Talking Microsoft Tay on ABC 702 Sydney

ABC logoJust before before Easter, Microsoft let their youth-targeted chatbot named Tay loose on Twitter and other social networks — and it was a disaster.

Tay was meant to hold conversations with Americans aged 18 to 24, which is why it’s named after Taylor Swift. But the project was terminated after just 16 hours, because the bot started tweeting abuse at people, and even went full neo-Nazi, declaring that “Hitler was right I hate the jews.”

Art Technica reported some analysis of what went wrong. Davi Ottenheimer summarised the problem as “weak intelligence weakened by weakness”, and pointed me to more detailed research by Russell Cameron Thomas.

I spoke about this disaster with Robbie Buck on ABC 702 Sydney, debunking some aspects of the mainstream news stories along the way.

This audio is ©2016 Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Talking the death of handwriting on ABC 891 Adelaide

ABC logo“How relevant is handwriting in 2015, when people are increasingly communicating via text messages, via email, via tweets, Facebook updates, those sort things?”, asked ABC 891 Adelaide presenter Michael Smyth on Monday afternoon.

There are schools in Finland and the US reportedly phasing out the teaching of handwriting.

Here’s what I think is an interesting 12-minute discussion that includes a vox pop of people in Adelaide, talkback calls, and Pam Kent, president of the South Australian Primary Principals Association, as well as myself.

The audio is ©2015 Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Bonus link: By a happy coincidence, this week’s episode of ABC Radio’s Future Tense asks Does handwriting have a future?

Updated: Christopher Pyne clearly says the C-word? Nope

[Update Friday 16 May 2014, 1115 AEST: Having read the spectrogram analysis by “Fully (sic)”, the language blog at Crikey, I withdraw pretty much everything I’ve said in this post. I did indeed hear the word I thought I heard, but only after having read a headline that told me that’s that I was going to hear. I forget the name for that psychological phenomenon — is it “priming”? — but I know it’s a thing. Anyone listening to the audio files here would have been subject to the same phenomenon.]

Today in the Australian Parliament, Christopher Maurice Pyne MP, Member for Sturt, Minister for Education and Leader of the House, said a word which he says was “grub”. I call Christopher Pyne a liar.

The sentence said across the chamber to Opposition leader Bill Shorten (or maybe someone else) was, quite clearly [to me], “You’re such a cunt.” Listen for yourself.

I will be discussing the phonetics of “grub” versus “cunt” in the next episode of The 9pm Edict. Read the analysis at “Fully (sic)”.

I’m happy to respond to your comments on this stuff, but I’ll be busy recording my podcast sleeping and covering a conference in San Jose before finishing my podcast production, and won’t respond until that’s all finished. Be warned, however, that I’ll simply delete comments that are nothing more that party-political trolling. Keep it to the discussion of phonetics, appropriate language for parliament and suchlike. My website, my rules.

What I will say, however, is that I don’t really care what Pyne said. In the heat of the moment we’ve all said things we later regret. Sometimes, for some people, that might involve swearing. What concerns me is the character of a man who simply lies in the face of the evidence, rather than taking responsibility for his own words and actions. That’s just low.

Christopher Maurice Pyne, you truly are a grub. No, the other word.

There will doubtless be questions about the authenticity of this recording, so I’ll spell out precisely what you’re listening to here.

This audio file is the result of going to a ninemsn news story, since removed, at the URL in the web browser Safari for OS X, and using Audio Hijack Pro to extract the audio of the video as it streamed and saving it into a 16-bit 44.1kHz AIFF audio file. I imported that file into Reaper, a digital audio workstation, trimmed the ends to fit, and saved it as an intermediate AIFF file with the same settings.

I then processed that file by normalising it (which means adjusting the volume so that the loudest sound in the file is set to the maximum audio level possible), creating another intermediate file, and then compressing it to an MP3 file with a variable bit rate of 128kbps at 21,050Hz.

[Update 16 May 2014: Edited to reflect the fact that I’ve put the podcast production back a day.]

