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Tag: Comics

NVIDIA’s At It Again

Although I’m not attending NVIDIA’s GPU Technology conference this year (as I did last year), it was hard to avoid the big news NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang announced around NVIDIA’s product roadmap. And, much to the glee of my inner nerd, NVIDIA has continued its use of colorful codenames.

The newest addition to NVIDIA’s mobile lineup (their Tegra line of products) is Parker — named after the alter-ego of Marvel’s Spiderman. Parker joins a family which includes Kal-El (Superman) [the Tegra 2], Wayne (Batman) [the Tegra 3], Stark (Iron Man) [Tegra 4], and Logan (Wolverine) [Tegra 5].

And as for NVIDIA’s high-performance computing lineup (their Tesla line of products), they’ve added yet another famous scientist: Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the battery (and the reason our unit for electric potential difference is the “Volt”). Volta joins brilliant physicists Nikola Tesla, Enrico Fermi, Johannes Kepler, and James Maxwell.

(Images from Anandtech)

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Go Watch the Avengers

After talking about it a few times on my blog over the last year, I finally got to see Marvel’s grand movie crossover late Friday night. While I was worried it wouldn’t satisfy the comic book fanboy inside me, director Joss Whedon and the cast clinched it. The pacing, the balance between the characters, the interpersonal interactions, the action sequences, and the Whedon-esque humor inserted throughout the film were all excellent.

So, if you are one of the many who haven’t helped to make the Avengers a record-setting opening, go watch the movie

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Mr. Tseng Goes to SXSW

Apologies for the lack of blogging these past few weeks. Part of that (although I really have no excuse) is because I got to attend famed tech, music, and film convention South-by-Southwest (aka SXSW).

It was my very first time in Austin, and I had a blast hanging out at the various booths/panels during the day and on Austin’s famous 6th Street in the evening. Granted, I just barely missed the torrential rain of the first half of the conference (and, sadly, also had to miss out on the music and film part of the festivals), but I got to see a fair amount of the tech conference, and had a few observations I thought I’d share

  • A good majority of the companies paying big bucks to market there should spend their money elsewhere. This is not a ding on the conference. Nor am I even arguing that these companies are wasting time sending representatives to the conference. My two cents is that there were many companies there who were spending their money unwisely at best – whether it be on acts of branding heroism (i.e. paying to rebrand local establishments) or holding massive parties with open bars and no coherent message  conveyed to the attendees about who the company is or why they should use the product. I must’ve attended at least three of the latter – and, truth be told, I can’t even remember the names of the startups that held those parties. Bad way to spend marketing dollars, or terrible way?
  • With that said, there were a number of companies there who definitely spent wisely (although whether or not it works is a question I leave for the marketplace). SXSW is a great venue to try to attract the attention of early adopters of consumer internet/mobile products – and it makes great sense to try to blow out marketing there as part of some major product/marketing push. Here’s two companies that I think were smart to spend a lot of money at SXSW (and, in my humble opinion, executed well):
    • nikefuelI think Nike in pushing its digital initiatives like Nike Fuel (which I plan to write a review of :-)) spent quite wisely building its brand. They had an interesting panel on using the product, an outdoors area that looked like a mini-boot camp (no joke!), a digital billboard which alternated between a appropriately color themed and a room decked out like a club where Nike employees sold the fuel band and helped new users get them set up.
    • ncom-lumia-900-cyan-front-267x500-pngI think Nokia (yes, despite my previous post, I mean Nokia) did a great job as well – they set up a Nokia Labs party area which looked like three giant domes from the outside. Right next to the entrance there was a snow machine (I assume to recreate the Finland snow?). The Nokia folks on the inside were all dressed in labcoats (keeping with the “lab” theme) and, like with Nike, there was crazy club music being played. The bar was offering a drink made with Finnish vodka called “Lumia Liquified” (Lumia is the name of Nokia’s new high-end smartphone line). And with this hip backdrop in place, the Nokia party had multiple exhibits featuring the Lumia’s unique design (there was a great display full of the drab black phones we’re used to seeing and the Lumia’s brightly colored phone standing out), the Lumia’s Carl Zeiss lens/optics, and the Lumia’s Clear Black display technology (basically using layers of polarized glass so that the display looks black and readable under direct light). Enough for me to no longer be a Fandroid? Probably not, but I definitely left the party impressed.
  • Like most tech shows, there was a main exhibition floor which I had a chance to walk through. On these floors, companies assemble at booths attempting to attract customers, business partners, investors, and even just curious passerbys. One of the booths I attended was held by Norton, makers of the Symantec security software that might be running on your computer. The reason I point it out is that, through some marketing deal, they were able to capture the heart of this comic loving blogger by co-opting the branding from the coming Avengers movie. The concept was actually pretty creative, if a bit hokey: participants had to play a handful of Norton security-themed casual games (think quizzes and simple Flash games where you use Norton widgets/tools/powerups to defend a machine from attack) to collect a series of badges. At the end of the sequence, depending on how you did on the games, you are awarded a rank and given a prize. One very fun perk for me is the photo below – guess who’s now a superhero? 🙂

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    That picture alone made SXSW worth it :-).

