The Mandela Effect: because it’s easier to assume alternate universes than faulty memories

One of the things I love the internet for is its conspiracy theories. My absolute favourite is this one, where James Cameron’s career is interpreted in the light of his role as a key weapon in the battle between good and evil Masons (but why are there good and evil Masons? That requires the theory to take us all the way back to Atlantis…)

In our universe, this definitely happened.
In our universe, this definitely happened.
So, when someone earlier today on Twitter linked to the Mandela Effect website, I was naturally intrigued. The Mandela Effect falls into that confused territory between conspiracy theory and weird belief system that you often find in these corners of the internet. It’s named after some people’s belief that they have memories about how Nelson Mandela died in prison, so never got to be President of South Africa and everything else that happened after his release. They believe that either history was changed, or that they slipped into a parallel universe where that event happened before coming back to ours where they were confused to find that it hadn’t.

It’s an interesting science fictional idea, and one used in many time travel stories from Bring the Jubilee onwards – just who might remember the original timeline when history is changed? – but for me it doesn’t work in reality for two key reasons.

First, look at the list of ‘wrong’ memories people have reported on the site and notice how many of them are related to pop culture (and how few are major world events like the early death of Mandela). Assuming we’re in a world where William of Ockham existed, the simplest answer – that people often misremember news about relatively unimportant things, but don’t like to be told they’re wrong – seems a better explanation than ‘mysterious forces are changing history and/or playing with our memories’.

Second, all these changes in history seem to have had no effect on the people recalling these memories. One of my favourite books is Lisa Tuttle’s Lost Futures which is about a woman who finds herself experiencing parallel realities, first in her dreams and then actually living through them. Similar to Kim Newman’s Life’s Lottery, it’s about how the choices we make shape the person we turn out to be. In Tuttle’s novel, the lead character finds while the universe stays relatively similar, her life is radically different depending on the choices she made, right down to her name. People are much more likely to remember the details of their own life than what they may have heard on the news a few years ago (how many times have you done a quick Google to check if Celebrity X is alive or dead?) and yet the evidence they’re claiming for random experiences from parallel universes isn’t ‘I was living in a different city, with a different partner and job, and oh yeah, Nelson Mandela died in the 80s’ but a somehow unchanging sense of self amidst an ever changing history.

Like any conspiracy theory, the Mandela Effect is interesting for what it reveals about those who believe in it. We want to believe our memories are perfect records of our histories because they’re an important part of what we are, so when we discover that we’ve been remembering something wrongly, we can either admit our fallibility, or adopt the position that the universe must be fallible instead. Mind you, when you live in a world where Donald Trump appears to be a credible Presidential candidate, there is always the temptation to believe you’ve missed the turn at Albuquerque that’ll take you back to your own universe.

Head or body? A quick philosophical question about transplants

headtransplantThere’s been lots of coverage in the last day for the proposed first human head transplant, which an Italian surgeon thinks he could perform in 2017. Now, I know next to nothing about the medical aspects of it and if it’s even remotely possible, but I do wonder about the term ‘head transplant’.

For me, the term transplant refers to the part that’s being replaced from the perspective of the individual receiving the surgery. So if I was to have a heart transplant, I’d receive a new heart, for a kidney transplant I’d receive a new kidney etc

So, for a ‘head transplant’ to take place, I’d have to receive a new head. The question is, assuming we’re talking about a whole head (brain include), could I receive a new head and still be me? If my head was taken off and replaced with someone else’s, would the resulting creation be me, or the person who supplied the head? Likewise, if my head was then put onto their body, would what resulted be me or them?

It seems to me that while it doesn’t make for as dramatic a headline, what we really ought to be referring to here is body transplants, as the person that results from the surgery would surely be regarded as the individual who provided the head, not the one who provided the body. In the same way that I remain me if I’ve given a heart transplant, and am not regarded as the person who donated the heart, surely the same must apply for this sort of transplant, and we should be referring to it as a body transplant, not a head transplant?

(And yes, there are all sorts of further issues about your head being linked to someone else’s body, but for now I’ll leave those to the real philosophers and psychologists)

Thought experiment

Let’s suppose for the purposes of this argument that either social media as we know it existed in the 1970s, or the events I’m about to describe happened now.

In 1978, Larry Flynt (the publisher of Hustler magazine, amongst other things) was shot by a racist who was offended by something that Flynt had published. To be specific, it was pornographic images of a black man and a white woman together, which the racist shooter was offended by and wanted to kill Flynt because of it.

