More Bits and Bobs

Here are a few more miscellaneous items which I squirreled away as I saw them, some as long ago as 2018.  I thought that I would delve into these further, but I never did.  Now that people are deleting their Twitter accounts, it’s worthwhile to preserve some of these.

Ancient books were written on rolls of papyrus.  These were naturally piled end on, so there was a need to know what was in each roll without pulling it out and unrolling it.  The answer was to glue a parchment tag on the end, which hung down and had the books title on it.  Rather like the spine of a modern book.  This was called a “sillybos” – spelling varies – and the British Library has some.  The attached article is also very good.

@BLMedievalRare survival of an ancient ‘library tag’ from a 1,800-year-old private library (Papyrus 2056). In ancient libraries, titles were put on hanging leather labels attached to papyrus scrolls.  See here.

There’s a translation of The Life of Symeon the Holy Fool by Leontius of Neapolis, and it is online in an awkward format:

Jonathan Parkes Allen (@Mar_Musa): The late antique Life of St. Symeon the Holy Fool, which would help provide a paradigm for early modern holy fools, is the subject of a wonderful study by Derek Krueger (which includes a translation of the Life), available as a free e-book.

From Twitter here, linking to a now vanished website here.  This made the interesting claim that:

Most of the popular myths about the origins of Halloween can be traced back to two nineteenth century British authors: Sir John Rhys and Sir James Frazer, who speculated about connections between Halloween and pagan Celtic rituals.

Someone has produced a tiny pocket-book paperback of the Psalms from the Vulgate, which fits in the palm of your hand.  It’s a trivial price, and available from Lulu here.

Ever come across the “peg-calendars” of antiquity, where a piece of wood went in to mark the day?

@TimeTravelRomeThis is a parapegma – a Roman timekeeping device showing days of the lunar calendar, market “nundinal” days, and “regular” planetary weekdays.

The “Infancy Gospel of James” was in the news in 2018:

Tuomas Levänen @TuomasLevanen: Brand new public domain translation of “Infancy Gospel of James” by Mattison – I guess we blame M.R.James for James instead of Jacob.  Here.

Photographs of inscriptions are ever-useful:

Dr Chris Naunton @chrisnaunton: Fitting to end a trip down the Nile visiting ancient monuments with this graffito inscribed on the inner walls of the gateway of Hadrian at #Philae: the last known inscription in hieroglyphs. It dates to 394 by which time #Egypt, under the Romans’, had largely become Christian.

The Roman Society made their publications freely accessible:

Roman Society @TheRomanSoc: Great news! Most of our monographs can now be downloaded for free. The Britannia series is here and the JRS series here Happy reading!

One of the many losses of the Thirty Years War was the library of Lorsch, founded in the Dark Ages and full of important stuff.  Fortunately the loot was carried to Heidelberg, and formed part of the settlement of the war.  Much of it ended up in the Vatican.  The Bibliotheca Laureshamensis Digital team have been trying to reunite the other scattered books through a virtual library.  Sadly the Tertullian of Lorsch seems to be gone for good.

Just because we have artefacts in a museum does not mean that we see them even as the excavators did:

Lisa Brody @LR_Brody: Even the extraordinary amount of pigment preserved on the sculpture from Dura can be better understood through copies made in the field by Herbert Gute. All excavation archives available at Artstor’s Shared Shelf Commons.  Link.

There’s lots more in my folder, but that’s probably enough for now!  My thanks to all those who freely shared their knowledge online.


Does Jerome say that Christians need never shower again after baptism?

Some websites claim that Jerome said that after being baptized you didn’t need to take a shower ever again.  For instance this website states:

In fact, the association between the bath and baptism was so strong that some Christians, like the particularly grumpy St Jerome, argued that once you’d been baptised you didn’t need to bathe. Like Ever. Again. (The jury is still out on whether he actually thought this or it was just a useful strategy as a hermit to keep all those pesky followers away.)

So…. did he say this?

