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I took Zoe to a swimming lesson today. We happened to see a friend, in the previous-but-one class, just finishing in the changing room as we arrived, which was a nice surprise. Then, when we arrived poolside, the group immediately before ours (parents with very young babies) was still in the pool, and Zoe pointed out one of the mothers, saying "She looks like you, Mummy." I agreed. Zoe kept looking at her in fascination, repeatedly telling me "She really looks like you, Mummy!"
She really did. It was slightly freaky, like when you catch sight of yourself in a mirror you didn't realise was a mirror - except it actually wasn't. The shape of her profile was very similar to mine as I've seen it in photos, and she was wearing her glasses in the pool, like I do, and they had purplish-red frames, like mine, and she was wearing a swimdress, like me and like maybe one other adult I've seen in a swimming pool ever (although hers was purple and mine was black and white).
Watching her for longer than a glimpse was quite strange too, because her mannerisms were also like mine. Her smiles were brief and kind of stilted-looking, which is how mine look when I see myself on video, and her mouth movements as she talked to her baby were kind of subdued and not very expressive, which is also how mine look on video.
(I don't think we were staring at her in a rude or weird way, FWIW. We were waiting on the poolside for our lesson to start, and the natural thing to do was to watch the group already in the pool; and I think we were far enough away, and the background was noisy enough, that she couldn't hear us talking about her.)
I caught her eye and smiled at one point, but didn't get to talk to her or anything. I've no idea if she also thought I looked like her.

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Because I successfully predicted Trump in August 2015, I want to make some more predictions.

* House prices will slump significantly over the next ten years, and the inflation-adjusted average price of a house in the UK in 2028 will be lower than it is now, maybe even quite a lot lower. This is because the baby boomers are occupying all the decent-sized family homes, which they bought for four shillings tuppence ha'penny in the 1960s. Over the next ten years a lot of them will die or move into retirement homes, and either their houses will go straight onto the market, or their children will move in and put the smaller house they had been squeezing their family into on the market.

* Bitcoin will continue to appreciate. It will finish 2018 at a higher value in USD[*] than it is now, and finish 2019 higher than that.

[*] and probably GBP too, but I'm sticking with USD to avoid having to take into account the effects of Brexit

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1. Exercise.
It's a massively cliche resolution, but in my case I've had nearly a year of avoiding gluten and feeling much better for it, but am now overdue to regain some of the fitness I've lost by not having the energy to do exercise for the last several years, and to build better habits.
I think bodyweight fitness (squats, planks, etc) is the best kind of exercise for me. I quite enjoy it, relatively speaking (by contrast, I loathe running). It's similar to gym weightlifting, which I did for a few months before getting too tired and quitting, but more convenient because you don't have to go to a specific place to do it (and can even do it while in charge of kids who are asleep or entertaining themselves). I've been sort of meaning for months now to start doing it regularly, but I keep forgetting, so I'm going to be more proactive about scheduling particular times for it and setting electronic reminders if necessary.
There's also a set of exercise classes which happen ridiculously close to my house on Thursday daytimes. There's t'ai chi, which is in the middle of Zoe's afternoon at nursery; yoga, which I can't do because it clashes with school and nursery pickup time; and pilates, which I can't usually do because it clashes with nursery dropoff time. So in theory I go to t'ai chi every week, but in practice I've had several tight freelance work deadlines over the last term and I often end up skipping it to get the work finished in time. For this coming term, I've arranged for Zoe to do one full day per week at nursery (and continue doing afternoons the other 4 days), and I picked Thursday to make it more feasible for me to make it to either t'ai chi or pilates every week.
I also might be able to do some fun kinds of exercise with Jacqueline now she's back in Cambridge. She's got a gym membership and wants to play badminton and squash with me.

