Monday 3 November 2014

Orpheus in the TARDIS

As The Doctor noted in Dark Water, almost every culture has legends of an afterlife, and throughout this season we have seen Missy and her assistant Seb welcoming various characters to it. But which culture's afterlife is it? Despite Missy referring to it as "The Promissed Land" or "Heaven", it's not any contemporary religion's paradise. "The Nethersphere" is a more apt name, as it seems to based on the ancient Greek Underworld.

The plot of Dark Water parallels the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridice. Clara takes the role of Orpheus, trying to recover Danny from the Underworld. In some versions of the Orpheus myth, Orpheus is unwittingly responsible for Euridice's death, as the fact that his music tames all wild beasts has left Euridice unafraid of snakes. Clara is unwittingly responsible for Danny's death, since her phone call distracted him while he was crossing the road. Volcanoes are often portrayed as gateways to the underworld.

There were various rivers in the Underworld. The most famous was the Styx, which was notably murky (stygian) - it was dark water. Having been bathed in the Styx was what gave Achilles his famous invulnerability - a power he shares with the Cybermen. Another of them was the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Those who drank from the Lethe forgot their former lives, and could then be reincarnated. The chance to forget his former life is what Seb offers Danny, although he doesn't explain that he's planning to reincarnate Danny as a Cyberman.

In the Orpheus myth, it is scepticism that proves Orpheus' downfall. Unwilling to trust Hades (who has never given up one of his subjects before), Orpheus breaks his promiss not to look back, and thus loses Euridice forever. Clara, encouraged by the Doctor to demand proof of Danny's identity, allows him to goad her into cutting off the conversation (ironically by repeating what she was telling him when he died), because he does not want her to risk her own life. We end the episode with the threat that Clara may lose him forever…

Monday 6 October 2014

Why Doctor Who needs a Scientific Advisor

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

A plot hole isn't something that's not explained. It's something you can't explain.
- Steven Moffat

Where does she get the milk for the soufflés?
- The Doctor Asylum of the Daleks

Kill the Moon was a weak episode. The theme of whether one should be prepared to do evil in the pursuit of a perceived greater good is a favourite one with Doctor Who, explored famously in Genesis of the Daleks, and more recently in The Beast Below and The Day of The Doctor. The Doctor's motives for leaving Clara and Courtney to make the crucial decision could have been better explored - a line to the effect of "I trusted you to do the right thing. I didn't trust myself," would have made far more sense of his actions. But the big problem is that the premisses of the story just didn't make sense.

We have a pretty good idea what the Moon is made of and how it was formed. If it were the egg of a giant space creature, the Apollo astronauts would have noticed. Even if it were, it wouldn't suddenly become heavier when it hatched - conservation of mass is one of the most basic laws of physics, so if something gets heavier, the extra mass has to come from somewhere. Bacteria are the size they are because their simple prokaryotic metabolism won't scale up. An oversized spider has to be a multicellular, eukaryotic organism. Even if a giant dragon could hatch out of the Moon, it couldn't fly away by flapping its wings in space - wings need an atmosphere to work. And if it did fly away, the gravitational effects of such a large thing doing so would seriously perturb the Earth's orbit. And no organism could lay an egg larger than itself immediately after hatching.

OK, this is a show about an alien who travels through time in a ship that's bigger on the inside, but even in that context these errors break suspension of disbelief. There's a difference between asking, "What if time travel were possible?" and just not caring about basic physics. The Doctor Who production team needs someone to consult about the scientific plausibility of a story, someone who could tell writers when something didn't work, and what they could do to improve it. "Either you need another way to set up your ethical dilemma, or we can work out something else that could be wrong with the Moon."

The worst story this century could have been vastly improved by a bit of scientific advice. "The monster could be a giant intelligent slime mould that engulfs its prey, and absorbs their knowledge as it digests them. It adopts the likeness of previous victims as camouflage. After The Doctor notices that it avoids one particular woman, who wears a distinctive perfume, he realises that vanilla contains a hormone that will cause its component cells to disperse harmlessly."

Doctor Who did employ somebody in this capacity once. That was Dr. Kitt Pedlar, co-creator of the cybermen.

Even the most fantastical universe has to make sense.

