Reviews

Is auto-correct making us all illiterate? (Serenity Soft’s Editor)

I used to be brilliant at spelling. We had a test every morning in school (this was some time ago) and I used to get 10/10 every time. About fifteen years ago, I published a video-game plugin for Escape Velocity called ‘The Frozen Heart’. When the beta-testers and proof readers looked at it, they weren’t able to find a single spelling or grammatical error.

These days, I can’t send a text, write an email or do an article without discovering afterwards that it’s full of words I didn’t mean. Facebook is (to me) horrendous. Sometimes I have to try five or six times before it will accept that I mean what I mean, not something else.

So, in this review, I want to celebrate the most intelligent and useful piece of non-autocorrect software to have crossed my desk for years. It’s called Editor, and it’s by Serenity Software. It’s Windows-only, and is now the principal reason why I load up Windows 10 via Parallels Desktop on my Mac.

This article flows from a discussion on the QuarkXpress page on Facebook. Yes, I still use QuarkXpress, despite having had every version of InDesign since it came out.

In user interface terms, Editor is the most deliberately unfeatured software (by the way, auto-correct just tried to make that ‘unfettered’) you can possibly find. First you have to load up your document. Then you have to get it to number the sentences for you. Then you run the checker. It makes no corrections for you at all. It doesn’t even offer ‘click to correct’ like Grammatica and those others do. All it does is output a list of potential spelling mistakes, poor usage, clichés, bad style, wordy phrases and other things that let your writing down.

Then you have to go through your document—they suggest you print out both the numbered copy and the list of suggestions—and make each change one by one. Often it will not suggest what the change should be, only that you should consider making it.

The experience is as close to working with a human proofreader that I’ve come across on computer. It understands about US and International English, about different levels of formality, and about variable rules.

Why do I think this is exciting?

Well, partly because it doesn’t involve offering my writing to a crazed psychopathic computer which insists on changing ‘Allister’ into ‘alligator’, adding in spurious bullet points when I mean asterisks, correcting “it’s” to “its” when I do mean “it’s” or any of the other things which have turned perfectly literate human beings into the unschooled.

More importantly, it makes me a better writer. As the software’s website explains, a grammar-checker that offers ‘click and correct’ generally makes your document worse rather than better. A paragraph has its own rhythm. Something which the grammar checker thinks is strictly ‘wrong’ may be entirely right in context. If it was a mistake, the grammar-checker is not going to be able to offer a correction which fits the rhythm of the paragraph, matches the style of your writing, or decodes what you really intended. Worse, after the 400th correction, it’s easy to get into click-without-thinking mode, where you just accept everything offered. I’ve occasionally had to disentangle other people’s documents which have suffered from that. Sometimes it is quite impossible to know wha they intended.

Editor—like a real proof-reader—makes me rewrite the paragraph, not just try to put an Elastoplast on a sentence. What’s more, because it isn’t fixing it for you, Editor is able to offer far more suggestions. It does have some false positives, though fewer than most of the checkers I’ve seen. Most of its ‘suggestions’ or ‘considers’ are exactly that: things which are not wrong, but may be overwhelming if taken together, or might be considered poor style, or are often confused. A click-to-correct checker which offered such things would be flirting with disaster.

Editor is not as good as a trained, human proof-reader. It is not as quick as Word’s built-in checker. However, it is something you can run multiple times at different stages of a document’s development, and be sure that you will never be hunting around for an earlier, uncorrupted version.

Cheap at the price—even if the price is having to use Windows.

I just looked myself up on Crystalknows.com My advice? She doesn’t

Ever wonder how people feel confident to write you eerily personal emails, or ring you up and talk as though they are your best friend? Well, apparently, this is one of the things psychopaths are good at. But now you, too, can be good at it, through an equally eery website called Crystalknows.com.

Signing up is very simple — they are so confident that you’ll like it that they don’t even want  a credit card number up front, which, naturally, makes you much more confident to try it. After a few brief intros, it allows you to start looking people up. If the web knows a lot about them, it will offer you a profile which it would claim is perhaps 95% accurate. You can improve the accuracy by answering questions about the person.

Of course, after you’ve looked up your work colleagues, friends, partner etc, which is a sort of emotional-intelligence version of watching reruns of your favourite TV shows on Netflix, the most fun thing to do is to look up yourself.

So, I looked up myself.

Some parts of it are very accurate.

