How to Be Wrong
By Robert Billing
Copyright © 2008 by Robert Billing, All Rights Reserved
This is an
article about a different kind of research. All writers know how
important it is to get the details of backstory right. Painstaking hours
are spent checking the street maps of the towns where our stories are
set, or the same information is made up with equal care. The names of
restaurants and the locations of bus stops are verified because the
reader will notice if a tiny point is in error.
So what do we
do in the opposite case, when something has to be absolutely,
One of the
first manifestations of the problem came with the automatic telephone
system installed in London. If a play was transmitted on BBC radio which
included a telephone number, dozens of listeners would call it just to
see what would happen. If the number, by chance, belonged to a real
subscriber the hapless individual would be pestered for days by lunatic
listeners trying to get through to a fictional character.
was solved in a very neat way, which depended on the way in which the
letters and numbers were arranged on British telephone dials. This
scheme is not the same as the one used in America, and was dropped in
the early 1970s when international direct dialling was being introduced.
The old British
scheme was like this:
4-GHI 5-JKL 6-MN 7-PRS 8-TUV 9-WXY 0-OQ
dialling a single zero in Britain does not reach the operator, operator
service is accessed by the code 100. Examples of telephones arranged
this way can be seen at:
In London it
was normal to dial three letters to select an area then a four digit
phone number within the area. The area names were often written in full
so, for example (and this shows how easy the numbers were to remember,
this springs instantly to mind after four decades), HUNter 1234 was the
pink paraffin (kerosene) sales office. Some of the names, such as ABBey
and GROsvenor were geographical, some were more to do with function:
SKYport was Heathrow Airport. However a few names were reserved for
other services, and this was the salvation of the playwrights. Dialling
TIMe gave the speaking clock, regardless of what was dialled after the
846 that represented the letters.
In a moment the
fictitious district of VINcent was born. Now the villain of a murder
mystery could have the telephone number VINcent 3426, and the
unfortunate individuals who tried to call him at the end of the show
simply found that they were met by the emotionless accuracy of "Twelve
thirty-one, precisely. Pip, pip, pip."
renumbering has done away with VINcent but the regulatory authority has
now dedicated some blocks of numbers for dramatic purposes. A full list
is on the web at:
In the USA the
block 555-0100 to 555-0199, combined with any area code, is reserved for
fictitious use. More information is available at:
are effectively reserved forever; a writer can use them for a fictional
character, safe in the knowledge that they will never be assigned to a
real phone. Now that you know this, you will keep recognising this block
of numbers when watching TV, but that's the price the gods demand of us
for our power as writers.
plates have the same problem. In the USA the tag 2GAT123 is reserved for
dramatic use, see:
In the UK there
does not seem to be a corresponding plate. However, if a UK registration
becomes extinct when a vehicle is scrapped it cannot normally be
resurrected. For this reason using (with the permission of the last
owner) the registration of a vehicle that has gone through the crusher
is possibly the safest approach.
protocol addresses - needed for websites and e-mail - can be faked in
several distinct ways. Internet protocol (IP) addresses are the numbers
that identify all the computers connected to the internet. Domain names,
which are often seen as the part of an e-mail address after the "@"
symbol, or the part of a URL after the "http://" and before the next
slash, are translated into numeric IP addresses by domain name servers,
specialised computers that are part of the Internet itself. This is the
Internet equivalent of looking up a number in a phone book.
An IP address
is written as four numbers like this: 22.214.171.124. However for
technical reasons all four numbers have to be in the range 0 to 255, and
the values 0, 1 and 255 are often unusable. The numbers entered by
Sandra Bullock in "The Net" (1995) are completely impossible.
ranges of numbers are effectively safe for dramatic use. These are
192.0.2.0 to 192.0.2.255 are reserved for examples in documentation and
cannot be allocated to real computers. The block 192.168.0.0 to
192.168.255.255 is reserved for private networks, so an address in this
range can exist, but will never be available over the public internet.
In the same way, the domain names example.com, example.net and
example.org are permanently reserved and will never be allocated. At the
next level, any domain ending in .test, .example, .invalid, or .localhost
is reserved for testing and documentation, and therefore should be safe
for use in fiction.
maps published by ordnance survey in the UK use a letter and figure code
for specifying grid references. For example my house is at SU844634. For
the full scheme see the leaflet that you can download at:
writer's point of view the convenient feature of the system is that it
doesn't use the letter I. The join between squares SH and SJ goes
through the middle of Rhyl in Wales, NH/NJ is near Findhorn in Scotland.
Any map reference beginning SI or NI is guaranteed not to exist. Prefix
letters other than N or S would be so obviously outside the country that
they might not be convincing.
This is only a
quick introduction to the art of being decisively inaccurate. It is now
up to you to find even more methods of being resoundingly unsound.