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Strange Geographies: Ghost Towns of California

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I live in Los Angeles. I moved here in 2002 from a smaller, saner part of the country to go to film school and work, a lifestyle which became so all-consuming that for my first two or three years here, this sprawled-out behemoth of a city was all I knew of California. When you spend all your time hemmed inside its concrete borders, it's easy to imagine LA's low-slung jungle extending forever in all directions -- but it doesn't. Drive two hours to the north or the east and you'll find yourself in some of the most desolate country you can imagine; deserts and dry lake beds and mountain ranges stretching into the unfathomable distance. Turn down a neglected state road and you might not see another vehicle for fifty miles.

But, as I discovered on a recent road trip into a few the blank spots on California's map, many of its wild places aren't untouched -- they're deserted. California is a land of booms and busts, of big dreams and big failures, and its deserts and open spaces are littered with the leavings of dried-up towns that didn't make it. I went looking for them, and this is what I found.

Of course, I couldn't visit every ghost town in California -- there are hundreds -- but the ones I found are a fairly representative sampling. Larger versions of these photos are here.

Death Valley Junction

It's twenty miles east of Death Valley, right on the Nevada border, and smack in the middle of nowhere. It used to be a railroad town: the Death Valley Railroad headquartered there and its trains carried borax (and borax miners) from 1914 to 1928, but by the 40s the railroad was defunct and the town in decline. From a population of about 100 at its peak, the city limits sign lists just four people living in Death Valley Junction.

Wild horses roam the area. As recently as 1980, the only way you could call Death Valley Junction was by dialing an operator and asking for "Death Valley Junction, Toll Station 1" (or 2). There's an old opera house that's still in relatively good shape in the center of "town," but I was drawn to this desolate wreck on the outskirts. Peeking inside, I found some intriguing graffiti:
Death valley junction 3

The opposite wall reads "Because I have an alarm clock that runs on happiness."


This is such a small, long-dead town that you'd be hard-pressed to find it on a map -- folks nearby would probably tell you you were in Hinkley, a somewhat larger town west of Barstow. (If you saw Erin Brockovich, you remember Hinkley: the little desert town with poison water.) Lockhart was a small agricultural community that grew mainly alfalfa, of which the long-abandoned "Lockhart Ranch" gas station and general store complex is just about the only thing left.
Lockhart 1
The place is huge, and totally open to the elements. A fading sign on an outside wall declares: "We Sell Everything!"

A view out the manager's window on the second floor:
Lockhart 2

Not far away is a little motel. The motel office had been torn down to its foundation, but some of the rooms remained.

In the back of an old hardware store.

Not far away is Harper Dry Lake, where Howard Hughes used to test planes. An F-22 crashed into the lakebed earlier this year, killing the pilot.


Of all the ghost towns I stumbled across on my travels, Saltdale was the loneliest. But even in its 1920s-era salt-mining heyday it was lonely: so isolated that rather than travel to the nearest hospital, local women often chose to give birth at home (and paid a high price for it), and its general stores were notoriously easy to rob, since there were no police in Saltdale. There were houses, mining operations, stores, and even a school. Little remains today, save some foundations, the telltale mounds of rusting garbage that every dead town seems to leave behind it, and a tiny stretch of "baby gauge" railroad track:

The hulking shell of an old fridge.

What's a floor without a ceiling?

You could be in the most remote place on Earth, and I'll bet you'd still find things people shot with guns.


Fifteen or twenty miles down the road is a cluster of buildings formerly known as Garlock, which used to boast a school, a church, and -- much to the benefit of "the morals of the men and women of Garlock" -- the Garlock Literary Society. One can only imagine the stimulating discussions they must've had. Water scarcity and other problems eventually doomed the town.

These days it's little more than a cluster of ruins plastered with unfriendly signs. Look, it's for rent!

What people?

Not far away (but totally inaccessible to my 2WD sedan) is the Burro Schmidt Tunnel, which an enterprising (some would say crazy) old man named "Burro" dug through a mountain -- miles and miles of tunnel -- by hand. They say that somewhere in his bizarre warren of tunnels is a "chandelier room," hung with all manner of elaborate lighting fixtures. Enter very much at your own risk.

Randsburg Mining District

This is a close-knit cluster of ghost and semi-ghost towns, all centered around what used to be some very productive mines in some very inhospitable country.

Atolia was a tungsten mining town that started production in 1905. It was named after two mining company officials, Atkins and DeGolia. Among other amenities, the town had very popular little bar called the Bucket of Blood Saloon.

Red Mountain was a gold mining town well known for its bars and brothels. It's semi-ghost these days, with around 100 people still living there. I read something online that said the old Appel's Market General Store was still open for business --
Red mtn

-- but I couldn't find anyone inside to jerk me a soda. In fact, the back part of the roof is being held up by a few strategically-placed planks and a mattress.
Red mtn 2

Johannesburg and Randsburg are ghosts of their former selves, but you can still get a slice of pizza and shop for antiques. They're named for a famous-100-years-ago mining district in South Africa. There is a school, and they have a playground. A very, very depressing playground.
joberg playground

What's behind the green door? I don't know -- it was locked.

The church in Randsburg -- another building being held up by strategically-placed boards.


Okay, Ridgecrest isn't a ghost town. But its outskirts are pretty lonely, and that's where I found the remains of a settlement that had been turned into what looks like a pretty wicked paintball range.
Ridgecrest paintball

Ridgecrest paintball2

Looks like they burned a few houses down in order to literally level the playing field.
Ridgecrest paintball3

Here's one they didn't burn down. But I don't think anyone's moving in anytime soon.
Ridgecrest house


No, Trona's not a ghost town. But for every house that's occupied, there's one that's abandoned -- and seems to have been viciously defaced and vandalized. Trona is a desperate little town one valley over from Death Valley -- a lifeless, dust-blown sulfate mining town, named for trisodium hydrogendicarbonate dihydrate, or trona, which is what they pull out of the ground around there. If you live in Trona and are reading this, sorry to dis your 'burg -- but it just might be the ugliest and most depressing stretch of road in California.

This is one of the strangest houses I have ever seen. Its yard is full of rusting major appliances.

Giving a new meaning to the term "open house."

I peeked inside, hoping the realtors had left behind some freshly-baked cookies or a fruit plate.

Nope. Just some old cartons of beer and a couch meth-heads had set on fire. I can't believe the house didn't burn, too -- though from the moldy state of things, most likely the fire department had put it out.

Between Here and There

There were lots of unincorporated towns and nameless hamlets -- this was one. I like to think of Trona's "open house" and this town's abandoned gas station as metaphors for America's housing bust.
Abandoned gas station for sale


Keeler died when Los Angeles stole its water. Once a lakeside town, it's now a mostly-abandoned dustbowl. Check out my post on Keeler.
Keeler trailers


Once an important railroad town, today Laws is a kind of living museum. Lovers of old trains and railroad history should make this a must-stop.
Laws train

I thought this sign was fun.
Laws whiskey sign

A broken baby piano inside an old miner's shack.
Laws broken piano keys


No tour of California ghost towns is complete without a trip to Bodie, a remote, mountainous mining settlement on the far side of Yosemite and not far from Mono Lake. Once a bustling town of 10,000 -- and in 1885, one of the largest towns in the state of California -- these days only 5% of the buildings remain. That's still a huge number -- hundreds -- and walking its streets, maintained in a state of arrested decay by the California Parks Service, you're overcome by a palpable sense of what used to be. Highly, highly recommended. I'll be doing a whole post just on Bodie in the near future.
Bodie vista

bodie car fix

See what else Ransom Riggs is up to here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.