Thursday 2 October 2014

A Paradox

There is a cat in a box. Also in the box is a radioactive atom, which, if it decays within a certain interval, will trigger a time machine that sends the cat back in time to kill its own grandfather while he was still a kitten. (Why the cat has such an irrational hatred of its grandfather I don't know. I never said it was a nice cat.)

Unless you open the lid, there is no way of knowing whether there has ever been a cat in the box at all.

Monday 21 July 2014

Starting a new conlang

I've been thinking about starting a new conlang project for a while now. I'm planning to do something with a bit of nonconcatenative morphology, not exactly Semitic but with some similar features, and I really want to try my hand at diachronic conlanging. Over the past few days I've put together the phonological development of the first few stages of the language.

Stage 0


pʰ tʰ cʰ kʰ
p t c k ʔ
b d ɟ g
f s ç x h
v z ʝ ɣ
m n


i      u



Sound changes

V>±hightone/ _ʔ
t,d>θ,ð /VV
+asp > -asp

Stage 1


p    t    c   k
b    d   ɟ    g
f  θ s  ç    x   h
v  ð z  ʝ     ɣ
m    n


i       u



Low, High


Sound changes

i,u,a> j,w,∅/ _ V

pj, tj, kj > pʲ, t͡ʃ , t͡ʃ
bj, dj, gj > bʲ, d͡ʒ, d͡ʒ
fj, sj, xj, > fʲ, ʃ, ç, ç
vj, zj, ɣj > vʲ, ʒ, ʝ
mj, nj > mʲ, ɲ
rj > ʎ
lj > ʎ
cj, ɟj, çj, ʝj > cː, ɟː, çː, ʝː / V_V
cj, ɟj, çj, ʝj > c, ɟ, ç, ʝ


tw, cw, kw > tʷ, cʷ, p
dw, ɟw, gw > dʷ, ɟʷ, b
fw, θw, sw, çw, xw, hw > ɸ, θʷ, sʷ, çʷ, ʍ, ʍ
vw, ðw, zw, ʝw, ɣw > β, ðʷ, zʷ, ʝʷ, w
nw > ŋʷ
rw > w
lw > ɫ
pw, bw, mw > pp, bb, mm / V_V
pw, bw, mw > p, b, m

Stage 3


p         t          c         k

            tʷ        cʷ
b          d         ɟ         g

             dʷ      ɟʷ
ɸ   f  θ  s    ʃ   ç        x         h
      fʲ θʲ 
         θʷ sʷ      çʷ    
β    v ð   z   ʒ   ʝ        ɣ
      vʲ ðʲ
          ðʷ zʷ     ʝʷ
m      n             ɲ      
w       r             j
          l              ʎ       ɫ


i        u

High, Low


Medial consonants may be geminated

Sound changes
Feature spreading

a, u > e, y / _Ci
i, u > e, o / _Ca
i, a > y,o / _Cu

Tone sandhi

Low>  Rising / _High
High>  Falling / High_


Primary stress on first syllable, secondary stress on odd syllables

Where 2 identical vowels (modulo tone) occur in adjecent syllables, the vowel in the less stressed syllable is deleted.

Stage 4

Consonants as Stage 3.


i y         u
  e       o

Low, high, rising, falling



By stage 4, the phonology is more or less where I want it to be, and subsequent stages will mainly be about gramaticalisation and analogy. However, I've left myself some phonological loose ends for later.

The plan is to go backwards and forwards between Stages 0 to 4 for a bit, building up basic vocabulary and grammar, and then move on to the later stages. Going backwards and forwards is partly an attempt to reconcile the diachronic method with my love of hand-crafted vocabulary. The finished product will probably be about Stage 7.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

NoSQL for Conlangers

In his blog, fellow-conlanger +Wm Annis writes that the best database format for dictionaries is text.

All his points are valid, but at one point he says The standard is SQL, and that got me thinking. I've done a fair bit of work with SQL, and can do scary things with it, but I wouldn't choose to use it. It's inflexible and clunky. You have to decide your schema in advance, and if your requirements change at a later date, you have no choice but to rebuild entire tables. Anything more complex than a simple one-to-one relationship requires a second table and a join. SQL basically expects you to fit your data to the model, and what you need is to fit the model to your data. Using an ORM like SQLAlchemy doesn't help - it's just a layer of abstraction on top of an inherently clunky system.