Well… sort of.  The source is Jerome, Letter 14 (To Heliodorus, on the ascetic life), chapter 10.  His correspondent was in danger of giving up.  Jerome writes:

How long shall the smoky prison of these cities shut you in? Believe me, I see something more of light than you behold. How sweet it is to fling off the burden of the flesh, and to fly aloft to the clear radiance of the sky ! Are you afraid of poverty? Christ calls the poor blessed. Are you frightened by the thought of toil? No athlete gains his crown -without sweat. Are you thinking about food? Faith feels not hunger. Do you dread bruising your limbs worn away with fasting on the bare ground? The Lord lies by your side. Is your rough head bristling with uncombed hair? Your head is Christ. Does the infinite vastness of the desert seem terrible ? In spirit you may always stroll in paradise, and when in thought you have ascended there you will no longer be in the desert.  Is your skin rough and scurfy without baths ? He who has once washed in Christ needs not to wash again. Listen to the apostle’s brief reply to all complaints: ‘The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall come after them, which shall be revealed in us.’ You are a pampered darling indeed, dearest brother, if you wish to rejoice here with this world and afterwards to reign with Christ.  (Jerome, Select Letters, Loeb Classical Library, p.51)

The crucial bit in Latin:

Scabra sine balneis adtrahitur cutis? sed qui in Christo semel lotus est, non illi necesse est iterum lavare.

I’ve used the older Loeb translation here, but there is a ACW translation, marred by having too many section numbers of various kinds.  This renders it:

Is your skin made scabrous without baths? But he who is once washed in Christ need not wash again. (p.69)

This helpfully supplies John 13:10 as the passage that Jerome has in mind:

Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. (ESV)

Dicit ei Jesus: Qui lotus est, non indiget nisi ut pedes lavet, sed est mundus totus.(Vulgate)

Jesus saith to him: He that is washed, needeth not but to wash his feet, but is clean wholly. (Douai)

So… the claim is literally true, but it’s not a considered theological claim that Jerome is making here.  It’s an off-the-cuff remark in a different context.  The would-be ascetic is missing the public baths.  Jerome invokes, slightly trickily, the authority of Jesus.


Why we should use Latin spellings of Greek names

A twitter thread by @EzhmaarSul from June 11, 2023, made some interesting points about the use in English of spellings like “Nikaia” rather than “Nicaea”. Few will have seen it, and I’ve never seen another public discussion of the subject.  So let’s give it a bit more visibility.

It went as follows:

Something I really hate about modern amateur historians (and which will leak into the professional class as these amateurs achieve doctorates) is the mixing of Greek and Latin spellings of Greek names. I’ve fallen prey to the same because of the ubiquity of amateur historians.

It starts with people wanting to use phonetic spellings of closer to the original Greek.

This urge comes from a deranged, nerdish desire to “well actually” people through text. Not as malicious as BCE, but coming from an adjacent place in petty souls.

“It’s Nikaia, not Nicaea!”

Not only does this look ugly and wrong in modern English, which is based on Latin rules of spelling and grammar, but it betrays a certain philistinism.

Greeks don’t use our alphabet! You’re broadcasting to us, “I don’t know how to pronounce this unless I spell it wrong.”

This also screws up scholarship. We have centuries of scholarship referring to Alexius Comnenus and John Palaeologus. Then along comes some redditor-turned-PHD writing about “Alexius Komnenos” and “Ioannes Palaiologos.”

And they invariably f**k it up.

“Oh Theodoros is obviously Theodore, so I’ll call him Theodore Laskaris in my paper… but Ioannes is exotic! I’ll call him Ioannes even though everyone recognizes it’s the Greek version of ‘John.’”

Don’t get me started on “Constantine.”

Just stick with the Latin and Anglophone spellings, you buffoons.

I think the author has a point. It does look hideous.  It does create a barrier.  It makes Greek history look barbarous.

There is a definite tendency among elites to create barriers for others in order to advance themselves, to order others around while feeling smug.  How else did we end up with printed Latin texts where the useful modern separation of consonant and vowel, of “i”/”j” and “u”/”v”, was actually and deliberately abandoned?  So… I rather agree.


New(ish) Patristic Blog – The Three Pillars

I’ve just become aware of a blog that started in 2021 called The Three Pillars.  It’s written by Scott Cooper, another layman like myself.  The blog is devoted to church history stuff, just as I do here.  It’s very nice to see a new blog in this space!

