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7 Outlandish Alternate Histories

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Getty Images/Erin McCarthy

We’ve already explored some of the fascinating alternate histories (as fiction writers call them) or “counterfactuals” (as historians call them) in this list and this one. Here are some of the more peculiar questions that people have pondered over the decades. Perhaps not all of them should be taken seriously…

1. What if Shakespeare was a renowned historian?

Effect: Due to advanced technology, the Industrial Revolution happens 200 years early.

Explanation: Shakespeare has impressed scholars not only with his literary brilliance, but also with the historical detail of his plays. He did get a few things wrong, however—such as having a clock strike in Julius Caesar, 1500 years before such clocks were invented. The acclaimed 1974 novel A Midsummer Tempest, by popular science fiction and fantasy author Poul Andersen, was set in a world where Shakespeare’s plays are utterly accurate, and the Bard is renowned not as a creative genius, but as a great chronicler of history. Hence, fairies and other magical beings exist on this world, and the clockwork technology of Ancient Rome advanced to the stage where, in the age of Cromwell, steam trains are already running through England.

2. What if Woodrow Wilson had never been US president?

Effect: World War II would have been avoided.

Explanation: In Gore Vidal’s 1995 novel, The Smithsonian Institution, the great political scribe made one of his rare entries into science fiction. In the book, a teenage math genius is mysteriously summoned to the Smithsonian Institution in 1939, where he glimpses the upcoming World War II. Determined to prevent it, he goes back in history to seek its origins. At one stage, he concludes that the fault lay in President Woodrow Wilson’s vision for the League of Nations. Well-meaning as the organization was, Vidal blames it for causing Germany’s struggles in the 1920s, paving the way for the rise of Hitler.

3. What if Frank Sinatra was never born?

Effect: Nuclear devastation.

Explanation: In "Road to the Multiverse," a 2009 episode of Family Guy, Stewie and Brian find themselves hopping between universes. They find themselves in a Disney universe, where everything is sweet and wholesome (as long as you’re not Jewish); a universe inhabited only by a guy in the distance who gives out compliments; a universe where Christianity never existed, meaning that the Dark Ages didn’t happen; and a universe in which the positions of dogs and people are reversed. One of the most intriguing was a universe where Sinatra was never born, and is therefore unable to use his influence to get President Kennedy elected in 1960. Instead, Nixon was elected, and “totally botched the Cuban Missile Crisis, causing World War III.” This caused devastation all around them. Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t shoot Kennedy, but shot Mayor McCheese instead. (That bit was never explained.) 

4. What if Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated in 1933?

Effect: Colonization of the moon, Venus, and Mars by 1962.

Explanation: Any reality envisioned by Philip K. Dick was bound to be fascinating. His 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, which established him as a top science fiction writer, is set in a world where the Axis powers win World War II in 1947 and divide most of the world between them. This happens because, in this world, Giuseppe Zangara’s attempted assassination of President-elect Roosevelt is successful. Under the government of John Nance Garner (who would have been Roosevelt’s VP), and later the Republican candidate John W. Bricker, the U.S. doesn’t prevail against the Great Depression, and maintains an isolationist policy in World War II, leading to a weak and ineffectual military. In the America of 1962, slavery is legal once again, and the few surviving Jews hide out under assumed names. However, the Nazis have the hydrogen bomb, which also gives them the technology to fuel super-fast air travel and colonize space. This book, with its historical commentary, made many critics take sci-fi far more seriously, showing that it was more than just alien invasions and spaceships. Unlike many of Dick's later works, it has yet to be turned in to a movie, though a SyFy TV series is currently in planning stages, produced by Sir Ridley Scott.

5. What if Germany had invaded Britain by sea?

Effect: World War II might have ended earlier—but Hitler would still have lost.

Explanation: After capturing France, Nazi Germany planned to invade Britain with Operation Sea Lion, in an air and naval attack across the English Channel. The plan was shelved in 1940, but some 30 years later, the Royal Military Academy of Sandhurst started a war-games module, set in a world where Sea Lion had happened. (Military academies, in their war-games, often speculate about how different strategies might have changed history.) According to the module, the Germans would not have been able to withstand the might of the British Home Guard and the RAF—and as the Royal Navy had superiority in the English Channel, they would not have been able to escape. It would have severely weakened the German army, and hastened the end of the war.

6. What if Martin Scorsese had directed Pretty Woman?

Effect: One of America’s favorite rom-coms of the 1990s would have been a gritty tragedy.

Explanation: The British movie magazine Empire joined in the counterfactuals game in 2003 by suggesting some possible stories from recent Hollywood history. Somehow, we’re not convinced that they took the job seriously, as they pondered worlds where The Godfather had flopped (forcing Francis Ford Coppola’s return to directing porn movies and Al Pacino’s return to his job as a furniture removalist), Sean Connery was gay (so that, rather than James Bond, he wins stardom in camp British comedies), and, most cruelly, Keanu Reeves was born ugly (“He would have starved to death at a very young age”), among other twisted scenarios. Perhaps the most intriguing was the reality in which Martin Scorsese, rather than Garry Marshall, directed Pretty Woman (1990), the rom-com that turned Julia Roberts into a star. As imagined by Empire scribe Richard Luck, Scorsese would retitle the film The Happy Hooker, and it would become a hard-hitting study of life on the streets. It would end not with the prostitute (Roberts) and her wealthy client (Richard Gere) living happily ever after, but with her dying of a heroin overdose while he drives into the sunset, cackling maniacally. 

7. What if Al Gore became U.S. president?

Effect: The President is an idiot.

Explanation: In the 2004 anthology What Might Have Been, historians pondered scanarios from the Spanish Armada invading England to Margaret Thatcher being assassinated in 1984. The final chapter, “The Chads fall off in Florida,” was written by David Frum, conservative historian, and author of such books as The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush and An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror. Frum imagined Al Gore becoming president in 2000, as a comic dialogue, in which Gore calls on his joint chiefs of staff following the September 11 terrorist attacks. In Frum’s scenario, Gore wanted to capture Osama bin Laden alive and give him a fair trial; make war with Afghanistan “the first environmentally sensitive war in history” (partly by raising petrol prices); look for domestic al Qaeda operatives without using ethnic or religious profiling; and let terrorism take a back seat as he focused on his plan for universal health insurance. (“Arms are for hugging,” he says.) As it was written in 2004, Frum didn’t suggest how Gore would handle the economy, whether he would find bin Laden, or whether his soft-touch war would be a success. Nor did he explain how this formerly intelligent Vice-President would become such a dope. Still, it’s a funny story.

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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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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