(Image credit – Nike fuel band – Linkbuildr)(Image credit – Lumia – Nokia)

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The Bad Math of Comics Companies

A few months ago I posted on DC Comic’s publicized reboot of their entire comic book franchise and argued this sort of bold action could be a good thing for the industry. Well, the reboot happened, and what’s the verdict? While there have been some very promising new books (I was particularly pleased with Grant Morrison’s Action Comics and Scott Snyder’s Batman), there were a few which, in my humble opinion, were changed for the worse.

But, while my comics fanboi rage might have been quelled had the editorial decision been made in a way to pull in new readers, such was not the case in at at least one notable book which butchered some of my favorite characters, as the following webcomic from Shortpacked illustrates:

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Seriously, DC. Even discounting the fact that I’m a big Teen Titans fan (it was one of the first comic book series I actually read!) and that you butchered a great female character who already had a great degree of sensuality in your reboot into some mindless, preening nymphomaniac – how did it ever occur to you to use a character who might have been a nice “gateway comic” for new fans and turn her into something unrecognizable and unlovable? Great one, DC. I hope the next reboot works better…

(There’s a great io9 post which further illustrates the stupidity of DC here)

(Image credit – Shortpacked)

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The Marketing Glory of NVIDIA’s Codenames

This is an old tidbit, but nevertheless a good one that has (somehow) never made it to my blog. I’ve mentioned before the private equity consulting world’s penchant for silly project names, but while code names are not rare in the corporate world, more often than not, the names don’t tend to be dull and not be of much use for a company. NVIDIA’s code names, however, are pure marketing glory.

Take NVIDIA’s high performance computing product roadmap (below) – these are products that use the graphics processing capabilities of NVIDIA’s high-end GPUs and turn them into smaller, cheaper, and more power-efficient supercomputing engines which scientists and researchers can use to crunch numbers (check out entries from the Bench Press blog for an idea of what researchers have been able to do with them). How does NVIDIA describe its future roadmap? It uses the names of famous scientists to describe its technology roadmap: Tesla (the great American electrical engineer who helped bring us AC power), Fermi (“the father of the Atomic Bomb”), Kepler (one of the first astronomers to apply physics to astronomy), and Maxwell (the physicist who helped show that electrical, magnetic, and optical phenomena were all linked).

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Who wouldn’t want to do some “high power” research (pun intended) with Maxwell? 🙂

But, what really takes the cake for me are the codenames NVIDIA uses for its smartphone/tablet chips: its Tegra line of products. Instead of scientists, he uses, well, comic book characters (now you know why I love them, right?) :-). For release at the end of this year? Kal-El, or for the uninitiated, that’s the alien name for Superman. After that? Wayne, as in the alter ego for Batman. Then, Logan, as in the name for the X-men Wolverine. And then Stark, as in the alter ego for Iron Man.

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Everybody wants a little Iron Man in their tablet :-).

And, now I know what I’ll name my future secret projects!

(Image credit – CUDA GPU Roadmap) (Image credit – Tegra Roadmap)

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Avengers Assemble

My love of comics stems from something quite simple: good cartoons. I grew up watching cartoons based on classic comic book storylines. Shows like X-Men: The Animated Series, Spider-man: The Animated Series, and Batman: The Animated Series (which even won four Emmy Awards!) were just plain cool to a young boy who wanted to watch good guys beat up bad guys :-). It wasn’t until later that I discovered that they also had a depth and complexity to them that went beyond the usual cartoon. And it was that material which would help me catch up on years of comic book continuity when I finally made the shift to the comic medium.

So its with that context when I say that I think the new cartoon The Avenger’s: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (which is also available on Netflix!) is really good. And the approach is quite clever: they have found a way to take the core team of Avengers from the comics (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Giant Man, the Wasp, the Black Panther, and Hawkeye) and seamlessly weave together both classic (i.e. Kang’s attempted conquest of the earth, the original battle with Ultron, etc) and modern (i.e. the big Marvel prison break which led to the founding of the New Avengers, Secret Invasion, etc) storylines and make it kid-friendly! The result is something which is modern in its approach, but fairly epic in its scope.

