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California!

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Thinkstock

If you want to learn about a place, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.

In this entry, we head out west to what is undoubtedly one of the strangest states in the Union—California. With the Hollywood flair of Los Angeles, the counter-culture allure of San Francisco, and the free spirit of everywhere in between and beyond, California is filled with dozens of odd places, festivals, and attractions—too many to count, really.  So instead, we’ll take a look at a few people who have helped make California the unofficial home of eccentricity.  

Emperor Norton I Reigns Over the Bay

Wikimedia Commons

According to the history books, there were five U.S. Presidents between 1859 and 1880. But to the people of San Francisco, there was only one man truly in charge—his Imperial Majesty, Joshua Norton I, the United States’ only emperor.

Born in about 1819, Norton came to San Francisco from South Africa at the age of 30 after inheriting $40,000 (~$1.1 million today) from his father's estate. With a number of risky but lucrative investments, his fortune grew to nearly $250,000, but a failed attempt to corner the imported rice market left Norton bankrupt. After he unsuccessfully sued to have his rice contract voided, Norton disappeared for a few years, only to resurface in 1859 in grand fashion—by sending a decree to San Francisco newspapers declaring himself the “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”

Over the next 20 years, the self-appointed emperor submitted numerous lofty rulings, including one that declared Congress should meet in San Francisco instead of Washington D.C., another that banned the Republican and Democratic parties, and even one dissolving the United States itself. In addition, he made more modest proclamations, like telling the capital city of Sacramento to clean its streets and add more gaslights, or that the Grand Hotel should give him room and board or else face banishment. Oddly enough, one of his decrees wound up being ahead of its time: Norton called for the construction of a suspension bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, which eventually came to fruition as the Bay Bridge in 1936. 

Although the newspapers printed his declarations as entertainment, the people of San Francisco took a liking to the eccentric emperor thanks to his public persona. Every day, Norton wore a blue military uniform—complete with brass buttons, gold epaulettes, a cap, and a saber at his side—that he somehow procured from the soldiers at the Presidio of San Francisco. In later years, he sported a stovepipe hat garnished with a peacock feather and rosette. As part of his self-imposed daily duties, Norton inspected cable cars and public works projects, and stopped police officers to ensure their uniforms were clean. He even handed out his own currency issued by the Imperial Government of Norton I that was gladly accepted at most businesses in town.

Norton was welcomed at all the finest restaurants in the Bay Area, despite not having any non-Imperial currency to pay for the meals. Playhouses reserved balcony seats for him in the hopes he might attend a performance. He was often asked to speak at conferences and give lectures, and was a welcome debater among intellectuals. His room was said to have been paid for by various beneficiaries, including the local Masonic Lodge, of which he was a member. If he regularly frequented a place of business, the shop owners had brass plaques made and put on display, touting that they had received the Imperial seal of approval. And when he was once taken into custody for involuntary mental care by a naive police officer, Norton was released the next morning at the command of the Chief of Police, with an official apology from the department, and $4.75 (~$75 today) for his troubles. Norton was kind enough to grant a formal pardon to the Chief and the officer for the misunderstanding. From then on, officers often saluted when they passed him on the street.

The Emperor died on January 8, 1880, after collapsing on a street corner while on his way to lecture at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Depending upon the version of the legend you hear, his funeral was attended by anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 people from all walks of life, there to witness the end of his 21-year reign. While his sanity can be debated, there’s no question that Norton I had an impact on the people of San Francisco.  

William “Burro” Schmidt and His Tunnel

Like many before him, William “Burro” Schmidt sought his fortune in the El Paso Mountains of Kern County, California.  Schmidt staked his claim in the early 20th century on a 4400 foot peak, and soon found small deposits of ore that contained gold. But the closest smelter to extract the gold was in Mojave, California, which required Schmidt and his donkeys to traverse a dangerous trail to get to the other side of the mountain.  After a few perilous trips, Schmidt decided the risk just wasn’t worth it.  But rather than abandon his claim, in 1906, he started digging a 6 foot high, 10 foot wide tunnel through the solid granite mountain so he could bypass the trail entirely.  