For a good dictionary system, you need the flexibility of a NoSQL database. One popular system, that I've done a lot of work with, is MongoDB. This stores documents in JSON format, so a dictionary entry might look like this


If a field exists for some words but not others, you only need to put it in the relevant entries. If a field is variable length, you can store it in an array. One slight disadvantage is that cross-referencing between entries can be a little tricky.

Another possibility is ZODB. This is an object persistance system for Python objects. In many ways it's similar to MongoDB, but there's one important difference. If a member of a stored object is itself an object that inherits from persistant, what is stored in the parent object is a reference to that object. Cross-referencing is therefore completely transparent. The only small disadvantage is that it's Python-specific, but unless you really need to write your dictionary software in a different language, that shouldn't be a big problem.

You might also want to consider a graph database like Neo4j. This stores data as a network of nodes and edges, like this


In theory, this is the most flexible form of database. I wouldn't say it was easy to learn or use, though.

There are plenty of other NOSQL databases, these are just the ones I'd use, but I think they're all more suitable for dictionary software than SQL. But do make sure you have a human-readable backup.

Monday 5 May 2014

Reverse Conlanging

As regular readers will be aware, I like Doctor Who and conlanging.
Unfortunately, these don't intersect much, as the TARDIS has telepathic circuits that can translate any language. However, here's an exception

Venusian lullaby

The Curse of Peladon was written in the days when, if you wanted an alien language, you made up some gibberish and hoped for the best. However, this is coherent enough to make some sense of it. Using the Doctor's translation Close your eyes my darling, well three of them at least! I've worked out the following so far

diminutive, used to express affection
1st person posessed form, used to express kinship
My dear child
paucal, used for more than two, but not necessarily a complete set, for which the plural would be used
close (hortative)

One thing that might be harder to explain though, is why it's sung to a slowed-down version of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.

Saturday 26 April 2014

Experimenting with IFTTT

I've just started trying out IFTTT. Partly this is because the Feedburner feed for this blog has needed manually prompting to update my Twitter feed, but also because I'm investigating using it to post automatically to Blogger on behalf of my friends at Speculative Grammarian.

To do this, I'm using a feed from one of my Google Code projects. It's a semantic recommendation system I've been working on. I call it Emily, because it finds things (or at least, it will do when it's up and running). Code updates from the project should be appearing here.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Fonts for Conscripts on FrathWiki

FrathWiki is a MediaWiki-based site for conlangers. I use it to host the documentation for Khangaþyagon and iljena. One drawback, however, is that it was difficult to use a conlang's native script, as this requires a custom font. My friend David Peterson created a font for Bukhstav runes before he was famous, but short of uploading a lot of .png files, it would have been very difficult to make use of it on the wiki.

But no more! I've looked up how to use web fonts in CSS, and created a couple of templates that should allow the use of any conscript you have a font for on FrathWiki. Behold!

Wednesday 5 March 2014

One of my Fantastical Devices is on PyPI

I've mentioned in previous posts that I've been working on a Python library for Hidden Markov Models. I've been encouraged to put this up on the Python Package Index, so, after a little while getting the hang of registering and uploading a project here it is. It's alpha, or course, so there are probably plenty of bugs to be found in it, but if you want to play with something I've made, all you have to do is type
sudo pip install Markov
, and try it out. If you feel you can help me improve it, contact me and I can add you to the Google Code project.

Saturday 1 March 2014

The Lego Movie

My children had been wanting to go to The Lego Movie for ages, so this afternoon we finally gave in and took them. I wasn't expecting to enjoy it much myself, but I did. Good children's stuff is just as enjoyable for grown ups. Without giving too much away, it's a bit like a U-rated parody of The Matrix. However, if it's a parody, it's better than the original. And the moral of the story, "Don't just follow the instructions, be creative" is pretty much the point of Lego. One of my proudest moments as a dad was when my son took his Millenium Falcon to bits so that he could build other things with it. Talking of which, I was amused by the Star Wars minifigs being voiced by the original actors.

A bonus is that it may have got my daughter interested in Lego, in a way that Lego Friends never could.

