Mike MacDonagh's Blog

Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

Category Archives: junk, rants and opinions

My Alexa skill is now live in the UK

Every month at my kung fu club, Chi Wai Kung Fu in Cheltenham UK, there’s a series of strikes of the month that are on rotation for extra attention. Also there’s a rotating black belt syllabus. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to remember all of these details, and whether or not you need to take a bo staff or set of escrima sticks to the club. So, I thought I’d write an Alexa skill to remind me 🙂

chiwai_alexa_out.png

If you’re into Alexa in the UK, then join my UK Facebook group, it’s got over 4,500 members:

echo_group_welcome

The basic skill is pretty simple, interrogating an array and returning the requested information. Getting it certified was a bit more fiddly because I wanted to use a single word invocation name “chiwai” which is against the rules normally, and because it’s a trademark infringement if it’s not official. Of course, in this case it was official as I developed it on behalf of the club. The Amazon skill dev support team were very helpful so now it’s live 🙂

Here’s a video of it in action:

To get it, if you’re in the UK, just say “Alexa, enable Chi Wai“.

You can also search for “ChiWai” in the Alexa app, or install direct from Amazon.co.uk.

You can then ask it questions like “what are the strikes of the month” or go a step further and say “what are the strikes of the month for October” or “what’s the black belt element in February”. Because of the way Alexa works, voice recognition on those second questions is greatly improved if you first start the skill by saying “Alexa, talk to Chi Wai” and then ask them. You can directly ask by saying “Alexa, ask Chi Wai for the …” but it’s not quite so accurate.

Also, try “Alexa, tell Chi Wai, Zoon Ching” 🙂

The code is on github here: https://github.com/macmike/chiwai-alexa-strikes

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Chi Wai Kung Fu @ Cheltenham now with extra tech!

kung_fu_cats.pngFor over 6 years now I’ve been going to Chi Wai Kung Fu! A few years ago I achieved a lifelong ambition to become a Black Belt in Kung Fu. Now I’m a second Dan and a brown belt in Dacayana Eskrima as a bonus!

Chi Wai is great, my whole family go there 🙂
My two boys started when they were little and now are both black belts. It’s done them a huge amount of good, it’s far more than just self-defense (and that’s important by enough to justify it). They’ve learned respect, discipline, control, confidence and a positive attitude founded in the fact that they’ve worked hard at something to achieve their goals. me_sifu.jpgNot always achieving first time, but through persistence and hard work they’ve got there in the end! There’s a saying that a “Black belt is just a white belt that never gave up”, that’s something they’ve learned from Chi Wai.

My wife even does Kung Fu, and is heading towards her black belt this year. As a result I’m running out of wall space to hold all of our certificates. I’m also finding home practice sessions hurt a lot more!

The Chi Wai system mixes traditional kung fu with practical self-defence including weapons and group
attacks. Because the club has a full time dojo there’s lessons for separate age groups every day (except for Sunday, even ninjas need a rest).

It’s a great family run club with a genuine family atmosphere. It’s friendly and welcoming and manages to keep that positive environment consistently. A lot of that is down to the excellent instructors but it’s also down to the people and families that train there.

chiwai_family.jpgIt’s fantastic to have a family activity where we can all be at different levels, but all encourage each other and train together as the kids get older. As my eldest son’s gone from little kid to adult sized teenager he’s now fighting with the adults and enjoys putting me in arm locks in Black Belt lessons 🙂

If you’re in the Cheltenham, UK area then get yourself, your kids and your auntie to Chi Wai Kung Fu! You can even ask Amazon Alexa about it:

Or learn how to do the intro bow from my buddy the modelling guy:

 

 

Amazon Alexa – what it needs to do next

I’m a big fan of Amazon Alexa. I bought a dot to experiment with and it’s so useful I have it in several rooms now. Alexa can control my smart lighting (courtesy of lightwaverf kit), play music, order food, order some amazon stuff, manage my shopping and to-do lists amongst other things, but she’s got a few drawbacks.

Here’s what I’d like to see Alexa tackle next:

