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Gary Frank/DC Comics

The 4 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Gary Frank/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. DC UNIVERSE: REBIRTH #1

By Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, Phil Jimenez, Ethan Van Sciver, and others
DC Comics

DC Comics

DC Universe: Rebirth #1 is a giant-sized special issue that marks a new era for DC Comics. This latest event seeks to reset the status quo of their comic universe, but don’t call it a reboot; DC already did that in 2011 with the publishing initiative dubbed “The New 52.” Five years later, they are relaunching their main titles without throwing away previous story continuity. Instead, they are reinstating backstories and characters from the discarded pre-New 52 continuity.

Much of this 80-page comic is structured as a series of check-ins with various characters to tease future storylines in upcoming books. The thread that ties them together is Wally West, who became the Flash after the death of his mentor Barry Allen during 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths and was erased from continuity during 2011’s Flashpoint. It turns out that Wally still exists but is trapped outside of reality, forgotten by his friends and family. In fact, ten years of reality has been wiped clean from everyone’s memories, replaced by everything that has happened in the last five years of comics we know as The New 52.

These kinds of course corrections DC makes to its continuity are themselves a long-standing tradition. They seem to be caught forever in a struggle between appealing to new readers while still pleasing older fans. However, this comic runs the risk of alienating a whole swath of fans by indicating that it will be bringing Alan Moore's Watchmen into the main DC Universe continuity, a move that many will feel dishonors the legacy of that highly revered book.

2. SUPERMAN #52

By Peter J. Tomasi and Mikel Janin
DC Comics

DC Comics

As DC Universe: Rebirth opens the door for a new status quo, another book out this week closes the door on the old one. Superman #52 is the final issue in this series (all the current DC books will be ending with their 52nd issue). It's the conclusion to an eight-part story that has been running through all the related Superman titles, called “The Final Days of Superman.” While we’ve seen many a "Death of Superman" story before, this comic seems as if DC is legitimately and permanently killing off this version of the character that has been the subject of comics for the past five years.

It's the culmination of a number of recent storylines that have seen Superman infected with a Doomsday virus, drastically weakened, and exposed to lethal doses of Kryptonite. Yet, even at the very end, he has to defeat a powerful enemy one last time.

The New 52 Superman has proved mostly unpopular with fans since his debut in 2011, despite the efforts of superstar writers like Grant Morrison, Gene Luen Yang, and Greg Pak. It was probably the risky changes to his character and backstory that created a distance with fans (his romance with Wonder Woman and simply platonic friendship with Lois Lane; the drastic reduction in his powers; and his brooding, inhuman demeanor). Taking his place will be a predecessor from the previous DC continuity who has been lurking around the New 52 universe for the past year, hiding out with his wife Lois and their son Jonathan.

3. COMIXOLOGY UNLIMITED

Comixology

This week, Comixology unveiled a new “Unlimited” subscription service that grants access to thousands of comics, graphic novels, and manga for $5.99 per month. This move has been anticipated for a long time, but it comes with some caveats and some potentially large implications for the comics industry.

Digital subscription services like Netflix and Spotify have transformed the music and movie industries in both positive and negative ways, and its been expected for a while that comics would eventually follow suit. Marvel made an early jump into this arena with their Marvel Unlimited service which gives access to their entire library of digital comics (with new releases delayed by six months). Comixology is setting more limits on their “Unlimited" service. Not only are Marvel and DC comics not included, but most of the Unlimited offerings are limited to initial issues and first volumes in a series, not complete runs. What is and isn’t available will change over time, much like the regular changes Netflix makes with their content.

In theory, a full unlimited digital library on Comixology would be a tricky proposition for the comics industry, which is built atop a precarious network of brick-and-mortar retail shops. That said, many readers who haven’t made the jump to digital cite the cost for digital files, many of which are not DRM-free, so the idea of a low-cost subscription fee might actually make more sense to those readers. This is a big move for Comixology—one whose impact on the digital comics market may take some time to bear out.

4. CAPTAIN AMERICA: STEVE ROGERS #1

By Nick Spencer and Jesus Diaz
Marvel Comics

Marvel Comics

Two years ago, during the seventh volume of Captain America, the super-soldier serum in Steve Rogers’s body was neutralized during a battle with The Iron Nail, causing him to revert to his natural age of 90. While still pretty buff for a nonagenarian, he soon retired the mantle of Captain America, passing it on to longtime friend and colleague Sam Wilson, formerly the Falcon.

Having an African-American take over as one of Marvel’s most high-profile heroes is a big deal and part of Marvel’s diversification efforts. However, change is tenuous in comics, and it would only be a matter of time before the original Captain American returned. While that day has now come, Rogers is not replacing Wilson, but rather getting his own title outside of the main Captain America series, with Wilson continuing to be the “real” Cap and brandishing the standard circular shield (Rogers will now have a new costume and shield-shaped shield).

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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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