Recent posts include:

The first of these is an extremely interesting experiment.  The author modestly confesses that he has almost no Latin, so it must have taken some courage to venture out there and have a go!   What he has done is to get the Latin text, and translate it bit by bit using ChatGPT.  This he is controlling using Google Translate.  The output is in two columns, Latin on the left, English on the right, so be aware of this if you are viewing it on a handheld mobile device.

I’ve only glanced at a few lines, but it’s not bad at all; certainly better than no translation at all.   Fascinating!

One glitch that happens in Google Translate is that it omits a clause; but using two services should catch that.  I would imagine that over time the author will find his Latin improving enormously, just as mine did back in the late 90s.

Great stuff!


Why Minucius Felix is later than Tertullian

The “Octavius” of Minucius Felix is one of the most attractive works of early Latin Christianity.  It features three friends going to the baths at Ostia, when one of them kisses his hand to a statue of Serapis.  Reproved by the other, the three settle down to debate the merits of paganism and Christianity.  There is a lovely translation included in the Loeb Tertullian volume.

The “Octavius” is preserved in a 9th century manuscript of the work of Arnobius the Elder against the pagans.  This manuscript is now in Paris, where it is BNF lat. 1661, and online.  In this manuscript, Minucius Felix appears without identification as “book 8”.  It would appear that, when Arnobius was copied from a collection of scrolls into a parchment codex, the modern book form, the scribe found an extra roll in the box.  Presuming that it belonged with the rest, he copied it too.

Here’s the beginning of the work, on f.162r:

BNF lat. 1611, f.162r (excerpt): the beginning of Minucius Felix “Octavius”, under the title of book 8 of Arnobius.

and here’s the end on folio 190r.

There is no external evidence as to when Minucius Felix wrote.  The Quod idola dii non sint attributed to Cyprian makes extensive use of it, or so I understand; but this work itself may not be authentic.  If it is, it perhaps dates to 248-9, after Cyprian’s conversion and before his ordination.[1].

But the really thorny question is whether the work is considerably earlier.  Is it, in fact, second century, dating to 150 AD or later?  Or is it later than Tertullian, whose Apologeticum is securely dated to 197 AD?  For quite a large chunk of material that appears in Tertullian’s Apologeticum also appears in Minucius Felix.

As long ago as 2001, I wrote a page online with whatever quotes on the date of the work I could find.  It is still here.  The tendency was to place Minucius Felix later.  Tertullian makes the same arguments in his earlier Ad Nationes, but extends them in the Apologeticum.  It is hard to think that Tertullian borrowed some of Minucius Felix in his first work; and then went back and borrowed some more in the second!

But the classic discussion is in C. Becker, Der “Octavius” des Minucius Felix, (1967), p.74–97.  I have a feeling that many anglophone scholars have rather shied away from a volume of German.  Indeed I have myself not felt any urge this evening to go through 25 pages of German.

Fortunately T. D. Barnes summarises the key points for us, in a review of M. Edwards, M. Goodman, S. Price and C. Rowland, “Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity” in Phoenix 55 (2001), pp.142-162 (JSTOR).  On p.150-1 we read (paragraphing mine):

Price reverts to the untenable view that Minucius Felix wrote his Octavius in the late second century before Tertullian (p.111-112). He makes it transparently clear that he has either not read Carl Becker’s proof that Minucius Felix copies Tertullian or not understood the force of Becker’s arguments when he asserts  “‘parallels’ cannot establish the priority of either author” (112).

That observation applies only to cases where priority is inferred from a comparison of two texts or authors without any external control.

But Becker did not merely compare the two Christian writers with each other. He first analysed how Minucius Felix adapts Plato, Cicero’s De natura deorum and Seneca (1967: 10-74); only then did he turn to the relationship between Minucius Felix and Tertullian in order to show that the former adapts the latter in exactly the same way as he adapts Plato, Cicero, and Seneca and, furthermore, that in some passages he has combined his Christian model with his pagan sources (1967: 74-97).

It was the introduction of Plato, Cicero, and Seneca into the argument that provided undeniable proof of the priority of Tertullian – as Becker himself explicitly observed (1967: 79-80, 90, 94).