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While the show has left (and will probably continue to leave) out things less suited for children, like some of its predecessors, it doesn’t shy away from the richness and complexity that these stories can provide. If you enjoy superheroes, or if you want a fun introduction to the Marvel universe that is on par with the quality from Batman: The Animated Series, or even if its just that you can’t wait for these guys:

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to take on this guy:

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then I’d highly recommend checking this series out.

(Image credit) (Image credit – Avengersite) (Image credit – Avengersite)

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Lab Monkey’s Comic Recommendations

My college roommate, in a uncharacteristic burst of blogging, linked to my most recent post on comic recommendations and added a few of his own (four of which I almost added to my list but did not as I didn’t want to overwhelm! :-)) as well as some good tips in terms of how a new comic reader should approach the medium:

More so than in TV and movies, there are a lot of really terrible comic books. Even from star writers, output can be uneven in quality, and plot holes and weird, forced character development are fairly common. The forced pace of comic book publishing, and the whole insider-only, boys-only nature of how comics are produced, is often the culprit, leading to bad or crippled stories and shallow characters, especially with female characters. Superhero comics especially bring out the worst in the comic book industry.

One thing that’s often hard for beginners to grasp is that usually there is one ongoing “canonical” universe in comic books, but many stories (and most of the best ones) over the years have accumulated in “alternative” universes, where some details can vary. Don’t get hung up on the variations or contradictions. Continuity (comic-book-nerd speak for preserving and referencing years and years of backstory baggage) is severely overvalued in the comic book industry, and the best stories are often timeless and stand on their own two legs. There’s a reason why many of the books Ben and I both picked are often origin stories or stories set in “alternative” universes outside of the mainstream “canon” of comic books.

It’s worth your time to look around, cherry pick the best stories (which are often not the most marketed), and ignore the impulse to “read the whole story”. Quieter, smaller stories are almost always worth more time than the huge, universe-wide, pack-every-reference-you-can-think-of comic book stories that seem to be the trend these days in superhero comics.

In summary, seek out the gems as best as you can, and skip the oceans of bad stuff.

All very true – I’m extremely proud, not only of getting the shout-out, but to see a guy I helped bring into comics doing the same :-).

*High-fives Eric*

Check out more of his recommendations/thoughts at his Tumblr

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What are Good Comics For a Newbie to Read?

As I’ve made secret of my love for comic books, a friend of mine who has been enjoying the latest string of comic book movies asked if I had any recommendations for comics/trade paperbacks that a “comic newbie” (i.e. someone who doesn’t know the billion years of backstory that have accumulated over time in the comic worlds) might read.

Of course I do – who do you think you’re talking to? Here’s a quick list of things I’d recommend to a new reader who’d like to see what is out there in the comic world:

  • Not really about superheroes
    • The Watchmen : Written by Alan Moore and considered to be one of the best graphic novels/comic books of all time, it’s a fascinating look at how the world might have played out differently had super-powered beings and costumed heroes existed. And, heck, they made it into a movie too! Warning: it is a little disturbingly dark.
    • V for Vendetta : Another one by Alan Moore that was also turned into a movie, this is about a 1984-esque dystopia run by an all-seeing, all-powerful government and how an anarchist-minded terrorist could bring it all down.
    • sandman_lg The Sandman : This beloved series is by fan-favorite Neil Gaiman and while I’ve only linked to the first volume, if you have any love of the medium and want something more than just a superhero slug-fest, you have to read the entire collection. Its poignant and beautiful all at once.
  • About DC superheroes (think Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Justice League)
    • dcnewfrontier DC: The New Frontier : This set of stories (of which I’ve only linked to the first volume) is a favorite of mine, not only because it touches a huge swath of DC comics superheroes, but because I am a huge fan of the deco-style art. The first story may leave you a little confused (it doesn’t star any prominent DC superheroes), but read on: its an important setup and helps the story span a few decades!
    • Batman: The Long Halloween : This is one of the quintessential Batman stories, where you get a taste not only of the richness of Batman’s “Rogues Gallery” but also his ongoing war with the Gotham mob.
    • Batman: Year One : Frank Miller is very hit-or-miss with me, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he had a solid hit with this one. Its probably the quintessential origin story – and its probably *the* comic which pushed DC’s depiction of Batman towards the grim-and-grittier version that you’ve seen Christian Bale play.
    • Gotham Central : Gotham Central was one of my favorite comic runs ever. Written by two of my favorite comic writers (Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka), it stepped into the shoes of the police officers who operate in Gotham, home of the Batman, and goes over the difficulties of operating in a city with a vigilante and his Rogues Gallery. Very unique vantage point for character development and for seeing a different side of Batman and his world. I’ve linked to the first volume, but I’d recommend reading the entire series.
    • kingdomcome Kingdom Come : This is a “what if” storyline which provides some interesting commentary about the role of heroism in society. Set several decades into the future, it shows what happens with a world which has seemed to move past the morals of the DC superheroes we all know and love. And, unlike your traditional inked-and-penciled art, Kingdom Come was all about Alex Ross’s gorgeous painted scenes. This book is especially significant for me as it was the first trade paperback I ever bought!
  • About Marvel superheroes (think Spiderman, X-men, Iron Man, the Avengers)
    • marvels Marvels : This is another set of stories illustrated with Alex Ross’s paintings, but it takes you on a crash course through Marvel Comics history. Like with Gotham Central, instead of seeing the world through the lens of a main character/superhero, this is told from the perspective of a photographer (and hence, the “common man”) who grows up from photo-kid to photography veteran.
    • The Ultimates : Like with Kingdom Come, this is another “what if” storyline which takes a look at what the Avengers, Marvel Comic’s superhero team, might look like in today’s world as a government sponsored superhero group. Full of modern references and gorgeous art from Bryan Hitch and some interesting twists on the traditional Marvel comics, this one is definitely worth a once-over.
    • 1602 Marvel 1602 : I promise this is my last “what if” storyline, but this storyline, by Neil Gaiman of The Sandman fame, asks what would Marvel superheroes have looked like had they been around in 1602. The art is very well done, and Gaiman does a great job of translating the Marvel characters of today into 1602 (and I got a chuckle that mutants were the target of the Spanish Inquisition – those guys never catch a break)
    • New X-Men : I’ve mentioned Grant Morrison on this blog before, but in addition to being a weird, bald Scottish guy, in a single run he helped to redefine the status quo of the X-Men. Mr. Morrison’s efforts made the character of Emma Frost one of the X-men “regulars”, and unlike many of his predecessors in the 1990s, he was focused quite a bit less on arbitrary mutant-phobia as he was on what it truly meant to have a large population of another species co-existing with humans. Very interesting run and, if you want to dive into some of the richer tapestry of comics, this is a good one to dive deeper into.

