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Alternate Histories: 7 More Ways the World Could Be Completely Different

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We previously covered some of the many alternate histories out there. Here are seven more intriguing ways the world could be completely different.

1. What if the Romans won the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest?

Effect: No one would speak English.

Explanation: In What If? (1999), edited by Robert Cowley, historians pondered what would happen if historical events had turned out differently. Many of these were popular questions — What if the Americans lost the Revolutionary War? What if the D-Day invasion had failed in 1944? But an essay by the late Lewis H. Lapham, then editor of Harper’s Magazine, recalled a little-known confrontation in 9 AD between the Roman legions and the Germanic tribes at the Teutoburg Forest. The tribes ambushed and destroyed three Roman legions in this campaign, and the Romans would never again attempt to conquer Germania beyond the Rhine.

Lapham suggested that, if the Romans had won, world history would have been remarkably different, with a “Roman empire preserved from ruin, Christ dying… on an unremembered cross, the nonappearance of the English language, neither the need nor the occasion for a Protestant Reformation… and Kaiser Wilhelm seized by an infatuation with stamps… instead of a passion for cavalry boots.”

2. What if the Protestant Reformation never happened?

Effect: Christianity would continue to rule the world. Science, not so much.

Explanation: Renowned novelist Kingsley Amis entered alternate-history territory in 1976 with his award-winning novel The Alteration. In his imagined history, Henry VIII’s short-lived older brother, Arthur, has a son just before his death. When Henry tries to usurp his nephew’s throne, he is stopped in a papal war. Hence, the Church of England is never founded, the Spanish Armada is never defeated (as Elizabeth I was never born), and Martin Luther reconciles with the Catholic Church, eventually becoming Pope. Naturally, this turns Europe into a vastly different place. By 1976, it is ruled by the Vatican, in the middle of a long-running Christian/Muslim cold war, and technologically regressed, as electricity is banned and scientists are frowned upon.

3. What if Napoleon had kept going?

Effect: Revolution in South America.

Explanation: Probably the first book-length alternate history, Napoleon and the Conquest of the World: 1812-1823 (published in 1836) imagined that Napoleon, rather than freezing in Moscow in 1812, sought out and destroyed the Russian army. One chapter mentions a fantasy novel in which the Emperor suffered a major defeat in the Belgian town of Waterloo. (The idea of a fictitious book, telling the “real” history, was also used by Kingsley Amis in The Alteration.)

But what if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo in 1815? This question was asked in 1907, in an essay contest held by London's Westminster Gazette. The winning essay, by G. M. Trevelyan, suggested that Napoleon would lose interest in expanding his empire, partly because his health was suffering, and partly because the mood in Paris was for peace. England, however, would suffer economically, with many people starving. The poet Lord Byron would lead a popular uprising against the government, which would be suppressed. Byron's execution, of course, would only inspire revolution. Meanwhile, a war of independence would stir in South America. With Napoleon ailing, the French government would nearly cease functioning, attacked from all sides. (The essay ended there – on a cliffhanger.)

4. What if the South had won the US Civil War?

Effect: The Union would be over… forever.

Explanation: The previous list of alternate histories included a historian’s view of what would have happened if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. Of course, the idea has also been popular in fiction. The popular Harry Turtledove, who specializes in alternate history novels, has suggested what might have happened – in 11 volumes (so far). The first novel, How Few Remain (1997), introduced a world where, years after the war, the former USA is divided into two nations: the U.S. and the Confederate States of America. Later volumes were set in the Great War, in which the CSA allies with Britain and France, and the U.S. – still bitter over the two Civil Wars – joins forces with Germany. Using advanced technology, the U.S. is on the winning side. In the South, post-war measures lead to runaway inflation, poverty, and the victory of the violent Freedom party. The newly fascist CSA then plans a Final Solution for the “surplus” black population. In the Second Great War (1941-1944), three American cities and six European cities are destroyed in nuclear attacks. At the end of the war, the U.S. side wins again, and takes control of the CSA.

Sadly, it is too late for the South to rejoin the Union. After all these years of conflict, such a move would fill Congress with some of the USA’s greatest enemies. Instead, the CSA is offered neither independence nor civil rights, but is kept under military rule.

5. What if the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated into a full-scale war?

Effect: The end of nuclear proliferation... except in the U.S.

Explanation: Though usually considered a branch of science fiction, alternate history stories have their own awards, the Sidewise Awards for Alternate History, which have been presented to some renowned novels, including Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain, mentioned above, and in 1999, Brendan DuBois’ Resurrection Day. This envisions a world in which the U.S. military sabotages President Kennedy’s attempts to negotiate peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States invades Cuba, making the Crisis escalate into nuclear warfare. The Soviet Union is destroyed, the People’s Republic of China collapses, and a fallout cloud over Asia kills millions of others. Meanwhile, the United States loses New York, Washington DC, San Diego, Miami and other cities. However, all surviving nations renounce their possession of nuclear weapons – with the exception of the USA, now under martial law (as the military had planned all along).

6. What if Marilyn Monroe survived?

Effect: She would win an Oscar – and be brainwashed.

Explanation: Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962, at age 36, has been pondered by a few writers. In his novel Idlewild (1995), journalist Mark Lawson devised a world where Monroe survived her “suicide attempts,” President Kennedy survived his assassination attempt, and they continued their notorious (if historically unproven) affair for another 30 years. Playwright Douglas Mendin, in a 1992 story for Entertainment Weekly, imagined that Monroe would survive, dedicate herself to serious acting, and win an Oscar in 1965, with no make-up and her hair dyed brown. She would then record a hit song with Frank Sinatra, make bad films, and give up acting in 1980 to look after her drug-addicted twin sons.

Then there was the American supermarket tabloid The Sun. In a 1990 story, they “revealed” that Monroe actually was still alive. According to The Sun, after threatening to reveal an affair with Robert Kennedy, she was drugged, brainwashed and taken to Australia, where she lives the "simple life of a sheep rancher's wife."

7. What if the Summer of Love never ended?

Effect: A TV show would have one of its silliest episodes.

Explanation: While science fiction series like Doctor Who and Star Trek (and even dramas like Dallas) occasionally entered the world of alternate history, the only show that focused on them in every episode was Sliders, which aired on Fox from 1995 to 2000. In this series, a young genius and three companions “slide” through an inter-dimensional portal, sending them into a different parallel Earth every episode. While it never won an Emmy (or even a Sidewise Award), Sliders has a cult following. Some of the alternate worlds were intriguing — like one in which prohibition was never repealed, so that organized crime dominates society. Some were ludicrous, like those inhabited by vampires or man-eating giant worms, and some were simply nightmarish, such as the one where caffeine is outlawed – a chilling scenario.

The season one episode “Summer of Love” was one of the more humorous, as they visited a San Francisco where the 1967 Summer of Love never ended, and were mistaken for extraterrestrial prophets. It was even revealed that the U.S. President was Oliver North, though it’s never explained how the extended Summer of Love could inspire people to vote for a former war hero known for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. (As I said, it was meant to be funny.)

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]