Sunday, 9 June 2013

Seeing trains was like meeting my characters

Shildon in County Durham may be the the only place I've been to where there seem to be more car parking spaces in the town than people. I was there to visit Shildon Locomotion, the North East outpost of the National Railway Museum, where I'll be doing some talks and readings on Sunday 11 August. I specifically wanted to go this weekend because the museum is literally rolling out some working replicas of the the engines that competed in the Rainhill trials, along with one or two important originals - locomotives featured in my novel Mr Stephenson's Regret.

My book on the Stephensons aside, I am no railway buff. Nevertheless I almost cried when I stepped into the railway yard alongside the museum to find an exact life-size replica of The Rocket being stoked up and ready to go. The engine (made for the 150th anniversary of the Liverpool-Manchester Railway opening) looked exactly as it does on the front cover of my book, and I felt as if I was meeting one of the central characters of my novel in the flesh.

Replica of The Rocket

The Rocket moved off down the track, giving me my first full view of Locomotion No.1 parked behind it, and not the replica this time but the original engine, standing in almost the same spot from which it started its historic journey on the opening day of the Stockton and Darlington line.

The original Locomotion No. 1

When I am doing talks I almost always read from the pages that cover the Stockton-Darlington opening. I looked upon the fine black engine today, in company with less than a dozen other visitors to the museum, and thought of the 40,000 and more who turned up on 27 September 1825 to witness the iron lady's maiden trip. Appropriately enough, as I stood watching and thinking, one of the modern trains of the Tees Valley Line came tearing by in the background, carrying passengers on the same historic route. A couple of minutes later a replica of The Planet (the first Stephenson engine to cover the Liverpool-Manchester route in less than an hour) brought a carriage-load of visitors into the museum yard the exciting way, by rail under steam power.

Replica of The Planet

More excitement for me inside the museum main building when I came across Betty Stephenson's recipe book on display, written in her own hand. Betty is possibly my favourite character in the novel and she features prominently in a talk I often do for Women's Institutes on the Stephenson women. Robert loved his stepmother, whom he called his mama. She did so much to introduce him to the finer things in life - music, poetry - which were missing from the more prosaic upbringing Robert had from his father before Betty came into the family.

Also inside the museum (a respectable little offspring of the York parent) among impressive trains of varied vintage, my wife and I discovered another replica of the Rainhill Trials, Timothy Hackworth's Sans Pareil.

Replica of Sans Pareil

Fine as it was in its Rainhill colours, this replica seemed to pale in comparison to the stark original which we found on display in a converted workshop next to Timothy Hackworth's cottage on the other side of town. The cottage is open to the public but it is the engine that inspires. It was a failure at Rainhill, partly because it was over the weight limit (it certainly looks much heavier than The Rocket) and partly because of a cracked cylinder (which Hackworth unfairly blamed on the Stephensons as it was made in their Forth Street workshop), but it was later improved and went into operation for a short while on the Liverpool-Manchester line.

The original Sans Pareil

I felt a little guilty as I wandered around the Hackworth end of the Shildon experience because I don't treat him particularly well as a character in my novel. Hackworth (who was born, like George Stephenson, in Wylam) became locomotive superintendent of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. In one section of the novel Robert Stephenson blames him for his failure to overcome some of the early teething problems there. A more unpleasant argument occurs at Rainhill when Hackworth accuses the Stephensons of sabotage over the cracked cylinder. The historical fact is that Hackworth had twenty cylinders cast at Forth Street and personally chose the two best to use for his engine at Rainhill, so he only had himself to blame. I should acknowledge though (as I don't in my novel simply because it is not relevant to the narrative) that Timothy Hackworth played a significant part in ensuring that Locomotion No. 1 was in fit shape to pull the wagons on that dramatic opening day. There. I hope I can now perform my talks and readings at Shildon in good conscience.

Hope to see some of you there on Sunday 11 August. The whole Shildon Locomotion experience is free and well worth a visit.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Cupertino effect - the dangers of spellcheckers and autocorrect

Six months ago I learned that misheard lyrics are known as mondegreens and wrote a blog posting on the subject. This week, listening to an archived podcast of the wonderful RadioLab, I learned that there is a term for the tendency of a spellchecker or autocorrect facility to come up with inappropriate words to replace words that are mis-spelled, or at least are not in its dictionary. This is the Cupertino effect.