(Image credit – Sandman) (Image credit – DC New Frontier) (Image credit – Kingdom Come) (Image credit – Marvels) (Image credit – Marvel 1602)

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The “Strangest Biotech Company of All” Issues Their Annual Report as a Comic Book

This seems almost made for me: I’m into comics. I do my own corporate style annual and quarterly reports to track how my finances and goals are going. And, I follow the biopharma industry.

So, when I found out that a biotech company issued its latest annual report in the form of a comic book, I knew I had to blog about it!

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The art style is interesting and not all that bad (albeit a little too heavy on the inking in my mind — what do they think this is, a Batman noir-ish comic?), but the bulk of the comic is told from the first person perspective of Martin Auster, head of business development at the company (that’s Doctor Auster to you, pal!). We get an interesting look at Auster’s life, how he was a medical student who didn’t really want to do a residency, and how and why he joins the company:

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And, of course, what annual report wouldn’t be complete without some financial charts – and yes, this particular chart was intended to be read with 3D glasses (which were apparently shipped with paper copies of the report):

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Interestingly, the company in question – United Therapeutics — is not a tiny company either: its worth roughly $3 billion (as of when this was written) and is also somewhat renowned for its more unusual practices (meetings have occurred in the virtual world Second Life and employees are all called “Unitherians”) as well as its brilliant and eccentric founder, Dr. Martine Rothblatt. Rothblatt is a very accomplished modern-day polymath:

  • She was an early pioneer in communication satellite law
  • She helped launch a number of communication satellite technologies and companies
  • She founded and was CEO of Geostar Corporation, an early GPS satellite company
  • She founded and was CEO of Sirius Satellite Radio
  • She led the International Bar Association’s efforts to draft a Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights
  • She is a pre-eminent proponent for xenotransplantation
  • She is also one of the most vocal advocates of transgenderism and transgender rights, having been born as Martin Rothblatt (Howard Stern even referred to her as the “Martine Luther Queen” of the movement)
  • She is a major proponent of the interesting philosophy that one might achieve technological immortality by digitizing oneself (having created an interesting robot version of her wife, Bina).
  • She started United Therapeutics because her daughter was diagnosed with Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension, a fatal condition which, at the time of diagnosis, there was no effective treatment for

You got to have a lot of love and respect for a company that not only seems to have delivered an impressive financial outcome ($600 million in sales a year and $3 billion in market cap is not bad!) and can still maintain what looks like a very fun and unique culture (in no small part, I’m sure, because of their CEO).