For many years Schmidt used nothing but a pick, a shovel, and a four pound hammer, carrying loosened rocks out as needed. As he got further into the mountain, he installed a railcar to help haul out debris, and resorted to notoriously short-fused sticks of dynamite to move things along a little faster. 

He continued to work on the tunnel even after a road built in 1920 would have made the trip to Mojave safer and faster than going down the other side of the mountain. He admitted that the road made little difference to him at that point, as he had simply become obsessed with seeing the project through to completion. He finally did break through to the other side of the mountain in 1938, having moved an estimated 5800 tons of granite to complete his 2500 foot long tunnel.  Oddly enough, Schmidt never even used the tunnel to haul his ore to Mojave. 

There’s a commonly told legend that Schmidt wasn’t really digging the tunnel out of compulsion, but that he was actually following a rich vein of gold that snaked through the mountain. If that’s true, no one has ever been able to find any proof that Schmidt wound up a wealthy man. In fact, experts say there are still veins of gold left untouched, seeming to prove that Schmidt had lost interest in mining over the years.

Schmidt’s cabin and other buildings still stand virtually untouched since the 1930s. In the past, tours were available at the site, but legal wranglings over ownership of the property have required the buildings be fenced off and closed to visitors. The tunnel is still open for self-guided tours, though. If you plan to visit, be sure to bring plenty of water, some solid shoes, and a flashlight with fresh batteries.  

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state?  Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!

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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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Smart Shopping
This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

GADGETS, TOYS, AND MEDIA

Fitbit Surge Fitness Superwatch, Black, Large (US Version) for $229.94 (list price $249.95)

Brother Printer EHLL2360DW Compact Laser Printer, Duplex Printing & Wireless Networking, Refurbished for $69.99 (list price $89.99)

VicTsing Shower Speaker, Wireless Waterproof Speaker with 5W Driver, Suction Cup, Buit-in Mic, Hands-Free Speakerphone - Army Green for $18.99 (list price $24.99)

CardNinja Ultra-slim Self Adhesive Credit Card Wallet for Smartphones, Black for $6.95 (list price $12.99)

Anker Quick Charge 2.0 36W Dual USB Car Charger, PowerDrive+ 2 for Galaxy S7 / S6 / Edge / Plus, Note 5 / 4 and PowerIQ for iPhone 7 / 6s / Plus, iPad Pro / Air 2 / mini, LG, Nexus, HTC and More for $12.99 (list price $59.99)

Timex T235WY AM/FM Dual Alarm Clock Radio - White for $19.65 (list price $24.95)

Lexar JumpDrive P20 64GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive - LJDP20-64GCRBNA for $34.47 (list price $41.49)

Anker PowerLine+ Lightning Cable (6ft) Durable and Fast Charging Cable [Double Braided Nylon] for iPhone, iPad and More(White) for $13.99 (list price $39.99)

Roku Streaming Stick (3600R) - HD Streaming Player with Quad-Core Processor for $39.99 (list price $49.99)

AmazonBasics 6-Outlet Surge Protector Power Strip 2-Pack, 200 Joule - Black for $9.99 (list price $11.49)

DOSS Touch Wireless Bluetooth V4.0 Portable Speaker with HD Sound and Bass (Black) for $32.99 (list price $89.99)

Fujifilm Instax Mini Film Value Pack - 60 Images for $34.99 (list price $39.99)

Cell Phone Camera Lens - TURATA 2 in 1 Professional HD Camera Lens Kit 0.45X Super Wide Angle & 12.5X Macro Lens for iPhone7 6s 6s plus 6 plus 5s & Most Smartphone, Tablet for $11.98 (list price $30.99)

Sades Over-Ear Stereo Bass Gaming Headphone with Noise Isolation Microphone for Xbox One PC PS4 Laptop Phone for $23.99 (list price $39.99)

InkoTimes Bamboo Charging Station Dock Organizer for Apple Watch, iPhone, iPad, Universal Cell Phones and Tablets, Compatiable with Anker, RAVPower, PowerAdd, 4/5/6-Port USB Charger for $35.99 (list price $59.99)