For example:

When speaking to Martin (it recommends): use self-deprecating humour, emphasise the future, and don’t trust that he will follow specific verbal instructions. Well, ok, that’s me. On the other hand, it also says Don’t ask him to explain something in detail. I suspect that this recommendation is aimed at winning my trust. How little do they know! As anyone who knows me will attest, I love explaining things in detail. In fact, my enthusiasm for explaining things in detail goes far beyond most people’s enthusiasm to listen.

When emailing Martin (it goes on): use an emoticon, write with short, casual language and abbreviations, don’t ask him something that will require a long, thoughtful response. Don’t provide lots of detailed information and instructions.

Say what? If you are reading this, and intending to write an email to sell some product or service, may I advise you of the following things. First, do not use emoticons. If you want to text me or converse by Facebook, I’m fine with emoticons. In an email? Seriously? Likewise, unless the abbreviation is NHS or possibly BBC, do not use abbreviations. Overuse of TLAs (Three Letter Abbreviations) is one of my pet hates. Short, casual language? You’re welcome to. I also revel in the long, baroque, exotic sentence, replete as it is with the frisson of the sub-clause and and extended chiasmus, perhaps supplemented by iteration and closing with a cadence. However, whatever you do, do not address me in short, casual language as if you are my best mate unless I actually know you. I will simply press the Junk button.

Again, I’m not sure if the long, thoughtful response is for your safety or mine. If you want a long, thoughtful response on something that I’m not actually interested in, then, no. But, on the other hand, if you want a short, snappy response, it will still be no.

I love detailed information, and I really, really like the instructions to be precise if I need to follow them. On the other hand, if you’re telling me how to get somewhere, just give me the address. I have Sat Nav, as does almost everyone. Only try to explain the route if there is a reason why Sat Nav will get it wrong, and explain carefully that that is why you’re doing it.

When working with Martin (it now tells me): Recognise his achievements verbally. Well, purr. Yes. Please do. You can also tell your friends, write articles in the local paper, and include a chapter in your forthcoming book. Confront conflict in person, rather than via email. Indeed. I’m not sure what ‘confronting conflict is’, but, generally, I would recommend to everyone in all situations that you are more likely to resolve things face to face, and more likely to make them worse by email.

Don’t expect a long time to earn his trust. Don’t take time to work out logical conclusions. I’m not sure how to take these. If you are emailing me out of the blue, you do, indeed, have very little time to earn my trust if you want to avoid my internal ‘Junk’ button. I’m a little hazier about ‘Don’t take time to work out logical conclusions’. Certainly, don’t labour the blindingly obvious. As authors remind themselves, RUE — Resist the Urge to Explain. On the other hand, don’t pitch me something that doesn’t make sense. Seriously, just don’t.

When selling to Martin (its next section) Focus on the future plans for your product. Yes, definitely. I will want to know if your company is still going to be around in two years time. Use hyperbole to make a point (“This is the best product in the world!”) I fear CrystalKnows was designed by Americans. Notwithstanding my own personally ebullient nature and constant desire to enthuse people, hyperbole of the ‘this is the best product in the world’ kicks me straight into a rather biting British sarcasm (see What shall we do with irony). I know I shouldn’t indulge in it, but I do.

What is baffling me slightly here is that the profile begins with — see above — Use self-deprecating humour (don’t take act like you take yourself too seriously) [sic]. How does that fit with telling me that your product is the best product in the world? We move on. Don’t worry about asking for permission before calling. That’s fair. Well, it’s sometimes fair. Do your research first. I remember the time that someone from Google Advertising rang up to explain that with Google, my organisation’s services could be much more widely known. I explained I worked for the NHS. The caller, who claimed to be calling from Manchester (though it may well be from a different Manchester) was quick enough to say “oh yes, the NHS is a good company, but think how much better known it would be with Google’s help”. He didn’t make the sale. Don’t leave detailed voicemails. Actually, don’t leave any voicemails. This has nothing to do with my personality. For some reason O2 is unable to provide voicemails on my current phone. On my previous phone it allowed me to set them up, but, living in a rural area, it wasn’t actually possible to retrieve them. Provided that your phone leaves a number, I will try to ring you back. Otherwise, I will delve into the TuGo app to try and hear what you had to say, but it’s not exactly reliable.

