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Marko Djurdjevic // Marvel Comics

The 5 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Marko Djurdjevic // Marvel 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. HELLBOY IN HELL #10

By Mike Mignola and Dave Stewart
Dark Horse Comics

Dark Horse Comics

This week, Hellboy in Hell #10 marks Mike Mignola’s final Hellboy comic. Only time will tell whether it will be the last comic the character ever appears in, but Mignola has essentially announced his own semi-retirement with this issue, planning to move away from comics to focus on painting.

Issues of Hellboy in Hell have trickled out slowly over the past few years yet no one—Mignola included—really expected it to come to an end so quickly. Reading the series has been a treat for Mignola fans, and it's a great way for him to say farewell to the character he created 23 years ago.

2. TALK DIRTY TO ME

By Luke Howard
Adhouse Books

Adhouse Books

Emma and her husband move to a new city with dreams of a fresh start. While her husband starts his new job, Emma finds an ad for a sex hotline hiring new operators, tapping into some complicated feelings she has about pornography and repressed female sexuality. The shy, reserved Emma seems an unlikely candidate for the job, but could taking it mean a move towards sexual empowerment?

Talk Dirty to Me is Luke Howard’s first major graphic novel after producing a number of acclaimed mini-comics. It is being published by Adhouse Books, which is known for promoting young talent like Howard. A comic about sex can easily teeter into cliché and moral preachiness, but Howard steers clear of cheap titillation and banality with some interesting storytelling choices that make the moral argument purely an internal one for Emma.

3. CIVIL WAR II #1

By Brian Michael Bendis, David Marquez and Justin Posner
Marvel Comics

Marvel Comics

Comic publishers haven’t always created great synergy with Hollywood. There was a time when a movie would be released without clear comics options for excited new readers, but Marvel seems to have covered every angle with this week’s release of the first issue of Civil War II, the sequel to their 2006 mini-series that was the inspiration for last month’s hit film Captain America: Civil War. Now that everyone has had the chance to see the movie a couple of times, they may be interested in seeing the superhero-on-superhero conflict play out in a new way, and Marvel is ready to deliver.

The conflict in both the film and the original series revolved around requiring superheroes to register with the government and divulge their secret identities. This time around, the conflict arises over the morality of prosecuting crimes before they happen. When a new Inhuman with the power to see the future arrives on the scene, the question of whether to use his powers to alter the future draws a dividing line between Iron Man and Captain Marvel. This series will run for 8 issues and, as is always the case with these kinds of series, will be so big that it crosses over into just about every other Marvel Comic being published during the length of this series.

4. BIRTH OF KITARO

By Shigeru Mizuki
Drawn & Quarterly

Drawn & Quarterly

Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly has been tirelessly working to bring the works of the late Shigeru Mizuki to Western readers. Previously, they've focused on his history-based books like the four-volume Showa: A History of Japan or last year’s translation of his biography of Hitler, but Mizuki was most famous in Japan for his all-ages horror comic GeGeGe no Kitaro. Mizuki’s Kitaro stories are creepy but comical adventures about a young boy of yōkai origin (supernatural ghost creatures of Japanese folklore) who finds himself in monster-of-the-week style adventures. One of the most popular children’s manga in Japan, it has inspired adaptations in many formats including anime, live action films, and video games.

D&Q’s all-ages graphic novels typically skew towards offbeat international offerings like this (see also their Moomin and Pippi Longstocking collections). They previously published Kitaro compilations, but Birth of Kitaro is the first in a seven-volume series that will collect all of the Kitaro stories and package them in an affordable, digest-sized format. The seven stories collected here were all originally published in the 1960s, including the title story that shows the origin of our young hero and introduces us to his father, a zombie who is reduced to a walking eyeball that still manages to be an over-protective dad.

5. BATMAN REBIRTH #1/SUPERMAN REBIRTH #1/GREEN LANTERNS REBIRTH #1/GREEN ARROW REBIRTH #1

DC Comics

DC Comics

After last week’s DC Universe Rebirth #1, DC’s new status quo begins with four #1 issues for Batman, Superman, Green Lanterns (note the plural) and Green Arrow. While the publisher is going to be relaunching most of their titles over the summer, they are not “rebooting” the continuities, meaning readers will find that these four comics mostly carry on with what has come before (but with new creative teams and a mandate to make the comics more heroic and hopeful).

Batman: Rebirth follows Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s best-selling run on the flagship Batman title by adding DC’s hottest new writer, Tom King (Sheriff of Babylon, Omega Men) as Snyder’s co-writer.

After killing off the “New 52” version of Kal-El in last week's Superman #52, Superman: Rebirth deals with the fallout and begins to move ahead with replacing him with his married, bearded pre-"New 52" counterpart.

Green Lanterns: Rebirth warns that the Earth is facing a threat dire enough that it’s necessary to hand out another ring to an Earthling to defend Sector 2817. And in Green Arrow: Rebirth, DC’s classic romance between Green Arrow and Black Canary is reintroduced for the first time since the characters were rebooted in 2011.

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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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