To paraphrase, Minucius is adapting material from Plato, Cicero, and Seneca in a very particular way.  The “parallel” material, taken from Tertullian, relates to the text of Tertullian in the same manner as his excerpts from Plato / Cicero / Seneca relate to the original text of Plato / Cicero / Seneca .  Indeed he is combining Tertullian with these pagan writers.  Tertullian on the other hand is simply writing what he wants to say, and is adapting nobody.

  1. [1]Geoffrey D. Dunn, “References to Mary in the writings of Cyprian”, in: Papers Presented at the Fourteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies Held in Oxford 2003, vol. 4 (2006), p.371.  Preview.

Bits and Bobs and Asset Strippers in Libraries

I’ve been away on holiday in York.  It was very grey and rained a lot of the time. But I stayed in a hotel in a very central location and I enjoyed myself anyway.  One day I went up onto the city walls, using the stairs at the medieval gateway named Mickelgate Bar.  I walked around a section, and came down in front of the Yorkshire Museum, from where the photograph at the end was taken.

Various items came to my attention while I was away.  Naturally I ignored them.  Only a fool picks up email while on holiday.  Burnout is a real risk for people of our sort, so we really must take our holidays.  Likewise if you wrote to me, pardon my failure to respond.

But here’s a couple of them.

The first of these was a set of Unicode fonts for Old Slavonic.  Here’s a screen grab of the website,

By coincidence I also learned of the Brill fonts.  These are commercial fonts, designed by that publishing house to give a common appearance to their books.  They are of interest because they implement a lot of odd characters useful to manuscript researchers.  They are free for non-commercial use.

I also managed to get banned from Twitter for a week.  Once more onto the naughty step, dear friends.  It’s about the third time now, in each case because I made an off-the-cuff humorous reply to something which their censor-bot didn’t like.  So I have ended up browsing my old Mastodon account instead. I was also able to create a Bluesky account, although I have yet to work out how to feed my posts there.  Twitter gets a lot of bad press these days, but most of this seems to be politically motivated.  All the same I’m rather in favour of dispersing social media among more than one site, to be honest.

But in the process I came across a truly interesting and perceptive article by Cory Doctorow on just why sites like Facebook, Google, Amazon, are getting steadily worse and worse to use.  It appeared in January, but was reposted in Wired, and it clearly struck a chord with others.  It is unfortunate that the author gave it a coarse title: Tiktok’s enshittification.

Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.


We might think that this process will not affect the world of academia.  But we would be wrong. For this very morning I found another article, by Karawynn Long, on how precisely the same process is now affecting public libraries in the US and Canada: The Coming Enshittification of Public Libraries: Global investment vampires have positioned themselves to suck our libraries dry.

Ignore the first four paragraphs.  The next few summarise the Doctorow article.  But then… it gets interesting.

Well, if you use a public library in the United States or Canada, and you ever access their ebooks or audiobooks, you’re almost certainly familiar with the OverDrive platform or its mobile app Libby.  That’s because OverDrive, a private corporation, has a monopoly on managing the availability and distribution of ebooks and audiobooks for government-funded public libraries in North America. …

I saw that in June 2020, OverDrive was sold to global investment firm KKR…

Even in the world of investment capital, where evil is arguably banal, KKR is notoriously vile. They are the World Champions of Grabbing All The Money And Leaving Everyone Else In The Shit.

“In the popular imagination, private equity is often portrayed as a vulture, or some other scavenger that feasts on the sick and dying,” writes Hannah Levintova in Mother Jones. “But the bulk of the work done by modern-day private equity firms is not to finish off sick companies, but rather to stalk and gut the healthy ones.”

Calling them “vampire capitalists” would be more accurate.

Enshittified platforms are not an accidental outcome; they are just one of the inevitable dessicated corpses the vampires leave behind.

And these vampire capitalists currently have a chokehold on the digital catalogs of the public library systems of North America.

Again, if you can wade through the article, it will be enlightening.  The term “enshittification” seems to have caught on, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it starts to shape policy.

Anyway, enough about boring stuff.  Here’s my photograph of the splendour of York Minster!

View of York Minster

Archivo Pertzii??

Here’s a reference guaranteed to waste the time of a researcher.  It’s from the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina:

This is some miracle material associated with the abbey of Brauweiler.  But… what is “Archivo Pertzii”?? I did find out, but it was enough work that I thought I’d put up a blog post, in case I forget and need to google it again.

