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Strange Geographies: Bombay Beach

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Bombay Beach may be the most famously depressing place in California; the poster child for the post-apocalypse. On the edge of the dying Salton Sea, an enormous body of water half the size of Rhode Island and so salty and polluted that by 2030 no fish will be able to survive in it, there is a town. There are several towns, actually, along the Salton's 70+ miles of rancid coastline, but the most in tact, the most iconically awful, is Bombay Beach.

It's a 10-by-10-block square of squat houses and mobile homes that was somebody's idea of paradise back when the town was incorporated in 1929. A beachy getaway 150 miles from the Pacific, it was supposed to be Palm Springs with water -- but decades of hyper-saline farm runoff and other problems turned the sea into a nightmare; plagued by fish and bird die-offs and outbreaks of botulism that leave its banks littered with corpses and its beaches smelling like hell, all but the hardiest tourists and investors had fled the scene by the late 60s. Even worse, the Salton began to overflow its banks, flooding the bottom part of town repeatedly. The remains of dozens of trailers and houses that couldn't be saved still sit rotting, half-buried in salty mud, along what used to be the town's most prized few blocks of real estate.

I've visited Bombay Beach a few times now, and was lucky to catch it in a dry period, when all the flooded parts had dried into a moonscape of salted mud, and again right after a big rain, when I could see the flooding that had ruined part of town and continues to tax residents' patience today. For instance, here's the trailer pictured above last year, after months of drought conditions:

trailer dry

But a few weeks ago, there were whole blocks of town underwater. This is 5th Street.

flooded street

They built a dike awhile back, meant to keep the worst of the flooding on the side of town that had already been destroyed, and while it kind of works, it's not perfect. The purr of gasoline generators echoed all along the empty streets, as these pumps did their best to empty water into the other side of the dike.

IMG_5903

The other side of the dike was a watery wasteland, and made it obvious why people had abandoned this part of town in the first place.

glove

ironing board

trailer

inside trailer

Wet:

IMG_5875

Dry:

dry shack

Further back from the dike and the ruined parts of town, it's hard to tell which houses have been abandoned and which have not. For instance, after a bit of investigation vis-a-vis people walking around, cars in driveways, functioning newspaper delivery services, etc., I discovered that the house on the left of frame was abandoned, but the house on the right -- yeah, the one with "the hills have eyes" spray-painted on it and its windows semi-boarded-up -- was not.

the hills have eyes

Part of the reason for semi-boarded windows, I think, is insulation; temperatures can reach 115 degrees in the summer -- we're in the middle of the desert here, with one of the lowest elevations in the United States -- and people tend to hunker down in their houses with the A/C on and venture outside only when absolutely necessary.

mud house

no parking

Another fun fact about Bombay Beach: it's located right alongside one of the most volatile sections of the San Andreas fault. Last year, a "swarm" of minor earthquakes was recorded centering around Bombay Beach. In a TV movie back in the 90s called The Big One, the foreshock that came right before the quake that destroys LA is centered in Bombay Beach. So it's entirely possible that this ruined town might one day be famous as the place where the earthquake that ruined the rest of Southern California began.

Speaking of the beach, here's what it looks like. That's not sand, by the way -- it's the pulverized bones of millions of fish.

dead fish

Not that the town doesn't have its charming spots. The "fireside lounge" seems to be Bombay Beach's answer to a town square: two-dozen metal folding chairs arranged around a fire pit. And it's for sale!

fireside lounge

Somewhat further afield, I discovered this trailer mired in mud. It seems pretty clear that whoever was hauling it got stuck and abandoned their cargo. When I ventured too close, I found out the hard way what it was they'd been hauling -- dozens of still-active beehives, humming with bees who were mightily pissed off to have been left in the middle of nowhere, 100 miles from the nearest flower.

bees

Check out all the Strange Geographies columns here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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