Monday 17 February 2014

Ranking Doctor Who stories and writers

What with the 50th Anniversary last year, I thought it would be fun to sort the Doctor Who stories of the 21st Century into my personal order of preference. I wrote a Python script that repeatedly asked me Is Story A better than Story B? and used my answers as the basis of a binary sort that put the stories in order. The following is completely subjective, and I probably wouldn't even get the same result if I did it again, but here it is anyway.
  1. Blink by Steven Moffat
  2. The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances by Steven Moffat
  3. The Girl in the Fireplace by Steven Moffat
  4. Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead by Steven Moffat
  5. The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon by Steven Moffat
  6. The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone by Steven Moffat
  7. The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People by Matthew Graham
  8. The Crimson Horror by Mark Gatiss
  9. The Doctor's Wife by Neil Gaiman
  10. The Day of the Doctor by Steven Moffat
  11. Cold War by Mark Gatiss
  12. Midnight by Russell T Davies
  13. The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood by Chris Chibnall
  14. A Town Called Mercy by Toby Whithouse
  15. Human Nature / The Family of Blood by Paul Cornell
  16. Night Terrors by Mark Gatiss
  17. Asylum of the Daleks by Steven Moffat
  18. The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit by Matt Jones
  19. Hide by Neil Cross
  20. The Name of the Doctor by Steven Moffat
  21. Nightmare in Silver by Neil Gaiman
  22. The Time of the Doctor by Steven Moffat
  23. The Bells of Saint John by Steven Moffat
  24. The Angels Take Manhattan by Steven Moffat
  25. The Wedding of River Song by Steven Moffat
  26. The Eleventh Hour by Steven Moffat
  27. The Girl Who Waited by Tom MacRae
  28. A Good Man Goes to War by Steven Moffat
  29. Let's Kill Hitler by Steven Moffat
  30. The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang by Steven Moffat
  31. The Unquiet Dead by Mark Gatiss
  32. 42 by Chris Chibnall
  33. The Power of Three by Chris Chibnall
  34. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS by Steven Thompson
  35. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship by Chris Chibnall
  36. The God Complex by Toby Whithouse
  37. The Doctor's Daughter by Stephen Greenhorn
  38. Planet of the Ood by Keith Temple
  39. The Vampires of Venice by Toby Whithouse
  40. The End of Time by Russell T Davies
  41. The Waters of Mars by Russell T Davies and Phil Ford
  42. The Stolen Earth / Journey's End by Russell T Davies
  43. The Fires of Pompeii by James Moran
  44. Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords by Russell T Davies
  45. Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel by Tom MacRae
  46. Amy's Choice by Simon Nye
  47. The Snowmen by Steven Moffat
  48. The Curse of the Black Spot by Stephen Thompson
  49. Victory of the Daleks by Mark Gatiss
  50. The Rings of Akhaten by Neil Cross
  51. The Unicorn and the Wasp by Gareth Roberts
  52. The Sontaran Strategem / The Poison Sky by Helen Raynor
  53. The Beast Below by Steven Moffat
  54. School Reunion by Toby Whithouse
  55. Vincent and the Doctor by Richard Curtiss
  56. The Lodger by Gareth Roberts
  57. Tooth and Claw by Russell T Davies
  58. Dalek by Robert Shearman
  59. Closing Time by Gareth Roberts
  60. The Shakespeare Code by Gareth Roberts
  61. Planet of the Dead by Russell T Davies and Gareth Roberts
  62. Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks by Helen Raynor
  63. Rose by Russell T Davies
  64. Smith and Jones by Russell T Davies
  65. Army of Ghosts / Doomsday by Russell T Davies
  66. Partners in Crime by Russell T Davies
  67. A Christmas Carol by Steven Moffat
  68. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe by Steven Moffat
  69. Turn Left by Russell T Davies
  70. The Lazarus Experiment by Stephen Greenhorn
  71. New Earth by Russell T Davies
  72. The Next Doctor by Russell T Davies
  73. Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways by Russell T Davies
  74. The Idiot's Lantern by Mark Gatiss
  75. Gridlock by Russell T Davies
  76. Father's Day by Paul Cornell
  77. The Runaway Bride by Russell T Davies
  78. The Christmas Invasion by Russell T Davies
  79. Fear Her by Matthew Graham
  80. Aliens of London / World War Three by Russell T Davies
  81. The Long Game by Russell T Davies
  82. Voyage of the Damned by Russell T Davies
  83. The End of the World by Russell T Davies
  84. Boom Town by Russell T Davies
  85. Love & Monsters by Russell T Davies