KITCHEN

Aicok Juicer Juice Extractor High Speed for Fruit and Vegetables Dual Speed Setting Centrifugal Fruit Machine Powerful 400 Watt with Juice Jug and Cleaning Brush, Premium Food Grade Stainless Steel for $48.99 (list price $99.99)

Rabbit Wine Opener Corkscrew BEST Wine Bottle Opener - 7 Piece Rabbit Ear Bundle with Stand, Bottle Plug, Wine Aerator, Drip Ring, Foil Cutter & EXTRA Teflon Spiral + Wooden Box Perfect Gift Set for $35.00 (list price $69.99)

Magic Bullet Blender, Small, Silver, 11 Piece Set for $34.00 (list price $39.99)

ThermoPro TP03A Digital Food Cooking Thermometer Instant Read Meat Thermometer for Kitchen BBQ Grill Smoker for $10.49 (list price $29.99)

Etekcity Digital Kitchen Scale Multifunction Food Scale, 11 lb 5 kg, Silver, Stainless Steel (Batteries Included) for $13.98 (list price $39.99)

Ado Glo Kitchen Shears - Stainless Steel Multi-Function Kitchen Scissors with Sharp Blade - Professional Poultry Shears for $12.95 (list price $34.99)

ISSIKI JAPAN Professional 8 Inch Chef's Knife, Gyutou Knife, Kitchen Knife, High Carbon Stainless Steel, Sharp Cutlery, Ergonomic Handle for $24.99 (list price $125.00)

12-Pack KEURIG Compatible Water Filters by K&J - Universal Fit (NOT CUISINART) Keurig Compatible Filters - Replacement Charcoal Water Filters for Keurig 2.0 (and older) Coffee Machines for $9.95 (list price $19.95)

Hamilton Beach 22910 Brushed Stainless Steel 2-Slice Toaster for $9.24 (list price $24.99)

Spiralizer 5-Blade Vegetable Slicer, Strongest-and-Heaviest Duty, Best Veggie Pasta & Spaghetti Maker for Low Carb/Paleo/Gluten-Free Meals, With 3 Exclusive Recipe eBooks for $29.99 (list price $49.99)

Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls by Finedine (Set of 6) Polished Mirror Finish Nesting Bowls, ¾ - 1.5 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 8 Quart - Cooking Supplies for $22.95 (list price $39.95)

Hiware 12-piece Good Stainless Steel Dinner Forks Cutlery Set, 8 Inches for $15.59 (list price $22.00)

HOME

Furhaven Orthopedic Mattress Pet Bed, Large, Cream, for Dogs and Cats for $25.49 (list price $30.44)

12 Air Plant Variety Pack - Bulk Assorted Species of Live Tillandsia House Plants for Sale - Wholesale Indoor Terrarium Air Plants by Aquatic Arts for $22.99 (list price $25.08)

Estilo 1 gallon Glass Mason Jar Double Beverage Drink Dispenser On Metal Stand With Leak Free Spigot, Clear for $27.98 (list price $31.88)

Poly and Bark Ralston Writing Desk - Standard Height - in Ash Grey for $49.99 (list price $55.99)

Outsunny 3 Person Canopy Porch Swing - Black for $132.67 (list price $99.99)

Sterilite 25306P01 3 Drawer Wide Weave Tower, Espresso Frame & Drawers w/ Driftwood Handles, 1-Pack for $19.83 (list price $22.44)

AmazonBasics Mid-Back Mesh Chair for $49.58 (list price $64.99)

Mpow LED Solar light, Bright Security Lighting Outdoor Motion Sensor Lighting for Garden, Patio for $14.99 (list price $19.99)

HOMFA Fashion Heavy Duty Garment Rack with Shelves 3-Tier Shoes Rack,Coat Rack Hooks,Clothes Rack with Hanger Bar (Black) for $49.99 (list price $110.99)

Premium 8 Piece Towel Set (Grey); 2 Bath Towels, 2 Hand Towels and 4 Washcloths - Cotton - Machine Washable, Hotel Quality, Super Soft and Highly Absorbent by Utopia Towels for $25.99 (list price $43.99)

