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11 Offbeat Commemorative Plaques

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Getty Images

A quick glance at a shiny metal plaque can often serve as shorthand for “Something important happened here.” But if you step closer, the events such plaques commemorate are often far from simple. From presidential kisses to witchcraft to events that may or may not have actually even occurred, plaques are rich and often underestimated sources of history that’s weird, funny, or just plain creepy.

1. Barack and Michelle Obama’s First Kiss

In 1989, a young Barack Obama took Michelle Robinson out for ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. The night ended with a sidewalk kiss that is now forever memorialized with a plaque (above) at Dorchester Avenue and 53rd Street in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Set in a boulder surrounded by flowers, the plaque is inscribed with these words from the president: “On our first date, I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb. I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate.”

Though the area has changed a bit since then (for one, that Baskin-Robbins is now a Subway restaurant), the owners of the building were intent on immortalizing the kiss, first commissioning the marker back in 2010. Obviously, it was a successful date; Michelle even recalled Barack as “hip, cutting edge, cultural, sensitive.” Said the president: “Take notes, gentlemen.” Or at least visit the birthplace of America’s current reigning power couple.

2. The Barney and Betty Hill UFO Incident

Courtesy of New Page Books

Thanks to this plaque, UFO junkies can visit the exact spot where one of the world’s most famous alien encounters allegedly took place. In 1961, Barney and Betty Hill were returning from a trip to their summer home when they spotted a large “cigar-shaped” aircraft full of “strangely not human” figures along the New Hampshire highway. Spooked, they quickly drove away, but they later experienced an amnesia-like gap in memory from the following two hours; they also found mysterious tears and scrapes on their clothing neither could account for, along with odd circular shapes on their car. Later, under hypnosis, both produced details of an alien abduction experience.

This seemingly conclusive evidence of an alien landing has since been the subject of many books, films, and, in 2011, a plaque commemorating the 50th anniversary of the encounter. The plaque, displaying the official New Hampshire state seal, calls the incident “The first widely-reported UFO abduction report in the United States.” It can be found at New Hampshire’s Indian Head resort, just north of the spot where the mysterious aircraft is said to have appeared.

3. The half-sunk USS Murphy

When diver Dan Crowell discovered the remains of a U.S. World War II destroyer 75 miles off the shore of New Jersey, it led to another rather confusing discovery: According to the U.S. Navy, that destroyer, the USS Murphy—which Crowell had positively identified using a tag recovered in the wreck—never sank.

Here's what happened: On October 21, 1943, the Murphy fell victim to a hit by a German U-boat. The bow of the ship was lost to the freezing Atlantic, along with 38 crew members. The stern, however, miraculously stayed afloat. The remaining half of the Murphy was restored with a new bow, soon after to support the Normandy invasion at Omaha Beach; the destroyer eventually ended its career with four battle stars for its World War II service.

So what about the long-forgotten half of the Murphy discovered by Crowell? Today, the undersea wreck is home to a commemorative plaque inscribed in memoriam to the dozens of crew lost with the ship that sank—but didn’t.

4. One small step for Bill Murray

Flickr: Olivander

Woodstock, Illinois is a nondescript burg of roughly 20,000 people, but it wasn’t about to forgo its 15 minutes of fame—specifically, that time Bill Murray stepped in a puddle for a scene in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day.

Though the film revolved around Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and its famous rodent inhabitant, the small northern Illinois town was actually the film’s primary shooting location. Actual Woodstock signs and storefronts can be seen throughout Groundhog Day, but the most iconic feature of the town is a lowly square of concrete where Murray’s grumpy character repeatedly stepped in a puddle as he lived that day over and over. In honor of the iconic scene, the city of Woodstock placed a plaque nearby with an outline of Murray’s shoe, reading “Bill Murray stepped here” and “Movie Groundhog Day, 1992."