2. Controlling my inner monologue.
I tend to mentally verbalise quite negative thoughts, semi-involuntarily, like "you're so annoying" or "stupid child" or "this is pointless". I sometimes tell myself I'm exaggerating or joking, but the truth is that the more I say these kind of things, the more true they become.
Sometimes I even verbalise the "wrong" negative thoughts, like if I involuntarily recall an embarrassing memory, rather than thinking "That's so embarrassing" or "I'm so embarrassed", I think "I'm bored" or "I want to go to bed". I've no idea why I do this, but I can imagine that frequently verbalising the latter thoughts could lead to an increase in actual boredom and tiredness.
I've sometimes made half-hearted attempts to avoid verbalising the negative thoughts and/or verbalise positive ones (or at least accurate negative ones) instead, but I've met with resistance and given up fairly easily; so I'm committing to trying harder and persisting for longer, and not giving up in the face of slow progress. I think taking control of my inner monologue like this might make me both happier and nicer.

3. Preparing for Christmas earlier.
I want to actively look out for Christmas presents for people all year, and to buy and start writing cards in November, in the hope that I can keep Advent for spiritual and emotional preparations rather than being too busy with practical ones.
I know I'm lucky in that we have family we can go to for Christmas so I've never had to actually host it, which would involve even more preparation; but I still feel the amount I do (including stuff related to events at school, nursery, and church) doesn't leave enough space for enjoying the season, so I want to get as much of it as possible done beforehand.

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I found a breakfast which fulfils all of: quick, tasty, filling, gluten-free, and doesn't taste like dinner.

1 banana, roughly mashed with a fork
2 tsp peanut butter
3-4 spoonfuls natural yogurt
Handful of dark choc chips
Roughly mix together.

It's verging on dessert, like chunky monkey ice cream, but the natural yogurt means it's not overly sweet for first thing in the morning. The effort is only fractionally more than putting cereal and milk in a bowl, so I tend to have this most mornings.

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The Martian - Andy Weir
Gripping story about an astronaut accidentally left behind alone on Mars, and his struggle for survival. It really is surprisingly gripping, given that the plot is basically "He's not going to make it. Wait, yes he is! Oh no, actually he's not. Oh, actually he is!" It's narrated in the first person, and the guy's writing style is very engaging, informal and snarky. It reminds me of Scott Alexander's style, in a way I can't quite articulate, but Alex said he saw what I meant.
The science feels realistic (although of course I'm not an expert). The technology, and its limitations and potential alternate uses, is a major part of the plot (and a lot of the appeal is seeing the wacky unintended uses it gets put to, out of necessity). I don't think we're told the exact date it's set, but it feels like a plausible near-future, with early manned missions to Mars using basically contemporary technology.
It's quite uplifting: not too deeply buried beneath the narrator's snark and cynicism is an inspiring determination and a refusal to give up hope.

After I've Gone - Linda Green
You know I wondered where all the "what if?" novels were? Well, this is one. The protagonist finds posts on her Facebook feed from eighteen months in the future, starting with her friends and family mourning her death. The posts also reveal that at the time of her death she was married, to a man she's only just met in the present, and they had a baby.
I think this book is more enjoyable if you just accept that it's a "what if?" premise. I spent the first several chapters not realising this and trying to figure out a plausible realistic explanation. The possibilities that someone is playing a prank, or that she is hallucinating the posts, soon become untenable, as the posts reveal things neither she nor anyone else could know in the present, but which later come to pass.
I really enjoyed the story. It's entertaining seeing her navigate the early stages of her relationship with this guy, who she really fancies, when she has good reason to believe they will get married and have a child, but she can't say anything to indicate that to him for fear of freaking him out. Later it becomes more sinister, as she suspects her impending death is not an accident, and tries to avert it; but, as is often the case in these kinds of stories, there is temporal inertia, and she has very limited power to change the way things turn out. There's a bit where she goes wedding-dress shopping with her mother-in-law-to-be, and sees the dress she recognises from the future wedding photos, and tries very hard to choose a different one, at the cost of an argument with the overbearing MiL, but circumstances cause her to end up with that dress anyway. The whole episode is very funny at a surface level, but also scary for her, because it reveals her inability to change the coming future.

99 Red Balloons - Elisabeth Carpenter
Psych thriller about a child abduction. It's very twisty, but the main revelation felt sort of unnecessary. It was a big and genuine "gasp, I never guessed that!" moment, but actually it didn't affect the story that much. It was just something the author withheld for no good reason. So the book was enjoyable to read, but kind of unsatisfying in hindsight.

