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11 Time Traveler Urban Legends That Pretty Much Debunk Themselves

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Despite photographic evidence and eyewitness accounts, these tales of time travel were too good to be true.

1. Billy Meier and the Plejaren

Not many time travelers have photo albums with snapshots of their journeys. Meet Billy Meier. In the 1970s, the Swiss-born Meier was taken on a few chronological joyrides by a race of extraterrestrials called the Plejaren. They showed him prehistoric earth with dinosaurs, the surface of ancient Mars and even introduced him to Jmmaneul, the real Jesus.

Meier’s holiday pics of the Plejarens’ spacecraft turned out to be an inventively decorated garbage can lid. The dinosaurs were blurry shots of illustrations from a book called Life Before Man. And the pretty Plejaren girls? Photos that Meier had taken of dancers from The Dean Martin Show on his TV screen.

2. Rudolph Fentz

In 1950, a man with mutton chop sideburns and Victorian-era duds popped up in Times Square. Witnesses said he looked startled, and then a minute later, he was hit by a car and killed.

On his person, the police found 19th-century money, a letter dated 1876 and business cards with his name – Rudolph Fentz. None of these items showed signs of aging. A Mrs. Rudolph Fentz was tracked down. She was the widow of Rudolph Fentz, Jr., and the story went that junior’s dad disappeared mysteriously in 1876. Weird, right? Eventually it was discovered that this urban legend originated from a 1950 short story written by Jack Finney. Finney would go on to write the classics Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Time and Again.

3. John Titor

How’s life in the year 2036? “Food and livestock is grown locally. People spend much more time reading and talking together face to face. Religion is taken seriously and everyone can multiply and divide in their heads.” That’s an entry from John Titor. Titor, a traveler from the future, first showed up on internet discussion boards in the 2000, making predictions about the years ahead. In 2001, he returned to the year 2036. Most of his predictions did not come true.

4. The Chronovisor

Not so much time travel as time voyeurism. The Chronovisor, a magic television/camera that could tune into times and places from the past, was invented in the 1950s by a Benedictine monk named Father Pellegrino Ernetti. He used it to film the crucifixion, and that footage, along with the Chronovisor itself, is now reportedly hidden away in the vaults of the Vatican.

5. Henry Fonda

In the 1948 movie Fort Apache, there’s a brief moment when Fonda’s character appears to be checking his stagecoach route on an iPhone.

Well, notepads can sometimes look like iPhones.

6. Andrew Carlssin

The alarm bells went off on Wall Street and with the SEC in 2002 when unknown investor Andrew Carlssin quickly parlayed $800 into $350,000,000 via some high-risk stock trades. Carlssin was arrested. He confessed that he was from the year 2256. It turns out the story originated from that ever-sensational source of fakery, The Weekly World News. Ten years on, the story is still being reprinted and circulated.

7. 1941 Hipster

In the midst of a hat-and-suit crowd shown in a photograph from 1941, there’s a young man who seems wildly out of place. He’s wearing new wave sunglasses, what appears to be a T-shirt and he’s holding a portable camera. Turns out the sunglasses were unusual but not unknown at the time, the Tee was a letter sweater, and the camera was a Kodak Folding Pocket model. Still, that was ten years before the concept of the teenager was born, so give the young dude props for being ahead of his time in self-expression.

8. John Krasinski

Could Jim from The Office be a time traveler? Or maybe a vampire? When an 1835 portrait painting by Danish artist Christen Købke was noted to bear a striking resemblance to actor John Krasinski, the story went viral. "Wow! Seems a little highbrow for NBC marketing," Krasinski said. "But I like it!”

9. 1928 Cell Phone Lady

A woman walks through a film premiere crowd in Los Angeles talking on her cell. Not so remarkable. Until you consider the year is 1928. The clip, from bonus material on a DVD of Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus, hit the internet in 2010. Never mind the obvious questions about non-existent satellites and cell towers back in the jazz age. The device was most likely an early hearing aid. Still, the clip is mind-teasingly fun to watch.

10. The Philadelphia Experiment

According to legend, in a secret experiment done in 1943, the US Navy was able to render the destroyer USS Eldridge invisible, then dematerialize it and transport it from Philadelphia to Norfolk, Virginia, and back again. One account insists the ship went backwards in time by a full 10 seconds (though how that was determined is still sketchy). The experiment reportedly had terrible side effects, such as causing sailors to remain invisible. Secret government projects often foster all kinds of fanciful tales, but this one has endured, and was even the basis of a 1984 movie.

11. Hakan Nordkvist

Talk about pipe dreams. While doing a little DIY plumbing, Nordkvist slipped through a wormhole in time and was suddenly confronted by an older version of himself. The two talked. They compared tattoos. They bonded. And Nordkvist filmed it on his phone. Reportedly, it was all part of an advertising campaign by an insurance company to promote the benefits of pension plans.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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