Why cake decorators and puzzle gamers should look into cyber security as a career

When an ex-colleague forwarded the Defence Industry Cyber Security Challenge to me, the old IT itch starts rearing its head. This is one of the few IT “white hat” challenges that are not restricted to students or specific groups.

One of the most unexpected things that I took away from the weekend is how similar cyber security is to puzzle games and cake decorating.

Problem Cyber Security Professionals Cake Decorators Puzzle Gamers
Tools Defined standards many openly available e.g. html Anything you can get from the shops e.g. flour, eggs etc and an oven Defined by what you have been given in the game
Patience level Firewall number 3 to break through. Bring it on! 2 dozen hand made sugar roses for the topper later… you still have to do the rest of the cake Level 230a, b, c and d…
Empathy Level How did the person who put together the code think that I can spot vulnerabilities? People see Tardis and see blue, phone box and flashing light. Make sure that goes into cake. If this character is thinking and feeling that, they must have dropped that clue around here somewhere
Persistent Level I know its in here somewhere! I will brute force it if I have to I will get that cake edges razor sharp, even if it takes me hours Final level at game play hour 160+ anyone?
Think outside the box All the websites logins are locked down. What about the file upload API in the backend? Hanging upside down tiered wedding cake…defying gravity and laws of physics If I can’t get the key, I will tunnel through or jump over.

I can go on and on, but truth is all 3 of these are master problem solvers. Tools used are different but ways of thinking is the same underneath the hood.

If it comes up again, I would encourage anybody who has a passing understanding of the Internet to give it a go. You can do it from wherever you are, unlike a lot of hackathons, you do not need to travel. Its an exciting weekend and learn new things even if you don’t win…I am living proof that you can run off the adrenaline for days afterwards!

So How Hard Was It?

What makes this challenge a standout is that majority of the challenge can be done with ordinary tools that are available to everyone. The key here is that you need to think like a hacker (qualities see above).

Without giving the answers away, majority of the challenges can be done with standard web browser tools and desktop/mobile applications freely available to everyone. Hence you do not need to wear glasses, sit in a darken room with ones and zeros streaming through the green screen to participate.

It will help if you have used open source tools and some programming in the past, however, in my opinion this will only give you a time advantage to get the answers quicker and in a bit more depth.

Side note: There was one section where I suspect you need some prior knowledge of data science which I struggled with a little. I will update this post once the expected answers become available.

Edit 02/10/2017: I have since spoken to some of the winners who completed this challenge.  They did have a background in machine learning, which helped in their responses.  However having said that I personally didn’t but had fun approaching this from a commonsense angle.


This is not a sponsored post. I have no affiliation with ACSGN other than being an unpaid participant of their challenge.

Edit 02/10/2017: I should probably disclaim that after this post I won the best female award for this cyber challenge – which I did not know at the time of the original post

Sneak Peak Number 3

You do not want to get in the way of this little squirrel’s poison dart.

Sugar: An Origin Story


Sugar, the common hidden ninja in most of our daily foods. Where did it come from? How did it get here? In this series, we will find out.

Sugar – An Origin StorySugar is present in much of the natural world, honey, maple syrup, saps and even sweet potatoes. What we know as sugar (or granulated sugar) is a refined form of sugar. That means that humans have taken a plant that contains sugar (from sugar cane or sugar beets commonly) and extracted the sugar that within it.

Figuring out how to to do it took thousands of years, and we can still see remnants of each step in getting our white sparkly sugar today.

Step 1 – Sugar cane (or beets) are grown in the fields by farmers. When they are ready, they are harvested. At this point, the clock is on to race to extract the sugar before the plants go off.

Step 2 – The juice are (literally) squeezed out of them. Out of which comes a greenish, sticky liquid that resembles a really thin spinach smoothie – yum!

Step 3 – The juice are then treated with milk of lime (no, not the stuff from the green fruit) and carbon dioxide. This makes other bad bits in the juice, that are too small for a physical sieve, to clump together. Then it is put through giant sieve to get a clear juice.

