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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
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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.