It comes naturally to Martin to… (it now tells me) Make a quick purchase decision. I’ll often consider something for a year or so, and then make up my mind in less than a minute. So, half right. Focus on deep, close relationships rather than high quantity. Oh dear. I do have some deep, close relationships, that’s true. I also love meeting new people. Some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met have been on trains (a former England netball captain, a TV presenter, a film director, an ontologist (yes, they exist). I have 1,337 Facebook friends, and, yes, I am secretly and guiltily proud of this figure. Trust someone quickly. Yes, or not trust them. Make a decision more quickly than most people. Often true, often not. It depends on the evidence.

It does not come naturally to Martin to… Review all of the facts before making a big decisionMake decisions based purely on logic. Have a well-organised desk. Pay close attention to all of the details. Half right. I did, for a short space in my career, have a well-organised desk. Then my boss took me on one side and suggested this wasn’t entirely appropriate and gave the impression I had nothing to do. I have not made that mistake again. Most people who know me would say I don’t do details, but when we did the Myers-Briggs tests I came out borderline between Sensing and Intuiting. It depends a bit on what the issue is. When it comes to ‘making decisions based purely on logic‘ I would agree, very few decisions can be solved by logic alone. I would be very troubled, though, if I made an important decision and it turned out that it was not logical. As someone who checks three different train routes and eighteen prices before deciding how to get to London, and considers as the likelihood of having to cancel before buying an advance ticket at a discount, I’m really not the type to say ‘that looks the most fun, let’s go for it’. And that definitely goes for reviewing all the (available) facts before making a big decision.

You may be saying that CrystalKnows has got more right than it gets wrong. You’re probably right. For a piece of software that just looks at my LinkedIn profile and then tries to marry it up with other things about me on the web, it has sketched a fairly accurate caricature of the kind of person many people think I am.

The problem, though, if you are about to hastily scurry off to CrystalKnows to assist you in penning that all important email to me about buying a new photocopier, changing my house insurance or signing up with your employment bureau, is that all of the guesses it got right and wrong were eerily (that word again) similar to the way that salespeople have been ringing me up for years.

With the exception of the Google guy, who was badly briefed, salesmen have tended to fall into three distinct groups.

Type 1 are the hopeful but under-researched. When I worked in Communications in the NHS, I used to get regular calls from people who wanted to sell me telephone systems. A reasonable assumption, you might think, but in NHS terminology, Communications has a very specific meaning, and it has nothing to do with telephones, which are usually run by Information Technology or by Estates. Some of these people could be awfully persistent, but, ultimately, there was only one way the conversation could go: I didn’t have the authority to negotiate phone contracts, nor the expertise.

Type 2 — who could have been working off the briefing given by CrystalKnows — are the chummy, over-familiar people who use the telephone version of emoticons. “Hello Martin,” they often begin, “how are you today?”  If they were Americans, they got a free pass on that one, because everyone knows that Americans have to engage in social niceties first (there was some incident with a load of tea at a party once, and I think they have been on their best behaviour ever since). For anyone else, the conversation has immediately taken an irreversibly terminal direction, unless I actually knew them with the same degree of intimacy that they were implying by the warmth of the telephone manner.

The same type of people, as often as not, make reference to having talked with my boss and been recommended to me, to the good work I’ve been doing, to my past projects, and so on. Exactly as the profile suggests, they don’t expect to need long to win my trust. As often as not they will use hyperbole. They very often talk about the future prospects of their product.

These are the people you can emulate if you use the profile that CrystalKnows gives you about me.

In twenty-five years, I have never bought anything from these kind of people, though I have — and I know I shouldn’t have — allowed some of them rather a lot of rope.

Type 3 are the people who have actually managed to sell things. They tend to be quite soft-spoken, have a very specific offering, and they always have data to back it up. Generally speaking, these conversations have gone one of three ways. Sometimes I tell them that it’s not an area we’re considering, for reasons which they couldn’t have worked out by decent research (otherwise, type 1). Sometimes I tell them that we’re not considering that particular product or service at the current time, but would be glad to have their information on file, and would they send us something. Just occasionally it turns out that this really was a Type 2 person, who wants to take me out to dinner, send a free gift, come to my office, and so on. More usually, the Type 3 person is very happy to send their materials, confident that when the time is right, we will buy. They have often been right. The third thing that has happened — not too often, but often enough to count — is that a Type 3 person rings up with something which we are interested in. We immediately want information, data, and, almost certainly we’ll want three quotes. They run the risk of giving us all the information we need to make a purchase decision, and that decision then going to someone else. That’s a risk a Type 3 salesperson is willing to run.