As you can see, there's a lot of Steven Moffat stories at the top, and a lot of Russel T Davies at the bottom. Also, many of Steven Moffat's best stories were written before he was showrunner - a showrunner has to write more episodes, so they're not always going to be his absolute best. I also sorted the writers in order or the median rank of their stories, and got the following results.
  1. Neil Gaiman
    Stories written
    The Doctor's Wife (9)
    Nightmare in Silver (21)
  2. Matt Jones
    Stories written
    The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (18)
  3. Steven Moffat
    Stories written
    Blink (1)
    The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (68)
    The Bells of Saint John (23)
  4. Mark Gatiss
    Stories written
    The Crimson Horror (8)
    The Idiot's Lantern (74)
    Night Terrors (16)
    The Unquiet Dead (31)
  5. Chris Chibnall
    Stories written
    The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood (13)
    Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (35)
    42 (32)
    The Power of Three (33)
  6. Steven Thompson
    Stories written
    Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (34)
  7. Neil Cross
    Stories written
    Hide (19)
    The Rings of Akhaten (50)
  8. Tom MacRae
    Stories written
    The Girl Who Waited (27)
    Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel (45)
  9. Toby Whithouse
    Stories written
    A Town Called Mercy (14)
    School Reunion (54)
    The God Complex (36)
    The Vampires of Venice (39)
  10. Keith Temple
    Stories written
    Planet of the Ood (38)
  11. Phil Ford
    Stories written
    The Waters of Mars (41)
  12. James Moran
    Stories written
    The Fires of Pompeii (43)
  13. Matthew Graham
    Stories written
    The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People (7)
    Fear Her (79)
  14. Paul Cornell
    Stories written
    Human Nature / The Family of Blood (15)
    Father's Day (76)
  15. Simon Nye
    Stories written
    Amy's Choice (46)
  16. Stephen Thompson
    Stories written
    The Curse of the Black Spot (48)
  17. Stephen Greenhorn
    Stories written
    The Doctor's Daughter (37)
    The Lazarus Experiment (70)
  18. Richard Curtiss
    Stories written
    Vincent and the Doctor (55)
  19. Helen Raynor
    Stories written
    The Sontaran Strategem / The Poison Sky (52)
    Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks (62)
  20. Robert Shearman
    Stories written
    Dalek (58)
  21. Gareth Roberts
    Stories written
    The Unicorn and the Wasp (51)
    Planet of the Dead (61)
    Closing Time (59)
  22. Russell T Davies
    Stories written
    Midnight (12)
    Love & Monsters (85)
    Turn Left (69)
    New Earth (71)
A surprise at the top of the list - despite having written 7 of the top 10 episodes on my list, Steven Moffat only comes third on the writers' list. This is because his season opener and finale episodes from his time as showrunner tend to rank a bit lower (although still respectable). It also shows how difficult it is to make the comparison when the number of episodes written varies so much. RTD fans will no doubt be howling with rage that he comes bottom of the list of writers, but despite everything he did for the show, he just so happens to have written more of the episodes I find weak than anybody else. Midnight was very good though, and narrowly missed out on getting into the top 10. One thing that's not surprising is that Steven Moffat's weakest episode was a Christmas Special - Christmas Specials are generally weak. You're free to debate these lists as much as you like. However, please don't try to convince me that Love & Monsters has any redeeming features at all.

Wednesday 1 January 2014

Speculative Grammarian

Speculative Grammarian is the premier scholarly journal in the neglected field of satirical linguistics. I first heard about it from a friend on the Conlang Mailing List, and thought it would be fun to get involved. Eventually, I came up with an idea and sent it in.  A year ago today, it was published. Since then, I've contributed another article, some letters to the editor, a couple of answers for the Specgram Linguistic Advice Collective, and set the ball rolling on Linguimericks (Linguistic Limericks).

I've got a couple more things in the pipeline. If you think jokes about linguistics would appeal to you, take a look. Try to see if you can spot my articles (they're mainly written under pseudonyms).

Historical Trivia -Speculative Grammarian is named after a school of Mediaeval philosophers who believed that language held a mirror (Latin speculum) to nature.