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Strange Geographies: Abandoned Belgium (and Luxembourg), Part II

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So last week, I told about half the story of my recent adventure to Belgium and Luxembourg, where I was looking for atmospheric abandoned chateaus to film inside for a book trailer I'm making for a novel I have coming out in June called Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. I was, ostensibly, looking for the Home, trying to find an exterior and some interiors that looked something like the grand-but-decaying house that figures somewhat centrally in my book. I found the perfect exterior right away -- you can see it at the top of last week's post -- and while the long-disused garden statuary workshop we discovered further down the road from it was fascinating, it wasn't really what I needed for an interior. I was looking for that rarest of abandonments: a place filled with objects from another time, gathering dust but more or less undisturbed.

Usually, when a place is abandoned for awhile, local kids and vandals find it before explorers do, and all the original character of the place disappears: things get broken or stolen, spray-painted, and generally messed-up. But my explorer friend and I would get lucky on this trip. We found a couple of places that really and truly seemed like time capsules.

Before we crossed into Luxembourg, we stopped in the dark and forested Ardennes in Belgium, where American tanks still rust on the outskirts of some towns, vestiges of the fierce Battle of the Bulge that was fought here against the Nazis during WWII. But the forests have secreted away much more than just tanks. Take, for instance, this disused train station we found. The story I heard (but couldn't verify) is that it was built more than a century ago for the private and sole use of the king of Belgium -- and then left to the elements when he didn't take to it. It's been empty ever since, trees growing up through the middle. Trains still run past it, but never stop. Today, explorers use it as a camping and party spot. Scenic, no?

We slept that night in a castle -- an actual castle! -- which was, surprisingly, one of the cheapest sleeping options nearby. The reason, we discovered, is that there was no one else staying in it but us -- it was out of season -- and none of the castle's usual amenities, like multiple bars, a restaurant, and a movie theater, were all closed. We headed to a nearby town for a bite to eat, and unable to read the menu or really ask what anything on it meant, my friend and I pointed at the next table's meal and indicated, somehow, that we'd have what they were having. I wondered why the people at the table we'd pointed at kept staring at us afterward, until the meal arrived -- it was a stew made from the face and brain of a pig! Nose, cheeks, gray matter -- the works. So much for being a pseudo-vegetarian! In halting English, the next table eventually informed us that the dish is colloquially known as "the wine of Jacques Chirac." God knows why.

The castle, by the way, was called Chateau de la Poste, which I can highly recommend as an awesome place to stay -- in season, that is.

The next morning, we left our nice orderly chateau and drove to an abandoned one -- known among explorers as Chateau Noisy. It was an old school for girls, and though the inside's a bit worse for the wear, the outside looks like a fairytale castle:

Unfortunately, we didn't get much closer than that. After a 20-minute hike and hauling ass up a giant hill to get to the entrance, my friend spotted a black security van -- and we got out of there. On the other side of the property, we found a gate with a buzzer box, and figuring that actually asking permission, having failed to gain entrance the, er, normal way, couldn't hurt. A woman answered, and though we couldn't understand most of what she said, we caught two words: prive! and chien! (Private! Dog!) Needless to say, we made tracks out of there.

We had much better luck in Luxembourg, a tiny country of beautiful, rolling hills and ancient little villages, where everyone in the city seems to be a banker and in the country a farmer. And if you know where to look, there are plenty of time capsules to be discovered. The first one we came to had its front door open, but being in the middle of a village (and it being the middle of the day when we arrived), we decided to play it safe and find a way in around back, instead. As luck would have it, there was an open window on the second floor, right next to a big, easily-climbed tree. We shimmed up and slipped inside, unnoticed.

The house was amazing -- once full of opulent furnishings and religious objects, now in decay. That's a decomposed fox on the floor in front of the bed.

I think you could safely assume that this was the ceiling of a wealthy person.

This amazing spiral staircase led from floor to floor. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

We'd been in the house about ten minutes when we heard voices from outside, circling the place. We froze, then tiptoed from window to window trying to get a bead on what they were doing, and whether they were onto us. A moment later, we got an answer of sorts -- they came inside, their footsteps echoing up the stairs, through the half-empty rooms. We were on the second floor, and they were below us. We were trapped, essentially, unless we wanted to attempt an escape out the window and down the tree, a slow, somewhat noisy process that, undertaken carelessly, could've resulted in a broken leg or worse. So we held our ground and waited.

The men's voices didn't seem angry or suspicious; they didn't know we were inside. I didn't want to scare them too badly, and since they were coming toward us anyway, I called out, bonjour! in my friendliest tone. They jumped about ten feet in the air -- and then I saw their tripods. They were explorers, just like us. This house, apparently, was not exactly off the beaten track. We talked for a bit, letting our hearts slow down, and then went about our business.

One of the other guys:

The last thing we found before leaving was the strangest thing I'd seen the whole trip -- a pair of gravestones. Inside the house. My theory is that they used to be outside, marking an actual pair of graves, but that they had fallen over at some point, and rather than repair them, or let them sit tumbled in a tall patch of grass somewhere, they were brought inside -- where they seem just deeply, wrongly out of place.

We left out the front door, figuring that since we were going it didn't matter so much if we were seen, and drove on. We spent a night in Luxembourg, had somewhat less exotic food for dinner (escargot pizza -- somewhat adventurous, but nothing compared to brain-and-face stew), and then in the morning, hit our last spot. It turned out to be the best, and most untouched, abandoned house I'd ever been in.

It was another little house in the middle of a village, but we showed up early on a Sunday morning, just after sunrise, and the sleepy villagers were nowhere to be seen. We got in with no problem, only to find this creepy-as-hell hallway, a tunnel of darkness --

-- at the end of which was the inside of the front door. Judging from the legions of cobwebs along its jamb, it hadn't been opened in a very long time. This was most definitely a time capsule -- still sealed.

Nearby, brittle from rust, sat the key.

Upstairs, the time capsule was in full effect. The rooms looked as if they'd just been vacated -- and I would almost have believed they had been, if everything in them weren't an antique, encrusted with layers of dust and dryrot. The dinner table, for instance, with an old man's glasses and pipe laid out, an open book, a sweater thrown over the back of the chair, a bottle of bitters, white chunks of mildew floating in the glass. Yes, explorers had been here before us -- they had almost certainly been the ones to arrange this scene -- but not many explorers. My friend said he doubted if more than ten people had ever seen this place before we had. That so many potentially valuable antiques and souvenirs remained seemed evidence of that.

Walking into this upstairs bedroom was incredible -- it had more personal effects, more clothes and antiques, than I'd ever seen in a place like this. Not only were the sheets still on the bed, but clothes were in the closet, a chamber pot on the floor, pictures on the wall -- and that hat on the bed was, no pun intended, the capper.

The town was beginning to wake up. We'd been inside for almost three hours without realizing it -- we really were in a time-warp. There were too many things I hadn't seen yet and hadn't photographed -- a cobwebbed alarm clock, for instance, that my friend found -- but we had to go. I'd like to think it'll still be there to explore years from now, but I doubt it; once explorers find a place, it's just a matter of time before vandals and thieves do, as well. I was just lucky to be one of the first inside. I'm not sure I'll ever be as lucky again.

By the way, I know I usually offer links to larger versions of my pictures, but in this case, I can't -- because these are all frame-grabs from videos. Every one of these stills is part of a moving shot, which I'm editing together into an Abandoned Belgium short film right now. Watch out for that in the next few weeks!

You can follow me on Twitter or keep track of Miss Peregrine on Facebook.

More Strange Geographies...

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

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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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May 23, 2017
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