Prohibition: A few things work out a bit earlier than expected, and by 1905 there are working electronic computers. WWI begins earlier (everybody thinks computers will give them the edge), and is equally destructive, but it also ends earlier. By 1917 Edison Electronics has made the New York-Berlin-London market the fastest, biggest stock market in history. In 1918 the Blitzkrieg Crash takes almost everybody by surprise (not Poincare, whose work on chaotic dynamics guided the investment strategies that made him one of the richest men in America after the crash). Unemployment soars; Edison Electronics factories making prototypes of "office computers" are torched down by angry mobs.

The Computer Prohibition Law passes: no (civilian) computers are allowed in the US.

But people of all sorts have tasted the forbidden fruit, from greedy businessmen to dreaming scientists. The demand exists, and when there's a consumer, the market finds a way.

The year is 1921, the place is Chicago, and if you need something smart, Al Capone is your guy.

True facts!

Von Braun is of course better known, but the first person to do proper (physics-based) rocket engineering as we understand it was his mentor, Hermann Oberth --- adviser to Fritz Lang, author of a whimsically titled book Primer For Those Who Would Govern, and born on always-picturesque Transylvania.

If Oberth wasn't a vampire genius that sold proto-ICBM technology via his trainee/vampire follower von Braun in exchange for exclusive rights to the Moon, first to the Nazis and then to the US (and/or the Soviets) then the world isn't as interesting as it could be.

I mean, if you are a vampire with knowledge of astronomy, the dark side of the Moon is your idea of paradise (assuming you can solve the feeding issues), and that would neatly explain the lack of (human!) Moon exploration after the first rockets.
It rains

In what yesterday, in what courtyards of Carthage,
falls also this rain?

I always find this very small poem weirdly evocative, particularly when it rains. There's something timeless about it: wherever and whenever it rains, it is the same rain. This sort of empirical Platonism is one of Borges' peculiar threads; off the top of my head, he has a poem about wolves being out of time, one where the desert is a single timeless place (I always wanted to write something based on that), and one about an abbey rebuilt (I think) in New York, with a beautiful line about its flowers not opening before the Vikings first reach America.

He's a Platonist, but not a Christian (if anything, he was a Gnostic that assumed ultimate reality was a Library, weirdly in tune with recent cosmological models based on an informational substrate, but that's neither here nor there). Unlike medieval thinkers, he didn't think that, say, events in the Old Testament were practice/predictions of the (only) meaningful events of the Passion (and, later from their point of view, but already preordained) Judgement. There was no One True Rain in history; at most, there was an archetypal One True Rain in some abstract space of ideas, and it probably didn't even look like anything we'd recognize as rain.

This is fresh in my mind because the other day I was reading a book about Gothic Art, and how medieval artists mixed historical figures with contemporary clothes, tools, etc, not because they were naive about those kinds of changes (although they did know less than we do in a lot of ways), but because for them those weren't *important* differences. What mattered was the spiritual/salvational meaning of the event, which tended to be the same across the eras, and it was always in relation to the Creation-Fall-Passion-Judgement timeline.

And then it hit me: Steampunk is a very, very old tradition. I mean, if the fundamental myth/event of your civilization is the/a/any technological revolution, then of course you'll mix and match technologies and places, because ultimately you're telling a mythical story. You're okay with Churchill sending armies of Turing Tin Soldiers to fight Nazi V7 auto-factories in German-occupied Russia not because you ignore the complexities of history, but because robot armies and autofactories are beginning to have as much mythical resonance to us as, well, Allies and Nazis.


I'm reading a paper on a Byzantine apocalypse that tells of a nun who died and came back to life three days later describing events on Heaven and Hell (your basic Stephen King plot, mostly). The paper notes that the nun's name, Anastasia, was certainly symbolic, as anástasis is the Greek word for resurrection.

So I suddenly thought of

 photo AnastasiaSoundtrackAnastasiaMoviePoster.jpg

Her name meant Resurrection. Well played, (I don't know, the fates? Nicholas II?, whoever named her), well played.


Video footage of Mark Twain, filmed by Thomas Edison a year before Twain's death.

The video itself is, of course, kind of boring, but — besides the quintessential 19th-century-meets-20th-century nature of it (picture Hitchcock creating an MMO game) — I kept almost hoping that a stray shot of a mirror would show, just behind the cameraman, Edison tinkering with his now lost electronic version of Babbage's difference engine.

The cameraman, of course, is the Doctor.


Reading a book on Balkan history

Vlad the Impaler, people. Long story short, Stoker both picked a famous SOB, *and* sold him short.