At the moment, a google search points you right back to the BHL, seemingly the only publication in all history to know of this source.

The italics on Archivo are the key; clearly it’s the abbreviated title of a journal.  I know that German publications often referred to the editor of a journal, especially if he was someone famous, so “Pertzii” is probably the editor.  But you may search for “Archivo” as long as you like.  It’s bad enough with Google.  Imagine the bafflement of a 20th century researcher without it!

I tried “Pertzius”, and kept reading results, and this gave me what I needed.  Apparently this is Georg Heinrich Pertz, whoever he might have been.

I found that he edited the last volume, volume 12, of the “Archiv der Gesellschaft für Ältere Deutsche Geschichtkunde zur Beförderung einer Gesammtausgabe der Quellenschriften deutscher Geschichten des Mittelalters”.  So the “Archivo” is just a Latin ablative of the real name “Archiv”.  The BHL, in translating it into Latin, managed to obscure the sense completely.

Just to make it better, Pertz only edited some volumes.  It wasn’t his “Archiv” anyway.

The journal is online at, which has a useful page for the whole serial here, but a rather awkward interface to download any of it.  I ended up downloading the 9 pages individually and combining them locally. Then I found there was a button for “PDFs for individual items”, which I struggled with and finally got the same chunk in one file.  Why you can’t just download the volume I can’t imagine.  But I think this is teething troubles.  The site otherwise seemed well organised.

There is another copy online, at, here.  But I only found this after more effort.


A new use for the parallel Latin translations in the Patrologia Graeca

Now that we have a very effective Latin translation in Google translate, it occurs to me that we can also use this to read a great deal of patristic Greek.  For as we all know, the Greek fathers were all translated into Latin at the renaissance and after, and were nearly always printed with parallel Latin translation, right the way down to the 19th century.

The obvious example of this is Migne’s Patrologia Graeca, our standard reference collection of texts.  It’s never been worth transcribing the Latin side.  But maybe now it is, just as a reading aid for those of us without fluent Greek?

This isn’t a new situation, in a way.  Indeed the reason why all these Latin translations even exist at all, is that knowledge of Greek was always rarer than fluency in Latin.  The translations are not always reliable; but something is better than nothing.

On the other hand it won’t be all that easy to OCR the Latin of Migne…

An excerpt from PG volume 78, column 226, a letter of Isidore of Pelusium in the Migne edition.

The low quality of Migne’s printing is something that we have all struggled with.

But there are workarounds.  The last time that I needed to OCR the Latin of Migne, I went and found the edition that he was reprinting on Google Books.  This, needless to say, was far better printed, and created many fewer errors in Finereader 15.

So it is possible, and it’s worth bearing in mind if we need to work with a large patristic text for which no modern translation exists.  Spend some time creating an electronic text of the Latin translation, and push it through Google Translate!

Update (5 Aug 2023): Note that it is actually possible to copy the OCR’d text from Google books itself, for both the Greek and Latin sides in the PG.  Go to the page in question.  Hit the cut-and-paste icon so it goes dark grey, then drag a rectangle over the area that you want to copy the text from. As you release the mouse, a dialogue will pop up, and the text is in the top box. It looks as if its monotonic for Greek. The results are quite respectable.


The Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources

A few minutes ago I learned of a marvellous project to create the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources (DMNES).  This is under development, although a lot now exists, but a blog is available, and is itself a rather wonderful thing:

The dictionary aims to contain all given (fore, Christian) names recorded in European sources written between 600 and 1600, minus the names of historical/non-contemporary people, and names occurring only in fictional literature or poetry.

I came across the blog while attempting to translate BHL 6177, the Miracles of St Nicholas at Angers.  This contains the following paragraph:

4. Contigit igitur in una sollemnitatum, quam supra diximus, ad excubias sancti viri nonnullos decubare infirmos et debiles, inter quos puer unus erat, Brientius nomine, qui ab ipsa fere materna alvo contractus, a renibus videlicet infra membrorum omnium officio destitutus, a quodam Britanniae pago, qui Sanctus Briuntius dicitur, ortus, ad Andegavensem usque devectus fuerat urbem.

