Can we talk about the back button?

I am one of those people who is not loyal to a particular smartphone platform. There are some people who say this, but truly, I switch between having an iOS based phone and an Android based phone every couple of years. I feel it is my professional obligation to ensure I am aware of the trends relating to smartphones in general, and so I switch.

I have recently switched to using the iPhone 12 Mini after using Android devices for the last couple of years. I love that Apple has added a smaller phone again to their current range, as I like to be able to fully use a phone one-handed as I walk along. It is great that this phone supports 5G. Unfortunately, I am also deeply missing having a back button on the device.

It is a little bizarre to me that I need to explain this, as I’ve come to realise that some people who have exclusively used Apple iOS devices for their entire lives don’t even realise that Android devices have a back button. This is an on-screen, virtual button (it used to be a physical button) that you can tap to take you to the previous screen you were on, and can keep tapping it until you get back to the home screen. It is conceptually the same as the back button in a web browser. Now, I am aware that some recent Android devices have started to do away with the back button also, but I am choosing to believe that this is just a short-lived fad.

The Android back button is just a simple user interface element, that it is only when it goes missing do I realise how much navigational heavy-lifting it provides. At any point, in any app, you know exactly where to tap to exit the screen you’ve ended up in. There is no need to figure it out based on visual cues that an app might choose to show. Just like in a word processor (or really any application that allows you to create things), you know you can always Undo, and it’s always the same mechanism. There’s not a different way to Undo a typo compared with an accidental deletion or a formatting glitch.

On the iPhone, the way to leave a given screen is up to the app and can be quite inconsistent. The emerging approach is to use the left-to-right swipe gesture, which is quite elegant, although there is no visual indicator that this will work so you need to be told about it, and also be prepared for it not to work at all. It would be great if it simply worked all the time, the way the Android back button does. So, this post is also a little bit of a plea for something like that to happen.

I suspect that people who are regular Android users don’t need to be convinced, so my audience is more iPhone users who don’t realise how inelegant the user experience is. Hence the rest of this post will be actual examples showing what I’m talking about using screenshots from my current iPhone device.

a screenshot of the Messages app on the iPhone

Above is a screen within the Messages app. It has a place on the screen in the top left corner with a “<” symbol so that we know that we can go back to the previous screen in the app by tapping this. We can also do a left-to-right swipe to achieve the same thing. So far, so good.

However, say we arrived at the Messages app by searching for the app rather than tapping on its icon in the home screen…

a screenshot of the Messages app on the iPhone

In this case, there is now also a little label “◀ Search”, that, if we tap on, takes us back to the search box. Tapping the “<” takes us to a different screen in the Messages app, and so does left-to-right swipe. So, it’s a little bit messier, but at least there’s a convention that the “going back” options are in the top-left corner, and left-to-right swipe does the same as “<“. Or maybe not.

a screenshot of the Photos app on the iPhone

This is a screen within the Photos app, displaying a cute pic of my parents’ dog. There is a “<” in the top-left corner to take us back to the photo Library within Photos. However, doing a left-to-right swipe doesn’t do the same thing. Instead, it scrolls to the photos immediately to the left of the displayed photo. So, the swipe gesture isn’t reliable, but is the position of the “going back” option in the top-left of the screen reliable?

a screenshot of the Safari app on the iPhone

Well, this screenshot is from the Safari app, where the “<” symbol is shown at the bottom-left. Although, this little bar of symbols disappears as we scroll through a page, and is shown only when we then scroll up. However, in this case the left-to-right swipe does perform the same action.

Now, tapping on the rightmost icon to show the open tabs…

a screenshot of the Safari app on the iPhone

This takes us to a visual display of the open tabs, but to exit this and return to the previous browser screen, we need to tap “Done” in the bottom-right corner. Additionally, left-to-right swipe doesn’t navigate us anywhere, and risks closing one of the open tabs if we’re not careful. We’ve now found exit prompts in three out of the four corners, but can we find an example of it in the top-right corner? Why, yes.

a screenshot of the App Store app on the iPhone

This is a screenshot from within the App Store app. If you are on the Search screen, and have searched for something of interest, but then change your mind, the only way to navigate back to the main Search screen is to tap “Cancel” in the top-right corner. Left-to-right swipe doesn’t do it either, unfortunately.

