Reading Rolled Papyri

One of my favourite parts of my former role at the Bodleian Libraries was getting to work on exhibitions. Not just because it was varied and interesting work, but because it let me get up-close to remarkable artifacts that most people never even get the chance to see.

Miniature model of an exhibition space, constructed using painted blocks and laid-out on the floor of an exhibition space.
We also got to play dollhouse, laying out exhibitions in miniature.

A personal favourite of mine are the Herculaneum Papyri. These charred scrolls were part of a private library near Pompeii that was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. Rediscovered from 1752, these ~1,800 scrolls were distributed to academic institutions around the world, with the majority residing in Naples’ Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III.

Under-construction exhibition including a highly-reflective suit worn by volcano field researchers.
The second time I was in an exhibition room with the Bodleian’s rolled-up Herculaneum Papyri was for an exhibition specifically about humanity’s relationship with volcanoes.

As you might expect of ancient scrolls that got buried, baked, and then left to rot, they’re pretty fragile. That didn’t stop Victorian era researchers trying a variety of techniques to gently unroll them and read what was inside.

Blackened fragments of an unrolled papyrus.
Unrolling the scrolls tends to go about as well as you’d anticipate. A few have been deciphered this way. Many others have been damaged or destroyed by unrolling efforts.

Like many others, what I love about the Herculaneum Papyri is the air of mystery. Each could be anything from a lost religious text to, I don’t know, somebody’s to-do list (“buy milk, arrange for annual service of chariot, don’t forget to renew volcano insurance…”).1

In recent years, we’ve tried “virtually unrolling” the scrolls using a variety of related technologies. And – slowly – we’re getting there.

X-ray tomography is amazing, but it’s hampered by the fact that the ink and paper have near-equivalent transparency to x-rays. Plus, all the other problems. But new techniques are helping to overcome them.

So imagine my delight when this week, for the first time ever, a complete word was extracted from one of the carbonised, still-rolled-up scrolls from Herculaneum. Something that would have seemed inconceivable to the historians who first discovered and catalogued the scrolls is now possible, thanks to their careful conservation over the years along with the steady advance of technology.

Computer-assisted photograph showing visible letters on a rolled scroll, with highlighting showing those that can be deciphered, forming a word.
The word appears to be “purple”: either πορφύ̣ρ̣ας̣ (a noun, similar to how we might say “pass the purple [pen]” or πορφυ̣ρ̣ᾶς̣: if we can decode more words around it then it which might become clear from the context.
Anyway, I thought that was exciting news so I wanted to share.

Footnotes

1 For more-serious academic speculation about the potential value of the scrolls, Richard Carrier’s got you covered.

Miniature model of an exhibition space, constructed using painted blocks and laid-out on the floor of an exhibition space.× Under-construction exhibition including a highly-reflective suit worn by volcano field researchers.× Blackened fragments of an unrolled papyrus.× Computer-assisted photograph showing visible letters on a rolled scroll, with highlighting showing those that can be deciphered, forming a word.×

Absence/Presents

I’m probably not going to get you a Christmas present. You probably shouldn’t get me one either.

Dan, wearing an "elf costume" Christmas jumper, looks into the camera while cuddling a French Bulldog. The pair are sitting on a beige sofa.
All I need for Christmas is… a woolly jumper and a dog, apparently. (And I only need the latter if the goose doesn’t get delivered.)

If you’re one of my kids and you’ve decided that maybe my blog isn’t just “boring grown-up stuff” and have come by, then you’re one of the exceptions. Lucky you.

Children get Christmas gifts from me. But if you’re an adult, all you’re likely to get from me is a hug, a glass of wine, and more food than you can possibly eat in a single sitting.

Top-down view of a dining table set with a Christmas-themed tablecloth. The meal has concluded and the seats have been vacated, but large amounts of food - most of a turkey, half a nutloaf, lots of mashed potato, several sprouts, stuffing balls, and chestnuts, some roast potatoes and parsnips, an entire boat full of gravy, and almost a dozen Yorkshire puddings - are still set out.
Turns out the real meaning of Christmas was eating yourself into indigestion all along.

