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Monday 20 May 2024

10 years of this blog

I started this blog 10 years ago.

The most popular post was at the start of the pandemic, where I wrote a detailed post How I teach Remotely I had been doing that for many years before the pandemic; I could have written it before any lockdowns started.

The next most popular post was Something funny is about to happen to prices which talked about some of the weird things that I predicted would happen as we started getting negative electricity prices. I assumed that Australia would develop industries that made use of nature's subsidy; but alas, Australian industry is too uncompetitive even if electricity is free-er than free.

After that, there were some posts about how to fix things in HP DataProtector. I think I was expecting the blog to be mostly about data protection: the first post was about HP's confusing line-up of overlapping backup products, and identifying when it was cheaper to go with one choice over the other. HP no longer have overlapping backup products -- they sold them all to Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Entco Microfocus OpenText who now has a confusing line-up of overlapping backup products (different ones). Those a

Anyway, it looks like what I should be writing about is extrapolations into the future of what I'm seeing happening now. That's good. I have started writing a book on what we should expect in the next 5 years in AI, so I'll post excerpts as I write it.

Saturday 27 April 2024

Do Australian banks care about AI?

Both the 2022 and 2023 Expert Surveys on Progress in AI have identified that acting as a telephone banking operator (including card services) should be fully achievable by AI by 2026. So a forward looking bank would be reporting their AI expenditure as a way of signalling to the market that they aren't going to be left behind. Will any of them do that this year?

If you want to bet one way or the other on this question, here's a prediction market on it:

Sunday 21 April 2024

Mysterious latitude and longitude coordinates

There's the coincidence of the Pyramid of Giza's latitude being a very similar-looking number to the speed of light. It's nonsense of course, because when the Pyramid of Giza was being built (roughly 2600BCE):

  • No-one knew that the earth was round (so the concept of latitude didn't make any sense). It was more than 2000 years later Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth (around 200BCE). He also made a map that connected the Atlantic Ocean with the Gulf of Arabia, and had the Equator substantially south of all of Africa.
  • No-one described angles in degrees, only ratios of lengths or ratios of quadrature (so describing a latitude in degrees wouldn't have been possible). Angles were probably Babylonian (2000 years later); Aristarchus of Samos (2300 years later) is the first writer we know who used them.
  • They didn't have decimal numbers; they didn't even have fractions with numerators. It's only in the Middle Kingdom period of Egypt (2000BCE, about 600 years later) that we see fractions of any kind.  Even then they couldn't represent 2/3 other than saying (1/3 + 1/3, or 1/3+1/5+1/12+1/20). It was the height of mathematics six centuries later than the Pyramid of Giza to be able to say that 1/5 + 1/12 + 1/20 = 1/3. So they wouldn't have been able to represent 29.979.
  • The length of the metre was defined as being the distance travelled by light in 1/299792458 seconds. That is, we chose that the speed of light would be that in 1983. If we had chosen 1/299792459 instead, presumably the great pyramid would have shifted north a bit. (I suppose some physicist might have been playing a prank on the world by making the speed of light match the latitude of the Great Pyramid of Giza. But that's not a mystery then, and it doesn't involve ancient aliens. It just involves a physicist with a sense of humour.)
    • Actually, the metre was defined before that. One of the complaints of the French revolution peasants was the inconsistent measures imposed by their pre-revolution feudal lords, who would change the size of measures when they were buying vs selling. So they defined the metre by saying "a metre is one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole via Paris." They knew that the Earth wasn't completely round, and it solved the problem that they had, but they still got it a bit wrong anyway.
    • Before that, a metre was the length of a seconds pendulum -- a pendulum that swings every two seconds is roughly a metre long, as long is it only swings a little bit and the flexibility of the pendulum arm doesn't count.  Anyway, yes, the ancient Egyptians had pendulums, but they didn't have the concept of seconds. They probably had some way of dividing up time into units smaller than an hour using water clocks, but nothing as small as minutes. They didn't know that pendulums swung at a constant rate, that wasn't until later, so even if they had had the concept, they couldn't measure it.
The bigger problem is that the exact coordinates of the Great Pyramid of Giza are 29.979167N, 31.134167E and the speed of light in a vacuum is 299792458m/s. So it's close, but it's out by about 8 metres. (And why didn't they put it about 28km further east, at 31.415926E ? That might have been weirdly convincing of the existence of time travel.)

