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The Last Best Ghost Town: Bodie, California

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There are a thousand ghost towns spread across the western United States -- a whole constellation of loss and ruin -- but most are little more than foundations, or at best a few tumbledown shacks, or if the people who lived and died there did anything of note, and if they're lucky, a sun-faded commemorative plaque mounted on a squat stone pillar. The ghost town of Bodie, however, is another story altogether. A mining boomtown, it was the third most populous city in the state of California in 1880. By the 1940s sickness, wars, bad weather and exhausted mines had led to the town's desertion, and its isolated, inhospitable location made certain that it stayed that way; no one eyed this high desert waste, 8,000 feet above sea level between Yosemite and the lonely Nevada border, and imagined a shopping mall in its place. Count us all lucky.

Only five percent of Bodie's structures are still standing, but considering how large Bodie was, that's still a lot for a ghost town -- more than two hundred. And unlike Tombstone, Calico or any number of other "preserved" ghost towns in the West, it's not a tourist trap where you can buy cotton candy from gunfight-staging actors playing oldey-timey cowboys; the town is kept in a state of "arrested decay," which means the park rangers that patrol its dusty streets focus on making sure what's left of Bodie doesn't fall down, but they could care less about painting, weatherizing or cleaning up the decades-old trash that's heaped everywhere.

Bodie vista

I bought a little self-guided tourbook at the gate when I visited. It's full of fascinating tidbits, which I'll be quoting below:

By 1879 Bodie boasted a population of 10,000 and was second to none for wickedness, badmen and "the worst climate out of doors." One little girl, whose family was taking her to the remote and infamous town, wrote in her diary: "Goodbye God, I'm going to Bodie." The phrase came to be known throughout the West.

The old general store has been turned into a small museum. Other than that, the buildings remain untouched. Sitting creepily in the back of that museum was this vintage hearse, which once plied the streets of Bodie with its morbid cargo. (Awesome band name: "Morbid Cargo.")
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Killings occurred with monotonous regularity, sometimes becoming almost daily events. The fire bell, which tolled the ages of the deceased when they were buried, rang often and long.

Below: a hollow grave in the Bodie cemetery, used for hiding bottles of liquor during Prohibition.

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Robberies, stage holdups and street fights provided variety, and the town's 65 saloons offered many opportunities for relaxation after hard days of work in the mines. The Reverend F.M. Warrington saw it in 1881 as "a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion."

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Above: the Methodist church, erected in 1882 and abandoned in 1932. "Since then, the interior has been badly vandalized, and the Ten Commandments painted on oilcloth which once hung behind the pulpit ('Thou shall not steal') has been stolen."

Below: a saloon, as seen through a hole in the door.
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I'm not sure if this sign is original, but it leads to the approximate location of Bodie's red light district, where ladies of the night "lived and worked in a row of one-room cabins called 'cribs.'"
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Rosa May was the town's most famous prostitute. Born in Pennsylvania, she ran away at age 16 and drifted west, where she worked as a prostitute in mining camps to survive. She moved to Bodie in 1890, where in 1911 she died after caring for sick miners during a pneumonia outbreak. (Yep, a hooker with a heart of gold.)
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Considered a hero by the miners, she was nonetheless buried beyond the gates of the town cemetery because of her profession, alongside murderers and other Bodians of ill repute. Her sad wooden headstone, split from age and temperature fluctuations, reads

Rosa Elizabeth White
"Rosa May"
Born Jan. 1855
Died in Bodie, in the winter of 1911-1912.
Sacrificed herself for Bodie miners.

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In the 60s, a descendant of one of the miners she saved erected a new tombstone for her a few yards away:
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They might not have been able to save Rosa May, but they did save her red light, which hangs in the town's small museum.
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Lots of fascinating junk still sits rusting around Bodie. Old cars especially:
bodie car fix

Inside this house, you can still see -- if you squint -- wire hangars in the closet.
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All that's left of the old bank is the vault. The rest of it burned in the fire of 1932, which devastated much of the town.
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There aren't many houses in Bodie you can actually go inside, with a few super dangerous exceptions, like this place. Through the window you can see the old Standard Mine and Mill, the massive success of which took the town from a population of 20 in 1878 to 10,000 just two years later. Between 1860 and 1941, it produced nearly $100 million in gold and silver.

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The drive to Bodie is a beautiful one. I had to stop and take a picture of this pasturing herd of sheep.
sheep pasture

Most houses in Bodie are filled with the same things that houses in ghost towns everywhere are filled with: broken old crap. See what I mean:
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I kept thinking how lonely this place must be at night.
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Believe it or not, Bodie is open year-round -- even in the dead of winter, when snow piles up five feet high and they stop plowing the roads. There's always a park ranger or two on the property to ensure that vandals don't wreak havoc or start fires, so if you decide that 20 miles on a snowmobile is doable, they'll happily collect your five dollars and let you wander around (in snowshoes). I think that's kinda cool.

I found this postcard in an antique store a few weeks ago. It represents all that Bodie is not:

ghost town or bust!!

You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

If you're interested in getting prints of any of these photos, they're available here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

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.

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