I have three maxims on which I buy, and if you follow these, you don’t need CrystalKnows, or a psychopathic salesperson of Type 2 who is able to generate pseudo-empathy with hundreds of people a day.

They are:

  1. One buyer, many suppliers
  2. You get the suppliers you deserve
  3. You can get a small discount on the market value by asking for it, and a bigger discount if you are an expert buyer. Anything more than that, and it falls into the category of ‘if it sounds too good to be true…’

Which brings us back to CrystalKnows. Because, really, it does sound rather too good to be true…

 

Why The Box of Delights is almost the greatest children’s novel in English, and what insights that offers

I read thousands of books as a child. After a shaky start, wherein I was rescued by Sheila McCullagh’s Griffin Pirate readers, I could never get enough of them. Our house was already full of books, but I worked my way through the children’s section of Glebe Farm public library, Birmingham Central library, the school library and numerous birthday and Christmas books. Over six years I was in half a dozen book clubs, including the Puffin Club, and relished our weekly trips to Hudsons bookshop, now Waterstones, in Birmingham. Some of the books I grew out of even as I was reading them. The Famous Five may be all very well, but once I had discovered Sherlock Holmes, there was no going back.

However, if I had only read four books in childhood, or if I now had to pick which four I would have taken with me if forced as a child into exile, they would have been A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K LeGuin, The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien, The Horse and His Boy, one of the later Narnia books by CS Lewis, and The Box of Delights by John Masefield.

By far the richest of these, but also the most infuriating, is The Box of Delights, which, like the book which Mephistopheles offers Doctor Faustus, contains almost everything. However, unlike the other three, which are flawless gems, The Box of Delights contains one catastrophic failing.

First, what is it about the Box of Delights which makes it so rich? Each of the other three are daring forays into other worlds — Earthsea, Narnia and Middle Earth. In their own ways they are towering works of major creation. However, unless you are a young wizard living in an archipelago, or a short furry-toed creature in the Shire, or a kidnapped prince living in a magical world, they tell you about their worlds, but not really about your world. They are vividly imaginative, but do not stimulate a child’s observation of the world around them. Let me say now that I deeply prefer works of pure imagination over works of pure observation. Jennings, Just William and the Railway Children are all very well, and I enjoyed them while I read them, but it was the works of imagination which had the greatest impact on me.

However, the Box of Delights is something quite different, because it encompasses imagination, observation, and encapsulation of everything you ever read. 

John Masefield’s imagination was always vivid. His first Santa Barbara novel, Sard Harker, 1924, which connects in some unfathomable and unspecified way with The Midnight Folk, is an amazing odyssey of experiences and sensations. The plot itself is quite linear, but the journey is spectacular. The Box of Delights, though, is not just full of imagination, but is also about imagination. The exact properties of the titular box are not well delimited — it allows one to travel in time, to become tiny, to travel fast, and to enter magical worlds. As importantly, it is an object people are willing to steal, kill or even die for. In searching for a symbol to describe the imagination, it is hard to find a better one than the box of delights itself. One could not possibly say that this is a greater work of imagination than Earthsea, Narnia or Middle Earth, but it is fair to say that it is just as great.

However, Masefield excels in the area of observation. From the curious waddle of country folk to the ways of life on board ship, and from the songs of country folk to the way land responds to a sudden fall of snow, we have an extraordinarily vivid appreciation of things which we had not perhaps otherwise noticed. This is not to say that my other favourite books were not vivid — CS Lewis, in particular, manages to conjure scenes of extraordinary vitality in a very few words. However, Masefield made me look at the world around me in a new way. The dialogue, too, is much richer and more varied, and captures many different kinds of voices. Country folk, clergy, talking animals of different kinds, criminals, children, the police, newspapers and magical people all have their own distinct ways of self-expression.

One of the most startling features of the Box of Delights is how it encapsulates lots of other books. It is not merely a genre-bender, comprising as it does gang-crime, fairy-story, beast-fable, children’s adventures, exploration and time-travel, but rather more than that. In it we have the echoes of Puck of Pook’s Hill (Kay does not merely meet the Romans, but travels with them), Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Mrs Tiggywinkle, The Snow Queen, the Greek myths, the Bastables, the Wind in the Willows, Alice, and most of the rest of the canon of children’s books written up to that point. True, there are talking mice in Narnia, but one never gets the imaginary mouse’s world view that we get in the Box of Delights. Masefield’s deft writing means that we easily move from detailed boys’ adventure fiction in one scene to the shores of Troy a few pages later, and from a desert island in the Caribbean to a magical journey on dolphins over the waves, to deep snow drifts, underground passages and a fight with aeroplanes.