Which brings me to the point of this post. Here are some important things in the world that have either their latitude or longitude (measured in degrees) be a number that's close to a multiple of a 10th power of the speed of light. All of these are closer to this ideal than the Great Pyramid of Giza.

  • Port Neches Elementary School in Texas, Latitude=29.97925, Longitude=-93.95905, according to Geonames. Presumably this is the address of the entrance, if you just move 47cm south (18.5 inches), you'll be spot on. Fun fact for Port Neches Elementary School students: if you travel east or west (and don't deviate even a little bit), you'll eventually hit the Great Pyramid of Giza. Google maps puts Port Neches Elementary School well away from this, and says that the Subway opposite the Neches Federal Credit Union / Magnolia Church is the speed-of-light latitude.
  • Crowne Plaza Astor New Orleans Latitude=29.97922, Longitude=-90.1137. If you are the events manager for the Crowne Plaza Astor, I hope you have locked up the lucrative market for Physics Conferences at important latitudes. Just 2.87 metres north and you're on the light speed location. (Google Maps is again out-of-sync with geonames, and suggests the pedestrian crossing on North Tonti Street where it meets Aubry Street; it also suggests the Jewish Cemetry near the Hurrican Katrina Memorial... and the Mortuary Haunted House.) I don't know whether to believe Google maps or Geonames. I was on the Google Maps SRE team briefly in 2006--2007, but I spent the majority of my time on the maps team nowhere near any other maps team members, so I don't have an insider opinion on Google Maps accuracy.
  • The Omnipotent Missionary Baptist Church. This seemed to have disappeared from Google Maps, if it was ever there, which I guess is a thing you can do if you are an Omnipotent Missionary. (But what do Omnipotent Missionaries evangelise about? Themselves?) It was at Latitude=29.9792, Longitude=-90.03.
  • I tried to find a few places in China, but between inaccurate maps and other problems it's hard to be sure. The Wuhan Institute for Virology is just a little bit too far north to be on the light-speed latitude.
  • According to Google Maps, the Benedictine Monastery of Toumliline is very close. But Wikipedia puts it several degrees of latitude in a different direction. For Moroccoa, Geonames suggests the town of of Aguerd Issegane, which seems like cheating because it's a town... but it's surprisingly small.
  • Geonames also suggests New Orleans' East Bank Sewage Treatment Plant.
But why latitude? Why not longitude? (Well, we couldn't calculate longitude accurately until well after Galileo, because we had no accurate time keeping mechanism that could survive a journey. For a long time, the only option was to observe when eclipses of Jupiter's moons happened; compare that to an almanac of when they were supposed to happen, then look at the angle of the sun or a fixed star and work out what longitude you were at. Way beyond what any ancient Egyptian could have done.)

So for longitude 29.97925E:
  • It's quite close to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (51°23′21″N 30°05′58″E) -- but the powerplant is about 8km too far east. 
  • Suri Suri Dam in Zimbabwe is very close to the light-speed longitude (-18.08597,29.97944)
  • Playing around with Google Maps, I found that the southern most shed of the University of Alexandria's Faculty of Agriculture Poultry Farm was is on the speed-of-light longitude.

But why latitude 29.97925? Surely 2.997925 would be better? And here we hit the jackpot:
  • Taman LEP 7 Stop (which I think is a bus stop in Kuala Lumpur). Latitude=2.99793, and longitude=101.64858. The KL bus transit authority has encoded the speed of light in the bus stop!

Here's how I did it. Download the Geonames database, unzip it, create a postgresql database:



 createdb geonames

Then in the postgresql session:

CREATE TABLE geoname (

        geonameid int,

        name varchar(200),

        asciiname varchar(200),

        alternatenames varchar,

        latitude float,

        longitude float,

        fclass char(1),

        fcode varchar(10),

        country varchar(2),

        cc2 varchar(60),

        admin1 varchar(20),

        admin2 varchar(80),

        admin3 varchar(20),

        admin4 varchar(20),

        population bigint,

        elevation int,

        gtopo30 int,

        timezone varchar(40),

        moddate date


\copy  geoname (geonameid,name,asciiname,alternatenames,latitude,longitude,fclass,fcode,country,cc2, admin1,admin2,admin3,admin4,population,elevation,gtopo30,timezone,moddate) from 'allCountries.txt'  null as '';

create index on geoname(latitude);

create index on geoname(longitude);

select * from geoname where latitude < 29.980 and latitude > 29.979 order by abs(latitude - 29.9792458);

And then likewise for different latitudes and longitudes.