The Couple Next Door - Shari Lapena
Another twisty psych thriller about a child abduction. A couple go next door for a dinner party. They leave their baby sleeping at home, but bring the baby monitor, which is within range, and take turns to check on her every half hour; but she goes missing. This is pretty good. I was surprised by a revelation about half way through which I wouldn't expect to come until right near the end, but the story still works after that, and doesn't lose suspense; there are more revelations to come, and there is still a huge tension around who to trust (and the baby is still missing).

The House - Simon Lelic
The premise of this is a little bit like The Girl Before. A house-hunting couple get a house at way below market rate, and the house is a bit creepy and they were apparently chosen to get it, and weird things start happening.
This is quite dark and scary, and has an incredibly evil character, I think even more evil than the villain of Behind Closed Doors.

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(Mainly for me to look back on in the future)

Hello, Mummy and Daddy, my clock says seven... one... three. The last two numbers vary slightly, but this is how we get woken up most days. It's like the speaking clock (or perhaps an early version of it which could only speak individual digits).
I'm very glad that she nearly always waits until after 7 before coming in (I think the fact that it's not "seven zero zero" every day means that she's actually waking up slightly after 7), and I'm very glad she no longer wakes us by lying in bed yelling MUMMY DADDY MUMMY DADDY until we get up and come in, like she did when she was a toddler.

Tickle me for ever and ever and never ever stop, and tickle me with both hands. This instruction is always verbatim. (Clearly, by the fact that I'm typing this, I haven't obeyed it literally; but she usually follows up with "stop!" a few seconds later.)

Squash in a sippy cup with a lid. This is Zoe's usual drink order. The wording doesn't vary, and she says it fast enough that if you weren't extremely familiar with it you might not be able to make out the words. She's capable of drinking from an open cup, and usually does so when she has milk or water, but still always asks for squash this way.

Dear Lord God, thank you for this day and this food and the birds that sing, amen. This is always Zoe's mealtime grace. I assume she got the bit about the birds from the one that goes Thank you for the birds that sing, thank you God for everything, where it was probably put in because it rhymed.


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The Sparrow - Mary Doria Russell

Apparently very highly regarded, but disappointing. Thought-provoking, but a lot of the thoughts it provoked were about what was wrong with it.

It was very slow-paced. It was told in two timelines: the discovery of an alien race and the planning and execution of the first-contact mission, in the 2010s, and the aftermath and discussion of what went wrong, in 2060. I think the book could have begun about halfway through, and been half as long. By halfway through the book, the mission hadn't launched yet in the 2010s timeline, and the guys in 2060 had hardly got anywhere in their investigation. The 2010s timeline was kind of worth reading anyway, because the characters were quite entertaining even when just sitting around having dinner parties; but the 2060 characters weren't.

The book was set in the late 2010s, i.e. now, but they had an active asteroid-mining industry, some kind of human settlement on Mars, and wood was so rare that it was illegal to burn it or build with it. I'm used to that sort of thing in sci-fi written in the 1950s, but this was published in 1997.

My first major complaint is that the aliens really weren't alien enough. They are bipeds, with two tool-using hands, eyes, and mouths. They have two sexes, and not only reproduce sexually (like, say, Earth plants do), but also have sexual arousal and non-procreative sex. They sleep, and they eat food made from plants and animals. Children are born and raised in families. The aliens communicate by speaking with their mouths, and their language fits recognisable Earth grammatical categories and yields to standard linguistic fieldwork techniques. (It's not that the step of learning each other's languages is skimmed over or just assumed to have happened. It is narrated in great detail, and seems realistic - just not alien enough.) The story could have worked, with relatively few changes, if it were about an undiscovered Polynesian tribe rather than beings from Alpha Centauri. There were a couple of moderately interesting cultural oddities - third-born children are marginalised and not permitted to have children of their own; the aliens don't use first-person pronouns but refer to themselves obliquely as "someone" - but nothing you wouldn't find in a human culture.

I've read some essays by Asimov where he rants about some of the sci-fi of his childhood in the 1930s which was just "westerns in space" - stories with the superficial trappings of sci-fi but which were fundamentally not sci-fi. I feel the same way about this book.

