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Ransom Riggs

Strange Geographies: The Little Town That Los Angeles Killed

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Ransom Riggs

There are lots of dry lake beds in California, and to the untrained eye, Owens Dry Lake is just like the rest. But there is one key difference: while most of the state's stark, white alkali flats have been dry for thousands of years, Owens was an enormous, gem-blue lake stretching more than a hundred miles square -- and an important habitat for millions of migratory birds -- as recently as 1917. That's when the City of Los Angeles stole it, diverting the streams that fed Owens Lake into an aqueduct that watered the booming metropolis 200 miles to the south. As the lake slowly dried up, so did the once-thriving town of Keeler, which had been both a mining town and something of a lakeside resort. Nowadays, the "lakeside" town of Keeler is more than a mile from the "shoreline" of Owens Lake -- little more than a collection of marshy mudpits surrounded by an endless expanse of salt flat, the surface of which can reach 150 degrees on hot summer days.

A sarcastic sign near what used to be Keeler's shoreline.

Losing the lake was one thing. But it wasn't the disappearance of the waterfowl, or a place to swim or fish or go boating, that drove people out of Keeler -- it was the dust storms. When the lake finally evaporated some years after its streams had been diverted, it left behind a three-foot layer of fine-grained salt, sulfates and old mining chemicals. The Owens Valley had long been famous for its whipping winds, and all it took to kick up gargantuan clouds of dust was a stiff breeze. The result: frequent, choking dust storms that made it hard to see, hard to breathe -- and for many, hard to justify staying in Keeler. A wider view of "the beach" --


Brief surges in mining operations kept people in Keeler through the end of the fifties, but all such activity ceased in 1960, and the train tracks which once carried valuable ore out of town were ripped out a year later. The lake didn't dry up all at once -- it took years to evaporate, dying a slow and measurable death. The dust storms started to get bad in the 60s and 70s, and the population began to drop. By the 1980s, Keeler had become like many ghost towns in the making: most of those left behind were elderly or disabled. Many suffered from respiratory problems, and deaths from lung cancer and related disorders weren't uncommon. These days, the Owens Valley ranks as the dustiest place in North America -- second in the world only to the Aral Sea, Kazakhstan's infamous ecological nightmare.

Owens Lake from the air. The wet bits are lawsuit-mandated pools created by the Los Angeles Water Dept. designed to mitigate the dust storms, a technique that's enjoyed only limited success. Photo by Charles W. Hull.

From a 20-year-old article about Keeler in the Los Angeles Times:

"It was god-awful," recalled Roberta Ushman, who retired in Keeler from Torrance with her husband, Mike. "You couldn't see across the street. We had new windows put in, hoping that would slow it down, but it just comes in." Jeanne Lopez, the former Inyo county clerk, said the dust has eroded the paint from her 1985 Dodge and left her with a prolonged sore throat. "When you're right in it, it's frightening. It blots out the sun, it covers everything," Lopez said. "You just feel if it's coming in your house, if it's in your bed, it must be getting in your lungs, too."

Mike Ushman, a painting contractor, blames the dust for the town's dwindling population. Four Keeler residents have died recently of lung cancer or other pulmonary troubles, he said. His two tenants decided to move away after the Feb. 3 storm, and Riley isn't the only man on oxygen, Ushman said. "There's too many people dying in this town of lung disorders," Ushman said.

On my way to the Owens Valley, I saw this salt-and-dust storm rising over the horizon. I'm probably 20 miles away, and those are the Eastern Sierras behind it. That's a lot of salt.

There's almost no one left in Keeler now. The population has dwindled to less than fifty, and in the two hours I spent wandering its streets, I didn't see a single person. Still, the town had a sort of eerie, silent beauty. Junked cars and empty shacks, weatherbeaten from years of sun and salt, are being slowly reclaimed by wild grasses.
keeler car

A tiny beach resort, long ago stripped of paint and nowhere near the retreated water's edge.

Inside, grass grows in a vacant swimming pool, which gradually fills with wind-blown dirt.

I walked for more than a mile, but never found the lake -- only sand dunes.

This gas station closed more than 30 years ago, eliminating the last reason travelers had to stop in Keeler. As a resident of LA, I couldn't help but feel a little guilty; there is a direct and tragic relationship between the green lawns of my town and the brown decay of Keeler. But those, I guess, are the breaks.

You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

If you'd like prints of any of these photos, they're available here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.