5. Putting the “dead” in deadpan humor: The Devenish-Phibbs family benches

Courtesy of Croy Devenish-Phibbs

When dryly humorous memorial plaques started popping up around the U.K. with messages such as “If you can read this, you’re less dead than me, Bonnie Devenish-Phibbs 1899-1942,” they were mostly regarded as an elaborate gag. All of the bench plaques claimed to be in memoriam of deceased members of the Devenish-Phibbs family, and all were inscribed with darkly witty, far from reverent messages (“’This was one of my favourite views. You can see it better if you move along the bench a bit. Come on shuffle along. Bit more. More. No, more. There, now look.’ In commemoration of Barbara Devenish-Phibbs: Mother, wife, nag”).

But when a supposed descendant of the Devenish-Phibbs clan came forward to ask the public for information about his family tree, the hoax became even more complex. Croy Devenish-Phibbs claimed to be 102 years old, a student in an Internet class for senior citizens, and a disowned member of the family memorialized on the benches. Rather than claiming responsibility for the benches, Croy instead asked the public to send him pictures of the plaques in order to help him piece together his long-lost family history, offering rewards in return. That last part was no joke; one woman who emailed him received pearls.

More than 70 people have sent in pictures of the Devenish-Phibbs plaques so far. Despite obvious skepticism, Mr. Devenish-Phibbs continues to insist his search is genuine, and has even expressed surprise at claims of conspiracy. “I would have thought an ancient old wreck searching for information about his family would be as mundane as things get,” he wrote.

6. The Traffic Jam that Killed a King

Courtesy of Cool Stuff in Paris

Visitors to Paris’s Place de la Concorde can view the exact spots where King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and other key figures were executed via guillotine during the French Revolution. However, just a few miles away, you can see the spot of a less famous royal assassination. Henri IV reigned from 1589 to 1610, the year he was killed in broad daylight in the busy neighborhood of Les Halles. Allegedly, a man named Francois Ravaillac simply ran up to the king’s coach, which was idled by traffic, and stabbed him to death. Two plaques mark the assassination, both located on Rue de la Ferronnerie. One simply commemorates the assassination, reading, “In this place, King Henri IV was assassinated by Ravaillac on May 14, 1610.” The second plaque, a few yards down the street, shows a symbol on the sidewalk that claims to mark the exact spot of the stabbing. To the left of this plaque is a Histoire de Paris sign that shows an artist’s rendering of the assassination, as well as this interesting detail: In 1554, Henri’s grandfather, Henri II, tried and failed to get the narrow street widened—if he’d succeeded, the traffic jam that proved fatal might not have happened.

7. Freddie Mercury’s vanishing plaque

The final resting place of Freddie Mercury was a mystery for 21 years, before a plaque was found in a West London cemetery signifying the legendary musician’s grave. Then, a few days later, it vanished. Reportedly, the plaque had read: “In Loving Memory of Farrokh Bulsara, 5 Sept. 1946-24 Nov. 1991” (Mercury changed his name from Bulsara shortly after the formation of Queen). The mysterious plaque also came with the dedication, “Pour Etre Toujours Pres De Tois Avec Tout Mon Amour- M.,” translating to “Always To Be Close To You With All My Love- M.”

The “M.” likely stood for Mary Austin, Mercury’s closest friend, who inherited Mercury’s mansion and is believed to have been the sole recipient of the Queen frontman’s ashes. Many fans speculate that Austin removed the plaque, following a deathbed promise to Mercury that she never reveal the whereabouts of his remains. Said Austin, “I made a promise on his death bed that I would never reveal where his ashes were. I do know where they are but that’s all I have to say on it.”

8. The Lars Homestead in Tunisia

After filming finished on Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the film crew packed up and left, leaving the intricate set of the Lars Homestead (the Tatooine home of young Luke Skywalker) to decay in the Tunisian desert. The homestead was left undisturbed for years, preserved by southern Tunisia’s dry climate, until it was discovered by photographer Rä di Martin.

Di Martin’s photographs caught the attention of a group of fans, who then decided to venture out into the desert and restore the set to its former glory. A six-person team from five different countries worked with Tunisian locals to repair the set, enduring sweltering temperatures as high as 120 degrees. They reported the restoration process through the website Save the Lars Homestead, eventually collecting over $11,000 through a Facebook page.