There are other examples we could look at where there is instead an “X” symbol or the word “Done” in the top-left corner, and the left-to-right swipe doesn’t work in these cases either. I hope you’ve gotten the idea.

There is no consistency around which corner the “no, I want to stop and go back to where I was before” symbol or word appears, or even what the symbol or word should be. Sometimes the left-to-right swipe works, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it could scroll within the content or even delete it. There is actually an alternative that provides a single, consistent mechanism, and it’s called a back button.

Long ago, in 1987, Apple introduced something called HyperCard, which was software for the Apple Mac computers of the time. HyperCard was a huge thing and has influenced many aspects of computing we still use today, including web browsers. Instead of screens or pages, HyperCard displayed “cards”, and the cards were arranged into what it called “stacks” (although we would call them apps or web sites). Most relevant to our discussion, looking at the HyperCard user manual from 1987, there is this interesting snippet on page 5:

You can always go back: Another way to see the previous card is to press the Tilde key. Stacks in HyperCard often link to each other (a concept you’ll learn more about later). While the left arrow brings you to previous card in the stack you’re looking at, the Tilde key brings you to the last card you saw, no matter what stack it was in.

So, yes, Apple pioneered the concept of a back button. It is time to bring it back.

Diversification is the silver bullet

This post originally appeared over on Medium.

So, they say there are no silver bullets, but for dealing with uncertainty, diversification is as close as you can get. Instead of betting that the future will turn out one way, spread your bets across a diverse portfolio of likely possibilities.

I haven’t buried the lede, so there is going to be no surprise twist here, but I wanted to tease this out to show how widely applicable this concept is.

Company boards are made up of directors that need to make decisions about the future of the company. No-one knows the future for certain, so the background and experience of the decision-makers is critical for how good their decisions are. Instead of having every decision-maker with the same background and experience, having a spread of backgrounds and experiences improves the quality of the board. There are several pieces of research showing this, but one example reported in Forbes shows that, compared with individuals, a gender-diverse team makes better decisions 73% of the time, and teams that also have age and geographic diversity are better 87% of the time.

There is a danger that this seems completely obvious. Let’s just pause for a little and consider that it’s actually a little counter-intuitive. There is a proverb that has been around since the 16th century that too many cooks spoil the broth. Certainly, for a complicated task, an individual with deep expertise can often accomplish it better than a team. In fact, to underline that point, the same study reported in Forbes from before noted that diverse teams are more likely to struggle to put their decisions into action.

The difference is between complicated and uncertain. A complicated task can be made easier through the application of appropriate tools, skills and experience. Applying these things to an uncertain task doesn’t make it less uncertain. Producing a 7 day weather forecast is complicated. Getting it completely correct is uncertain.

This same logic applies in the world of venture capital. A VC firm will raise a fund to invest in a portfolio of startups, rather than just one. However, the same VC firm will typically seek out startups that each aim to win in a single market or technology area. Knowing which startup will become a unicorn is uncertain, so is best approached in a portfolio fashion. A VC fund of $50M could include something like a dozen startups, and there’s a well-known rule of thumb that only a third of startup investments will return more than their initial investment. (On the other hand, executing a startup is a complicated endeavour, and it benefits from simplifying and focussing where possible.)

Sometimes a VC firm develops an investment thesis for their fund, such as where they believe a particular technology or market should be the focus for their investments. Here’s a collection of over a dozen different VC investment theses, but a stark example is when Kleiner Perkins announced in 2008 that they would form a fund to invest in iPhone (and later iPad) app companiesdue to their belief in the potential of Apple’s iPhone. However, such VC firms still consider the winners in that space to be uncertain, and hence diversify their investments across multiple possible winners, e.g. Kleiner Perkins ended up investing in 25 companies. Similarly, investors in such a focussed fund (known as limited partners) are likely to diversify their investments across multiple VC funds, in order to mitigate the uncertainty that a particular investment thesis is wrong. An example here is Yale’s endowment fund, which historically invested in funds across VCs such as Andreessen Horowitz, Benchmark and Greylock Partners.