The effect was named by writers and translators for the European Union who found that early spellcheckers could not recognize the word cooperation unless it was hyphenated. Instead they would routinely replace the word with Cupertino, the name of a Californian city which happens to be where Apple Inc is headquartered. A problem arose when an author would run an automated spellcheck on a document then fail to proof-read what the spellchecker may have 'corrected'. Even now you can come across archived official documents that contain strange phrases such as:

The Cupertino with our Italian comrades proved to be very fruitful.

South Asian Association for Regional Cupertino

...stimulating cross-border Cupertino.

Mistakes can also occur as a result of the spellchecker failing to correct a word because they recognize it from a different context. That's the premise of a lovely little spellchecker poem written a good few years ago now by Janet Minor, who describes herself as an 'internet poet'.

I have a spelling checker
It came with my PC;
It plainly marks four my revue
Mistakes I cannot sea.
I've run this poem threw it,
I'm sure your pleased too no,
Its letter perfect in it's weigh,
My checker tolled me sew.

Though spellcheckers tend to be a little more sophisticated these days it is still dangerously easy to get into difficulties if you are not careful about how your spellchecker corrects common words that you may have slightly mis-spelled. Examples I have seen quoted include:

definitely mis-spelled as definately corrected to defiantly

acquainted mis-spelled as aquainted corrected to aquatinted.

Foreign expressions and names can cause a problem for English language spellcheckers. A lawyer using the Latin phrase sua sponte ('of one's own accord') found the phrase corrected to sea sponge. A Reuters report referring to Pakistan's Muttahida Quami Movement was changed by a spellchecker to read Muttonhead Quail Movement.

One of the best examples of automated name changes I've seen comes from a student yearbook published by a high school in Middletown, Pennsylvania. The student register should have included these real names:

Max Zupanovic
Kathy Carbaugh
Alessandra Ippolito
William and Elizabeth Givler
Cameron Bendgen
Courtney and Kayla Hrobak

But those students would have looked in vain for their names. The spellchecker had 'corrected' them to:

Max Supernova
Kathy Airbag
Alexandria Impolite
William and Elizabeth Giver
Cameron Bandage
Courtney and Kayla Throwback

Sometimes individuals and organizations create their own correction problems by customising their spellcheck software. To introduce the first example, let me ask you to make the connection between these two images:

Reuters of London's stylebook instructs its journalists reporting on the monarch of England always to use her full name 'Queen Elizabeth' rather than 'the Queen'. As a reminder or reinforcement Reuter's spellcheck software is customised to autocorrect to the default convention. A problem occurred with a news release in October 2006 about the genetic code of the honey bee. No-one spotted before publication that the article included the following odd phrases:

With its highly evolved social structure of tens of thousands of worker bees commanded by Queen Elizabeth, the honey bee genome could also improve the search for genes linked to social behaviour.

Queen Elizabeth has 10 times the lifespan of workers and lays up to 2,000 eggs a day.

Even more amusing, in my view, is the 2008 headline that read:

Homosexual eases into 100m final at Olympic trials

This was a delicious error perpetrated by the far right fundamentalist Christian group, the American Family Association (AFA).  Their website re-posts news of interest, but heavily censored for content. This group's autocorrect facility is set to alter the word 'gay' to 'homosexual', apparently because 'gay' is not a word they wish to see associated with a practice they regard as abhorrent.

The article in question, however, was about the American sprinter Tyson Gay, who easily won his semi-final at the Olympic trials. According to The AFA version of the article:

Tyson Homosexual was a blur in blue, sprinting 100 meters faster than anyone ever has... "It means a lot to me," the 25-year-old Homosexual said: "I'm glad my body could do it, because now I know I have it in me."

The news director later told a reporter: "We took the filter out for that word" after Tyson Homosexual surfaced on the site. "We don't object to the word gay except when it refers to people who practise a homosexual lifestyle."

That's all right, then.

I began by saying that the Cupertino effect as named was a problem for early spellcheckers, but the general danger still exists not only for PC users but perhaps especially for modern texters whose fingers sometimes work faster than their brains. Predictive text and Smartphones with dictionary supported keyboards that can automatically replace 'mistakes' may be a help or a hindrance. I'll leave you with a link to Damn You Autocorrect and its list of 25 Funniest Autocorrects. They are a caution.

Now I'd better proof-read this carefully before posting - you just can't trust those damn spellcheckers.