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Mike Dawson // Uncivilized Books

The 5 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Mike Dawson // Uncivilized Books

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. WHAT IS OBSCENITY?

By Rokudenashiko; edited by Anne Ishii and Graham Kolbeins
Koyama Press

Koyama Press

This week, a Japanese court ruled that Megumi Igarashi (a.k.a. Rokudenashiko) was guilty of distributing obscene material and fined her 400,000 yen ($3,690 US). Rokudenashiko was jailed two years ago for sharing a digital file that could be used to 3D-print a model of her own vagina. Rokudenashiko is an activist who fights the double standards she sees in her country (especially when it comes to nudity), and the 42-year-old artist has printed a number of models using her “manko” (as she refers to it), including, famously, a crowd-funded kayak.

In What is Obscenity?, a new manga published by Koyama Press, Rokudenashiko tells the story of her arrest in a funny, engaging, and eye-opening way. Interspersing photographs, legal documents, and news articles with her comedic cartooning, she re-enacts the unbelievable experience of being arrested, filmed by the local news in the back of a police car (labeled with the insulting on-screen chyron as a “so-called artist”), and dealing with male lawyers and policemen who are too ashamed to even talk about what she did. What is Obscenity? is edited and translated by Anne Ishii and Graham Kolbeins, who are known for producing the popular gay-erotic manga Massive. The book also features a cover by the legendary book designer Chip Kidd.

2. RULES FOR DATING MY DAUGHTER

By Mike Dawson
Uncivilized Books

Uncivilized Books

Mike Dawson is one of the best observational cartoonists working in comics today. Until recently, he created mostly long-form narrative graphic novels with a literary bent like Troop 142 and Angie Bongiolatti. In 2014, he switched to making shorter, non-fiction comic essays posted to Tumblr which demonstrated his keen and humorous insights as a politically conscious parent trying to navigate work/life balances. In Rules for Dating My Daughter, these online strips are collected as a paperback collection, thanks to a successful Kickstarter to fund the printing.

In one cartoon essay, he ponders the social politics of the Disney Junior TV program Sofia the First, contrasting his daughter’s favorite show with the work of Charles Dickens and an essay by George Orwell. In "Longstreet Farm”—which was shortlisted for a Slate Cartoonist Studio Prize—he uses a visit with his kids to a family-friendly farm to consider the harsh realities of how we get our food and the way we justify it to ourselves. And in the titular comic, he explores what it means to be a feminist dad today.

Dawson’s comics involve a lot of hand-wringing, but they don’t try to posit any easy answers. What they do offer is smart visuals and a self-deprecating humor that will make you commiserate and cringe equally.

3. CIGARETTE GIRL

By Masahiko Matsumoto
Top Shelf Productions

Top Shelf Productions

The late Masahiko Matsumoto was one of the pioneers of alternative manga in the 1970s. Along with his friend and colleague Yoshihiro Tatsumi (A Drifting Life, The Push Man and Other Stories), Matsumoto helped start the movement known as “geikga” which was signified by a more subtle and sophisticated kind of storytelling than what was found in most manga at the time.

In Cigarette Girl, Top Shelf Productions brings a translated collection of eleven of Matsumoto’s short comics to North American readers for the first time. Many of the stories are variations on a similar theme: Helpless men become infatuated with strong, alluring women. The cartooning style is a pleasant mixture of Japanese and Franco-Belgian style with a clear comedic exaggeration to the characters (even though the stories would be more aptly described as quiet, light-hearted drama than comedy).

4. POP GUN WAR: GIFT

By Farel Dalrymple
Image Comics

Image Comics

Pop Gun War, the self-published five-issue series that put Farel Dalrymple on the map in 2003, is about a young kid in the inner city who finds a pair of wings discarded by a tattooed hipster angel who had fallen to Earth. Full of fantastic-yet-realistic characters that bring imaginary elements into a gritty, urban setting, it was a mixture of late-‘90s art comic sensibilities with a sense of genre comic wonder that was fairly unique upon its debut. Pop Gun War won acclaim and awards from even non-comic sources, like the Society of Illustrators.

Dalrymple is now beginning to tell more stories in this world with an installment called Pop Gun War: Chain Letter, which will appear in Brandon Graham’s Island Magazine later this year. This reissue of the original series is officially renamed Pop Gun War: Gift, and it’s a mesmerizing work.

5. NIGHT AIR

By Ben Sears
Koyama Press

Koyama Press

The hero in Ben Sears’s snappy, imaginative adventure Night Air is a rash, smart-alecky rogue who escapes from one bit of trouble and runs right into another. He's accompanied by a droll floating robot who is always trying to be the voice of reason, and they go chasing after the promise of treasure and end up in a haunted castle full of talking skeletons, disembodied heads, and typewriters that type by themselves.

This is Sears’s first graphic novel and it reads like a marriage between the character designs of Mike Mignola, the childhood wonder of Farel Dalrymple, and the low-key humor of Adventure Time.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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