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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
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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