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Strange Geographies: the House on Ghost Mountain

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Deep in California's Anza-Borrego desert wilderness -- an hour from the nearest town, miles from the nearest paved road, atop the rocky crags of a mountain stippled with razor cactus -- is a house. Or the remains of one, at least, built and occupied for sixteen years by a noted writer and his family, who wanted to live off the land like Native Americans. Some people think Marshal South was crazy, others consider him an inspiration; one thing everyone can agree on is that he was interesting.

People wonder why South would build a house so far from civilization, and in such an unforgiving place -- that is, until they hike the steep, mile-long trail to his old home site, and discover the views he enjoyed; the thin white roads and spectral light that spills across the Blair Valley is what earned Ghost Mountain its name.

Marshal South was the pen-name of an Australian ex-pat who came to America just after the turn of the last century, and who made a career for himself writing novels about the Wild West. Finally, after writing about it for so long, South decided to live it -- conducting an "experiment in primitive living" -- and in 1930, he and his wife Tanya moved to the waterless ridge in the desert that became known as Ghost Mountain. Over the next 16 years they raised a family there, and became known to readers across the country through a series of articles Marshal wrote about their lives in the Saturday Evening Post and Desert Magazine.

South family summer 1946

They lived as close to the land as they could, building their home from adobe they made themselves, and fashioning an ingenious system of cisterns to catch and store rainwater. Here's what's left of the cisterns today:



The house as it was. You can see the cistern pictured above on the left side of the frame.
85-Rid & Rud in front of house

Not much remains of the house today -- over the years, the adobe structure has literally melted into the desert. The door frame and an iron bed are two of the homestead's most obvious remnants.


In the years before the cisterns were built, the only way the Souths got water was by driving it from a faraway town in their Model A Ford, then carrying it one mile up the mountain, by hand, twelve gallons at a time. Here are the Souths bringing some corrugated roofing up the side of the mountain:

74--M & T w corrugated roofing 6-15-31

They were forced to move for a short period of time during World War II, when the Army informed the Souths that their mountain was in the path of a gunnery range. Finally, in 1946, the Souths separated and divorced -- though they never talked about it publicly, friends speculated that Tanya saw no future for their children in the desolate wilderness where they lived; Marshal, who was raised in the Australian outback, saw no problem with it. The house was sealed and left to the elements, and 64 years later, little more than traces remain.

Another basin for catching water:

As with any abandoned site or ghost town, there is some trash. However, because the Souths lived off the land as much as they could -- hunting rabbit, eating cactus, raising bees for honey, and grinding what grain they bought by hand -- there isn't much. I found evidence, though, that the Souths enjoyed the odd canned delicacy:


It's a beautiful spot, but not a place that made me want to plant my flag and never leave. It's amazing that any modern people could live so primitively -- and, for a time, even thrive here.

Check out all the Strange Geographies columns 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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]