When it comes to corporate innovation, the lessons are the same. A particular corporate should take a portfolio approach to emerging opportunities. There might be some hypotheses that a corporation has developed about the opportunity sizes in particular markets, products or technologies. However, no one knows for sure how the future will turn out, so spreading risk across multiple opportunities is prudent.

The recent book from Geoffrey Moore called Zone to Win argues that a company can incubate only one major new business at a time, or risk spreading executive attention and corporate resources too thin. While there are examples of large companies like Amazon, Baidu, Apple, Google and Microsoft who are able to incubate multiple such initiatives at once, there are few companies at this scale.

However, when the expenditure and resources required to progress a new initiative are relatively small, and the likelihood of success of such an initiative is still very uncertain, it makes a lot of sense to spread the company’s investment across a number of these initiatives. Diversification may involve a range of possible time horizons, market segments, product areas, or technology domains. Spread the risk to increase the chance of overall success.

Whether it is the uncertainty relating to having relevant experience for board-level decisions, knowing which startups will hit home runs, or picking the right opportunities to explore within a corporate innovation function, the silver bullet is the same. Diversify across a variety of good options.

Gluten-free Anzac Biscuit Recipe

The Australian government’s Department of Veteran’s Affairs has strict guidelines on what can be labelled with the term Anzac. Part of this requires that Anzac biscuits do not significantly vary from one of the traditional Anzac biscuit recipes. Although, it has been reported that “substitution of ingredients for people who are glucose or lactose intolerant” is permitted. Given all that, I think this qualifies as a legitimate Anzac Biscuit recipe, as it only varies from one of the traditional recipes to accommodate a need to be “gluten free”. In Australia, a gluten free diet is understood to also mean oat free, so both the traditional wheat-based flour and rolled oats ingredients need to be substituted.

This recipe is largely based on one from the Coelic Australia cookbook (4th Edition), but I’ve tweaked it after making it a few times. I love to eat Anzac biscuits, so with yesterday being Anzac Day, I’d ensured that I had a good supply to eat with a cup of tea!

Ingredients

  • 1 cup (100g) quinoa flakes
  • 1 cup (150g) gluten-free plain flour
  • 1 cup desiccated coconut
  • 125g unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons (40mL) boiling water
  • 1 teaspoon (5mL) bicarb soda
  • 2 tablespoons (40mL) golden syrup
  • 1 cup caster sugar

Method

  1. Heat the oven to 160 degrees Celcius, and prepare a couple of baking trays, covered with non-stick baking paper.
  2. Taste a couple of the quinoa flakes to see if they are bitter. (I was using Chef’s Choice brand, which were nice but had a slight bitter aftertaste.) If so, you’ll need to dry roast them in a non-stick saucepan over medium heat for up to 10 minutes until they have turned lightly golden, and the bitterness is gone.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, combine the quinoa flakes with the flour and coconut.
  4. Put the kettle on to boil, as you’ll need it shortly.
  5. Place the butter in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat until it has just melted.
  6. Measure the bicarb soda into a heat-proof cup, then add the boiling water, stirring to dissolve the bicarb and set aside.
  7. Go back to the saucepan, and add the golden syrup and sugar to the butter. Stir constantly until the sugar is dissolved, and the mixture becomes like a thick sauce, but don’t let the mixture boil.
  8. Remove the saucepan from the heat, and pour the bicarb and water into the saucepan. Stir it quickly, and it will froth up. Pour it onto the dry ingredients in the mixing bowl, and combine thoroughly.
  9. Form the mixture into balls, about the diameter of a 20c piece, and place on the baking trays. Flatten slightly with a finger or spoon.
  10. Bake biscuits in oven for about 10 minutes or until golden.
  11. Remove biscuits from oven and allow to cool on the tray for a couple of minutes before removing to a cooling rack to allow to fully cool.
  12. Consume with a cup of tea.

Makes 24 – 30 biscuits.

Patience is a virtue

This post is essentially a reposting of an article that I published on Medium a couple of months ago. I am giving the Medium platform a go, for topics that are more aligned with my professional life, but I don’t want to risk that the content disappears if Medium disappears. So, I’ll likely repost everything here a little afterwards.