  1. Conversation flow – the ability to add contextual follow up questions, without every command being “Alexa, do a thing…” It sounds trivial but when you’re having entire conversations with Alexa it’s a bit weird to have to use the wake word for every sentence.
  2. Multiple commands in one e.g. “Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights and start playing the cooking playlist” rather than “Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights” and “Alexa, start playing the cooking playlist”
  3. Unstructured search – Alexa’s great at facts but Amazon have decided not to make her opinionated.  She’s great at “what is a hoover?” and “what is 12 miles in kilometres?”.
    1. She can answer: “Who played harry potter in harry potter and the philosopher’s stone?”
    2. But can’t do things like “who played Harry Potter in the movies”. In contrast google can answer that question with a quick snippet about the cast. I read a blog that said they didn’t want to make a decision for users about simply returning the first search hit rather than making an informed choice – but if I’m making a voice search that’s exactly what I want. If I want to get a range of views and select my search result I’ll use a text interface. Returning “cards” with links to Bing isn’t good enough – just read me the top hit from <insert search engine here>
  4. Intercom – I want to be able to send a voice message from one Alexa device to another to create an intercom system in my house (e.g. “Alexa, send a message to the living room telling the kids to turn the TV volume down”)
  5. Delayed reminders – Alexa’s good at setting alarms but I want her to remind me with a message not just beeping (e.g. “Alexa, at 6pm remind me it’s time to order a taxi”). At the moment, that sentence will result in “Time to order a taxi” on the to do list. Or I can set an alarm for 6pm which beeps. I want a voice message at a specific time.
  6. Alarms – play music not just beeps. (e.g. “Alexa, wake me up at 7am with my Spotify Wake Up playlist”)
  7. Local DLNA integration. Alexa’s great at streaming music from the internet but doesn’t currently see home DLNA music as a streaming source. Which is odd, I can see how to program a skill to do discovery (similar to the current smart home discovery, or just built into that) and the rest is the same. Amazon, if you read this I’ll do it for you at a reasonable price.
  8. Chromecast e.g. Alexa, play Netflix: Game of Thrones”
  9. Order a Dominos. Yep, I know it can do this in the US so why not in the UK? Dominos allow ordering via chatbot in Facebook Messenger so this is easy to do from a coding point of view. Dominos, if you’re listening…
  10. IFTTT integration. C’mon Amazon, IFTTT say they’re waiting for you do to something. This unlocks millions of possibilities.
  11. Add things to my Amazon Wish List e.g. “Alexa, add a Raspberry Pi to my Amazon wish list” only adds it to my (local) shopping list.
  12. Remove things from todo or shopping lists by voice. Also, email me my lists.
  13. Custom volume schedules. In the morning I want Alexa to be nice and quiet, in the evening I want her volume to be a lot higher. Perhaps what I really need is her to automatically adjust her volume based on the ambient noise. After all she’s listening all the time anyway.
  14. Proactive notification. I realise it would be annoying if any skill could push notifications to my Alexa (I don’t want random ads being spoken in my house) but I’d like to be able to whitelist some apps so I can get alerts at certain times of day from specific apps (e.g. order status on ordered food, package tracking, breaking news, birthday reminders).
  15. I want a big Echo with a screen for my kitchen too.

I realise many of these are about integrating outside of the Amazon ecosystem which is perhaps why they’ve been reluctant to do so. But with Google Home, an MS and Apple assistants turning up soon the winner is likely to be the most useful all round. At the moment that’s Alexa, but by being more open to integrations it’ll be hard to beat.

What do you want Alexa to be able to do?

Make space history: Lunar Mission One is almost a go!

Lunar Mission One is a kickstarter project to to send an unmanned robotic landing module to the South Pole of the Moon – an area unexplored by previous missions. It’s almost reached it’s funding target, only 60k to go out of 600k needed.

I think this mission is inspiring and important. It’s a chance for ordinary people to be part of space history. Increasingly governments are less willing to fund space science so maybe it’s up to us. Do we care enough about space science to fund it, by maybe £3 or 5$? The average funding for Lunar Mission One has so far been about £89 but that doesn’t mean that £1 isn’t useful.

Space science is the greatest example of humanity trying to understand the universe and our existence. It’s the basis of so much progress both in science and practical at-home stuff like:

  • Your (or your friends) glasses
    • Since the 1970s eyeglasses have been made of plastic instead of glass – less prone to breaking and shattering, cheaper, better at UV absorbtion and lighter. Of course plastic glasses scratched more easily, until NASA based coatings invented for astronaut helmet visors are now used
  • Satellite Navigation/GPS
    • Seriously, this one shouldn’t even need explaining!
    • Oh yeah, and satellite tv, global comunications etc.
  • Cordless tools
    • Things like cordless drills, vacuum cleaners etc. based on science developed for the moon programme
  • Memory foam, medical LED usage, blood pumps, automatic defibrillator, ear thermometers, smoke detectors, water filters, etc.

I think it’s important that we support space science. Supporting Lunar Mission One means you could have a bit of you sent to the moon to hang around for millions if not billions of years. That’s unlikely to happen on Earth. More importantly you’d be expressing a desire to explore our environment, our solar system, our existence and in turn our nature. I think that’s worth a little money from all of us.

Lunar Mission One is a global project, please support it and get it past it’s initial funding goal so it can be a reality.

Yep, this is me in front of a space rocket

Me in front of the Atlantis launch rocket

Me in front of the Atlantis launch rocket

 

Collective nouns for software development roles

An embarrassment of Project Managers

An impasse of Architects

A confusion of Business Analysts

A mob of Developers

A silo of Testers

A brethren of Scrum Coaches

A waste of Lean Consultants

A conspiracy of Process Improvement Consultants

People are important, not roles! But recently I saw a weekly team meeting for a project that had 12 project managers! I thought it was a joke at first.

Can you think of any others?

Wrote some REST code to access a site’s API and saw a job offer in the response

What an excellent way to advertise directly to your target audience 🙂

I was writing some code to get some info from a site from their REST api and saw an unusual header in the response from the API which said something along the lines of “if you’re reading this come and get a job” with a link. The clever thing about this is that it’s already only filtered in people who already have the right skills that the company is looking for and it was unusual enough for me to immediately follow the link. Excellent innovative recruitment!