  • Gungele is at Pi latitude. Latitude=3.14159, Longitude=28.14137. (So close to being 10 times e!)
  • VilledonnĂ© is at e longitude (to 6 decimal places) Latitude=47.27323, Longitude=2.71828
  • A beach in Tiomann Island (Pasir Gerengganin Malaysia is at e latitude. Latitude=2.718,  longitude=104.1724 

Monday 15 April 2024

Interview with the Australian Writers' Centre

I was interviewed about ChatGPT, Anthropic and other GenAI tools and their impact on jobs for writers. We ended up talking about speech recognition, why SEO might be becoming irrelevant and the computer gaming industry.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

Setting up a custom GPT

 If you are running a class, you might want to have a bot that students can ask questions of -- questions about the content, possible exam questions, dates and times for assessments, and so on.

I walked Dr Emily Don through this process -- it's not long or complicated. We also talked about transcribing lectures with many technical terms.

There is an equity problem, though: students without access to ChatGPT Pro (or Microsoft Copilot Pro, or equivalent) can't access it. There are various workarounds for this.

Monday 4 March 2024

Why isn't there a degree called a Bachelor of Contact Centre Adminstration?

 It would cover IP networking, VoIP and telephony. It would teach students about AI and its applications in all aspects of compliance, optimisation, training, CSAT improvement, translation; and enough maths to understand queue behaviour under pressure. Contact centres often have high turnover / transient staff, unique training needs and large numbers of staff, so there should be a strong HR component. Perhaps there should be units on contract negotiation, sales techniques and other parts from a business degree.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I was creating an assignment for my students where they have to write a telephony speech recognition and intent detection system for a contact centre. I realised I would need to explain a few background concepts (e.g. like call routing and queueing)... and it quickly snowballed into "there's actually quite a lot of stuff to know in order to understand a modern contact centre".
Everyone I know had to learn everything about contact centre management on-the-job. Every call centre I know of has people in it studying part-time to get a degree in something other than their current occupation.

Why is a Bachelor of Call Centre Administration not a thing?

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Multi-lingual versions of natural language processing lectures

Last year I taught an introduction to Natural Language Processing at Macquarie University. I grabbed all the recordings, and started editing them so that I could publish them. I’m not even half way through the first two hour lecture, but at least I’ve made some progress.
Here’s what’s working so far, and what isn’t.
I have a “intro theme music” for the first few seconds of the videos that I publish.

That theme music consists of several phrases in the musical language Solresol, an artificial language that lasted almost as long as Esperanto has. The alto flute opens with a call out (in solresol) “today; tomorrow”, then there’s a gong because everyone needs a gong and it says something. The timpani then taps out (in morse code) the name of my company. Meanwhile, the harp is saying (in solresol) “wisely useful” then “wisdom - create a model”. The bells sing out (in solresol) “behold: yours! Behold!”. The orchestral strings just fit all the pieces in the background to make it sound complete.

This all seems very appropriate theme music for a series of lectures on natural language processing, particularly on the first few that focus on encoding text in different languages around the world.

I signed up to ElevenLabs (affiliate link ) so that I could translate my lectures.
They seem to be using Whisper to do speech-to-text into English. This interacts strangely with the start of my videos, because it seems to think that I’m saying something (which indeed, I am! But in Solresol) and often hallucinates greetings or other comments like that. So it tries to modify the Solresol music with words, which just warps the sound and makes it slightly out of tune.

Other issues:

  • I’m finding that its algorithm for identifying the number of speakers is unreliable. It often thinks that there are two of me.
  • Translation into Indonesian and Malay (which are close to the same thing) was not recognisable as being in those languages. It’s not just me thinking “that doesn’t sound like Bahasa”; fluent speakers weren’t even sure if they were listening to Bahasa or random babble.
But overall, I’m impressed. It would be an enormous amount of effort for me to re-record these videos in each of these languages. I’m not sure I even could do it in Japanese or Arabic (which I have studied) let alone Hindi (which I’ve never studied).








If you or your colleagues or friends speak one of these languages and want to hear a bit about the history of text encoding, forward them on and let me know if they are useful.