HEALTH AND BEAUTY

VicTsing 300ml Cool Mist Humidifier Ultrasonic Aroma Essential Oil Diffuser for Office Home Bedroom Living Room Study Yoga Spa - Wood Grain for $49.99 (list price $29.99)

Nerdwax Stop Slipping Glasses as Seen on Shark Tank for $12.99 (list price $14.99)

Redken Short Sculpt 19 Touchable Texturizing Gel, 3.4 Ounce for $12.46 (list price $20.00)

Oak Leaf 7X Magnification LED Lighted Makeup Mirror,Bright Shaving Bathroom Vanity Mirror with Strong Suction Cup,Touch-Activated,Rotates 360 Degrees,Daylight Color,Battery Operated for $19.99 (list price $59.99)

BraceUP Stabilizing Lumbar Lower Back Brace and Support Belt with Dual Adjustable Straps and Breathable Mesh Panels (S/M) for $23.99 (list price $45.98)

Brightdeal Replacement Brush Heads for Philips Sonicare Toothbrush E Series HX7022/66, Essence, Xtreme, Elite and Advance (6-pack) for $19.99 (list price $25.99)

Philips Sonicare Essence Sonic Electric Rechargeable Toothbrush, White for $24.95 (list price $49.99)

Swiffer Duster Refills, Unscented Dusters Refill, 20 count for $13.97 (list price $15.99)

Braun Series 9-9095cc Wet and Dry Foil Shaver for Men with Cleaning Center, Electric Men's Razor, Razors, Shavers, Cordless Shaving System for $299.99 (list price $499.99)

Johnson's 24 Hr Moisturizing Wash Soft Body Lotion 12 fl oz (6 pack) for $26.99 (list price $29.99)

Germ-X 1000042965 Moisturizing Hand Sanitizer Lotion 4 oz. (Pack of 12) for $38.53 (list price $55.28)

Radha Beauty Natural Therapeutic Frankincense Essential Oil, 4 oz. for $16.95 (list price $49.99)

FHI Brands Stylus Thermal Styling Brush, Black for $79.99 (list price $99.99)

Thayers Alcohol-free Rose Petal Witch Hazel with Aloe Vera, 12 oz for $10.51 (list price $19.95)

OFFICE, SCHOOL, AND CRAFTS

AmazonBasics Wireless Presenter for $21.00 (list price $24.99)

Anycolor 3 Pack Compatible Brother M221 M-K221 MK221 M Tape Black on White Label Tape for Brother P Touch Label Maker PT-90 PT-M95 PT-70BM PT-70 PT-65 PT-85 PT-45 (3/8" x 26.2' 9m x 8m) for $32.49 (list price $32.49)

EXPO Low-Odor Dry Erase Markers, Fine Tip, Assorted Colors, 8-Count for $7.37 (list price $11.49)

HIRALIY CH019 Aluminum Portable Laptop Stand for 13" & Smaller Laptops/Notebooks/ /Tablets (Grey) for $29.99 (list price $49.99)

Thick Classic Notebook with Pen Loop - Lemome Wide Ruled Hardcover Journal with Pocket to Write in + Page Dividers Gifts, Banded, Large, 180 Pages, 8.4 x 5.7 in for $14.99 (list price $25.99)

Clipboards (Set of 10) by Office Solutions Direct! Low Profile Clip Standard A4 Letter Size clipboard for $12.88 (list price $29.95)

VANRA Metal Mesh Desktop File Sorter Organizer Desk Tray Organize with 3 Letter Trays and 2 Vertical Upright Sections, Black for $33.98 (list price $68.80)

Paper Mate Profile Retractable Ballpoint Pens, Bold (1.4mm), Assorted Colors, 12 Count for $6.69 (list price $17.09)

Five Star Spiral Notebook, 3 Subject, College Ruled, 150 Sheets, Black, Cobalt Blue, Red, 3 PACK (73393) for $12.87 (list price $29.99)

HP Paper, Office Ultra White, 20lb, 8.5 x 11, 3 Hole Punch , 92 Bright, 500 Sheets / 1 Ream (113102R), Made In The USA for $4.01 (list price $7.01)

