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Strange Geographies: Abandoned Belgium, Part I

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I recently spent eight days traveling around the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, though explaining why I went is a bit complicated. The short version is that I was there on business: to film the interiors of abandoned houses. The somewhat longer explanation is that I have a novel coming out in June, and my publisher asked me to make a book trailer for it. (Related explanation: a "book trailer" is a bit of viral marketing which publishers hope will reach a different audience than other kinds of book advertising, and they've exploded in popularity over the past two or three years.) I made one for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters a while back and had great fun with it, so when it came time to make a trailer for my own book, of course I wanted to be the one to direct it.

Still more explanation: the book, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, is peppered with 50 creepy vintage found photos, many of which its 16-year-old protagonist finds in a haunted-looking abandoned house on a remote island off Wales. I wanted to show the house, in the trailer, inside and out, and find some of the old photos in that decaying environment, as my character does. The house is fictional, of course, so to accomplish this I would have to go and find a house, or several houses, that looked sufficiently like the one in my head, and find my way inside of them.

There's a certain indefinable look that old houses in Europe have that's difficult to find in America, especially on the West Coast, where I live. More than that, finding a house that looked right but was also abandoned -- and still relatively untouched, in terms of graffiti / squatters / junkies (which ruled out Detroit, for instance) -- would be almost impossible. Incredibly, my publisher agreed to send me to Europe to search for just the right locations, and an explorer friend from the Netherlands who knew where a number of amazing old abandoned houses and chateaus were agreed to show me around. (Did I mention how nice Dutch people can be?) So I packed my camera, flew to Amsterdam, and embarked on a road trip through Belgium and Luxembourg with my explorer friend, hopping from village to village, abandonment to abandonment.

It was tense, exhausting work, but endlessly exciting and fascinating, too. Some of the places we got into were like time capsules -- untouched for decades, a gentle decay crumbling everything, like Sleeping Beauty's castle -- while others were little more than atmospheric ruins. Most places had an obvious way in: a missing door, a second floor window around the back that could be shimmied into via a nearby tree. Others weren't so easy, or worse yet were plastered with gates and VERBOTEN! signs that would've made being found inside indefensible. ("The door was open!" sounds a lot better than "Yeah, I broke that window." Even when it comes to trespassing, there are rules, and courtesies. Never break in. Don't take anything. Don't break anything. Be quiet, for God's sake. And don't act guilty while you're making your approach or your exit. It's the explorer code.)

So we headed for Belgium straightaway, because Belgium is the land of old rubber money and decaying chateaus. Belgium is also not a place where abandoned chateaus get knocked down or fixed up very quickly. It's also a place that's been without a functioning government for almost a year, which I think is no coincidence. (The Netherlands, on the other hand, is a place where nothing goes to waste, and as a result there aren't a lot of interesting abandonments to explore there.) The first house we came to was on the outskirts of a little village in the countryside, not far from Antwerp, down a long driveway, obscured by thickets of scrubby trees. The exterior, pictured at the top of this post, was grand, with ivy clinging to it, growing out of holes in the roof and the walls. I'd seen the exterior before, in pictures by an explorer friend of mine, but there was something almost overwhelming about being confronted with it in person. Pictures don't do it justice.

Most of the windows and doors were boarded, but there were a few entry points. Back home I had stared at photos of the house, wondering what was inside, imagining a kind of dark museum of deep-piled carpets and rotting furniture. But no -- the place was an absolute ruin. Staircases had collapsed. Furniture gone. The only light shone through holes in the roof. The floor felt soft underfoot, as if it might give way and send me tumbling into the basement.

One nice detail I found: a curtain of ivy roots growing down into what was once a bathroom. I thought of this song. And then I got the hell out of there.

We hiked back to the car, which had been parked at an unsuspicious distance from the abandonment, set the next GPS point and drove on, stopping along the road to eat sandwiches and drink coffee made over my friend's Sterno burner. (This was no luxury trip to Belgium. No abbey visits or beer tours. Plenty of scenery, but way off the tourist trail.) An hour or so later, we pulled up to the next site, unmistakably abandoned from the outside, right in the center of a little town.

We made our way into the overgrown backyard, where a door into the house stood open. Inside we found one of the strangest things I've ever seen inside an old house -- a cave. An actual, honest-to-God cave. Man-made, obviously, but still. Somebody's 60s-era bar.

Though the house was mostly empty, there were a few interesting objects lying around, like this. Who's up for a picnic?

The real treasure was out back, in an old workshop. The man who had owned the place had been a landscape decorator, and all of his old tools and equipment and plaster molds for statuary were back there. Amazing.

Vandals had discovered the place at some point, because many of the decorator's old statues were smashed, or lacked heads. Here, some thoughtful person put the wrong head on a body.

An armless old Greek, ashamed of his skeletal leg.

Smaller items were still in tact. Obviously, this man had some talent.

Everything was in a state of advanced decay, but the colors of the old man's paints were still vivid, even after what could've been fifty years. Look at the date on those newspapers -- 1955.

A small palette of paints, for detail work.

Old cans of varnish were stacked and leaking everywhere.

My favorite was this collapsing set of shelves. Sunlight shines through a hole in the ceiling. Dust plumes where I had just walked.

Along the shelves, bottles filled with God knows what, like a child's art project.

Next week: more time capsules, an epic fail, and a close call.

More Strange Geographies...

The Happy, Haunted Island of Poveglia
Portugal's Bone Chapel
The Forgotten High School of Goldfield, Nevada
The Mojave Desert’s Airplane Graveyard
Quick Facts About The Netherlands

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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.