After restoring the Lars Homestead to its original state, the group went the extra mile, installing a red and white entry coder to imitate the one seen in the film, as well as a commemorate plaque for all brave Star Wars fanatics who wish to see the Homestead for themselves.

9. “That strange aircraft…” The disappearance of Frederick Valentich

Courtesy of Atlas Obscura

On October 21, 1978, Frederick Valentich was piloting a light aircraft over Australia’s Bass Strait, traveling to King Island to catch some crayfish. Then, the 20-year old pilot noticed something truly fishy. During his 127-mile flight, Valentich contacted Cape Otway air traffic control that he was being tailed by an unusual aircraft that was hovering about 1000 feet above him. Air traffic controller Steve Robey responded, assuring Valentich that there were no planes in the vicinity, but the young pilot insisted that the unidentified aircraft was “playing games” with him. He then reported that the aircraft emitted a bright green light before vanishing. After a brief moment of relief, Valentich radioed back saying that it had reappeared. The last words Valentich was ever heard to say were, “That strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again…it is hovering and it’s not an aircraft.”

The disappearance quickly drew the attention of UFO fanatics and tabloids, who return to the spot every year to hold vigil at the nearby Cape Otway lighthouse. On the 20th anniversary of Valentich’s vanishing, his family erected a commemorative plaque at Cape Otway. The plaque was unveiled by Steve Robey himself, the last human to have ever heard from Frederick. 

10. The Cemetery at Snake Hill

Courtesy of Weird N.J.

New Jersey’s Snake Hill has been the subject of ghost stories for Turnpike-area kids for years. After all, over the course of its history, the area has been home to a snake infestation, a few hospitals, a penitentiary and, most notably, a psychiatric asylum. Although the asylum had been demolished for many years, it still continued to stir up controversy.

After the demolition, the asylum’s adjoining graveyard still contained graves dating from the 1880s through 1962. When construction on a nearby train station began, a large number of pine coffins were unearthed, leading to the discovery that about 4000 deceased lay in the area. It’s likely most were mentally ill, immigrants, or indigents.

Following the discovery, families of those buried near Snake Hill began a campaign to preserve and memorialize them. Efforts began to identify their relatives among the field of largely unmarked graves. Eventually, a mass exhumation was ordered by the court. Today, a plaque at Laurel Hill Park commemorates the dead of Snake Hill whose resting place was disturbed. 

11. A “White Witch” gets a blue plaque

In the United Kingdom, witchcraft—the practice of the pagan religion today known as Wicca—was outlawed in the 15th century, and wasn’t legalized again until 1951. One year later, a young Doreen Valiente was introduced to Gerald Gardner, who initiated her into the “craft.” Today known as “The Mother of Modern Witchcraft,” Valiente took parts of Gardner’s well-known witchcraft book, The Book of Shadows, and re-wrote and added to it. These revisions became the basis of the rituals of today’s Wicca, or modern witchcraft.

Valiente is credited with clearing away much of the superstitious mystique that made witchcraft frightening, choosing to focus on healing rather than hexing. In June 2013, Valiente's work was recognized with a blue plaque, a mark of distinction in the United Kingdom for something historically or culturally significant. The plaque was installed at her old block of apartments in Brighton, where Valiente had lived until her death in 1999. A neighbor of Valiente described her as “very gentle,” adding, “We used to refer to her as a white witch, which is a good witch.”

Valiente, who once called paganism the “original green party,” emphasized the love of nature and animals as a pillar of Wicca. John Carmichael, a representative from Visit Brighton, commented, “To have a plaque for a witch is something that will be great for visitors because it gives them an insight into the people who live here and make the city what it is.”

BONUS: “On This Site in 1897, Nothing Happened.”

Ever seen one of those wacky “On This Site in 1897, Nothing Happened” plaques? You’re not alone. They’ve been spotted all over the world, and have been in existence since at least the 1980s. You can buy one online, pre-antiqued, for around 30 bucks.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]