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Archive for December, 2009

Let’s talk about great Sci Fi – the Alternate History

Casting my memory back lo these many years (those of you who know my actual age may snicker) I think I can trace my own fascination with alternate history to an epigraph for a chapter in an Arthur C. Clarke novel, The Fountains of Paradise.

Almost all the Alternative History computer simulations suggested that the Battle of Tours (A.D. 732) was one of the crucial disasters of mankind. Had Charles Martel been defeated, Islam might have resolved the internal differences that were tearing it apart and gone on to conquer Europe. Thus centuries of Christian barbarism might have been avoided, the Industrial Revolution would have started almost a thousand years earlier, and by now we would have reached the nearer stars instead of merely the farther planets….

I do not remember when I read the novel, but it must have been right around early high school. I remember little of it beyond the outline of the main plot, the monks and the butterflies, and that little paragraph about alternate history: what if, in effect, the Dark Ages had been averted?

Of course even phrasing the question that way is a vast oversimplification of the long course of a whole host of cultures—I now know somewhat more about those subtleties—but the question as such captivated me. We live in such accelerated times that the seeming changelessness of prior centuries boggles our minds (though, again, that apparent changelessness no doubt oversimplifies). What if Earth had had an 800-year head start on the Industrial Revolution?  Good heavens, where could we be now?  (I suppose that’s answering my own question….)

This past season I have been reading The Best Alternate History Stories of the Twentieth Century, edited by Harry Turtledove. But alternate history is fascinating in more than just fiction. A friend once told me that the “many-worlds” hypothesis comes to mind for him whenever he does something particularly stupid and escapes death, which happens occasionally (if not too alarmingly so) as a pedestrian in a city such as Boston. On such occasions he considers briefly and pities any number of now-dead “alternate selves.” I have always assumed that nearly all people rehash key conversations in their minds; though in my own case I try to focus on remembering the events as they happened, one also is tempted to consider how they might have gone better.

WARNING: Star Wars spoiler ahead.  Then again, I expect that many of us were spoiled for Star Wars before we were born.

And then … my own personal alternate Star Wars history (and I am not going to look up any sources for this, deliberately!): I have heard that Darth Vader’s declaration of paternity at the end of The Empire Strikes Back was so very secret a revelation that the crew’s scripts were written falsely, such that during the filming of the scene, the actor said something entirely different, while Jones dubbed the real line in later (of course, since it wasn’t Jones in the Vader suit, the last part is almost certainly true). My own reconstruction has it that, to downplay the deception, the actor must have said something that kind-of-almost would have made sense.  And the only other even halfway-consistent alternate history would have been, I feel, for Obi-wan himself to have been Luke’s father. And what would that have meant?

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No Holiday Season would be complete without Admiral Ackbar

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via Palahniuk and Chocolate

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On Facebook and Twitter

danah boyd is a researcher specializing in social issues surrounding new technology, particularly social networking. In a recent blog post, she discusses differences in the cultures of Facebook and Twitter status updates. She points out that despite their superificial similarities, these two networks have different norms with respect to the directionality of communication:

Facebook’s social graph is undirected. What this means is that if I want to be Friends with you on Facebook, you have to agree that we are indeed Friends. Reciprocity is an essential cultural practice in Facebook… Twitter, on the other hand, is fundamentally set up to support directionality. I can follow you without you following me.

She goes on to discuss how these differences in directionality affect the way we present ourselves and the cultural norms that develop on these two different networking services. (Read the full post.)

I found it really interesting to read boyd’s analysis, as it matches up well with my own experience with the two sites, but in ways that I had never been consciously aware of. More generally, I’m really excited about the fact that people are taking social networking and other new media seriously as a subject for research. There is a tendency among some to dismiss these services as all the same, and as poor substitutes for “real” face-to-face interactions. In highlighting the ways in which social norms can develop around new media, boyd’s research also demonstrates the unique role that social networking can play in our lives–not replacing but rather augmenting our other forms of social interaction.

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Ending the war on drugs

I was shocked to learn recently how misguided our approach to drug policy is. In a recent article in The Independent, Johann Hari clearly explains how a policy based on prohibition and policing is counterproductive, and how all evidence favors legalizing and regulating the drug trade. For instance, did you know that Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs in 2001, and that drug use has since fallen, with hard drug use falling fastest? Or that the rate of new heroin addictions in Switzerland has fallen 82% since the country started providing centers where addicts can inject heroin safely and for free? (That’s because addicts no longer need to recruit new users to finance their addiction.)

But despite the evidence, political forces are lined up against a sane drug policy. As Hari explains:

In 1998, the Office of National Drug Control Policy was ordered by Congress to stop funding any scientific research that might give the impression that we should redirect funding from anti-trafficking busts into medical treatment of addicts, or that there is any argument to legalise, regulate or medicalise drug use. … So, to give a small example, the ONDCP spent $14bn on anti-cannabis adverts aimed at teenagers, and $43m to find out if the ads worked. They discovered that kids who saw the ads were more likely afterwards to get stoned, so the evidence was suppressed, and the ad campaign marched on.

Ouch. And while the US might be doing particularly poorly on this front, we’re not alone: In the UK, the chair of the Advisory Committe on the Misuse of Drugs (ie. the country’s top advisor on drug policy) was just fired for speaking out in favor of evidence-based drug policy. There’s an article about it in this weekend’s Boston Globe Ideas section, which is also worth a read. Among other things, it mentions that the Obama administration is taking baby steps in the direction of a more evidence-based policy. Still no Portuguese-scale decriminalization on the horizon for the US, but we can at least be supportive of any move to shift resources into addiction prevention and treatment.

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Another mashup, of a sort

I think it would have been even better if they had used music from LotR, but I still got a good chuckle out of this:

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