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Ransom Riggs

Strange Geographies: The Salton Sea

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Ransom Riggs

As someone with more than a passing interest in ghost towns, abandoned buildings and the apocalypse, the Salton Sea has long been high on my must-visit list. This week I finally had the chance to make the three-hour drive from LA, and my morbid curiosity was not disappointed.

The Salton Sea is the largest inland body of water in California, and easily its most toxic. Once a haven for tourists, fishermen and boaters -- in the 1950s it was touted as "the American Riviera" -- years of polluted runoff from agricultural and industrial sites, not to mention untold amounts of untreated sewage from Mexico, pumped into the sea via one of America's dirtiest waterways, the Northward-flowing New River, have turned the Salton into a truly foul place.

At one time the Salton Sea was among the state's most productive fisheries. (During WWII, when German submarines made ocean fishing dangerous, most of Southern California's fish were harvested in the Salton.) But steadily increasing levels of toxins, algae, salt and bacteria led to a number of massive die-offs -- the largest, in 1999, killed 7.6 million fish -- and its once-thriving population of migratory birds are sickened each year with selenium and botulism poisoning. The Sea is 25% saltier than the ocean and getting saltier every year, and despite some residents' claims that its tea-colored waters can "heal your skin," coming into contact with the Salton or eating anything that comes out of it are heartily discouraged.

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In the 1960s, there were a half-dozen booming beach towns along the Sea's 80-mile coastline. That was before the days when dead fish littered the beaches -- the "sand" along the water's edge nothing more than the crushed-and-rounded bones from millions of fish skeletons -- and before the death-and-decay stench of the Salton in the 110-degree heat of summer became unbearable. Flooding in the 1970s buried beachfront structures in several feet of salted mud, hastening people's departure from the area. These days, the beachfront is a post-apocalyptic wasteland of houses, trailers and boarded-up beach clubs slowly sinking into the toxic mud.
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Usually when I go to broken-down places like this, there are suspicious people lurking on the margins, wondering what I'm doing poking around with a camera. There was no one in these little towns -- though some of the homes looked occupied, there was no one outside, no one walking the streets, and certainly no one on the beach. We saw more border patrol agents than anyone, as the southern end of the Sea is just a short drive from the Mexican border.
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The graffiti on this house reads "The Hills Have Eyes." (Click on it, or any of these pictures, for a larger size.) Further reinforcing my feeling that this is not somewhere I'd want to hang around after dark.
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Just outside the Salton-adjacent hamlet of Niland, there rises a strange, brightly-painted, man-made hill called Salvation Mountain. It's a pastel shock to the system after hours of brown and gray -- an enormous adobe structure covered in 100,000 gallons of paint, all made by one man, Leonard Knight, over the course of 25 years. Salvation Mountain is an amazing place that deserves its own post. [Update: Here it is!]
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On the outskirts of Salvation Mountain: lacking a proper river for his boat, Leonard painted his own.
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Update:

I returned to the Salton Sea in 2011. This time I shot video rather than photos, and the result is my first Strange Geographies-style short film. Hope you like it!

You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
entertainment
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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