Automatic Lover

See me, feel me, hear me, love me, touch me… One of this week’s ‘AI is here to make life wonderful; resistance is useless’ stories – as opposed to the equally pervasive ‘AI is going to destroy us all; resistance is useless’ takes – was that language processing models are being touted as the answer to the problems of shy, inarticulate people on dating apps. Struggling to put yourself across in a way that gets you dates? Here is your electronic Cyrano, able to draw on the whole repertoire of human love language, and to respond almost instantaneously to an interlocutor with quips and chat-up lines! The natural response, that surely this is one of the key points where it’s most important to get a sense of the real human being behind the dating profile, their personality and manner, misses the point from the perspective of the potential user: what if I don’t have any confidence in my personality?

I’m struck by a possible analogy – because of course I am – with the use of ChatGPT in university coursework. Continue Reading »


Nothing’s right… Yes, there are times when I spend almost as much time deciding on a suitable music-referencing title for a blog post as I do actually writing the thing. The optimistic version would have been some variant on the famous line from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem: “There is a crack in everything…” But, while it does indeed let some light in, it is potentially the sort of crack that calls for urgent applications of superglue before the whole thing falls apart. Everything’s Ruined? Perhaps a little premature. Changes? Certainly.

Yes, I’m thinking of the plague and its aftermath Continue Reading »


It’s all going a bit third-century crisis down at the pond – which is to say that we’re into day 4 of the great Emperor Dragonfly Emergence 2023, and by my count we’ve now had either 35 or 36. A single Anax imperator emerging from the depths of the pond and breaking out of its exuvia (nymph exoskeleton) is a magnificent experience – they do it at night, to avoid predators before they’ve really got the hang of flying, but I’ve seen them crawling up their chosen reeds in the evening, and then sometimes in the morning a straggler is still extending and drying off its wings before taking to the air with a sudden clatter (for insect-level values of ‘clatter’). With seven or eight of them fighting over the sturdiest reeds in the best positions, the occasion loses a certain amount of dignity, especially when latecomers start locking their legs into position not around a plant stem but around the exuvia of a predecessor, itself locked tightly onto a plant stem. Continue Reading »

Out Of Time

I’m writing this on the train back from London on May 10th, after recording an episode of In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg and wonderful colleagues Katharine Earnshaw and Diana Spencer, on the subject of Vergil’s Georgics – yes, there was a reason why I responded to thunderstorms and flooding in the South-West last week with quotes from the storm section of Book 1. I’m posting this on the morning of broadcast – the programme is no longer recorded live on Thursday mornings, which sadly takes away a little of the high-wire thrill of over-caffeinated improvisation, but they can now do wonderful things with editing – so as not to spoil the surprise, and to reduce the amount of time people have to get worked up about quite how far out of my lane I’m wandering this time. With a bit of luck they will now be too busy laughing at my increasingly mannered delivery… Continue Reading »

It’s actually remarkable that ChatGPT has been around for only six months; not so much because of how much it’s developed and transformed our lives in that time, but because of the volume of discussion about whether it’s about to transform our lives, restructure the entire economy, destroy traditional approaches to education etc. – it feels like I’ve been reading this stuff for ages. I’m aware that I’ve contributed to this, and am indeed egging myself on, so to speak, by attending exploratory workshops on the topic that encourage me to reflect further on its potential impact and how we should respond, and then write blog posts about it. Am I ahead of the game in trying to get to grips with this new technology and its implications – or am I getting caught up with the hype, in the way that people were once convinced that MOOCs would sweep away old-fashioned universities or got incredibly excited about the pedagogical potential of Second Life? Continue Reading »

And so farewell!* To Göteborg (and its unbelievable range of amazing imperial stouts, above all), to the European Social Science History Conference for another two years, and, slightly abruptly, to my role as one of the co-chairs of the Antiquity network of said conference. I think I’ve been doing that role for about ten years – the fact that it involves only short bursts of activity every other year, rather than anything more sustained, means I keep forgetting. On the one hand, it isn’t a huge task and it does offer the chance to try to gather ancient economic and social historians together to exchange ideas and, occasionally, remind historians of other periods that we exist, plus an excuse for visiting some great European cities; on the other hand, I can imagine that from the outside it might look a bit like an attempt at hanging onto a position of power and influence, gate-keeping and extending patronage etc. Which it never has been, but that still meant it was starting to feel like time to pass things on to someone else. It’s just been a bit quick, from an informal chat with a potential successor one day to realising next evening that this was my last time co-organising our bit of the conference. The dogs bark; the cavalcade moves on. Continue Reading »

One of the (relatively few) things I hate about marking student work is the sinking feeling when a suspicion of plagiarism starts to form; the moment when something like an abrupt switch of style or changes in spelling or the wording of a phase makes you look over the pages you’ve already read and start spotting more such possible indications. Turnitin, as we all know, is moderately useless – it generates lots of false positives (well-formatted bibliography entries and properly referenced quotes) while missing stuff that can be found with a quick google – so this suspicion implies the need to invest a load of time in identifying and checking likely sources and marking up the exercise, while experiencing a general feeling of annoyance and disappointment.

Well, I’ve now found something worse: Continue Reading »

I’ve been doing a lot of muting on the Twitter this morning – over eighty separate accounts, all of which tweet out short extracts from that early P.G. Wodehouse story I’ve discussed before, as well as other stuff that I can’t be bothered to look up. For the most part, that’s all they do; whereas the accounts I muted back in the autumn generally sent out images or gifs as well as text, apparently advertising things like betting sites for the World Cup, the vast majority of these just individually meaningless fragments of text (the exceptions are a sub-group that include pictures of anime girls). Continue Reading »

Rule The World

According to my wife, my falling over and breaking my foot was my body, or perhaps the universe, telling me that I need to slow down and look after myself. I’m not sure how far this is a genuine philosophical position and how far she is grasping at any available argument to try to get me to slow down – she said similar things about the Long COVID that’s drained my energy and intellectual capacity over the last few years – but that could likewise be interpreted either way… Continue Reading »

It Wasn’t Me

I massively pissed off my wife a few nights ago, by going upstairs to the ‘study’ (which doubles as the music room, as well as general storage and nursery for chilli seedlings) to work on my jazz composition homework for twenty minutes or so, and re-emerging just under an hour later. I readily accept that this is not acceptable behaviour, and have agreed to try setting myself an alarm next time – because this was genuinely a matter of losing track of time due to total absorption in the task of trying to get a melodic phrase right. You can almost hear it in your mind, you know you’ll know it when you hear it, but there are so many different things to try adjusting in the hope of getting closer to what it’s supposed to be, not to mention the need to try to save the better versions in case you want to return to them, that suddenly an hour has gone by and you’re not necessarily any closer to success. Continue Reading »