It happened, therefore, during one of the solemnities which we have mentioned above, that, at the vigils of the holy man some sick and feeble men were lying down, among whom was a boy, named Brientius, who was almost crippled in the womb by the mother herself, that is to say, deprived of the service of all his limbs by his kidneys, and, born in certain district in Britannia named Sanctus Briuntius, he had been carried as far as the city of Angers

Not being familiar with the period, I am relying heavily on Google to understand the names!

But who or what is “Brientius”?  It’s a name from Britannia, which is Britain, of course, although it’s strange that they do not say “England” (would it be “Anglia”?).  The lad comes from somewhere called “Sanctus Briuntius,” wherever that might be.  It all sounds a bit Welsh, or Cornish.

But a google search revealed this article from the DMNES on the blog.  The name turned out to be Breton!  The vernacular form is “Brient”, and this is turned into a French form “Briant,” which I seem to remember from King Arthur literature when I was little, from the 12th century onwards.

A look at the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources at Logeion reveals that indeed “Britannia” can mean Brittany!  Even better, the comments on the article were wonderfully learned and beautifully referenced.  This was incredibly useful, for I who knew none of them.  From this I learn that “Brient” is Old Breton, and might mean “free man.”

I’m still at a loss for the village or district, “Sanctus Briuntius”, but I’m far further forward than I was.

Truly we live in days of miracles and wonders.

Bibliotheque Nationale Francais, MS. lat. 12611, folio 73r: an excerpt showing our passage.

Is it a waste of time for us to make translations of ancient texts?

Earlier this evening I was working away on a translation of one of the medieval St Nicholas miracle stories, BHL 6177, the “Miracles at Angers”.  I was using Google translate on the Latin text, which was producing some very decent quality outputs.  Then I was checking and correcting it.  It did indeed need correcting, but it’s mostly right and far faster than sitting there doing it manually.

A little while later I had a play with Bard, Google’s AI product.  (It would have been ChatGPT but this demanded an alarming amount of personal information.)  I asked the prompt if it could translate ancient Greek, and it said that it could, including whole documents; but it might not be perfect just yet, but was improving.

So I tried it out with a chunk from the Greek Anthology, which it rendered into English; but I realised afterwards that this probably just retrieved a pre-existing translation.  Then I went to Ulrich Harsch’s useful site – which Google downvotes because he hasn’t implemented the latest https – and found a page on George of Pisidia here.  This began:

Γεώργιος Πισίδης, διάκονος καὶ ποιητὴς ἐν Κωνσταντινουπόλει, ἐγένετο περὶ τὸ ἔτος 580, ἐτελεύτησε περὶ τὸ ἔτος 634, εὑρετὴς τῶν στίχων δωδεκασυλλάβων.

So I put in “translate the following ancient greek into English:” and then the Greek.  The result was:

George of Pisidia, deacon and poet in Constantinople, was born around the year 580, died around the year 634, inventor of the twelve-syllable lines.

That’s very reasonable.  I then asked it a second time whether it could translate ancient Greek.  This time I got a rather different reply, and much more bullish:

Yes, I can translate ancient Greek. I have been trained on a massive dataset of text and code, including ancient Greek texts. I can translate ancient Greek into English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and many other languages. I can also translate ancient Greek into modern Greek.

I am still under development, but I am able to translate ancient Greek with a high degree of accuracy. I can translate simple sentences, as well as more complex passages. I can also translate ancient Greek poetry and literature.

If you have an ancient Greek text that you would like me to translate, please feel free to share it with me. I will do my best to provide you with an accurate and informative translation.

But …. I just pasted in a chunk from Arethas of Caesarea on Romans here – I’m pretty sure that there’s no English translation of that! – and it just echoed the text.  So… in fact it’s not there yet.  But it’s food for thought.

But how many of us even understand what these things are doing?   A web search was clear enough – just collect URL’s and make a list of words and topics.

But AI?  Well, as I understand it, these “generative AI” products are basically a chat-bot on the front of a “large language model” (LLM).  An LLM is a “next word predictive engine”, apparently.  So basically some code for pattern recognition on the front of a search engine; indeed pre-loaded with a lot of text to search from the web.  The AI generative image makers do much the same, apparently.