I was speaking to an industry colleague in the innovation space, and commented to them that in corporate innovation, it was important to have patience. They blinked and restated what they thought I meant, that it was important to be tenacious. This revealed a surprising fact for me: that it wasn’t universally understood that patience is a virtue.

In the world of innovation, startups are often revered. The innovation that has come out of the international system of VC-backed tech startups is unarguable. Accordingly, in the land of corporate innovation in particular, it makes sense to seek to learn from the startup ecosystem, and apply their proven approaches into a corporate setting. Tools like design thinkinglean canvas, and the daily stand-up are examples of this.

However, innovation in a corporate environment requires a different approach to innovation in a startup, and not all of the startup lessons translate directly. Mark Searle from UC Berkley has recently made some insightful comments about that. I will add another — that the startup lesson about the the virtue of tenacity doesn’t translate directly either.

Before I go on, I’ll share some quick definitions so we’re all on the same page. Tenacity is the unwillingness to give up, even in the face of defeat. Patience is the acceptance that true success will take a while.

In my experience, it is the latter that better supports a culture of innovation within a corporate environment. That said, good innovators are not complacent, they do not accept the status quo, and they are driven to create a better world.

The reason that patience is a virtue in corporate innovation is due to corporate efficiency. Corporates are often set up so that the same idea isn’t funded in multiple places. In fact, there is usually a natural place for a particular idea to be explored, whether it’s in the IT group, marketing, or product development. If an idea fails, and most ideas do fail, it is unlikely that the same place will fund a similar idea again immediately. Effectively, a failed idea becomes taboo for a period of time.

How does this relate to patience? Well, getting the timing of an idea right is often a key part of success. However, since having an idea “too late” is a terrible outcome, people naturally err on the side of being “too early”. When a too-early idea fails, a successful corporate innovator will take the lessons from the failure, wait until the conditions are right, and then resurrect the idea. This time, the timing is likely to be better and the execution better informed. It requires an acceptance that true success can take a while, and often doesn’t come the first time.

Tenacity can be poisonous in this environment, with the unfortunate innovator continuing to push an idea within a company even after it has failed and become taboo. The reputation of both the idea and innovator can be harmed, and neither may end up working at the company in the future, depriving the company of real value.

However, in the startup ecosystem, tenacity is valued by the VCs who back startups run by tenacious people. A VC fund doesn’t live or die by the performance of a single startup, but VCs maximise their chances through knowing a startup will keep trying to find product-market fit while they keep funding it. They can then shift follow-on funding rounds towards startups that are performing better, and let the other startups run out of cash.

Many successful people from the startup ecosystem make their way into corporate innovation. They won’t have seen much patience within a startup; startups are all about urgency. Perhaps when they see patience, they associate it with lack of drive. However, corporate innovators have as much drive as innovators anywhere, and if one idea is paused, they will be progressing one of several other ideas. Corporate innovators often have many irons in the fire.

If you’re coming from a startup world into the corporate one, try to practice your patience. Sometimes the best strategy for helping an idea work out in the long term is to put it on ice for a while. When you thaw it out later, you may be surprised at how important your patience was for its success.

Book Review – The Barefoot Investor

The Barefoot Investor

I used to consume pop investment books like candy. Well, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but I did seem to read about one a month, going back a few years now. Then I went through a period of not reading any. I have now broken my pop investment book drought and got myself a copy of The Barefoot Investor.

Apparently millions of people have already trodden this path before me, but this was the first time I have read anything by Scott Pape. I was curious to see why there has been such interest in his investment philosophy. Also, I was staying the weekend in an AirBnb in country Victoria without any Wi-Fi or mobile coverage, and I’d forgotten my Kindle, so it was a good way to pass the time.

Pape is a fun writer. He is a little bit sweary, and sprinkles his text with folksy language. I couldn’t help but enjoy phrases like “alpacca attitude”, “plenty of fish fingers in the sea”, and “call a spade a bloody shovel”.