My second major complaint: Suppose you went to an alien planet and found a man - the sole survivor of the first-contact mission some years ago, and the only human on a planet of aliens - working in an alien brothel. (Yes, they have brothels, and yes, it is anatomically possible for a human to work in one. See "not alien enough".) Would you assume he was working there by choice for his own enjoyment, or that he was enslaved there? I would assume enslaved. But the crew of the second mission - and all the media on Earth when they get back, and basically every person on Earth - assume he's there because he's a debauched libertine, and they all condemn him for it. That just seems implausible to me. (Also, he's both heterosexual and vowed to celibacy. Even if he were both gay and known for shagging anything that moved, I'd still hesitate before thinking he was there by choice, but at least then it would be an explanation to even consider.) Then, a couple of pages from the end, in 2060, he reveals that he was enslaved and raped. Is it supposed to be a twist? Am I spoiling it by mentioning it here? Or is it supposed to be obvious to the reader but not to the characters for some reason? I'm not sure.

There is a lot of theology in this book. Most of the characters are Jesuits (along with a Jew and a couple of atheists). The Jesuits launch the mission, not specifically to preach to the aliens (I don't think they ever mention God to them), but "for the greater glory of God". The characters' religion is nuanced and questioning and not at all glib, which is a point in the book's favour. There were a lot of theological references, which as a Christian I found interesting, but someone uninterested in Christianity probably wouldn't.

The book deals with weighty theological questions, like "why does God allow suffering?" and "why does God seem to call people to a task and then allow it to go horribly wrong?" They are important questions, but I'm not sure this book adds anything to the last few thousand years of thought about them.

The Plot to Save Socrates - Paul Levinson

I'm afraid I gave up on this quite early on. (Although if anyone's read it and reckons it gets better, please let me know.)

It's a time travel story, which is usually a plus. But I really didn't like the way it was written. There was a lot of "As you know, Bob"-type expository dialogue. And the main character, although she's a grad student (why are time travel protagonists so often grad students? Making History, The Accidental Time Machine...), doesn't seem to be very intelligent, and needs her boyfriend to explain some of the basic implications of time travel to her.

I wonder if this was written by someone who had read a lot about Socrates but not much about time travel, and thought the time travel stuff would need spelling out to his readers? Or maybe he's just a bad writer.

Brilliance - Marcus Sakey

This was excellent - a breath of fresh air after a string of mediocre books.

It's set in the present, in an alternate reality in which, starting from 1980, a minority of kids were born with super-genius abilities and no one really knows why. Now the first generation are grown up and having dramatic effects on the status quo, and there is a lot of tension between them and normals. The normals are frightened, and introducing increasingly oppressive control measures, and the brilliants are worried and resentful, and some are turning to terrorism.
It's intelligently written and doesn't patronise the reader. There was a mini-twist about four pages in which I found pleasing.
There's an anti-hero, a lot of black-and-grey morality, high stakes, shifting loyalties and uneasy alliances, entertaining character interactions, Xanatos gambits, and edge-of-seat tension in the finale. Strongly recommended.

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The Ice Twins - S K Tremayne
This is about a couple who had 7-year-old twins and one died, and the family move to a remote spooky location, and the surviving twin starts claiming she's actually the other one.
It reminded me a bit of the Point Horror book Twins, which I read as a teenager. In that one, a teenage pair of twins switch identities for a day, for fun, but one of them (the more outgoing and popular one) dies during that day, and her shyer sister misses the first opportunity to come clean and then feels it's too late, so is stuck pretending to be her sister. Of course, The Ice Twins being an adult book, it's told from the POV of the parents rather than the twins.
The other thing it reminded me of was The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. I was never quite sure whether that was a ghost story or a psychological thriller, and I think that was deliberate on the author's part. This is similar: the setting is remote and creepy, and the mother has some psychological issues, and you're never quite sure what's real and what's her imagination (and, of course, neither is she). It's quite chilling, especially at the end.