The amount of hype and exaggeration around “AI” is staggering, as it is with every new fad, but it is not magic.  In IT “it” is never magic.  If you think “it” is magic, then you don’t understand “it”.  Everything is ones and zeros and lumps of metal and silicon.  The rest is attempts to sell stuff.

Now I don’t fully understand it.  But it did set me to wondering about whether I am wasting my time.  For it wouldn’t be the first time that technology has rendered my work useless.

When I came online originally, I was scanning existing English translations of ancient texts and putting these online.  Bandwidth was low, and text-only pages were the only way to get stuff online.  I did so for some years, until the technology rendered it pointless.   Bandwidth became enormous, so file size didn’t matter.  The PDF arrived, with exact images of the book pages.  OCR improved, so the PDF was searchable.  Google Books came along, with every book under the sun prior to 1923, all freely downloadable.  I haven’t done any more since then.  There’s no point.  I don’t regret doing it, but … in a way it was wasted effort.

Since then I’ve concentrated on texts for which no translation exists.  At one time I commissioned these.  Now that I am retired, I sit here and make my own.

But again the technology is taking this away.  Is there any point in an amateur like myself labouring over a Latin text, with my limited Latin, to produce an awkward translation if Google Translate can do it in an instant, and be pretty nearly “good enough”?

Prior to January 2022, the question was academic.  Google Translate was rubbish for Latin.  And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.  In fact it could make sense of sentences better than I could.  I can polish the result, and correct minor errors, and do something worthwhile; but basically it is doing the job.  Furthermore, it is quite likely to improve further.

So I’m getting this feeling of dejà vu.  Is there any point?  I’m not sure, and I’m not going to stop right now, if only because I’m still enjoying it.  But it is food for thought.

The world-wide web is a very different place from what it was.  One horrible aspect of the new craze for “AI” is that, for the first time, the products are commercial.  You have to pay to use them.

This is a novelty, and an unwelcome one.  It marks a big shift from the free, open internet that we have had until now.  Bye-bye the internet to which I contributed, where it was expected to be free.  No longer.  Worse yet, those who contributed freely find their work turned against them.

I saw this evening a report that StackOverflow, the computer programmers’ forum site, has lost 50% of its traffic.  The bots hoovered up all the replies to technical questions, shared freely by ordinary people, out of the kindness of their hearts, and embedded them in new tools like GitHub Copilot.  This, needless to say, is a commercial product.  And it’s killing the original site.

Will the internet change, until we have to pay for everything, via a million subscriptions?  It is beginning to look like it.

The new AI is also biased in various directions, probably for commercial reasons, certainly in line with horrible American politics, but also simply in selecting what some corporation wants us to see.  That corporation wants us to see “important stuff”.  They decide what is important.

For instance, if you type into Google search “Who is Roger Pearse”, you get some rubbish at the top about some “Roger Pearce”, selected by Google; but then you get stuff from my blog, and material by me.  My name is not common, and I write on a specialised subject, and have done so for 24 years.  In a fair and level internet, I would naturally appear.

The same query in Bard AI produces “I’m designed solely to process and generate text, so I’m unable to assist you with that.”  Which is not too bad, except that, if I repeat this for public figures, like “Joe Biden”, I get an article back.  A source is given, which is – of course – Wikipedia.

Indeed if I ask “Who was Petrus Crabbe”, a very obscure figure, it begins with the text mainly from the Wikipedia article.  I myself wrote this article, in a moment of madness, so I know just what is on the web about him.  Bard AI is using Wikipedia plus one other source linked from it.  No doubt ChatGPT is doing the same.  But I don’t think that ChatGPT intends to send any money to me in return for my generous efforts.

So AI is only returning “important people”.  In this case it is defined as people for whom there is a Wikipedia article.  I do not have an article about me in that toxic hell-site, nor do I wish to.  Of course if you asked someone in the national television industry who Roger Pearse is, they would have no idea.  But… the practical effect of the coding around AI is to reduce the information, to only “approved sources”, to only “important people”.

Yet originally the web was a levelling phenomenon.  That was part of the charm.  Anybody could start a website.  Anyone could start a search engine.  You rose or fell on merit.

And now?  Well, what we see in AI is what someone in a major corporation chooses that we should see.  Little people don’t matter.

I don’t see any reason immediately to change what I am doing.  But it is, as I said, food for thought.