He appears to be inspired by Great Depression-era approaches to building wealth, where people saved up for things rather than using loans, and where owning your own home outright was the principle objective. This reminds me a bit of those who point back at the Good Old Days of the mid 20th century, and aim to recreate aspects of this era today. This put me off-side a little, as there are also aspects of this era that don’t apply today, e.g. the husband-as-breadwinner assumption.

In any case, there are two key pillars that I see underpinning the Barefoot way and are novel to me: (1) avoiding loans and credit, and (2) develop positive emotions around positive financial practices.

The one exception to avoiding loans is for having a loan to buy a home, but then all efforts are to be put into paying it off as quickly as possible. Otherwise, the message is to have no credit cards, no car loans, and no investment property loans. This last one links to Pape’s disinterest in investment property in general, as without borrowing to buy investment property, it doesn’t produce great returns.

The positive emotions are tied to many aspects of Pape’s model. He urges having a monthly family financial meeting, but emphasises alcohol and dessert be part of this. He gives emotional terms to different bank accounts and payment cards like “smile” and “splurge”. Also, he recommends paying off smaller debts ahead of bigger ones, even if the bigger ones are at higher rate of interest, because of the positive buzz gained earlier from paying off the smaller debts. The upshot should be that financial matters avoid the taint of being a taboo topic, and that it can be discussed in a family setting just as a planned holiday might be discussed.

I can see that the recommended steps in the Barefoot way could work for many people. Especially if they need to develop financial discipline, are living in a stable family situation, and are on the more youthful side of 40. However, the model should be taken with a grain of salt, and might not be the best option for everyone. There is a disclaimer at the start of the book that it is general advice rather than specific advice tailored to an individual’s situation, but sprinkled through the book are statements to the contrary. For example, at one point he says “if you follow the Barefoot Steps that I’ve laid out for you, your success is guaranteed”. That kind of statement is not helpful.

All up, it was as entertaining as it was informative. If this is what it takes for someone to read an investment book, then this is probably the book for them. For those who know they want to get serious about investment and their financial future, I would recommend reading more widely.

Rating: 3.5 stars.

A conducting robot

I play the flute in The Essendon Symphony orchestra, and in the lead-up to our March concert, the conductor asked if I might borrow a robot from work. The concert was a celebration of comics, movies and pop culture, so the robot ended up conducting part of a Dr Who music number. For those interested, here’s how I got a robot to conduct an orchestra.

The robot in question is a version 5 NAO Robot, and is a type of programmable robot used in certain high schools and universities around the world. It is about 60cm (2 feet) high, and can walk, talk, respond to speech, identify faces, and move its limbs like a human. There are Python and C++ SDKs for writing software, or you can use (like I did) a visual programming tool called Choregraphe.

Different versions of NAO are supported by different versions of Choregraphe. Based on descriptions from the NAO documentation, I could tell I had V5, and hence I needed to download V2.1 of Choregraphe from the NAO software resources webpage.

It was easy enough to follow some of the NAO tutorials to learn how to use Choregraphe. The project that I wrote is available in a GitHub repo for general interest.

The project has blocks for conducting in 3/4 time (used in the project) and 4/4 time (not used in the project). It is set up to automatically start when the middle head sensor is touched, by using the launch trigger condition MiddleTactilTouched. After saying some amusing words, it conducts for 17 bars, controlled by the Counter box. At the same time, it is sensing for whether either of the other two head sensors are touched, and if they are, the Counter will stop the conducting. The robot will then say some more hilarious stuff, pause for a bit (for the real conductor to turn it around to face the audience), and then it will wave. Ta dah!

Learning how to use the tools and program the robot to do this sort of project took only a couple of days, so I can see how it could be useful in a highschool or university setting. The level of articulation in the joints is pretty amazing, and I look forward to this sort of technology becoming more widely available.

One issue: after getting the robot to conduct for a long period, it started to complain of over-heating, so I was comfortable with 17 bars, but I don’t think it could conduct a whole concert. But, not that the orchestra would want that!

Pancakes Recipe

I’ve been making this recipe for years, so am really just putting it here on the blog so I can easily refer to it. Currently it is sketched down the margin as a modification to the buttermilk pancakes recipe in a Donna Hay cookbook. Hopefully, after this I can just look it up online!

