Original image

Strange Geographies: OIL! in L.A.

Original image

Most people aren't surprised to hear that Los Angeles is one of the top oil-consuming areas in the country. But fewer people realize that it's also among the nation's top oil-producing areas, as well. Back in the old days -- when Edward Doheny struck oil near downtown LA in 1892 and Shell Oil discovered an enormous oil field beneath Signal Hill in the 20s -- parts of the city were literally forested with hundreds upon hundreds of oil derricks. In 1923, California produced a whopping 1/4th of the world's oil supply, and little Signal Hill was the state's most productive area. While many of those wells were torn down long ago, there are still productive oil fields beneath Los Angeles today -- and thousands of wells across LA County -- though the industry by which it is extracted is much more invisible than it once was. But if you go looking for it -- as I did -- you'll find it's still here, standing in strange juxtaposition to the palm-lined avenues and sunny beaches typically associated with LA. Read on to see what I found. (Click on the pictures for larger versions.)

The city's most famous park is a toxic lake of petroleum seepage -- better known as the La Brea Tar Pits. Here it is in 1910; note the oil derricks in the background.

Here are the pits today. I love these sculptures of an ancient family of mastodons in the midst of tragedy.

Nearby, asphalt from the pits seeps up through the sidewalk.

Leave it to LA hoodlums to use whatever's at hand to write graffiti -- in this case, oily goo from the tar pits.

Just down the road in Beverly Hills -- on the campus of Beverly Hills High School, no less, whose alumni include Nicholas Cage and Angelina Jolie -- towers an enormous oil derrick, visible from blocks away. It was painted by a local art organization in the mid-90s, with help, ironically, from a group of kids suffering from cancer. A decade later, Erin Brokovich herself sued the oil company that operated it on behalf of hundreds of former students claiming that exposure to fumes and chemicals from the well gave them cancer. (Their claims were ultimately dismissed in court.) Here's the well from a distance, down Olympic Boulevard.

The well still produces 400-500 barrels of oil a day, earning the high school about $300,000 a year in royalties.

South of Beverly Hills and Hollywood, there are hundreds of oil wells dotting the hills around Kenneth Hahn State Park. I lived in LA for nearly three years before I ever drove by them -- thanks to a cabbie who promised he knew a "secret back way" to LAX airport. Needless to say, there are plenty of Angelenos who don't even know they're here.

The wells are all fenced off with barbed wire and signs announcing "danger!" and "no trespassing!" and "hazardous chemicals!" It's a view I wouldn't want from my front door:

If you live in Signal Hill, still further south, a view of pumping oil wells is something you can never escape -- even when you're dead.

The descendants of some people buried in Sunnyside Cemetery have received royalty checks for oil slant-drilled from beneath family grave plots.
derrick graveyard

Not far from the cemetery, some industrious businessperson has turned an old derrick into a liquor store.

There's also a Starbucks-adjacent oil well in Signal Hill, which was pumping merrily away when I visited. People walking by didn't give it a second glance.

Across the street, in the parking lot of a sandwich joint:


Off the coast of Long Beach -- I wish I had pictures of this -- are four man-made "islands" built in the 1960s to disguise hundreds of offshore oil wells. There's also a fake 14-story building along Pico Boulevard, behind the facade of which pumps a huge oil derrick. Here's a satellite photo of the building from above:


If that's not some strange geography, I don't know what is.

You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
Original image
Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]