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Alternate Histories: 7 Ways the World Could Be Completely Different

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Alternate history, long popular with fiction writers, has also been explored by historians and journalists. Here are some of their intriguing conclusions.

1. What if the South won the Civil War?

Effect: America becomes one nation again… in 1960.

Explanation: In a 1960 article published in Look magazine, author and Civil War buff MacKinlay Kantor envisioned a history in which the Confederate forces won the Civil War in 1863, forcing the despised President Lincoln into exile. The Southern forces annex Washington, DC — renaming it the District of Dixie. The USA (or what’s left of it) moves its capital to Columbus, Ohio — now called  Columbia — but can no longer afford to buy Alaska from the Russians. Texas, unhappy with the new arrangement, declares its independence in 1878. Under international pressure, the Southern states gradually abolish slavery. After fighting together in two world wars, the three nations are reunified in 1960 – a century after South Carolina’s secession had led to the Civil War in the first place.

2. What if Charles Lindbergh were elected President in 1940?

Effect: America joins the Nazis.

Explanation: Philip Roth’s bestselling novel, The Plot Against America (2002), gives us an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh, trans-Atlantic pilot and all-American hero, becomes the Republican presidential candidate in 1940, defeating the incumbent Franklin Roosevelt. President Lindbergh, a white supremacist and anti-Semite, declares martial law, throws his opponents in prison, and allies with Nazi Germany in World War II. Lindbergh is remembered as a national villain – in Roth’s opinion, the reputation he deserves.

3. What if Hitler successfully invaded Russia?

Effect: The Fuhrer is revered in history as a great leader.

Explanation: In Robert Harris’ novel Fatherland (the basis for a 1994 TV movie), Nazi Germany successfully invades Russia in 1942. Learning that Britain has broken the Enigma code, however, the Nazis play it safe and make peace with the west. Through the magic of propaganda, Hitler is revered 20 years later as a beloved leader. It’s an alternate history, of course, but Harris was drawing a parallel with real history: this was Stalin’s Russia with the names changed.

4. What if James Dean had survived his car crash?

Effect: Robert Kennedy survives his assassination attempt.

Explanation: Jack Dann’s 2004 novel The Rebel portrays a history in which film star James Dean survives his fatal car crash in 1955. “I just changed that one thing,” said Dann, who copiously researched his book, making it “as factual as I could… By exploring Dean as he matures, I'm able to cast light on the Dean that we know.” If Dean had survived, Dann suggested, he would have inspired one of his fans, Elvis Presley, to leave rock ’n’ roll and become a serious actor (which was always his ambition). Dean would later become the Democratic Governor of California, consigning his opponent Ronald Reagan to the dustbin of history. In the 1968 presidential election, he would be Robert Kennedy’s running mate, eventually saving him from the assassin’s bullet.

5. What if President Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt?

Effect: Republicans win every election for the next 30 years.

Explanation: The 1963 Kennedy assassination is a popular event of alternate history, inspiring novels, stage plays and short story collections. In an essay in the book What Ifs? of American History (2003), Robert Dallek, a Kennedy biographer, suggested that Kennedy would have successfully pulled out of Vietnam, and that he would be popular enough at the end of his second term to be succeeded by his brother, the Attorney-General Robert Kennedy. Result: no Watergate, more national optimism, and less voter cynicism.

Other writers have been less kind, envisioning that JFK would provoke violent anti-war marches, accidentally start World War III, or continue his affair with Marilyn Monroe (who also survives her early death) for another 30 years.

One of the more unusual theories was written in 1993, on the thirtieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s death. London Daily Express journalist Peter Hitchens wrote a fictitious obituary, in which Kennedy survives, and goes on to become one of America’s most unpopular presidents before finally dying at age 75, mourned by almost nobody. His presidency, the article speculated, would be so disastrous that Democrats wouldn’t occupy the White House for at least another 25 years. Even Bush’s vice-president, Dan Quayle, would be propelled to the presidency after winning a debate against Bill Clinton.

Hitchens didn’t explain how Nixon would avoid the Watergate scandal, or where Quayle would obtain his debating skills. Like everything else in this list, it’s all speculation.

6. What if Christianity missed the West?

Effect: The Enlightenment starts early – and lasts a thousand years.

Explanation: French philosopher Charles Renouvier’s book Uchronie (1876) suggested a history in which Christianity didn’t come to the west through the Roman Empire, due to a small change of events after the reign of Marcus Aurelius. In this history, while the word of Christ still spreads throughout the east, Europe enjoys an extra millennium of classical culture. When Christianity finally goes West, it is absorbed harmlessly into the multi-religious society. Naturally, this view of history was colored by Renouvier’s own worldview: while not strictly an atheist, he was no fan of organized religion.

7. What if The Beatles had broken up in 1966?

Effect: Ronald Reagan is assassinated in 1985 (obviously).

Explanation: Edward Morris’s story "Imagine" (published in the magazine Interzone in 2005) is written as an article by the legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs, which reminisces about Beatlemania – and the Beatles being banned in California after John Lennon controversially states that they are “more popular than Jesus." This leads the Fab Four to disband. Almost 20 years later, Lennon, now an embittered has-been, assassinates Reagan, whose actions – as the conservative Governor of California – had played their part in the break-up.

In this history, while Reagan died 19 years early, other people are granted extended lives. Lennon’s obscurity, of course, ensures that he is not killed by a fan in 1980. Bangs also survives the fate he suffered in reality, where he died of an accidental overdose in 1982, aged 33.

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technology
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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