Ingredients

  • 90g unsalted butter
  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 1/2 cup caster sugar
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 egg
  • 1 3/4 cup whole milk

Method

  1. Melt the butter (e.g. 30s in the microwave) and set aside.
  2. Sift the flour, sugar and baking powder into a large mixing bowl.
  3. Make a well in the middle and crack the egg into it.
  4. Gradually stir in half of the milk to make a thick paste.
  5. Stir in the melted butter, the gradually stir in the remainder of the milk until the batter is smooth.
  6. Place a flat frying pan over medium heat to get warm, e.g. when butter sizzles.
  7. Use a 1/4 cup measure to pour batter onto frying pan. When bubbles appear, gently flip each pancake and continue cooking until browned on both sides.
  8. Serve with maple syrup (or whatever your favourite topping is).

Makes about a dozen pancakes.

Book Review – The Biggest Estate On Earth

I haven’t written a review here for ages, but I thought I’d write about this book to get some of my thoughts down about it. I just finished reading it during our holiday in New Zealand, and the contrast between a neighbouring country with a relatively recent human occupation (< 1000 yrs) and that of Australia was made even more stark through reading this book. For example, we visited Zealandia, a wildlife/eco-sanctuary which aims to provide a look at what New Zealand would have looked like before human habitation.  In Australia, where humans have been here for tens of thousands of years, what would such a project even mean?

The Biggest Estate on Earth

A historical analysis of the extent people managed the Australian landscape prior to European contact

The key controversy about this book is mentioned by Bill Gammage in his Appendix: that this is an application of the discipline of academic history to an area normally considered to be the domain of science – the Australian landscape. Accordingly, the book is dense with an overwhelming amount of source material that Gammage draws upon to support his analysis. This density made the book a bit of a chore for me to get through at times, and I maybe should have read just the first two and last two chapters, but the key insight is rewarding: that prior to European contact, people in Australia extensively managed the landscape to the extent we may even say that they “farmed” it.

As a historical text, Gammage draws upon both primary and secondary sources, but the former are extensive. Sources included writings from early explorers, surveyors, botanists, anthropologists, politicians, and farmers from across Australia, as well as paintings and maps from the time. A particularly interesting source for me was photographs of trees, which due to their multi-hundred year lifespans, are a form of documentation about what occurred in their vicinity during their life.

I found the argument repetitive, but still convincing, and am happy to believe that across Australia by 1788, people broadly shaped the landscape to suit their needs for both animal and plant food sources, as well as for large gatherings. Early Europeans to see this landscape described it over and over again as a “park”. The main tool used by indigenous peoples for shaping the land was controlled and timed burning, with fire being used on most days of the year, as people moved across their country. Since European contact and settlement, such practices have ceased and plant, animal and insect populations have also changed as a result. While it isn’t possible to return to the landscape or landcare regimes of those days, it highlights the knowledge that has been lost.

Rating by andrew: 3.5 stars
***1/2

Hacking the Alexa grammar

Amazon EchoFor Christmas, I got myself an Amazon Echo Dot (and I wasn’t the only one). For me, it’s been a fun and more convenient way to play music in our living room area, and I’ve been listening to more music as a result. I also had the idea that it would be nice to build some speech-driven interfaces to things.

It has been over a decade since I did speech recognition work. Speech recognition was used in one of the early projects that I did after I first left Uni, where I was part of a team that built a speech-driven personal assistant. It was a little ahead of its time, and never went anywhere.

Still, I thought I could put those slighty-rusty skills to use on the Echo, since Amazon provides a way to create Alexa skills (the name given to apps that run on the Echo behind the scenes). My idea was to use the Echo to provide a way to help the kids with maths, since they love to talk to “Alexa”.

Last week, my skill was published on Amazon’s list of Alexa skills. It allows someone to say “Alexa, tell me now if 1 plus 1 equals 2”, and will respond by saying that they’ve gotten this correct (or not). Unlike the basic Alexa functionality of doing maths, where someone might say “Alexa, what is 1 plus 1”, this skill forces the speaker to offer the answer and have it checked. This should be useful to anyone wanting to test their maths, and it supports addition, subtraction and multiplication. Basic users would probably use small numbers, but advanced users can use large numbers – the skill supports it all. Not negative numbers or zero, though!