And the site? wordpress.com although it’s changed now to “Oh, Awesome: Opossum”

I’m a big fan of wordpress.com for a number of reas0ns. First they host my blog, for free. Second the authoring experience is always awesome opossum.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

I’ve decided to rename my blog from “The MacDaddy” to the imaginatively titled “Mike MacDonagh’s Blog”.

When I first setup this blog I had no idea what direction it would go in and I’ve always been terrible at naming things. I decided on the MacDaddy as an ironic nod to Kriss Kross and because there’s a “Mac” in my name and I’m a Daddy. I don’t think anyone ever got the joke. Jump jump…

Anyway, I’ve known for a long time it was silly so I’ve finally  renamed it. I toyed with ideas such as “The Software Ninja” and “Software Kung Fu” in blatant references to mastery and the Kung Fu of Software Engineering but that’s a bit too software-y when many of my posts aren’t really about software. Putting “Business” in the title would make me want to give myself a good slap so I’ve ended up with an almost no-name name. Hopefully now I’ll get less confused visitors looking for a blog about Apple Macs.

If you’ve got a better idea for the name of this blog I’d love to hear it 🙂

Can you have an “agile” conference when the talks are decided by committee?

I was reading Jurgen Appelo’s excellent blog on What If We Started Organizing *Real* Conferences? which chimed with me. I’ve been to, and spoken at,  several conferences where the talks were selected by a mysterious elite committee which just seems wrong. It’s probably because big conferences cost a lot of money and so are sponsored or run by vendors/big companies who want to ensure that people stay “on message”. The alternative is something a bit unstructured that people aren’t sure they want to spend their time on…

I was once involved with a conference at a large customer site a few years ago, the conference organisers put out the usual call for papers and got a bunch of ideas back from people. Those ideas were then all published for the wider community to see, comment and crucially vote up or down. This led to popular topics being pushed high up the list and an prospective audience buying into the topics and therefore the implied value before the event. Commenting meant people could seek clarification and argue the value of things before the event setting up contentious questions.

I recall two particular topics that got into a bit of a debate in the voting round, one ended up in a detailed discussion and eventually a resolution in the the comments and then no one wanted to rehash the discussion at the event. In the other discussion someone said something along the lines of “all of this chatter about the problem means we should have it at the event”. In both cases the community got value from the discussions and their different resolutions.

Importantly, the community self-organised it’s conference. It’s not a perfect model but it was transparent, honest and got people talking to each other which are all good things from where I’m standing 🙂

Netflix UK Review 2012

I really like the idea of Netflix. You pay a flat fee of £5.99 a month and then you can stream movies and tv shows whenever you want them, over and over if you want, with no ads. So I thought I’d try it out (for free). The convenience of being able to watch whatever you want when you want is a great idea, and if it was ubiquitous I believe it’d cut down on piracy massively since it’s cheap and easy.

The bad news 😦
Unfortunately there’s no linux client. Since most media servers are linux based this is a shame but it’s due to DRM dependencies. There was talk of there being a linux client and now talk that there won’t be, however a Chrome addon is likely to eventually support NetFlix on linux.

The other bad news 😦
Although there’s clients for a variety of devices, including android tablets I can’t get the android client to work, I load it up and just see a spinning throbber endlessly.

The good news 🙂
The Wii client works well and was fun to browse. TV listings are well structured and programme fast-forwarding through thumbnails is great. Quality is ok and I loaded up a few FireFly episodes and enjoyed flicking around them. The quality wasn’t as good as my FireFly DVD though, so I turned off the Wii and put the DVD in my linux media centre to watch in my bedroom. If you’ve never watched FireFly it’s worth signing up for the free month trial just to watch it.

The really bad news 😦
The choice is just terrible at the moment. I like rubbish movies, and even old rubbish movies which is good because that’s all there is. In terms of TV there’s just ancient stuff. Top Gear episodes from 2003-2009 (which is basically the Dave playlist minus QI) and some other things I can already get for free (or rather forced purchase) from BBC iPlayer. In terms of US tv shows the choice ranges from appalling to non-existent (Ok so there’s a couple of good shows but I’ve already seen them, notable popular shows not on Netflix UK include Bones, Castle, Supernatural, True Blood, Nikita, Eureka, The Mentalist, The Vampire Diaries, Glee, Game of Thrones, Fringe, Homeland etc). It is possible to pretend you’re in the US rather than the UK of course, since Netflix is just looking at your IP address, in which case the choice is much better but that’s probably considered cheating at best and is probably T’s and C’s violation. If you do proxy to the US you’ll find most of the shows I listed above are available.

The conclusion
It’s a bit like dusting off my own DVD collection of rubbish old films and old good tv boxsets. Maybe there’s a couple of things in there to enjoy during the free trial month but there’s no way I’ll be continuing my membership past the free trial which is a shame. I like the convenience, I’d like it even more if there was a linux client and the android client worked, but it all comes down to the library in the end which just isn’t good enough at the moment.

I’m hoping it’ll get better and I’ll happily sign up again.

Woooo Ubuntu Running On Android looks cool

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