The premise of the Box of Delights is an old and well worn one — the pursuit of a treasure. However, we rarely see the treasure itself taking such a hand in its own preservation, and also in causing the near fatal danger in which the protagonist finds himself. Plot-wise, Masefield has also overcome his previous problems with linearity. Its direct precursor, The Midnight Folk, is  made up of a problem, an investigation, and finally a discovery which concludes it. This is very serviceable, but, in plot terms, does not distinguish it particularly from the Famous Five or Poirot. There is no particular reason why the discovery should not have been made in chapter two, rather than at the end. By contrast, the plot conclusion of the Box of Delights brings together the numerous repercussions of the premise in a way that could only have taken place once the other elements of the plot had happened. The actions of Kay’s enemy Abner Brown become progressively more desperate and the ramifications greater as he is thwarted. There is a very real danger, which persists on the umpteenth reading, that the only result of all of Kay’s activities will be the unnecessary deaths of choir and clergy, of his guardian and friends, and with Brown gaining not only the Box, but also the Elixir of Life.

Characterisation, too, is strong. Masefield had, by this time, perfected his ability to make a character memorable in just a sentence. The ‘foxy faced man’ and the ‘ha ha what?’ man are unforgettable, and yet occupy very little of the story. We could never confuse the rat with his nephew, or the tree mouse with the house mouse, or Jemima with Maria. The only character left blank is Kay himself, who is the Everyman figure who allows the reader to enter the story world, much as Harry Potter does three generations later.

In terms of its strengths, the Box of Delights outweighs really any other book I read in my childhood.

However, unlike A Wizard of Earthsea, the Hobbit and The Horse and His Boy, which are all, in their own terms, more or less perfect, The Box of Delights has an unnecessary flaw which makes it, ultimately, a disappointing experience.

This flaw has to do with the frame, and, like many flaws, it gives us far more insights into what makes a great story than do the book’s strengths.

If you have not read the book, you really should. If you have read it, but have forgotten, the story can be summarised as follows: Kay Harker, a schoolboy, is on the train home for the Christmas holidays, when he meets two suspicious looking clergymen, who trick him into gambling with them. He also meets an old Punch and Judy man. Subsequently, he discovers that the clergymen are actually gangsters, intent on ‘scrobbling’ the Punch and Judy man to obtain a magical box. The man entrusts the box to Kay, and is subsequently kidnapped. The adventure plays out as Kay is first pursued by the gangsters and then sees all others who came into contact with the Punch and Judy man kidnapped by the gang. Kay travels back in time, using the box, to find its creator, and finally penetrates the gangsters’ lair with the aim of retrieving the kidnap victims and returning the box. However, by the time he is in a position to do this, he is powerless in magically miniature form, and has lost the box. He goes through a terrifying underground adventure, rescues the prisoners, retrieves the box, and sees his enemy, Abner Brown, sent hurtling into the depths by a well aimed bag of flour dropped from a hovering plane by disgruntled gang members. With help from magical friends, he then returns with the kidnap victims in time to save the 1,000 year anniversary Christmas service of the county’s cathedral.

If the story had finished at that point, it would probably have been the best children’s story ever written. But it does not. Just as victory is achieved, Kay begins to wake up. He finds himself back in the railway carriage, and it has all been a dream.

It should not take much imagination to understand why this is such a disappointment. The entire book we have just read — by contrast with its predecessor, The Midnight Folk — is now seen to be a nothing, a dream. In the world of the book, nothing which we have read is ‘real’.

I can only speculate on why Masefield wrote this in. We do know that, a few years later, CS Lewis was pressured against publishing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because fantasy for children was seen as frivolous, and children ought to be reading realistic, true-t0-life books. However, anyone who has got to the end of The Box of Delights has clearly enjoyed fantasy enough to read that far, and the damage, if damage there is, is already done.

What is happening, though, is that Masefield is imposing an additional frame narrative as a last minute afterthought on a book which needs none. This should give us some insight into framing in general.

