HEARTTHROB #1

By Christopher Sebela, Robert Wilson IV, and Nick Filardi
Oni Press

Oni Press

Christopher Sebela and Robert Wilson IV have both had comics published by digital pioneer Monkeybrain. The two have teamed up for the first time for a new ongoing series called Heartthrob that is an unusual crime thriller/comedy/romance set in the 1970s. It follows Callie Boudreau, a young woman with a congenital heart defect who receives an experimental heart transplant and finds herself changed. She's more irritable, abrasive, and prone to stealing, all of which gets exacerbated after she gets fired from her job and dumped by her boyfriend. That’s when Callie meets a cute guy in a bar who turns out to exist only in her head—or, actually, in her heart. He is the deceased previous owner of her new heart and also a thief who is now her disembodied companion and partner in crime.

This is a love story 

angle that’s akin to something like Fight Club with Callie as the dry and acerbic protagonist, liberated from caring about everything in her life and thumbing her nose at everyone around her.

4. THE NAMELESS CITY

By Faith Erin Hicks and Jordie Bellaire
First Second

First Second

The city in The Nameless City serves as the main character in Faith Erin Hicks' new three-book series about class and power struggles in a Tibetan-inspired fantasy world. Every few decades, this strategically well-situated city is conquered and renamed by one of the various surrounding kingdoms. Those who have grown up within its walls resent each invading army.

The story follows Rat, a street urchin adept at parkour-style roof-jumping who meets Kaidu, a newcomer to the city and a member of the city’s latest conquerors, The Dao. The Dao are not only responsible for invading Rat’s home but also for the deaths of her parents, making her budding friendship with Kaidu unlikely to say the least.

Coming out of the webcomic scene in the early 2000s, Faith Erin Hicks had a breakout hit in 2012 with her graphic novel Friends with Boys, which turned her into a big player in the world of young adult genre comics. Her manga-influenced artwork is most often seen in pure black and white, but here she is teaming up with Jordie Bellaire, the prolific colorist of a variety of comic series for Marvel and Image. With the setting being such an important part of the story, she brings a richness and vibrancy to Hicks’ work that makes this book a joy to read.

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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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