(all images from United Therapeutics annual report)

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The DC Comics “reboot” is a good thing

DC Comics recently announced that they were doing a line-wide “reboot” of their comic book franchises:

On Wednesday, August 31st, DC Comics will launch a historic renumbering of the entire DC Universe line of comic books with 52 first issues, including the release of JUSTICE LEAGUE by NEW YORK TIMES bestselling writer and DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns and bestselling artist and DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee. The publication of JUSTICE LEAGUE issue 1 will launch day-and-date digital publishing for all these ongoing titles, making DC Comics the first of the two major American publishers to release all of its superhero comic book titles digitally the same day as in print.

jl_cv1While the decision to do this has been met with some controversy amongst the existing comic book fan community, I think this is a great idea.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not 100% thrilled with all the changes and new titles/redesigns I’m seeing. Moreover, I don’t think I’d have any credibility as a comic book fan if I didn’t say I’m a little worried about what’s going to happen to the rich character history that has been built over the years or didn’t express some cynicism over the industry’s predilection for “ret-cons”.

But, the truth is I think this is the sort of thing which the comic book industry needs to do to stay relevant. For too long, the industry has taken the easy way out:

  • Cater to the most hardcore of fans: Its the classic Innovator’s Dilemma problem: its always easier to sell the same customers more and more profitable products than it is to pull in less profitable customers. In the short-term, this is fine – but over the long-term, this can be a disaster as the industry sees its user base dwindle. And, as I’ve mentioned before, as much of a fan as I am, even I’m finding the medium less appealing as this trend plays itself out.
  • Recycle old stories to make movies, TV shows, and cartoons: if the traditional comic medium itself is in danger (as I think it is if things keep going the way they are), the comics industry has adapted by pursuing movies, TV shows, and cartoons (case in point: Smallville). Now don’t get me wrong – I love that there are so many comic book-related movies. There is nothing a comic book fan wants more than to have other people interested in the characters and the stories (and, if there are fans out there who are anything like me, they revel in being able to answer questions about the backstories and characters involved). But, the problem with this approach is two things. First, this sort of medium is a classic long tail business: its great if you get a hit, but its really hard to make sure you have a hit – and, as a result, its really hard to bet the future of your business on. Secondly, unless I’m mistaken, the vast majority of the people watching these movies and shows are not becoming comic book/collectibles buyers or comic convention goers.

To me, the way forward for the industry is something that is hard and may even partially alienate the existing hardcore fanbase: but its to disrupt themselves. Yes, its easier to keep the hardcore fans happy and buying, but there’s not only a lot more money to be made by catering to a wider fanbase, if it doesn’t happen, sooner or later, something else will.

And that’s why I think that DC’s announcement is promising, for what I think the big guys need to do is:

  • Embrace digital: Yes, your traditional business model is tied to Diamond for distribution. But, digital will change this business the way its changed the music, movie, and newspaper industries – and unless you are quick to embrace it intelligently, you may find yourself in a very poor position.
  • Change your publishing schedule: Have your stories come out on a weekly basis, not a monthly one. The way to get people engaged (and to spend money) is to have them visit the comic store/website/digital store regularly. A bad 3-part story takes 3 months to finish with today’s monthly publishing schedule: that’s taking a huge risk that a fan will drop the book and forget to come back after 3 months. If the same 3-part story were finished in 3 weeks, then you have a different equation.
  • Be smart about product/pricing: Hardcore fans are willing to pay more for more. So, sell them trade paperbacks full of complex, intertwined stories and creator interviews/sketchbooks. Sell them 20-part stories which are full of cameos and references. Sell them special editions. But, for the mainstay storylines that should be accessible? Make them cheaper. After all, they’re the gateway drug to the full-on addiction :-). Think about new pricing models: how about $20 for “all you can eat” for one month on the digital comic store? Or how about buy a mainstay storyline and get 20% off of a related story? There’s plenty of room here.
  • Rationalize movie vs comic: I’m not a fan of twisting comic book storylines to fit movies. But, similarly, I worry about any casual comic book readers who pick up an issue and think to themselves: “what the heck?” It’s not easy, but the industry does need to find a way to bridge the two while staying truthful to both types of media. One idea: a free comic book “guide” (with movie stub) to smooth over the differences between the movie version and the comic version?
  • Get back to the character: Too often today, comic book storylines are about packing in every possible way for the world to end into a storyline. While this is something that is cool every so often, doing it too often is overkill and is oftentimes done at the expense of developing the character of the hero, the villain(s), and the supporting characters. Perry White, Aunt May, Alfred Pennyworth, and Jane Foster are not Lex Luthor, the Green Goblin, Joker, or Loki per se, but they are still important and deserve to be more than just the “scenery”.

There’s still more detail to be revealed in DC’s reboot, and its still not clear to me how much they live up to what I’ve outlined. Sadly, the pessimist in me is pretty sure they’ll fall short. But, as a fan of the medium, I hope they don’t.