Microsoft has banned me from covering TechEd

How they make journalism (at TechEd): click for copy at FlickrTechEd is Microsoft’s annual developer conference, and TechEd Australia 2013 kicks off this coming Tuesday 3 September. ZDNet Australia had commissioned me to cover it, from a room much like the one pictured — just like I did last year — but now it’s all off. Because Microsoft has banned me.

On 1 August, I emailed ZDNet Australia editor Chris Duckett to accept his commission. But on 6 August, he phoned me, pissing himself laughing, to say that the message from Microsoft — I don’t know from who or how it was delivered — was a no-go. I’m banned from TechEd for “being aggressive to speakers”.

Now I, too, was pissing myself laughing. I was nearly in tears!

“Aggressive to speakers”? Let’s be clear. Any problems were about one speaker, singular. And this alleged aggression — which I’d characterise more as ridicule, mockery and outrageously hyperbolic violent imagery, as is my well-worn shtick — happened solely via Twitter.

Now I’ve thought long and hard about whether to tell this story. Personally, I don’t really care. I’m happy to avoid spending most of next week in that hell-hole called the Gold Coast, and I’ve got plenty of other things to get on with. And Microsoft does have the right to decide who they will and won’t allow into their event — especially when they’re paying.

But I’ve decided to go public because I’m a big fan of transparency — as reflected in my blog posts from 2007, Releasing the Black Hawk crash video was A Good Thing, Scaring the shit out of clients and Being Real: more notes on radical transparency.

I think you should know about this ban, because it potentially affects the quality of my coverage and analysis of Microsoft as it faces some interesting challenges — more about that another time. I’d like you to be informed consumers of my work, which is why I list all the corporate largesse I receive in my Weekly Wrap posts.

I was also under the impression that any problems which may have arisen were all sorted out at the time. Certainly no-one at Microsoft has ever mentioned any problem to me since then.

Quite frankly, to bad-mouth me to one of my commissioning editors — in an undocumented phone call, no less! — strikes me as a tad defamatory.

And without any communication with me? From an organisation that wants customers to trust it with our most intimate and confidential data? Does this not represent a glaring absence of due process?

So, in the tradition of another 2007 post, “Let’s just write that down…”, I’m just going to write it all down, and put my name to it. That’s what honest people do, right?

Come with me, boys and girls, as I tell you about TechEd Australia 2012’s keynote speaker, Jason Silva, “futurist, filmmaker, epiphany addict [WTF?], ecstatic truth lover [WTFF?], techno optimist”. Check his Wikipedia entry and personal website.

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Why people who say “train station” sound stupid

Google Ngram "railway station" all English: click to embiggenI cringe when people talk about the “train station”. “It’s ‘railway station’, you morons,” screams my brain. Well as it turns out, they’re actually not stupid — at least not for that reason. It’s just another relatively modern shift in language.

The chart at the top of the post is a Google Ngram search of their entire English corpus since 1820 — the first public steam railway in the world was the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which opened in 1825 — comparing the usage of “railway station” (blue) versus “railroad station” (red) and “train station” (orange).

You can click through to the full-size chart, or run the search yourself.

As you can see, the most common usage has almost always been “railway station”, with “railroad station” distinctly second-place. A “train station” wasn’t even a thing until the 1950s, but it rose in popularity quite quickly. “Train station” has been the most common usage since the mid-1990s, although it has been declining again since around 2000. I wonder why.

My understanding is that many railway terms derived from the military, because until the railways came along nothing else had been organised on that sort of trans-national and even trans-continental scale except armies. Hence trains have “guards” for their safe operation, and “stations” along the line where staff are stationed to maintain the entire railway system — including fuel, water, trackwork and signalling.

Railway stations are therefore part of a railway’s entire operation, not merely “train stations” for trains to stop at. For me, someone talking about “train stations” is showing their ignorance of how railways work: it’s more than just the trains.

Since I had the Google open in front of me, I thought I’d look at the variations in US versus UK English. It seems that “railroad station” isn’t the dominant American usage that I’d imagined.

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