As a politician and diplomat, the man was a bit of a fuckup. I mean, there were times at which everybody in Europe except the Pope wanted him dead, and that included both Muslim and Christian rulers.

As a soldier, he was impressive as hell. By all accounts, he was a very gifted hand-to-hand combatant, not only winning knightly tournaments but also going into commando raids with his troops deep inside huge enemy encampments. Hell, one of his favorite ruses was to dress himself as a Turkish officer and demand fortresses to open their doors to him — and he pulled it off multiple times, because, having been a hostage in Constantinople during his childhood, he spoke perfect Turkish (actually, he spoke six languages, including a reasonably good Latin).

He was also a fantastic tactician, both in traditional and guerrilla warfare. He won most battles he fought, even against much larger armies, and when the Sultan finally tired of him and went with a huge army to crush him, he fought a retreating guerrilla war (ambushes, scorched lands, biological warfare, the works), which ended up with the Sultan having to retreat back to Constantinople with a badly broken army.

Oh, and if you want to write RPS... his brother was also a child hostage in Constantinople, known to history as Radu the Handsome (I kid you not), who'd be a lifelong ally and lover of the Sultan, as well as a political rival of Vlad.

About the impaling: yes, he did that a lot. It was his thing, really. Local crime? Impale the thieves. Difficult negotiations? Impale the diplomats. An invading army? Impale two square miles of prisoners, just to put them a bit on edge. He probably impaled about fifty thousand people, all things told.

Let's put it this way: in an age pretty much used to cruel warfare, he was the kind of guy who made everybody else nervous. No wonder there'd be legends about him.


Why the world is boring

As my new daily commute involves less time on trains and more walking, I've started to load audiobooks and such to my phone (I really prefer visual reading, but my HUD glasses are still unaccountably delayed). My first choice has been a series of lectures from 1969 on European Cultural History, as given by one George L. Mosse. Now, I don't know him, but to my ears he sounds a bit like Walter Bishop in his more emphatic moods.

So I spent half an hour today listening to Walter lecturing on late medieval upveals, millenialism, and other apocalyptic topics, which, given Walter's strong feelings about superstition and even stronger involvement with all things apocalyptic, was a blast of fun.

Besides, the fact that our universe's Walter (under a different name) studied history instead of science does much to explain the relative uneventfulness of our lives. Not working in a discipline where he can start an apocalypse, Walter finds himself driven by One of Those Things — the modern incarnation of the Fates — to teach about other people and other times' apocalypses.

PS: The little McLuhan inside my head is much amused by the fact that I'm learning about the distinctly auditory medieval culture through a recorded lecture rather than a book — as much as I'm a very Gutenberg person (or at least as much as you can be in the early 21st century and still be technologically competent), in this case the medium might not be, but at least fits the message.


Appropriately Ominous Quote of the Day

Et pestilentia venit.

The Venerable Bede, on the Justinianic Plague reaching Britain.


History: now in 3D!

I just finished a book on the history of Malta, with an special focus on WWII. I've never heard of one, but I'm sure there's some big, famous WWII movie about Malta somewhere, and if there isn't, there should be: medieval architecture, an awfully long and intense bombing campaign (including weddings that kept going during bombing raids, and a bomb that fell right through the top of a huge dome in a church, took down a wall, but didn't explode), a couple of very kickass, famous-in-their-time sieges in the past to provide context, a direct impact on the larger WWII strategic situation (basically, Malta made possible the raids that made difficult the supplying of Rommel's forces, which was the critical factor that prevented him from taking Suez and cutting off the Allies from the oil fields), and a nail-biting final sequence with the military viability of the islands depending on a single oil tanker, the US tanker Ohio, that, according to this book, was so damaged by air attacks that it could only reach harbor after a lot of naval heroics and literally propped between two other ships, and sank while they were pumping its cargo out of it (no, they didn't stop when it was sunk).

This has Bruckheimer written all over it, doesn't it?


Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Besides Ada (who, I choose to think, wouldn't have liked the programming language they named after her), other classic choices could have been Marie Curie -if you prefer nuclear stuff to computers- and *Admiral* Grace Fucking Hopper, who was so badass that she worked on UNIVAC and the basis of COBOL, was perhaps the first person to use "debugging" in the computer-related sense, *and* has attributed to her both "A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what a ship is built for" and "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission."

Oh, and she not only has a computing prize named after her, but also a fucking guided missile destroyer, the USS Hopper (nicknamed the Amazing Grace). How many hackers have missile destroyers named after them?

No doubt about it, she was the Elaine Roberts of the 20th century.

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