(Image credit – DC Comics)

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Making the Enemy of your Enemy

What? Another science paper post? Yup, I’m trying to get ahead of my paper-a-month deadlines by posting February’s while actually still in February!

This month’s paper comes from Science and is a topic which is extremely relevant to global health. As you probably know, malaria kills close to 1 million people a year, with most of these deaths in areas lacking in the financial resources and public infrastructure needed to tackle the disease. In addition to the socioeconomic factors, the biology of the disease itself is extremely challenging to deal with because the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum not only rapidly shifts its surface proteins (so the immune system can’t get a good “fix” on it) it also has a very complex multi-stage life cycle (diagram below), where it goes from being carried around by a mosquito as a sporozoite, to infecting and effectively “hiding inside” human liver cells, to becoming merozoites which then infect and hide inside human red blood cells, and then producing gametocytes which are picked up by mosquito’s which combine to once again form sporozoites. Each stage is not only difficult to target (because the parasites spend a lot of their time “hiding”), but the sheer complexity of the lifecycle means the immune system and drugs humans come up with are always a step behind.

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So, what to do? While there is active work being done to build vaccines and drugs to fight malaria, the “low-hanging fruit” is getting the upper-hand on the mosquito transmission phase. Unfortunately, controlling mosquitos has become almost as bad a nightmare as dealing with the Plasmodium parasite. The same socioeconomic factors which limit medical treatment for the disease also make it difficult to do things like exterminate mosquitos. Furthermore, pesticides not only have adverse environmental impacts (i.e., DDT) but will ultimately have limited lifetimes as the mosquito population will eventually develop resistance to them.

imageWell, enter the enterprising scientist. I can’t say for sure, but I have to believe that the scientists here must have read comic books like Spiderman or Captain America as a kid because the approach they chose feels like it came straight out of the comic book world. But, instead of building a monstrosity like the Scorpion (pictured to the right), the researchers built a super-fungus super-soldier to control malarial transmission.

Instead of giving the powers of a scorpion to smalltime thief Mac Gargan (who then named himself, appropriately, The Scorpion), the researchers engineered a fungus which naturally infects mosquitos called Metarhizium anisopliae to:

  • kill the infected mosquito more slowly (as to not push mosquitos to become resistant to the fungus)
  • coat the infected mosquito’s salivary glands with a protein fragment called SM1 to block the malaria parasites from getting there
  • produce a chemical derived from scorpions called scorpine which is extremely effective at killing malaria parasites and bacteria

Pretty cool idea, right? But does it work? Figure 3 of the chart below shows the results of their experiments:

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Mosquitos were fed on malaria-infected blood 11 days before they were dosed with our super-fungus. Typically sporozoites take about 2 weeks to build in any reasonable number in a mosquito’s salivary glands, so 14-17 days after exposure to malaria, the researchers checked the salivary glands of uninfected mosquitos (the control [C] group), mosquitos infected with non-super-fungus (the wild-type [WT] group), and mosquitos infected with the super-fungus (transgenic [TS] group). As you can see in the chart above, the TS parasite count was not only significantly smaller than both the control and wild type groups, but the control and wild type groups behaved exactly as you would expect them to (the parasite counts went up over time).

So, have we discovered a super-soldier we can count on to stop mosquito-borne illnesses? I would hold off on that for a number of reasons. First, on an experimental level, the researchers only looked at 14-17 days post-infection. To be confident, I’d like to see what this looks like with different doses of fungus and over longer periods of time and a wider range of mosquitos (as nearly 70 species of mosquito transmit malaria and I don’t even know what the numbers look like for other diseases). Secondly, its not clear to me what the most effective way to dose large populations of mosquitos are. The researchers maintain that you can spray this like a pesticide and the fungus will adhere to surfaces and stay effective for long periods of time – but that needs to be validated and plans need to be drawn up to not only pay for this (I have no idea how expense this is) but also to deploy it.

Lastly, and this is something that almost any naturalist or economist will tell you: human actions always have unintended consequences. At a first glance, it looks like the researchers covered their bases. They build what looks like a strategy which avoids mosquito resistance (and, because it uses at least two ways of controlling the parasite, is probably less vulnerable to Plasmodium resistance than drugs/vaccines). But, more research needs to be done to ascertain if there are other environmental or economic impacts of using something like this.

All in all, however, this looks like a promising start for what could be an interesting and inspired way to help control malaria.

(Image credit – Malaria lifecycle) (Image credit – the Scorpion) (Figure 3 from paper)

Paper: Fang et al., “Development of Transgenic Fungi that Kill Human Malaria Parasite in Mosquitos.” Science 331: 1074-1077 (Feb 2011) – doi:10.1126/science.1199115

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This generation’s Superman

One of my favorite comic blogs is CBR’s Comics Should be Good. In a recent post, the blog pointed out something which I hadn’t realized before:

Okay, this is just a weird thought that struck me after I got the news that Smallville had been renewed yet again.