Frames

It was JRR Tolkien, in Tree and Leaf, who first introduced me to the idea of stories having a frame. The frame may be no more than ‘once upon a time’, or it may be as elaborate as the multi-narrator frame of Wuthering Heights. Great Expectations is framed as a first person narrative told many years later, as is Heart of Darkness. Nostromo shares the narrator of Heart of Darkness, but it is now told second hand, as tale of sea-faring folk well worth telling (which it is).

By its very nature, a story must have a frame, if only because it cannot be about everything, cannot begin with the beginning of the world and end with its ending, unless it is so diffuse that it is really not about anything. Even the Bible has to put the beginning of the world and its end into two separate narratives, Genesis and Revelation, an arrangement wisely followed by CS Lewis when he separated The Magician’s Nephew from The Last Battle.

In Aristotelian terms, the beginning is the place where we lay out the premise which depends on nothing else in the story, and from which everything in the story logically follows. The end is the place where the story finishes, and beyond which nothing in the story continues to be narrated (though we assume that it continues to happen). The middle is where the things caused by the beginning and which cause the end take place.

As well as the start and finish framing, a story also has a world in which it operates. Few worlds are as enormous as the multi-universes of Narnia, the expanse of Middle-Earth or the archipelago of Earthsea, but even these major creations have limits. We know that there are uncounted worlds from the Wood Between the Worlds in The Magician’s Nephew, but in all of the Narnia books, we only visit England, the Narnian world, and Charn, as well as the Wood itself and Aslan’s country. There are no quick trips to France from England, which is itself made up only of a country house, a boarding school, a few London streets, a railway platform and a house in Cambridge.

The world must also be framed in terms of its own rules. For example, a few machine-guns would have made a big difference in Prince Caspian, but would have totally changed the world of the story. In Harry Potter, the train is a perfectly legitimate way to get to Hogwarts, whereas if Bilbo had managed to get a train to the Lonely Mountain, almost all of the story would have been avoided.

One thing the frame doesn’t need to do is to connect the world of the book back to the ‘real’ world. The cover of the book and the publisher’s imprint is enough for that. Nobody needs to be told that the words in the book are fictional. If there really is a need for more, then the publisher’s disclaimer about any resemblance to persons living or dead should be enough.

However, this creates its own problems. What happens if the book overflows its frame and starts trying to interfere in the real world? I enjoyed Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, but I had deep misgivings about how it portrayed the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not a Catholic myself, and I would have felt the same way if it had been Islam, or Hinduism, or the Labour Party. Of course, The Da Vinci Code does the same thing, but everyone knows that The Da Vinci Code is a conspiracy theory book. More importantly, Northern Lights is a formative book for children, whereas adults reading The Da Vinci Code will already have made their minds up.

Some books, of course, are designed to impact on the real world, and all books surely do this. To Kill a Mockingbird had a significant impact on many people’s understanding of inter-racial justice in the USA. However, To Kill a Mockingbird is strongly grounded in fact, and the story does not introduce us to fictional ideas to make its point — rather, it fictionalises real world things.

I struggle in the same way with the small-print sections in Nineteen-Eighty-Four. As my English teacher at school told me, they were no more than political tracts, and if he wanted to read political tracts, he would have gone out and done so, rather than reading them as inserts in a novel.

This is the same separation which we require in television. It’s alright for Vanish or Toyota to advertise in the commercial breaks, but we would start complaining pretty quickly if it turned out that an entire episode of Broadchurch had been scripted so as to promote them — or, even more so, if an episode had been scripted to show how dangerous non-Toyota vehicles were, or other brands of soap.

Returning to the beginning, it’s not possible to read The Box of Delights without either reading the ending, or deliberately ignoring it, and knowing that one is ignoring it. This is a flaw, and a catastrophic one. In some part of me, I know that Bilbo Baggins is pottering round the Shire, Ged is sailing the seas of Earthsea, Shasta and Aravis are living happily in Archenland, but Kay Harker is just waking up from a dream on a train to a Christmas holiday which, no matter how good it is, can’t possibly be as good as the dream which never happened.

If you are an author, please, please think twice before ever perpetrating such a thing on children.

