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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
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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