Monday 25 September 2023

Making sense of fritters

Prof Brent Seales, Director of the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, UK United Kingdom University of Kentucky is involved in the Vesuvius Challenge and high-tech meitheal to reveal the linguistic contents of a batch of carbonized papyrus scrolls which had been covered in ash at Herculaneum for 2,000 years. The villa where they were last read, was [perhaps] owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso the father of J. Caesar's third [or 4th] wife Calpurnia. although Lucius was 100+ years dead at the time of the Vesuvian eruption of 79CE [Bloboprev on carbonized Herculaneloaves]. Each scroll - there are 600 of them more or less intact - look like nothing so much as a Gregg's sausage roll that's been put in a furnace.

The Vesuvius Challenge is offering a $1million prize to the first team to "Read at least 4 separate passages of continuous and plausible text from the scrolls, each at least 140 characters long". So if your submission is four consecutive tweets from Stephen Fry - even if in Latin - you are not going to win. But that's a big prize for a big ask; so there is a letter prize of $40K if you decipher 10 characters on a fragment at least 4cm² in extent. Plausibility rules apply here too. It will be a software solution where the algorithm calls out enhance! . . . enhance! . . . until there is no contrast left to work on - all that's left is grey e-soup. The two large$t sponsors of the prize are a) tECHbRO JosephJacks who is gate-keeping his LinkedIn account with a dorky bot-cancelling task which took this dull-human 3 attempts to crack. b) Alex Gerko was-a-Russian British currency trader.

It is clear from the frags shown [L] that some parts of some scrolls have been tweezered loose but far more data has been >!poof!<ed to dust by earnest / arrogant employers of prior art in the field. It's like the 17thC antiquarians who dug holes in long-barrows in search of treasure and thereby destroyed forever and all time the archaeological context and stratigraphy which allows sense to be made of the artifacts. To archaeologists, a set of carbonized post-holes and some pot-sherds is more valuable than Sr Narciandi's golden torc from a week ago.

The smart money at the moment is non-destructive X-ray tomography which can non solum tease out the layers of each roll, sed etiam separate the ink from the matrix . . . and read it. 

My MeFi pals discussed the challenge in March  and proved less interested in the scrolls' literary potential [altho there was one vote for new poems by Sappho] and more in material that would yield insight into the daily lives of ordinary folk at the zenith of the Roman Empire - bring on the shopping lists, like.

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