The most scientifically illiterate episode ever? Doctor Who – Kill the Moon

In the first series of the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, a robot grows to enormous size — and, apparently — mass after having a high powered laser directed at it. Scientifically implausible, or, at least, apparently a significant error of units. In Planet of the Daleks, a Jon Pertwee adventure, invisibility becomes available through no adequately explained mechanism. We’re well used to being bamboozled by reversal in the polarity of the neutron flow, multi-dimensionality which sometimes stops weapons working in the TARDIS and sometimes doesn’t, and deliberate plot holes left to tease us, such as in the recent Robot of Sherwood adventure.

However, last night’s ‘Kill the Moon’ was probably the most scientifically illiterate story ever written for the Time Lord. This is not to say it was a bad episode — we probably reached a peak of emotional literacy, as Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi play exquisitely off each other, with more help from the cast of Spooks, this time with Hermione Norris doing the honours to follow Keeley Hawes in Time Heist.

This is the premise: the moon has suddenly started becoming much more massive, causing unsurvivably high tides right across Earth. A museum relic space shuttle and three antiquated astronauts are despatched with nuclear bombs to sort it out. The Doctor arrives in the usual nick of bad timing, and is immediately taken with the unseasonally high gravity. When asked what could have caused it, he speculates on a number of plausible-sounding technologies. Fair enough: Doctor Who science often operates on a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ basis.

However, when the truth becomes known, it turns out that an enormous space-bat-angel-dragon (to borrow a phrase from Ted Hughes) is getting ready to hatch because the moon is not a planetoid, but a stupendous egg.

A planet which is a living being may remind you of Blake’s 7 Series 2 episode 6 Trial, or of numerous other science fiction adventures. It’s a grand idea, but not implausible that it’s happening somewhere out there. As Clara points out, it is a little implausible that the Doctor never heard of it before, but, there you go, that’s time travel.

What is not merely implausible, nor even merely impossible, but simply scientifically illiterate is the notion that a creature growing inside an egg will change its mass as it grows. It won’t — a hermetically sealed egg, provided that you don’t paste something onto it, or break the shell, will stay pretty much the same mass for pretty much ever.

Of course, there are lots of ways that a space-creature, unique in the history of the universe, might gain mass. It could come through a time vortex from some other time — actually, the problem of matter being destroyed in one time and recreated in another is never adequately addressed in Doctor Who. It could come by some kind of cosmic wormhole from a black hole elsewhere (actually, it couldn’t, but, by SF convention, you could get away with it). It could even come by gradual accretion of meteors hitting the moon and being absorbed, or a whole load of asteroids crashing into it in one go.

However, in the episode, this is not what happens. Someone clearly never explained to the script writer that while things may change their size, they never change their mass, except as a result of bits being added from elsewhere, or removed, or the conversion of massive amounts of energy for comparatively paltry amounts of matter.

To make matters worse, at the end, the creature, without having actually eaten anything, lays a new moon, of evidently equal mass, since it returns earth tides to normal.

What? Just what? what? what? what? what?

 

I recently read a review on Amazon of a low wattage kettle, which I wondered might be suitable for heating water in a Land Rover. The reviewer pointed out that it took much longer to boil the kettle (rather like the hotel room in which I’m typing this, where the kettle takes 3 minutes to boil enough water for one cup of tea), but that he was glad to do so because it saved energy and therefore was counteracting climate change.

Well, no. To boil the same amount of water from the same starting temperature requires the same amount of energy. If you have a lower power, it takes longer. 1 amp of current at 230 V will take 13 minutes to boil the same amount of water as a 13 amp kettle would boil in 1 minute, provided that the two kettles were equally efficient. Kettles are actually pretty efficient devices, and are preferable to microwaves or hobs if you just want to boil water.

 

How much energy is required to push a ball up a slope to a height of 30 centimetres? Is more energy required if the slope is steeper? Is less required if the slope is gentler? Actually, the opposite, because in the steep case you require only the energy to raise it plus the energy to move it along the flat length of the slope. In the gentle case, this is also true, but the flat length is longer, and so more energy is required.

 

I think the chap who reviewed the kettle and the people who think that a gentle slope requires less energy than the steep slope should be forgiven: the one was a user-contributed review on Amazon, while the other is plausible (though incorrect), if we think of how exhausting it is for a human to do the task, or the requirements of a powerful four-wheel drive vehicle if the slope is very steep. What’s actually happening in both those cases is that all kinds of inefficient processes are taking place to change the result.

The fact-checkers — if they still exist — for Doctor Who, though, really should know better. If you’re going to transgress the basic principles of physics, you at least need to have a plausible explanation.

Probably won’t be watching that one again…

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