I suddenly realized that there are almost as many hours of Smallville on film as there are of all the other Superman TV adaptations combined.

Boggles the mind, doesn’t it? What really pulled me up short was the startling notion that for two or three generations of grade-school kids, Smallville is their primary — maybe only — experience of any kind of Superman story at all.

It makes you wonder: is the correct interpretation that comics is dying and being replaced by a lesser art form? Or that it is simply evolving to tell its stories using a new medium? Or maybe a little bit of both?

image My take is that the comics industry made a big mistake years ago in investing in creative directions which became impossible for lay-people to follow along. As devoted as I am to the medium, even I find a lot of today’s stories difficult to follow and lacking in the original character work that made them so memorable. Take Superman – when’s the last time a good Perry White story was written? Or a good Jimmy Olson? You probably have to go back over 10 years to find them.

With Smallville, the barrier to entry is not only much lower (although after ten years, even Smallville has started to fall into continuity traps), its brought back the romantic soap-opera and angst-ridden introspection which has done so well for series like the X-Men or Spiderman, and wrapped it up with an impressive array of special effects and modern television-making in a mostly-weekly format.

I hope the industry sees this both in terms of lessons to be learned about how to revitalize the original medium (make it more frequent than monthly, add back the supporting cast, reduce the dependence on excessive continuity, add back real character drama), and in terms of how they can continue to adapt their rich stories for the future.

(Image credit)

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Lets hear it for Mike

I’ve known Mike Lee since we were both in high school doing debate. He’s a great guy, and I’ve enjoyed talking to him over the years about comic books, science, religion, and politics. He and I don’t always see eye-to-eye (translation: sometimes I think he’s nuts – come on, Mike, Kyle Rayner as the greatest Green Lantern ever?), but he’s one of the most thoughtful and intellectually humble guys I know.

So, when I found out he wrote a paper which happened to be one of the Top 10 downloads on the Social Sciences Research Network about healthcare policy, I knew I had to recommend it to all my blog subscribers.

Oh and, the fact that I made it to his list of acknowledgements has, of course, no bearing at all on my recommending the piece :-).

In all seriousness, give it a read. I haven’t finished it yet, but if it comes from Mike, I know its definitely worth perusing.

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Batman + Snoopy

If its not apparent by now, I’m a fan of comics. Two of my favorite characters in comics would be Batman and Snoopy (of Peanuts fame). So, when I read this week’s Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed (its a weekly series on CBR’s Comics Should be Good blog), I was extremely delighted to see that there was a short Batman comic written in 1981 which homaged Snoopy’s great American novel.

What novel you ask? It was a regular Charles Schulz gag about Snoopy authoring the greatest novel you’ve never read on his cute little typewriter:

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Amazing, right? Now, pay close attention to the next four comics:image image image image

Why pay attention? Because then check out the following Batman comic. See anything familiar in the text?

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I was in nerd-fanboi heaven 🙂

(All images borrowed from Comic Book Legends Revealed page)

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SHIELD

I think I’m long overdue for an actually comics-y comic book post.

imageFor years, Marvel comics readers have known of S.H.I.E.L.D, the American super-spy organization formerly run by Nick Fury (pictured on the left, he’s the cool-looking guy with the eye-patch, not the freaky green guy who is probably a minion of HYDRA).

As a big fan of the super-spy concept, the idea of SHIELD always had intuitive appeal to me, which is why I became very excited when I found out that superstar writer Jonathan Hickman was writing a new series called S.H.I.E.L.D which would dive into the history of the SHIELD organization and how it dates back to the time of Ancient Egypt as a secret society of polymaths who sought to protect the world.

imageIn the first issue alone (cover pictured on the right), we have already seen such famous historical (and fictional) polymaths (translation: genius in multiple fields) as:

The idea of history’s greatest geniuses as superheroes in a historical secret society is an idea that this fanboy/nerd can’t help but love (not to mention the thrill from the incorporation of the Asian polymath Zhang Heng in a comic with a predominantly Western audience), and it got me thinking, who else would it be awesome to have on this team of super-luminaries? We already know that Nostradamus and Sir Isaac Newton will play heavily in the rest of the series, but who else? The comics blog the Weekly Crisis took a quick stab at it, but I thought I’d also make my own list :-):

