Working without the commute

This post originally appeared over on Medium.com

The regular way of (white-collar / office) working in the coming years will be quite different to that of the last decade, but also quite different to how most people are predicting.

This is going to be one of those articles where the author talks about what may happen in the future, after some of the Covid-19-related restrictions ease. Why add to the steaming pile? In my case, I want to put forward a view that is different from most of what I am seeing, and also because it is good to have documentation of a prediction so that it can be tested in the future for how well it tracked to reality.

The majority of articles I’ve read about future ways of working seem to predict that the future will be like the present. Principally, that we are currently working from home and that this will continue. Bloomberg reports that Google has seen the equivalent of $1b a year in savings from not having people working and travelling between offices. Additionally, around two thirds of employees in US companies would rather work from home than get a $30,000 raise. So, it seems there are benefits to both employers and employees in letting the current situation continue.

I’ve noticed that in my own experience, there has been a significant productivity improvement in working remotely. Firstly, I work longer, as some of the time I would have spent commuting is spent working instead. Secondly, unproductive time at work spent in travelling between meeting rooms, and waiting for meeting rooms to be vacated, has been eliminated when using online meetings. Lastly, I am able to multi-task more effectively during remote meetings, as I can triage and process emails in a way that would have been more difficult to do in person. So, even putting costs like property rental, cleaning and energy for lighting/heating/cooling aside, I expect many employers will experience a productivity hit if all their workers return to the office full-time.

However, these benefits to employers exist regardless of where the remote employee is working from. Significantly, many employees do not have ideal conditions at their homes to work remotely. For example, if there are multiple people trying to work remotely from the one dwelling and there aren’t enough working spaces to share. Or if the dwelling is too small to have a working space that is ergonomically set up for healthy long-term working — I have seen some people working from small bedrooms. However, the reason such people are still working from home is largely due to restrictions relating to Covid-19, and as these restrictions ease, it’s fair to ask, where would they prefer to work?

The answer seems to be that they’d prefer to work somewhere without a commute. Even before Covid-19, research showed that people hate commuting. One study referenced by Forbes back in 2016 equated removal of a commute with a $40,000 raise, which is an interesting correlation with the work-from-home survey result above.

Additionally, people do value and benefit from the social interaction that they receive in a workspace. This is often at odds with remote working, where online social interaction may need to be a scheduled activity rather than happening informally as part of bumping into people in corridors or kitchens. Meals are a traditional social occasion, but food and drink can’t be readily shared over a video call.

If you put together the value of remote working, the desire for a minimal commute, and the social benefits from working alongside other people, the natural conclusion is that we will see a surge in interest in co-working spaces near people’s homes, once Covid-19 backs off. In Australia at least, many of the co-working spaces have been in the same geographical areas that major corporate offices have been, as the proposition has been in providing flexible offices near to corporates. However, we can expect the proposition to shift to providing flexible offices near to employees.

While co-working businesses have taken a big hit during the Covid-19 lockdowns, up until 2020 there had been a strong trend of growth in adoption of co-working spaces. A March 2020 study by Coworking Resources showed 17% growth in number of users and number of spaces over the previous two years.

Additionally, there are spaces that are similar to co-working spaces that will likely support this demand. Many local libraries supply internet connectivity and bookable desks. Similarly, some cafes are also happy for locals to work from their premises and use their Wi-Fi if they are buying food and drink. In a world where remote working is normalised, arrangements like these might be made more official.

Of course, such spaces do not offer a free alternative to employers providing offices. The costs will need to be borne by someone. Perhaps reduced commuting costs (vehicles, fuel, parking, tickets, etc.) and home costs (energy, internet, etc.) could offer some compensation to employees. Perhaps employers will see the cost savings and productivity gain compared to offices and also provide financial support, or even get into the co-working space business themselves.

There are also questions about how to maintain business confidentiality in a space where there may be employees from competing organisations also working there. Co-working space designs can help mitigate this, as well as suitable IT solutions, but it will remain a risk to be managed. It is not dissimilar to working from an airport lounge or having work discussions in a taxi or cafe, so shouldn’t be considered a new risk.

I hope that we will see more forecasts about the future ways of working that go beyond working from home or even hybrid working. While many people and businesses want to retain the benefits of remote working, working from home is not going to be the only solution. Shared working spaces, close to people’s homes, will almost certainly be part of it.

Book Review – Songlines

When I was in Canberra recently, I went to what I feel must have been the prototypical Canberra bookshop. It was a cafe, and it was also a bookshop that seemed to specialise in books on topics that related to a current political theme. While waiting for my coffee, I spied this book, and since it seemed to build upon material I previously read about in The Biggest Estate on Earth or Dark Emu, I was keen to learn more. I wasn’t disappointed.

Songlines: The Power and Promise, co-written by Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly, initially seemed to be an explanation of what the indigenous Australians call Songlines, i.e. the stories that follow a track across part of the Australian geography. It was this, but it was actually a lot more.

The book mentions that Songlines is a relatively new term, having been coined in 1987. However, and while there are other terms floating around, it seems to have recently become more accepted as the main word to use to refer to these geographically-linked stories from the indigenous Australian societies. This goes some way to explain why I never learned about them in school, but I hope students of today learn about them as they are fascinating!

The book goes further, and highlights how Songlines are the local example of practices from societies all over the world with a strong oral tradition and who don’t use written language for recording and sharing their laws, morals and facts about the world. It completely changed how I think about creative arts, as in such societies, the use of singing, painting, story telling and dancing are not a separate domain for entertainment but the key means for the society to pass on these laws, morals and facts through history. Songlines prove that this mechanism is sufficient to accurately pass on such information over a stretch of 10,000s years while still be flexible enough to adapt to changes and accumulate new knowledge. In a sense, what we call creative arts in Western Culture are a sort of vestigal organ from earlier knowledge systems. Mind blown.

One part of all this that may be familiar is the use of a memory palace or “method of loci”, where facts are given a longevity boost in memory by tying them to imagination about a physical place. For example, imagining walking through rooms of your house, where each of a series of facts is turned into a memorable image located in each room. In the songlines context, rather than rooms of a house, these are notable geological or astrological points of interest throughout a landscape. In addition, songs with lyrics are more memorable than raw facts, so the same journey represented in song will reinforce the memory palace. There are many more tools in the songlines toolkit that ensure facts are retained and can be easily passed along.

Within the book, there is also a push for the adoption of this mechanism alongside what we’d consider modern mechanisms for recording and sharing knowledge (such as books, TV and the Internet) to form what they call a “third archive” of human knowledge. Certainly, we seem to have lost value and respect for memorising facts given how easily they can be retrieved via digital devices, but this has probably created a vulnerability or fragility in our systems, as it is hard to now imagine life without these devices. In any case, this is the first of a series of books relating to Australia’s indigenous peoples, and if they are all this good, I’m looking forward to reading more.

Rating: 4.5 stars.

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