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Darwyn Cooke // DC Comics

The 4 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Darwyn Cooke // DC 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. FUTURE QUEST #1

By Jeff Parker, Doc Shaner, Jordie Bellaire, and Darwyn Cooke
DC Comics

DC Comics

DC Comics recently announced a deal with Hanna-Barbera productions to bring a number of their classic cartoon characters to comics, joining their already successful Scooby-Doo books. One of the first new series to launch is a big one, and it arrives with the unexpected weight of tragedy.

Darwyn Cooke inspired the book’s concept and contributed designs (like the splash image you see at the top of this page). Comic fans everywhere this week are mourning the loss of Cooke who passed away this past Saturday, May 14. His involvement with Future Quest will be among the last of his published works, adding to an influential career that includes books like DC: The New Frontier, Catwoman, and the Parker graphic novels.

Future Quest marks the return of Jonny Quest to comics for the first time in 20 years. In a move that seems inspired by the recent “shared universe” trend in cinema, this book will see Jonny team up with other Hanna-Barbera action heroes like Space Ghost, Harvey Birdman, the Herculoids, and more. Unlike DC’s plans for other upcoming books, there will be no modernizing or reimagining of these characters. This series will retain the classic look created by legendary artists like Alex Toth and the sincere adventure that Cartoon Network spoofed when they remade many of these characters in the 1990s with series like Space Ghost Coast to Coast. To capture the original feeling, DC brought in the team that specializes in rebooting classic adventure heroes: Jeff Parker, Doc Shaner, and Jordie Bellaire.

2. HILO VOL. 2: SAVING THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD

By Judd Winnick
Random House

Random House

Hilo is about a contagiously enthusiastic robot alien boy who falls to Earth and befriends DJ, an ordinary kid from a family of annoying overachievers. DJ, along with his friend Gina, try to teach Hilo how to act like a normal Earth boy, and the trio become fast friends. The first book was a colorfully illustrated fish-out-of-water tale with some great one-liners and catch phrases your kids will enjoy repeating. My own six-year-old daughter has been anxiously awaiting volume two which hits stores this week, six months after volume one ended on a cliff-hanger.

Former Real World cast member and award-winning cartoonist, Judd Winnick, was a regular writer at DC Comics for many years working on comics that leaned towards adult subject matters. In 2012, as a new parent, Winnick stepped down from the books he was writing at DC to create comics that he would actually be able to let his own kids read. Hilo is the first book he has drawn himself since his award-winning graphic novel Pedro and Me in 2000 and his first all-ages series The Adventures of Barry Ween in the late 1990s and it seems like this is what he was born to do, making you wish that he had jumped off that DC ship much sooner.

3. UNFOLLOW VOL. 1

By Rob Williams, Michael Dowling, RM Guera, Quinton Winter, and Giulia Bausco
DC Vertigo

DC Vertigo

In the new DC Vertigo series Unfollow, the dying head of a social media empire randomly selects 140 people to inherit his $18 billion net worth and divide it evenly. Each recipient receives an app on their smartphones with the number “140” on it. If one of the recipients dies, the others' cut of the money increases. When the number on their apps drops almost immediately, the implication becomes clear: Their lives are in danger and no one can be trusted.

Vertigo launched a slew of new titles at the end of 2015, and Unfollow is one of the strongest. It boasts a large cast of 140 characters (get it?). The first volume focuses on just a handful, each cleverly introduced with a Twitter-like bio. There’s a young black man from post-Ferguson St. Louis, a thrill-seeking heiress trying to get back at her father, an Iranian photo-journalist, a highly eccentric Japanese novelist, and a religious zealot. The highlight of the series is the realism of Michael Dowling’s artwork and the way he makes these characters distinct and believable.

4. UPLAND

By Tiggy Upland
TiggyUpland.com 

Tiggy Upland

When someone who is not a traditional artist has an idea they want to see come to life in the form of a comic, they usually either find someone else to draw it for them or do it themselves the best they can with crude drawings. Jen Bonardi (aka Tiggy Upland), meanwhile, got a little more creative and tells her story through carefully staged photographs of custom dolls in a miniature doll house.

The setting in her webcomic Upland is intended to be a hostel in Boston run by Tiggy herself, and it allows her to tell stories based on her real-life experiences. Each episode is primarily conversations between Tiggy and her friends and hostel guests about LGBTQ issues (Bonardi is a strong advocate and also writes an advice column ... as Tiggy).

Upland is full of sharp, witty dialogue that covers interesting topics like gender identity, in-fighting within the LGBTQ community, pronoun usage, bi dating, and David Bowie. The photographed miniatures are charming and full of personality, and, while the layout of the word balloons can be confusing at times, the strength of the natural conversations in each story make these comics delightful, funny, and informative.

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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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