Flynt’s pictures were legal and depicted two consenting adults. Given that they offended a racist to such an extent that he tried to kill Flynt for exercising his right of free speech, would you share the pictures on social media to show solidarity with him?

(For the avoidance of doubt: the murders of the staff of Charlie Hebdo were an outrage and no one anywhere should be killed, assaulted or threatened for using their right to free speech)

On driverless cars

selfdrivingI was at an LGA event yesterday on traffic and transport, and one of the subjects discussed during the day was future transport infrastructure, specifically in the context of driverless cars. It helped to crystalliza a few thoughts I’ve had on the subject, and also confirmed that other people have some thoughts in a similar direction so I’m not completely off the beaten track. I want to elaborate on a few of those thoughts, partly just to capture them, but also to see if they can spark any sort of debate or thoughts from others on the subject.
Continue reading On driverless cars

On open letters

As I see it, open letters take one of two forms. The first one is possibly useful:

Dear (insert name of recipient),

Hey, I’ve lost all your contact details, and as you’ve got a pretty common name, googling you isn’t helping me find them. I’m hoping that you look at this site and remember me, and if you do, would you send me your details so we can get back in touch?

Thanks, and hope to talk to you again soon,

Open Letter Writer

(Note, that I said possibly useful – done wrong, or for the wrong reasons, and it’ll stop being useful and start being more stalkerish)

Sadly, the more common form of them is this, which is not much use to anyone

Dear person in the news who’s the ostensible recipient of this letter but is unlikely to ever read it,

Why don’t you agree with me on everything? You really should, because then everything would be great. And by ‘you’ I actually mean everyone reading this, not the ostensible recipient of it, who’s unlikely to see this, given that they’re far too busy to trawl the media looking for people who write letters to them but can’t be bothered to track down their details and send the letter to them.

Anyway, you should definitely agree with me on everything. And possibly send me money too.

Yours,

Open Letter Writer

So, now you know the secret of open letters, let’s hope you never feel the need to write one.

The house of awesomeness

The early Olympics were intended to have a much wider context than being just a sporting contest. There were contests in the arts alongside the sporting contests, and two of the first Games were held concurrently with international expositions (Paris in 1900 and St Louis in 1904). This year, there’s also been the Cultural Olympiad alongside the Games, but should there perhaps be something more.

I’m not talking about the old idea of arts contests, or the reviving the occasional suggestion of ‘mind games’ having contests during the Olympics, but instead making them a celebration of all the great things that have happened over the four years of an Olympiad. (Disclaimer: this was inspired by someone else’s tweet the other day)

On Monday, there were a lot of people comparing the landing of Curiosity on Mars to the Olympics as if the two events were in some sort of contest, but why can’t we instead accept that they both come into the category of human beings doing awesome things. And then, why not carry that forward?

How about, after the Olympics are over, the host city then establishes what we’ll call for now the House of Awesome (a duller and more worthy-sounding name may also be acceptable). This then becomes an information store or active museum cataloguing all the awesome things humanity does until the next Olympics ends and another city takes on the role. This place would be responsible for seeking out the amazing things that humans do over the next four years and making more people aware from them, from scientific achievements and discoveries through to examples of people doing amazing things in their everyday lives. There’d be public displays within the house of things that have been done, and an online presence to spread the word and gather in information. Then at the end of its time, it would remain there, adding in things that had happened but didn’t come to light until later but also serving as a reminder that during a particular four year period, human beings did a huge amount of awesome things. Over time, as the Olympics move around the world, so would the new Houses of Awesome (or the Museum of Human Achievement, if you prefer something worthy-sounding) appear, each one there to tell future generations about what great things their ancestors did.

So, anyone got a building in London and some funding to get this going?

Two views, one day

After waking, he checked his portable communication device, which instantly gave him the latest score in the Ashes Test from Sydney, confirming that England were on course to win the match, and with it, the series.

He went downstairs and picked up his portable reading device, selecting a book from the list of hundreds it contained within it. Wanting music to accompany his reading, he used his personal communication device to access a service that allowed him to select from millions on songs. Each one he selected was then transferred down telephone wires to his home and then beamed wirelessly to the communication device, which transmitted the signal along narrow wires to tiny speakers that he inserted directly into his ear.

Or in modern terminology, not that of a fifties sci-fi novel: this morning, I got up, checked the cricket score on the ECB app on my phone, then went downstairs to read on my Kindle for a while while using my phone to listen to Spotify.

