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Being interviewed by John Humphrys

In recent edition of the Red Box podcast, the guests were asked which political interviewer they would like to grill them. Some ummed and ahhed for a while: I'm not involved with politics, but wouldn't have to hesitate a moment as it's already happened. I was interviewed a while ago by one of the UK's top political interviewers (now retired), John Humphrys on the Today programme. You can hear the interview here . I was in a different BBC studio from the interviewer when the interview took place, so I couldn't see who was about to interview me, and they didn't tell me in advance which of the Today programme presenters was going to speak to me. I must admit, if I'd known in advance it was going to be Humphrys I would probably have been more nervous than I actually was. But I'm so glad I did have that opportunity.  Nearly ten years ago I was on Christmas University Challenge, so have also been questioned by another of the UK's now retired political in
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The Real McLegg

The writing community is quite rightly worried about generative AI in two ways. Can a writer be replaced by something like ChatGPT, and could we be accused of using generative AI to do our work for us? One possible solution is to use AI itself to fight back. But before getting into the detail, I ought to explain why this piece isn't titled 'The real McCoy'. That was my first inclination for a title (and I'm sure ChatGPT would have gone with it). It would have given me an opportunity to lever Star Trek into the discussion, and it's a familiar phrase that highlights the issue we're dealing with. According to my trusty Brewer's, the phrase was originally 'the real MacKay' in Britain. A lot of people apparently thought the US version was based on a US boxer called McCoy, but apparently it arose (not entirely surprisingly) in Scotland and was exported to the US as a way of highlighting true Scotch, as opposed to US whiskey. I switched the title to 't

Would anyone notice Hozier striking?

I see that the Irish musician Hozier has announced that 'he would consider striking over the threat artificial intelligence poses to his industry.' This was taken seriously enough by the BBC News to put it under their high profile Newsnight brand . I'm also not sure how much music artists are truly under threat from AI. Hozier himself suggests he isn't sure if AI-generated music 'meets the definition of art'. More to the point, the music business is about a package, not just a song and AI would have to come on considerably to be able to deliver the whole thing. No doubt a few AI-generated songs could be successful in terms of streaming - but it seems unlikely the music business as a whole would suffer too much. But even if the threat is serious, I can't help but thing Hozier (dangerous autocorrect tendency to make him hosiery) has a weak grasp of economics. While I'm sure that Hozier fans would be disappointed by his disappearance from the scene, the rea

The ChatGPT of 1964

In the months since ChatGPT and other examples of Generative AI arrived on the scene, plenty of writers and artists have had a genuine concern for their future careers. We now know that these systems have some distinct flaws in writing non-fiction - they struggle to identify the difference between reality and the made up stuff, and have been quite happy to, say, fabricate references because they've spotted references are a good thing , but not that they have to be real. However, this is less of a problem in the field of short fiction, where things are supposed to be made up. When it comes to poetry, although Generative AI can come up with unsubtle stuff (one of the few things it seems quite good at is rap), it struggles for sophistication - but it's very easy to imagine, had there still been a demand for it, that the systems would be good at the kind of pulp fiction that used to be regularly consumed by the masses prior to the 1970s, and that still has a small toehold in, for e

The battle for small electrical recycling

For years now I have occasionally troubled my local council (Swindon) with emails about a failure in their recycling collections. At the moment the council collects, for example, plastic to recycle and/or burn. Which is fine - we don't particularly want it in landfill - but it is neither an important natural resource nor does it have any value to speak of. However, the council doesn't collect small electrical items.  Up to now I've had zero useful response to my emails. Our previous Conservative-led council ignored my emails to the council lead on waste, while my local councillor simply said 'We don't do that, people can take small electricals to the recycling centre, and some supermarkets have bins for batteries.' If you have a single battery, a phone cable, a charger or whatever, none of which should go into the landfill bin, you are expected to book an appointment and drive (in my case) a ten mile round trip to the recycling centre. That's great for clim

Galata (Fantasy) - Ben Gribbin ****

This is an unusual and atmospheric book. It's described as speculative fiction, but I'd call it fantasy for reasons I'll go into in a moment. The setting is a city that reminds me in some ways of Gormenghast - like Mervyn Peake's imaginary location, this fictional setting is ancient and decaying - what's more it's dominated (in the week in which the story is set) by pointless ritual. The city of Galata is being overtaken by the tides - so another point of reference is the dark feel of the movie version of Du Maurier's Don't Look Now . A final piece of fiction it brought to mind was Henry Gee's dark and horrifying murder mystery By the Sea . Galata , too has an element of murder mystery. As the week-long festival that is supposed to hold back the sea is underway, someone is killing young women. The central character, Joseph, is a former policeman and becomes involved in the distinctly half-hearted investigation of these deaths, which seem increasingly

Am I a discriminating author?

Like all popular science authors, I get my fair share of communications from people sharing with me their new theories, whether they be an alternate theory of gravity or time, or disproving quantum physics. In the old days, these used to come as letters via my publisher - I particularly treasure examples with impressive diagrams such as the one illustrated. These days, of course, they tend to be emails, but usually my response has to be that I'm a science writer, not a working physicist (or mathematician) and I'm simply not qualified to comment on their theories. Sometimes, though the email is rather different. The other day, I got one asking me if I was intentionally filling one of my books with 'people of many diverse backgrounds'. It is true that some publishers will request more quotes from women or scientists, with diverse ethnic backgrounds, though when writing a primarily historical book, like my Ten Days in Physics that Shook the World , there is a limited pool