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Alison Jackson/Snopes

10 Internet Lies That Won't Die

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Alison Jackson/Snopes

It takes a certain combination to make an internet hoax/myth/meme take flight. It must be just credible enough to be possible, usually paired with a small “Wow! Cool!” factor. Below are 10 popular untruths that have misled thousands. If any readers can contribute additional information about the truth behind these myths, we welcome the enlightenment.

1. The Proof is in the Canoodle

They say: The photo at the top of this post was secretly captured, taken around the time of her famous “Happy Birthday” song, proving the famous, illicit intimacy of Marilyn Monroe and JFK. 

The Truth: The photo is part of the eerie portfolio of artist Alison Jackson. She is famous for her staged photos of impersonators who bear stunning resemblances to celebrities. To be truly unsettled, seek out her pictures of the British royal family taking a bubble bath together

2. PIN Panic

Pinterest

They say: "If a thief forces you to take money from an ATM, punch your PIN in reverse. If your PIN is 1234, you punch 4321. The moment you punch in the reverse, the money will come out but will be stuck in the machine and the machine will immediately alert the police without the thief’s knowledge. Every ATM has this feature. Can't believe I never knew this!!" 

The Truth: There have been attempts to implement safety codes like this in ATMs, all unsuccessfully. In 2004, the Kansas state legislature introduced a bill that would require this exact scenario, but it never passed. The Federal Trade Commission analyzed the potential of a panic code, and concluded that it just wouldn’t work. The commission believed a panic code would not deter crime (by the time the police got there the thief would be long gone) and might pose a deeper danger to the victim. Plus, few banks support the idea, not wanting the installation cost or liability of such a feature. Not to mention that the system would be useless to consumers with palindromic PINs.

3. Nature Embraces a Dead Boy’s Bike

Pinterest

They say: A boy left his bike chained to a tree when he went away to war in 1914. He never returned, leaving the tree no choice but to grow around the bike. Incredible that this bike has been there for 98 years now!

The Truth: Santa has a hearing problem. No, that’s probably not the true story, although Berke Breathed’s children’s book based on the famous bike is much more interesting than the accepted theory. The bike was donated to a boy, Don Puz, after his family suffered a house fire. He wasn’t fond of the bike, with its solid rubber tires and tricycle-like build.  So, he left it in the forest of Washington State’s Vashon Island in 1954. The tree grew around it, possibly with anonymous help over the years.

4. The Tragic Lucky Life of Anna Mae

Instapunk

They say: Here is the story of a woman who was personally touched by nearly every national tragedy of the 20th century and beyond. The Titanic, the Hindenburg, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and all points of sadness in between. Poor Anna Mae Dickinson.  

The Truth: The only record of this article is from the New York Intelligencer, which doesn’t seem to exist. There was no one with the surname Dickinson listed as a passenger aboard the Titanic, nor was anyone named “Alfred” (Anna Mae’s tragic uncle) among the Hindenburg casualties, to debunk just two of the claims made in the original piece. As for the photo, that is real. It’s Grandma Moses, an American folk artist who did not start her career until very late in life. Her work was extremely popular in the 1950s.  

5. The Grandmother of All Tumors

Pinterest

They say: “This is a picture of 46 year old Jane Todd Crawford. In 1809, she rode 60 miles on horseback to see Dr. Ephraim McDowell who removed a 7.5 lb ovarian tumor through a 9" incision in 25 minutes (without anesthesia and antiseptic). Twenty-five days after the surgery she got back on the horse, rode home, and lived another 33 years."

The Truth: The story itself is true, and was recorded by Doctor McDowell himself in a report, "Three cases of extirpation of diseased ovaria," in the journal The Eclectic Repertory and Analytical Review, Medical and Philosophical. The problem is the date. Photography didn’t exist in 1809. Some supposedly reliable sources claim this is Crawford, and the surgery happened in 1851. But the historical plaque marking her grave disagrees, saying she died in 1842. What’s more, Dr. McDowell died in 1830. This photo is more likely the face of another woman said to have had a tumor scooped out of her body through a 9 inch incision, without anesthesia, singing hymns to keep herself calm. The poor woman pictured is unidentified.

6. Get Over It

They say: Ian McKellen wears an awesome shirt in public.

The Truth: Ian McKellen wears a different awesome shirt in public. (Although if McKellen doesn’t own the shirt on the left, someone needs to give him one.) 

7. Baby’s First Step 

They say: Behold, the precious miracle of life! 

The Truth: Babies can make their mothers' stomachs jump and bulge when they flail about in the later months of gestation. But even a very thin mother has too thick of an abdominal wall, uterus, and belly fat to allow such detail to show through. 

8. The Spaceman Who Went to Church

Wikimedia Commons 

They say: This Spanish cathedral, the New Cathedral, in Salamanca, was built in the 1700s with a spaceman carved into its ancient masonry, probably because ancient space travelers visited earth in the past.

The Truth: There is a spaceman carved into the stonework of this 16th century church, but it was put there in 1992 when the building was undergoing restoration. It is the habit of stonemasons, in this case one Jeronimo Garcia, to “sign” their work with depictions of modernity. 

9. To Toro or Not To Toro

Snopes

They say: Bullfighter Álvaro Múnera is shown here, faced with the bull he was supposed to kill for sport. But he had a sudden epiphany that bullfighting was cruel, and stopped in the middle of the fight.  

The Truth: Álvaro Múnera was a real bullfighter, and he did come to see bullfighting as cruel. His career as a torero was ended when he was just 18, after a bull gored him and injured his spinal cord. But the photo is not Múnera, it’s Francisco Javier Sánchez Vara. And he’s not slumped in defeat; Vara is in desplante, which is the opposite of defeat or sadness; it's actually showboating by placing yourself in a vulnerable position right in front of the bull, to show you aren’t afraid of him. If the above myth was true, Múnera would have picked a terrible time to give up bullfighting, as it would be very unlikely that the bull had decided to give up peoplefighting at the same time. 

10. The Universe Corrects Time Travel with a Fatal Car Crash

Cool Interesting Stuff

They say: In 1950, a man dressed in Victorian costume was hit by a car and killed. At the morgue his pockets were found to contain a bill for horse and carriage care, $70 in Victorian era banknotes, and similar tokens of the previous century. His business card identified him as “Rudolph Fentz.” They were able to trace the widow of a Rudolph Fentz, Jr., who claimed her father-in-law went out for a walk one night in 1876 and never returned. 

The Truth: Despite being reported as a real live unsolved mystery throughout the 1970s and '80s, the story can be traced back to science-fiction writer Jack Finney, in a story published in the 1950s called “I’m Scared.” However, some true believers still hold out hope, claiming that a newspaper story detailing the Fentz “myth” was published months before Finney’s story, and that researchers have found true evidence of a live Fentz existing in the 1800s. However, the evidence for this has not been forthcoming.

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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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