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11 Things You Didn't Know About Death Valley

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Getty Images

Death Valley is a land of extremes—extreme temperatures, altitudes, and environmental occurrences. Because of this, it’s been the catalyst for some of the most unusual natural and historical phenomena this planet has ever seen. And since it’s mostly uninhabitable, evidence of these extraordinary things has remained intact much longer than it would have elsewhere. Here are a few things you may not have known about the natural wonder.

1. THE ART MADE BY PEOPLE IN DEATH VALLEY DATES BACK THOUSANDS OF YEARS.

Some of the oldest records of man can be found painted and chiseled on the rocks of Death Valley. A few of those pieces are thought to have been made by the people of the Mesquite Flat Culture, who lived in the Valley from 3000 BCE to 1 CE. However, thanks to carbon dating, it is now believed that most came from Saratoga Spring Culture that resided there between 500 and 1000 CE.

2. DEATH VALLEY HOLDS THE RECORD FOR THE HIGHEST TEMPERATURE EVER RECORDED.

Death Valley is known for its hot, subtropical, desert climate. Visitors can typically expect long, hot summers, and short, mild winters. However, July 10, 1913 wasn't typical. That day, the temperature in Furnace Creek (an area of Death Valley) hit 134°F, the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth at the time. The area held the record for nearly 10 years, until residents of El Azizia, Libya experienced a reported high of 136.4°F in September 1922.

Nearly a century later, the World Meteorological Organization determined that the Libya record was the result of the operator misreading the thermometer and the temperature was deemed invalid. So in September 2012, the record was officially returned to Death Valley.

3. IT'S HOME TO OVER 1000 DIFFERENT SPECIES OF PLANTS.

Despite its extreme temperatures and harsh environment, Death Valley has surprisingly diverse plant life. Some take up residence on the valley floor, and have adapted to the meager amount of precipitation by growing incredibly long roots. These roots either shoot down up to 100 feet to grab moisture from the lower soil levels, or span wide to collect any amount of moisture they can from the atmosphere. They also have special leaves that slow evaporation, allowing them to hold onto moisture as long as possible.

4. THE VALLEY EXPERIENCES 'TSUNAMIS' WHEN EARTHQUAKES HAPPEN ELSEWHERE IN THE WORLD.

There’s a deep, water-filled chasm in Death Valley National Park called “Devil’s Hole.” It’s home to the endangered Devil’s Hole Pupfish, a species that may have been residing there for up to 20,000 years. It's not the chasm's only impressive feature. The water in the hole reacts to seismic activity around the world. If there’s a giant earthquake in Japan, chances are it will be making some waves in Devil’s Hole. Here’s an example of how a 7.4 magnitude earthquake in Oaxaca, Mexico impacted the area in 2012.

5. IT PLAYED A PART IN THE ORIGINAL STARS WARS MOVIES.

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It may not surprise you that Death Valley was the ideal spot to shoot many of the scenes that took place on Luke’s desert planet of Tatooine in the 1977 film Star Wars IV: A New Hope. According to Star Wars experts, over a dozen scenes were shot there, including the ones where the droids escape, where R2 gets attacked by Jawas, and the establishing shot of Mos Eisley Cantina. One expert in particular, Steve Hall, actually went there and mapped them all out, in case you want to take a self-guided tour.

6. THIS YEAR, DEATH VALLEY IS EXPERIENCING AN INCREDIBLY RARE 'SUPER BLOOM.'

With an average annual rainfall of just two inches, Death Valley is not known for its floral displays. But this year is the exception. While the rest of the country has been enduring heavy rains and strangely warm winter days due to El Niño, the Valley’s had heavy rainfall in the fall and then more moderate weather.

These perfect conditions allowed for an exceptionally unusual event to occur on the valley floor—a sudden flood of blooming flowers. According to park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg, flowers do occasionally bloom all over Death Valley, but this concentrated bloom only happens about once every decade.

"You never know when it's going to happen," Van Valkenburg said in a YouTube video on the subject. "It's a privilege to be here and get to see one of these blooms. Very few people get to see it, and it's incredible."

7. DEATH VALLEY RECEIVED ITS NAME FROM PIONEERS WHO THOUGHT IT WOULD CLAIM THEIR LIVES.

Photographersnature, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1849, a group of pioneers who were searching for gold out west lost their way in Death Valley—and were certain it would be the end of them. However, as far as history knows, only one member of their party actually perished. They were rescued by two young men, but were forever haunted by their journey through the desolate wasteland. Legend has it that as they left they area, one of the surviving travelers stated, "Goodbye, Death Valley." They would be come to be known as “The Lost 49ers” and the area would take on that ominous nickname.

8. THERE ARE MORE THAN 100 GHOST TOWNS AND MINES IN DEATH VALLEY.

It wasn't just the destination of The Lost 49ers. Death Valley was on many gold seekers’ routes out west. During the mid to late 19th century, small towns sprung up throughout the area, as more and more travelers began using the Valley as a sort of pit stop. This became even more common when thousands of gold, silver, copper, and borax mines started appearing out west. However, the primitive technology and scarcity of water made mining difficult. When the gold rush started to peter out, these midpoint towns began to close up shop. While most have been eroded by time and the elements, some still remain to this day. You can find them on this handy chart.

9. IT'S HOME TO SCOTTY'S CASTLE—A SELF-SUSTAINED MANSION THAT WASN'T OWNED BY A MAN NAMED SCOTTY.

William E. Scott, or Scotty, as he was commonly known, convinced a Chicago millionaire named Albert Mussey Johnson to invest in property in Death Valley. Scotty told Johnson there was plenty of gold to be had in a local mine, but when that turned out to be false, the two men struck up an unlikely friendship.

In 1922, they began building a house on Johnson’s 1500 acres in the Grapevine Valley region of Death Valley. Because the land was located below a healthy spring, the partners used the flowing water to power the house. They had a Pelton wheel that powered a generator, which took care of all the house’s electrical needs.

10. DEATH VALLEY IS HOME TO THE LOWEST POINT IN THE UNITED STATES.

The Valley’s Badwater Basin is a staggering 282 feet below sea level. It’s less than 100 miles from Mount Whitney, which happens to be the highest point in the contiguous United States. There is a low level of “bad water” (where the site gets it name) in the basin from a nearby spring that is undrinkable, but it attracts a good deal of flora and fauna.

11. DEATH VALLEY HAS MYSTERIOUS, SAILING STONES.

Over the past 100 years, visitors have noticed that the rocks in Death Valley’s Racetrack Playa would leave trails behind them in the sand in varying patterns. Many different theories developed to try and explain the apparent movement, from changing magnetic fields to slippery algae. Finally, scientists (and cousins) Richard and Jim Norris set out to crack the mystery.

After several years, they pinpointed the movement down to what happens when the Valley floor freezes over, then cracks and melts suddenly when the sun comes up. The broken ice is then blown across the surface of the playa by winds, and pushes the rocks enough to get them moving, and the slippery surface allows them to go quite the distance—sometimes up to the length of two football fields. The two cousins were lucky enough to witness the rare phenomenon once, but they believe their work is far from over since they didn’t see the larger, 700 pound boulders budge.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
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iStock

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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