Welcome to the future, where the most outlandish thing is still England winning the Ashes Down Under.

Back to the Moon

Here’s a question that’s been dwelling on my mind for a while: if it was necessary for human beings to return to the Moon as soon as possible, how long would it take?

We know that there are various promises from different national space programmes to go (or return) to the moon in the next decade or so. From memory, NASA have it as part of their planned programme of activity to get to Mars, and both China and India have said it’s their aim to get astronauts there. (Russia and ESA have instead decided to concentrate on doing useful things in space and making money from them)

However, let’s say that we needed to get someone up there as quickly as possible. For the sake of the argument, let’s say some aliens come to visit and tell us that the secrets of cold fusion, faster than light space travel, matter transportation and unlimited rice pudding are all in a box that they’ve planted in a relatively easily accessible part of the Moon, just waiting for someone to come along and open it up – which, they state, has to be done in person by a human being.

So, we know we have a working plan to get men to the moon – build a Saturn V, stick an Apollo capsule with a human payload on top and then cross your fingers that it works – but how long would it take to build those from scratch? Are there current manufacturing plants – anywhere in the world – capable of doing that work, or would new ones need to be built?

Or would there be a quicker path through either cobbling something together from existing technologies? Could a Soyuz or Ariane be expanded to be able to push a payload far enough?

I’ve tried looking for information on this but – not surprisingly – little attention has been paid to the question of ‘how quickly could we get back to the moon if our new alien overlords required it?’ by serious people, so I’m throwing it open to the wisdom of the internets to see if anyone out there might have an inkling.

And, of course, there’s a great story to be told when the first human to walk on the moon in over 40 years gets to that box, solemnly opens it and finds a note saying ‘Wow! Never thought you’d fall for that one!’

Time travelling thoughts

Looking through the Onion site, I found this interesting article in the AV Club about time travel and when and where you’d choose to go live for a few years if you had the opportunity:

Where and when would you most want to live for five years, restricted to a five-mile radius?

Everyone says things like “Oh man, how cool would it be to be in Dealey Plaza during the JFK assassination, or see The Beatles during one of their Cavern Club concerts, or witness ancient Rome?” Well, what if you were given the chance?

Here are the conditions. You’ve been granted a hypothetical ticket to live, in comfort and coherence, during one five-year time period. Maybe you want to be in New York in Chicago during Prohibition, or Victorian London, or France right before the Revolution. (Or during—no judgments.) You’ll be able to understand and speak the language (if needed), have enough disposable cash to live at leisure, and experience whatever you want, with no need for a job. You’ll have a comfy apartment or house to return to, full period wardrobe, and as much time as you need before making this trip to study up on the period you’ll live in.

But you must stay within a five-mile radius of where/whenever you choose to live. Thus you can’t go see the Kennedy assassination, then go zipping around the world to London to watch the birth of the British Invasion, or New York for the early years of Greenwich Village. Want to see the Kennedy assassination? Fine. But then you’re stuck in Dallas for the next five years.

What historical period (and place), in your opinion, offers the most enticing experiences in one five-year period?

So, despite the fact that they illustrate it with a TARDIS, this isn’t a simple where would you want to pop into as a time tourist for a few hours, but a proper time traveller, really experiencing and being part of the local culture. The fact you have to stay within five miles of your location for five years probably rules out some interesting locations – going to see the Boudiccan revolt burn down Colchester might be interesting, but spending five more years in and around an under construction Roman border town probably wouldn’t be. Other great battles and conflicts will most likely suffer from the same restrictions – several years of hanging around 20 square miles of countryside in exchange for a few days of historical action.

My choice would be for London between 1685 and 1690. For me, that period from the death of Charles II to the accession of William and Mary to the throne is a key point in British and world history. The changes that were wrought in that period were much more profound than the question of who got to sit on the throne, they were about the basic nature of the British state and whether Parliament or the Crown would finally emerge victorious from the battles that had begun long before the Civil War. How fascinating would it to be able to sample the public mood during that period – what did people think when news came through of Monmouth’s rebellion in the West? What were the protests, discussions and arguments over religion like during the reign of James II? What wild rumours went through the streets as William’s navy sailed down the Channel and James led the Army towards Salisbury Plain? And how did it feel to be in a city seemingly abandoned by its monarch and under what was effectively Dutch occupation? A remarkable time in history, and so much of it happening within those few miles of one city.

So where would you go?