I’ve come to the conclusion – much later than my mother and my sisters, who were clearly ahead of the curve – that Christmas presents are for kids.

Maybe, once, Christmas presents were for adults too, but by now the Internet has broken gift-giving to the extent it’s almost certainly preferable for me and the adults in my life if they just, y’know, order the thing they want than hoping that I’ll pick it out for them. Especially as so many of us are at a point where we already have a plethora of “stuff”, and don’t want to add to it unnecessarily at a time of year when, frankly, we’ve got better things to spend our time and money on.

Dan, wearing a Princess Twilight Sparkle / Frank Herbert's Dune crossover fan art t-shirt, sits on a grey sofa in front of a lit Christmas tree, holding a glass of wine. At the other end of the sofa JTA, a white man with a thick beard and glasses, reads to a (tired-looking) young boy. All three are surrounded by books.
I’ll still be participating fully in my household‘s “book exchange” Christmas Eve tradition, though, because it’s awesome.

Birthdays are still open season, because they aren’t hampered by the immediate expectation of reciprocity that Christmas carries. And I reserve the right to buy groups of (or containing) adults gifts at Christmas. But individual adults aren’t getting one this year, and they certainly shouldn’t feel like they need to get me anything either.1

I don’t know to what extent, if at all, Ruth and JTA will be following me in this idea, so if you’re somebody who might have expected a gift from or wanted to give a gift to one of them… you’re on your own; you work it out!

Here’s to a Merry Christmas full of presents for children, only!

Footnotes

1 If you’ve already bought me a gift for Christmas this year… firstly, that’s way too organised: you know it’s only October, right? And secondly: my birthday’s only a couple of weeks later…

Dan, wearing an "elf costume" Christmas jumper, looks into the camera while cuddling a French Bulldog. The pair are sitting on a beige sofa.× Top-down view of a dining table set with a Christmas-themed tablecloth. The meal has concluded and the seats have been vacated, but large amounts of food - most of a turkey, half a nutloaf, lots of mashed potato, several sprouts, stuffing balls, and chestnuts, some roast potatoes and parsnips, an entire boat full of gravy, and almost a dozen Yorkshire puddings - are still set out.× Dan, wearing a Princess Twilight Sparkle / Frank Herbert's Dune crossover fan art t-shirt, sits on a grey sofa in front of a lit Christmas tree, holding a glass of wine. At the other end of the sofa JTA, a white man with a thick beard and glasses, reads to a (tired-looking) young boy. All three are surrounded by books.×

Weird A.I. Yankovic, a cursed deep dive into the world of voice cloning

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

In the parallel universe of last year’s Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, Dr. Demento encourages a young Al Yankovic (Daniel Radcliffe) to move away from song parodies and start writing original songs of his own. During an LSD trip, Al writes “Eat It,” a 100% original song that’s definitely not based on any other song, which quickly becomes “the biggest hit by anybody, ever.”

Later, Weird Al’s enraged to learn from his manager that former Jackson 5 frontman Michael Jackson turned the tables on him, changing the words of “Eat It” to make his own parody, “Beat It.”
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This got me thinking: what if every Weird Al song was the original, and every other artist was covering his songs instead? With recent advances in A.I. voice cloning, I realized that I could bring this monstrous alternate reality to life.

This was a terrible idea and I regret everything.

Everything that is wrong with, and everything that is right with, AI voice cloning, brought together in one place. Hearing simulations of artists like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Kurt Cobain singing Weird Al’s versions of their songs is… strange and unsettling.

Some of them are pretty convincing, which is a useful and accessible reminder about how powerful these tools are becoming. An under-reported story from a few years back identified what might be the first recorded case of criminals using AI-based voice spoofing as part of a telephone scam, and since then the technology needed to enact such fraud has only become more widely-available. While this weirder-than-Weird-Al project is first and foremost funny, for many it foreshadows darker things.