Sharpie Accent Retractable Highlighters, Chisel Tip, Assorted Colors, 8-Count for $7.54 (list price $8.38)

U Brands Contempo Magnetic Monthly Calendar Dry Erase Board, 11 x 14 Inches, White Frame for $5.73 (list price $8.99)

EXPO Low-Odor Dry Erase Markers, Chisel Tip, Fashion Colors, 8-Count for $4.94 (list price $8.92)

Board Dudes 18" x 22" Magnetic Dry Erase/Cork Combo Board (CYH10) for $13.19 (list price $20.23)

Electric Pencil Sharpener - Battery Operated (No Cord) - Ideal For No. 2 and Colored Pencils (Drawing, Coloring) - Small and Durable - Kid Friendly - Artist , Students , and Professionals for $16.99 (list price $34.99)

Sargent Art 36-1012 36 Count Premium Pink Eraser Best Buy Pack for $4.99 (list price $20.29)

OUTDOORS, GARDEN, AND SPORTS

SHINE HAI Double Camping Hammock, Portable Lightweight Parachute Nylon Garden Hammock, Two Persons Bed for Backpacking, Camping, Travel, Beach, Yard for $23.99 (list price $139.99)

LUXUR Casual Foldable Nylon Backpack Hiking Sport Durable Lightweight Hand Bag 33L for Men and Women Rose Red for $8.99 (list price $35.99)

Polar Bottle Insulated Water Bottle (24-Ounce) (Starburst) for $8.92 (list price $11.99)

KT TAPE PRO Kinesiology Sports Tape, 20 Precut 10in Strips, 100% Synthetic, Water Resistant, Breathable, Videos, Team USA Olympic Edition, Black for $9.99 (list price $14.99)

Polar H7 Bluetooth Heart Rate Sensor & Fitness Tracker (Black, Medium/XX-Large) for $41.12 (list price $58.49)

TaylorMade 2016 Tour Preferred Golf Balls (1 Dozen) for $24.99 (list price $39.00)

JOOLA Conversion Table Tennis Top with Foam Backing and Net Set for $308.39 (list price $374.99)

Homitt 2 Way Y Hose Connector, Garden Hose Splitter with Comfortable Rubberized Grip for Easy Garden Life for $11.99 (list price $29.99)

BLACK+DECKER LST300 12-Inch Lithium Trimmer / Edger, 20-volt for $55.30 (list price $64.99)

Caravan Sports Infinity Zero Gravity Chair, Beige for $36.23 (list price $79.99)

TOOLS

Schlage FE595 CAM 619 ACC Camelot Keypad Entry with Flex-Lock and Accent Levers, Satin Nickel for $87.73 (list price $109.67)

Etekcity 3 Pack Portable Outdoor LED Lantern with 9 AA Batteries - Camping Friendly (Black, Collapsible) for $17.99 (list price $50.99)

First Alert AF400-2 Tundra Fire Extinguisher Aerosol Spray Twin Pack for $22.49 (list price $28.92)

Maxcraft 60626 8-oz. Stubby Claw Hammer for $10.89 (list price $12.48)

Coleman Cable 02309 16/3 Vinyl Outdoor Extension Cord, Orange, 100-Feet for $22.92 (list price $26.30)

BLENDX 7mm to 19mm Ratchet Universal Sockets Metric Wrench Power Drill Adapter Set - Professional Repair Tools for $9.99 (list price $15.99)

First Alert SCO5CN Battery Operated Combination Carbon Monoxide/Smoke Alarm for $31.24 (list price $33.93)

URPOWER Tactical Flashlight Super Bright CREE LED Flashlight Zoomable Tactical Flashlight Rainproof Lighting Lamp Torch -with Rechargeable 18650 2800mAh Battery -For Cycling Hiking Camping Emergency for $10.99 (list price $39.99)

Custom Leathercraft 1100 Multi-Purpose Clip-on Zippered Poly Bags for $6.72 (list price $7.82)

Campbell Hausfeld 17-Piece Air Tool and Accessory Kit (MP284701AV) for $11.78 (list price $17.07)

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