Doing the coding behind this was straightforward; it was some simple Node.js code that runs on AWS Lambda. What was less straightforward was sorting out the grammar to use.

In speech recognition, the word “grammar” refers to the set of different phrases that an application can recognise at a point in time. A simple grammar is one that consists of just the phrases “yes” and “no”. A complex grammar might include every product for sale on Amazon itself and different ways to order them. The grammar is used by the speech recognition engine to improve its recognition, since it doesn’t need to always listen for every possible word in English, but only the specific words that are contained in the grammar.

To develop an Alexa skill, you need to hack together the basic Alexa grammar, together with an “invocation name”, and then the grammar that the skill itself can recognise. (Here, I’m using the word hack in its art-of-programming sense, not in the computer-intrusion sense.) Usually, the invocation name is a pronoun, e.g. “Dog Facts”, “Starbucks” or “GE Podcast Theatre”. However, it can be any set of words, and there is alternative dog fact skill that uses the invocation name “me a dog fact”.

This last one doesn’t seem to make sense until you remember that there is a grammar that comes before the invocation name. It starts with a “wake word” (one of “Alexa”, “Amazon” or “Echo”), then a variety of commands based around words like “tell”, “ask”, “start” or “open”. So, the invocation name gets added to this grammar, e.g. “Alexa, tell” + “me a dog fact” which makes a lot more sense.

Amazon publishes a list of constraints relating to invocation names. For my application, it would have been easiest to develop it using an invocation name like “Math Test” and then users would interact with it like “Alexa, ask Math Test to check if 1 plus 1 equals 2”. However, I wanted to see if I could do something that was easier for users.

Initially, I tried out the invocation name “me if”, which would produce nice interactions like “Alexa, tell me if 1 plus 1 equals 2”. However, using “if” violates one of Amazon’s constraints around invocation names, so I needed to find something else. That’s how I ended up with “me now” as my invocation name. Interactions become slightly longer, but still workable, like “Alexa, tell me now if 1 plus 1 equals 2”. To make this approach obvious to users, the skill is named “Tell Me Now”.

Now, I just need to get the kids to speak to Alexa about maths instead of music.

Minecraft Cake – Alex

Last year, my eldest daughter requested a Minecraft cake, and I made one by covering a butter cake with a mosiac of Minecraft-style tiles made from sugar cubes (coloured with different types of cordial syrup). It looked amazing, but was a lot of work. So, this year, when she asked for a Minecraft cake again, I wanted to do something a little less complicated.

The finished cake

The spec was a girl Minecraft character, lying down, made out of chocolate cake (inspired by this cake). As you can see, it looked just like the character Alex, and was almost all gone by the end of the party, so was pretty tasty, too. It was a chocolate butter cake, filled with chocolate butter cream, and coated with white chocolate ganache. If you want to do something similar, here’s what I did.

Ingredients 1 (chocolate butter cake)

  • 190g unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup caster sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 1/4 cups of self-raising flour (minus 2 tablespoons)
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup milk

Method 1 (chocolate butter cake)

  1. This is based on the butter cake recipe from The Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake book. Firstly, get the oven warming at 190 degrees Celcius.
  2. Grease and line a large tin, 30cm x 21cm x 5cm. You can probably use something narrower if you need to, but the length is important.
  3. Bring butter to room-temperature if it isn’t already. I usually place it on a plate in about 1cm thick slices and zap in the microwave for 30s at 50% power.
  4. Place butter and vanilla in a mixer, and beat until light and creamy. Add sugar gradually while beaters are running at slow to combine. Add eggs one by one and give it a good beat after each to ensure it comes together.
  5. Remove bowl from the mixer, and sift in half the flour. Add half the milk and return to the mixer until combined. Then do the same thing again with the rest of the flour and milk, except this time include the cocoa powder with the sifted flour.
  6. You should have a thick mixture that can be dollopped into the greased tin. Smooth the top to ensure it’s level.
  7. Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.
  8. Cool for a couple of minutes in the tin, then remove and and cool on a wire rack overnight. This will ensure cake is completely cool and can be most easily cut to shape the cake design.

