New Skills

“Alexa, open Gary Taylor’s website.”
(Updated 13 March)

I often tell people – okay, students – to broaden their interests, as you never know how things may affect your workplans, or what new ‘thing’ could help you.

Thus is was last week that I was reading the WordPress news headlines that appear in my site’s Dashboard when I saw a story about Amazon’s Alexa Blueprints. These are pre-baked scripts that, once you’ve filled in a few blanks, allow you to roll your own Alexa Skill. One of the Blueprints allows for recent posts from a WordPress site to be read out.

“Ooh,” thinks I, “I know a website that would benefit from that!” Not this site, obviously, I get so few visitors as it is. But, I do know of another, much more useful site that is built on WordPress.

Being at a loose end and wanting to learn a new skill – and having investigated the possibility of making an Alexa Skill ever since it was off-handedly mentioned at one of the sessions at National Conference last year – I downloaded the official Amazon AI plugin from WordPress.

The Setup

The first thing you notice is the lack of obvious instructions – but they are there. They’re hidden under the ‘View details’ information for the plugin itself. They are, at least, comprehensive, as are the instructions on Amazon’s site itself.

You will need an Amazon Web Services (AWS) account. While there are several free tiers, the one you want, Amazon Polly, is only free for the first year. After that I’m not entirely sure, which means the ability to have this post read to you might not be working when you read this in 2020 and beyond.

You’ll create a master/root account on AWS, then a specific IAM user just for this process. It sounds complicated but it really is a case of following the bouncing ball, step by step. If you’ve created network or email accounts before it’s not too dissimilar in that you add users to groups and apply permissions.

You’ll need to make a note of the AWS access key and AWS secret key generated for your new user, so they can be used by the plugin. If you don’t, you’ll have to regenerate the secret key. A faff, but nothing more than that.

“Sorry. I can’t seem to find that.”

Sadly, what should be the complicated bit is actually as easy as it gets.

In their finite wisdom, Amazon’s Alexa Blueprints are not the same in every country. The Blog Blueprint is only available on blueprints.amazon.com. My Amazon account is a UK one, so I default to blueprints.amazon.co.uk. That means my blueprint won’t play on my own Echo unless I publish it. And I’m not going to do that: partly because I want to hear what it does first, and partly because… why?

While on the .com site I asked for help. “Oh, you’re a UK customer, you need to talk to our UK team. They’ll be able to help you, I’ll warrant.” Yes, their reply really did say “I’ll warrant.”

The UK team tried to push me towards the AWS team, by which time I was very unimpressed. And, with AWS you pay for support. The promised call-back at 10am didn’t happen until after 2pm, so even less impressed than before.

And by the time they’d called I’d worked out that it really was down to the regionalisation. The Inspirations Blueprint is on both the .com and .co.uk sites. The .co.uk version works on my Echo, the .com one doesn’t. So it’s ‘simply’ a case of waiting for Amazon to pull their collective fingers out and include the Blog Blueprint on blueprints.amazon.co.uk. I am not holding my breath.

Speak up and say, my Poppinjay

With or without the Blog Blueprint, there’s a text-to-speech option in the plugin. Not automatically, of course, you have to either bulk convert all your posts or turn off the option then turn it back on (because it’s stupid like that). But it does mean you should be able to click on the player button at the top of every post (but not yet the static pages, still trying to work that one out) and listen to this post, as read by British Brian. I could also have had British Amy, British Emma or Welsh-English Geraint, or a host of US and Australian voices (Russell and Nicole. Honestly).

It can even do translations (still trying to work that bit out too), or let you download the sound file. The voices are a bit clunky, and don’t always put the pauses in the correct places. And I’ve increased the talking speed to 125% so it sounds more natural. And there are differences depending on which browser you use as well, in terms of how the player is displayed and whether or not the download button is visible.

Which is all well and good, but not actually why I got the plugin in the first place…

Update, 13 March. As you may have noticed, there’s no player at the top of this post, or any post. There’s a bug in the plugin, such that if you have it switched on for all posts you then can’t turn it off for selected posts (or rather you can, but it turns itself on again for that post). Ho hum.

  1. If Jeff Bezos is involved, it might not be a finger.

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