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Doctor Who: Mangling History

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Doctor Who has a long and noble history of attempting to convey history to its young viewers. It has not always been completely successful, however. Here are a few stories where they dipped into history -- but didn't get the history quite right.

The Gunfighters

On Doctor Who:
The TARDIS arrives in Tombstone, Arizona, just as the Clanton brothers arrive, looking to kill Doc Holliday for killing their brother. They promptly mistake the Doctor for him, because they don't know what he looks like. Wyatt Earp's brother Warren is killed, and Wyatt swears vengeance. This leads to a gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The Clantons, aided by Johnny Ringo, face down Wyatt Earp, Virgil Earp, and Doc Holliday; the Clantons and Ringo are shot dead, and our heroes take the opportunity to slip away in the TARDIS.

The depiction of the shoot-out in "The Gunfighters"

In History:
Of all the historical dramas in the first few seasons of Doctor Who, this is probably the least accurate. The Clantons weren't seeking to avenge a slain brother (yet), and there was no chance of them mistaking anyone for Doc Holliday, whom Ike Clanton had been busy trying to frame for some time. Warren Earp wasn't involved, and lived another 20 years. And the actual players at the gunfight were Doc Holliday and Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil Earp facing down Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton (the latter three all died). Ike Clanton, killed in the shoot-out on Doctor Who, fled the fight in real life and continued the feud. Infamous cowboy Johnny Ringo wasn't at the gunfight.

The three dead Cowboys after the real gunfight: Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton

As a side-note, set reports from the BBC's filming in Almeria, Spain (location of classics like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), reveal that there will finally be a second Western on the show, probably the third episode of Series 7.

The Masque of Mandragora

On Doctor Who:
The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane battle a living energy, the Mandragora Helix, in 15th-century Italy. The Helix intends to take over humanity at this delicate juncture between superstition and science, between religion and reason. There is a power struggle going on in the duchy of San Martino, and the rational, science-minded Prince Guiliano is accused of being a witch. In one scene, he explains to Sarah Jane his theory that the world is actually a sphere, as if he expects her to be shocked.

The conversation between Prince Guiliano and Sarah Jane starts at 2:50

In History:
Or would he have expected her to be shocked? Science was more advanced in the 15th century than usually given credit, even in Western Europe. Astronomy was fairly advanced, and the size and shape of the Earth had been known since antiquity; Eratosthenes even computed the correct circumference to within 2% of the actual value around 200 BC. The work of Dante Alighieri, who wrote his epic work The Divine Comedy over a century before reflecting the mainstream view of both church and secular authorities, clearly references a spherical Earth. So rather than being ahead of his times, Guiliano is behind them.


A diagram of Dante's depiction of the spherical Earth; it's a cutaway view, intended to show the structure of Hell underground

City of Death

On Doctor Who:
Visiting Paris, the Fourth Doctor and Second Romana stumble upon a complicated plot to steal the Mona Lisa -- by an alien who has six copies in his basement that have been bricked up since 1508, right after Leonardo da Vinci painted them. The alien plans on using them to bankroll a time machine that will get him back 400 million years, so he can prevent an explosion in the spacecraft that is carrying his entire species. The Doctor has to intervene, because that spacecraft's explosion is also what jump-started life on Earth.

Conclusion of the serial. As a bonus, watch for John Cleese and Eleanor Bron's uncredited cameo at 7:14; they appeared as a favor to their friend, script editor Douglas Adams

In History:
Perhaps the Doctor didn't need to worry quite so much; 400 million years ago, life on Earth was already well established. Life on Earth started about 3.5 billion years ago. That's just as well; our heroes would have found it very difficult to breathe if they had gone back to stop Scaroth just before the start of life -- it took more than a billion years just to establish an oxygen-based atmosphere. By 400 million years ago, there were already plants on land, and if our heroes had gone for a swim, they might have met one of these.

The King's Demons

On Doctor Who:
The Fifth Doctor, Degan, Nyssa, and Turlough arrive in England in 1215, where they encounter King John, busy harassing a minor lord in an attempt to extort taxes. But it can't be John; the king is in London taking the Crusader's Oath. This imposter king turns out to be a shape-shifting robot controlled by the Master, who intends to disrupt history by triggering a revolt against King John, preventing the Magna Carta from being signed.

The Doctor outlines the Master's plan

In History:
Actually, the Doctor has it pretty much backwards, and so does the Master -- it was the baron's revolt that forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. Only when it became apparent that he could not suppress the revolt with force of arms alone did King John consent to sign the decree, and he promptly renounced it once the barons left, plunging England into the First Baron's War. What's more, King John did end up dying during the war, of dysentery, an event which may actually have helped the Magna Carta; William Marshal, appointed protector of the nine-year-old King Henry III, used it as the basis of the new government in 1217. So rather than a baronial revolt preventing the Magna Carta, a baronial revolt was instrumental to its creation.


14th century copy of the Magna Carta

The Mark of the Rani

On Doctor Who:
The Sixth Doctor and Peri arrive in 1820s Killingworth, an English mining town, where previously gentle men have been turning into thugs embarking on Luddite riots. They meet the inventor George Stephenson, who is plotting a meeting of engineering geniuses, and who is working on a steam engine that he says could revolutionize transportation. The Doctor slyly tells him that his invention "will take off like a rocket," referencing an actual engine built by Stephenson in 1829.

The Doctor and Peri arrive in Killingworth

In History:
The real Stephenson probably would not have been keen to invite a group of engineering geniuses to a conference in the 1820s; in the 1810s, he'd been embroiled in a bitter intellectual property dispute because the intelligentsia didn't believe an uneducated man like him could have actually invented a safety lamp for miners. He understandably resented the attitude. And Stephenson didn't need to be told that steam power was the future; his first operational steam locomotive had already gone into service in 1814. While Stephenson indeed would go on to build the Rocket in 1829, it was important for a different reason: it won a speed race, and thereby the contract to build engines for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, helping establish Stephenson's railway specifications as standards for the future.


The Rocket

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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