The Things we Wish Were True - Marybeth Mayhew Whalen
This is good summer reading. Most of the plot takes place at a communal outdoor swimming pool over the course of one summer in North Carolina. Practically every page mentions the heat or sunscreen or similar.
It's about a group of people in the same neighbourhood and how their lives and pasts intersect. There are a lot of novels like that, and I often find them boring, and I can't quite put into words why I liked this one so much. It's uplifting, I'll say that much.

The Girl Before - J P Delaney
This is quite strange. It's about a house designed by, and belonging to, an eccentric and intense architect. He rents it out below market rate on condition that the tenants obey an exacting list of lifestyle restrictions.
The book tells, in parallel, the story of the current tenants, and the story of the girl who lived there before them and died in mysterious circumstances. The stories are quite similar and convergent, to the extent of being confusingly so in places. But overall it was an enjoyable thriller.

Guilty Innocence - Maggie James
I assume this was inspired by the Jamie Bulger case. A woman discovers that the man she's been dating was one of two boys convicted of killing a toddler when they were 11, having served his sentence and been given a new identity. The story is told from her POV and his, and deals with her struggle to reconcile the information with the loving man she knows, and her anger that he has this secret; and his feelings of guilt and of anxiety about whether they can have a future together.

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Little Boy Found - L K Fox
This starts with a man seeing his son being kidnapped, but it's revealed soon afterwards that the son has been gone for a year and the father is reliving the flashback. There's an interspersed story about a teenage girl with a dangerously obsessive crush on a local minor rock singer, and it's not at all obvious how these stories are related. The answer is extremely satisfying and twisty.

Before He Finds Her - Michael Kardos
This starts with a good hook: a blog post by an elderly, dying reporter who has been fascinated by an unsolved local murder for many years, and is disappointed that he might soon die without ever knowing the answer. His blogging style shows him to be a very likeable and engaging character. The case involved a man who killed his wife and disappeared with his 3-year-old daughter; the man and daughter were never found, and may or may not still be alive.
Then the narrative switches to Melanie, a teenage girl growing up with her very restrictive aunt and uncle, several years later. She simultaneously resents their overprotectiveness and understands the reasons for it, as they are trying to protect her from her father, who killed her mother and wants to find and kill her. It's obvious that she's the missing girl, and I don't think this is intended to be a secret from the reader.
But as she gets older she increasingly chafes against the restraints and wants a normal life, where she can go out with friends and appear in photos and have a social media presence; and she wants to find out the whole truth about what happened when she was three, and whether her father is really still out there. She runs away from home, and meets up with Arthur, the elderly reporter from the prologue. The relationship between them is entertaining, as she's young and naive, and he's a bit crusty and curmudgeonly, and she pretends to be older than she is and a reporter, and he sees right through her. Once he figures out who she is, he's very willing to help her, and they team up to solve the mystery, which is pleasingly convoluted.

He Said She Said - Erin Kelly
I bought this because it was by Erin Kelly, who is excellent. But it actually took a while to get going and become interesting, and I might not have persisted with it if I didn't already know and like the author. There's too much about Laura and Kit's present-day relationship - which is basically stable and loving, with some tension - before we get to the interesting thing that happened in their past. Before that, there are too many annoying half-hints and vague references to some past event and some present danger, but there are too many isolated pieces and they are too vague, so the effect was not to intrigue me and draw me in and make me want answers, but to make me think "meh, I can't even keep track of what the questions are."

(I wasn't sure whether to put the following paragraph in a spoiler cut or not. On one hand, it's information which the author has chosen to keep from the reader until about a third of the way through. On the other hand, I think the first third of the book would be more interesting and comprehensible with it.)
Spoiler-ishCollapse )

Spoilers for both of the last two books
Spoilers for both of the last twoCollapse )

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Silent Age is a great point-and-click adventure about time travel (not to be confused with Broken Age, which I didn't think much of).

It looks quite low-budget, and the dev team in the credits is small, with one person doing most of the design, writing and programming. It's partially voice-acted, which is unusual: conversations between the protagonist and other characters are voiced, but his reactions to player commands are just text. I suppose this is logical, because they're his thoughts rather than speech, but I haven't seen it before; I've only seen games which are fully voiced or not at all.

The plot is great, and, like many time-travel plots, fuelled late-night discussion.