The cake, baked

Ingredients 2 (white chocolate ganache)

  • 1 cup (250 mL) thickened cream (35% fat)
  • 660g of white chocolate melts

Method 2 (white chocolate ganache)

  1. Place the chocolate melts into a metal (or glass) bowl, and place on the stove over a saucepan with a little bit of water. (Note, if you want to make milk or dark chocolate ganache, you need to use a ratio of closer to 2g:1mL.)
  2. Pour the cream into a small saucepan, and heat on the stove until it is simmering temperature.
  3. Remove the small saucepan from the stove, and pour the cream into the chocolate. Stir until the mixture is smooth.
  4. Remove from the stove, allow to cool for a couple of minutes, and then put in the fridge for a couple of hours to stiffen. Note that this will (most likely!) make more ganache than you need, but it’s better to err on the safe side.

Ingredients 3 (chocolate butter cream)

  • 125g unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups icing sugar (minus 1 heaped tablespoon)
  • 1 heaped tablespoon of drinking chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons milk

Method 3 (chocolate butter cream)

  1. This is also from The Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake book. Firstly, ensure the butter is at room temperature, e.g. using the technique above. This time, also ensure the milk is at room temperature.
  2. Put the butter in the bowl of a mixer and beat until it is as white as possible.
  3. Sift the icing sugar and drinking chocolate into another bowl, and gradually add about half of it into the butter with the mixer running.
  4. Add the milk gradually, then gradually add in the remaining sifted icing sugar.

Method 4 (constructing the cake)

  1. Days earlier, I had created a design for an icing sheet that would be used to decorate the exterior of the cake. This was based on the Alex design at Pixel PaperCraft.Minecraft cake template
  2. I uploaded this to an icing sheet printing service – in this case, I used CustomIcing.com.au – and had them print it onto an A3 sheet. I got it in the post a couple of days later, and kept it in a cold place until I needed it.
  3. I cut the cooled cake into three pieces. Two were 7cm x 7cm x 2.5cm squares that would be used for the head. The other was a T-shaped piece that was 21cm long, and 14cm wide at its widest point, but 7cm wide at its narrowest. This was actually a mistake, and it should have been more like 12.5cm wide at its widest point (the arms are 3 blocks wide each not 4 blocks). In any case, the exact measurements will depend on the icing sheet, so take measurements from that, and allow at least 0.5cm for icing.Pieces of cake
  4. Next, slice the T-shaped piece in half horizontally, so that it can be filled with the butter cream.
  5. Spread butter cream between the two square pieces and sandwich together. Place onto the plate or platter that will be used to present the cake. Also, spread butter cream into the T-shaped piece. Join with the square piece to make the shape of a block person (note the square piece is taller than the rest of the cake). If there isn’t enough butter cream coming right to the edge, pipe butter cream along the gap.Filled cake
  6. Remove the ganache from the fridge and use a palette knife to spread a decent coating over the cake. It’s okay if it gets crumbs in it or looks a bit rough at this point.Covered with ganache
  7. Place the cake in the fridge for the ganache to firm up again, and in the mean-time prepare the icing sheet.
  8. Cut along the outside of each of the shapes on the icing sheet using a sharp knife and a ruler. Also, cut along the base of the arm a little, so the hands are not connected to the legs.
  9. Remove the cake from the fridge. Using a jug of hot water and a tea towel, keep the palette knife hot (but dry) and shape the ganache so that it is smooth, level and has distinct corners. Also, use a ruler to ensure that the ganache-covered cake matches the measurements of the design on the icing sheet. You may want to trim off some of the cake, reapply ganache, refrigerate again and smooth the ganache before going on.
  10. Gently pick up the design from the icing sheet, peeling it away from the backing material. Slowly lower it onto the cake, possibly using a second person at this point! It is probably best to start with the legs and then lower the head piece on last. It is very easy to rip the icing sheet.
  11. Carefully smooth the icing sheet onto the ganache, and then return to the fridge until it is needed.The finished cake
  12. Eat it! It was devoured quickly by a dozen kids and a couple of nearby adults.The cake, finished