  • Joan of Arc – (shared with the Weekly Crisis) How does a peasant girl who hear voices from God take command of the French army and overthrow the British? Duh, she had to have been a SHIELD agent – perhaps even a telepath or someone with precognition (can see the future)?
  • Benjamin Franklin – (shared with the Weekly Crisis) Scientist. Inventor. Writer. How does SHIELD pass up recruiting a guy with this much chops? And, obviously, you would place this guy in the New World to deal with any emerging threats there!
  • Archimedes – A man so brilliant that the general of the invading Roman armies issued an order to capture him unharmed. History says that he died when an invading Roman soldier ignored his general’s orders. I say it was just a pretense to bring him over to SHIELD.
  • Hypatia – Potentially the first widely regarded female polymaths, Hypatia was the daughter of one of the last scholars associated with the Musaeum at Alexandria, one of the great repositories of ancient knowledge. Would it be so hard to believe, then, that she would have had access to the knowledge of SHIELD?
  • Abbas ibn Firnas – Best known for possibly attempting the first human heavier-than-air flight, ibn Firnas was a brilliant inventor and was even said to have a “room in which spectators witnessed stars, clouds, thunder, and lightning, which were produced by mechanisms located in his basement laboratory” – sounds like a possible headquarters for SHIELD operations, no?
  • Jābir ibn Hayyān – The first experimental alchemist, ibn Hayyan is widely considered the “Father of Chemistry.” So ahead-of-his-time was ibn Hayyan, that it is believed that the word “gibberish” was derived from a Latinized version of “Jabir” to describe the complexity of his writings. ibn Hayyan would’ve brought significant credibility and expertise to an 8th-9th century SHIELD.
  • Shen Kuo – A prolific scientist and inventor ahead of his times, Shen not only devised the magnetic compass and new methods of studying space but was known for documenting UFOs! If that doesn’t spell, SHIELD extraterrestrial expert, I don’t know what does.
  • Thomas Young – While Einstein was a brilliant physicist, Young was a brilliant physicist, linguist, and doctor. What earned him the most fame was his contributions to the deciphering of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics through the Rosetta stone. But, he was also famous for deducing that light had wave-like properties, for understanding the nature of elasticity, for figuring out how human vision works (even concluding that human color vision depends on three different color sensors), and figuring out the nature of surface tension and capillary action. How does SHIELD pass someone like this up?

Of course, I’m not a writer – so who knows if any of these suggestions would actually make great stories (although I obviously think they will). Regardless, I’m very excited to read the coming issues of this series, and would recommend it to anyone else who has a taste for seeing major historical geniuses take on threats to the safety of the human race!

So, which other polymath/geniuses or major historical figures would you want in SHIELD?

(Image credit – Nick Fury) (Image credit – Marvel)

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How is it that I did not know about this movie until today?

I love comics. I read them for fun. I watch the movies. I am subscribed to a whole bunch of comics blogs. Heck, I even wrote my college application essay about comic books.

So, how is it that I didn’t learn about the movie Kick Ass until now? (Warning, trailer below is NSFW)

Won’t be the classiest movie (and I’m doubtful if it will even be any good), but how can I not want to see a movie which is basically about what I spend a reasonable amount of my day thinking about (being a superhero)? 🙂

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A Shirt to Fight For

This past weekend I bought an awesome shirt which represents the battle between Good and Evil … with Silver Age DC comics characters! (Yes, in case you weren’t aware, I’m a big fan of comics)

The front, representing the forces of good are (a subset of) the Justice League: Wonder Woman, Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Batman, Superman, the Flash (Barry Allen), and Aquaman!

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On the back, representing the forces of evil are the supervillains  the Cheetah (I forgot her real name :-(), the Penguin, Brainiac V, Lex Luthor, the Joker, and the Riddler:

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Yeah, you know you want one. Shockingly, I found this little gem in a (don’t laugh) Forever 21!

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Goodbye Mr. Dorf

I was saddened to discover, upon checking my favorite RSS reader that Sheldon Dorf, founder of the San Diego Comic Con which I have grown fond of passed away today (Yahoo News link).

SAN DIEGO – Sheldon Dorf, who founded the world famous Comic-Con International comic book convention, has died. He was 76.

A longtime friend, Greg Koudoulian, says the Ocean Beach resident died at a San Diego hospital on Tuesday from kidney failure. He had diabetes and had been hospitalized for about a year.
Dorf, a freelance artist and comic strip letterer, founded Comic-Con in San Diego in 1970 after moving from Detroit.

Today, the convention draws 125,000 fans a year and is a major gathering for comic book fans, artists, writers and movie stars.

Koudoulian says Dorf was friends with comic greats such as Marvel artist Jack Kirby and “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz. He says Dorf was also instrumental in helping budding artists find audiences.

Farewell, Mr. Dorf. Hopefully you enjoy yourself in the great comic book convention in the sky…

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