The dialogue is OK, nothing special.

The puzzles are fun and entertaining. They are simpler than some, but surprisingly challenging given the nature of the game, which is very linear, with relatively small locations. The character discards most inventory items as soon as they've been used (even really useful-looking ones like knives and top-level security access cards), which means your inventory only ever has two or three things in it. Each new location is a new chapter in the game, and there's no going back to previous locations, so each chapter is almost like a locked-room puzzle: you know the solution has to be nearby. As a result, they haven't bothered to implement savegames: instead, once you've reached and unlocked a chapter, you may start from that chapter on a future occasion, and because the game is so linear, there's nothing you could have done in previous chapters to change the way later chapters play out.

The developers have thought about many of the incorrect things you might try, and given them custom responses, rather than a generic "That won't work", which is pleasing.

The puzzles really make use of time travel - like Day of the Tentacle, but in a different way. In DOTT you have three characters in three different time periods, who can send each other items, or strategically use items in one time period to affect a later time period. In Silent Age there's one character who can jump back and forth between the 1970s and the 2010s, so there's a bit of that as well, doing something in the past to have an effect in the future, but there's also a lot of actual time travelling, as opposed to remaining in one time for most of the game. He uses time travel as a way to escape danger, and he also uses the time dimension very much like an extra spatial dimension, allowing him to "go around" obstacles. If a door is locked in 1972, it might not be in 2012, so you jump forward, walk through the open door, and jump back.

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  • "it takes time to process the raw materials" - wants to insert an article before "time". Grammarly is generally rubbish at coping with article-less nouns, but this case is especially bad because "it takes time" is a common phrase.

  • "we are going against the direction of the arrow" - wants against->in, completely reversing the intended meaning.

  • its absorption spectrum has peaks - wants "has peaked".

  • A non-work example: "That's such a great idea to use cotton bud painting to practise holding a pen." wants "practice". A lot of its mistakes are egregious and funny, but that one is just bound to mislead its target market of people who aren't confident about difficult usage questions like practice/practise.

  • "A fixed asset is something a firm plans to keep for longer than one year" - wants "a firm plan". Not because it wants to treat a firm as a plural entity, but because it thinks we're talking about a plan which is firm. The expandable explanation box makes that clear.

  • "[The company] asked its employees to use the new shampoo, then complete a survey about it." -> wants "completed" (you need fairly subtle human semantic understanding to realise that the company didn't complete a survey, it asked the employees to complete one)

  • "Which Business Management tools did it use to come up with the number of 500,000 cars?" -> "Which did Business Management tools...?" Huh?

  • "Staff may be made redundant and spare land and capital can be reallocated or sold." -> wants comma after "land": staff may be made redundant and staff may spare some land?

  • "The heat given out was sufficient to turn the sand around the burning wells into glass." - wants "a glass". In the last instalment, scientific processes were spontaneously creating lamps (a blue light), and now they're creating tableware (a glass).

  • "If the temperature of a substance increases" - wants "substance increases" or "a substance increase". No idea why.

  • "This agreement, and its follow-up, can be regarded as the most successful example of international cooperation concerning an environmental problem seen to date." Wants to remove comma after "follow-up", and change "seen" to "is seen", making a complete mess.

  • "it speeds up the forward and reverse reactions equally." - wants "reverses" - I guess it speeds up "the forward", whatever that is, and also it reverses reactions equally.

  • "an ionic solid dissolves" - wants "dissolve" - thinks solid is an adjective and dissolve(s) is a noun.

  • "The company has added its own cafés, called Café W, to many of its stores" - wants to->too, presumably because it's looking at "to(o) many" and ignoring the whole rest of the sentence

And some more examples where it only considers an adjacent word or two and not the wider context:

  • "it would be wrong for an ice cream parlour to use normal averages to forecast its sales, because these change over the course of a year." -> wants "because of"

  • "This campaign seems designed to respond to the challenges all booksellers are facing with new competition from Amazon - wants to remove "with"

  • "the reaction will proceed to the right and reach equilibrium by producing more nitrogen(IV) oxide." - wants article before more

  • "All three could result in the experimental value being different to the theoretical value." - wants being->is

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