Step 4 – The clear juice is then reduced down to a thick sauce by boiling.

Step 5 – The sauce a la sugar is then left to grow sugar crystals. At which point raw sugar emerges (this is not your supermarket “raw sugar”, for that see below). The sugar crystals are scooped up. The left over gooey mess is what is known as molasses.

Step 6 – The raw sugar then goes through a further wash, spinning, clarifying and filtering to get the remaining molasses off the surface of the crystals, (a bit like a bath and a buff). The resulting clear liquid will go through crystallisation again to get us the white sparkly powder we see on shop shelves.

There are many sugars available now that do not go through step 6, go through a light version of it. There are only definitions for white sugar and icing within the Australian and New Zealand Food Standards. So the key is to read the packaging and understand where the product comes from and how its made.

Next up in the series: Sugar, Where are they now?

Brown Sugar's Secret History

Standard brown/raw sugar are actually refined white sugar with molasses added back in. When I asked a staff at a sugar refinery why would they go into the trouble of the extra step, they said that is to ensure the level of taste and colour is consistent. This is so that a bag of brown sugar does not sit next to the shelf to another bag where it may be lighter due to the natural varying content of sugar cane/beets that had been used to make them.

Make you own Brown Sugar

Brown sugar are actually white sugar and molasses added together. You can make your own. Grab some white sugar and add teaspoons of molasses to it until it reaches the colour and taste that you want. Once you work out your own favourite recipe you can use it in most recipes that calls for brown sugar.

Sneak Preview No.2

“Oh, this is one of those onion things, isn’t it?”

-Donkey from Shrek

Rain Rain Go Away…Relieve Yourself Another Day

With the recent wet weather around the world, it reminded me of a time when a preschooler asked me why does the sky rain? (The explanation I used at the time was a bit NSFP, Not Safe for Polite Company. Its included at the bottom if you need to grab the attention of a restless preschooler.)

Rain basically is water going through evaporation (turning from water to steam, aka boiling) and condensation (turning from steam to water, aka fogging up) cycle. Water gets made into steam in the air from any source of water (e.g. lake, ocean or even just moisture on the pavement). If the environment doesn’t change, it will stay in the air for a long time, hanging around in the form of clouds. However it will usually meet something that causes the steam to cool. This cooling then turns the steam back into water, falling to earth. So at a simplistic level, you can say that cloud drinks water when it is warm, and when something cools it down it rains.

In a way this continues non-stop throughout the world. What is evaporated from the pacific ocean today may fall as rain in Asia tomorrow.

NSFP Analogy

If the preschooler is at a stage when any bodily functions are a hilarious topic, the following may work well.

When its warm, the cloud drinks water (from evaporation, you may have to do some ground work here) just like a person does. Until they drink so much water that their body can’t hold anymore. They have to go to toilet to get rid of the excess water. Then the cloud goes to toilet, producing rain.

Its simplistic… but they won’t forget it in a hurry. 🙂


Let us know any strange analogy you ever had to use to explain a concept to a child.

Sneak Preview - As Promised

Not enough room and WAY too much stock.

As Old As Time – or is it?

We are all familiar with the expression, “as old as time”, but did you know that time as we know it today only existed about a couple of centuries?  It was only in the past couple of hundred years when the world gradually agreed to one standard measure of time that time became a universal concept.  Until then people worked and rested by the rise and fall of the sun.

The (clear) glass we are used to are brought about by the government confinement of glass craftsmen to the island of Murano (to stop fire and the skills from escaping…).  Otherwise we will probably still be using vases that looks like it has been chiselled out of quartz.

This is something that we should remind ourselves, as we increasingly look to technology sector as miracle workers that both disrupt and benefit society. No invention occurs in isolation.

Innovation/problem solving/’scientific discoveries’ started when caveman wondered what that burning bush struck by lightening is.  It’s an essential skill in today’s increasingly fast paced world.  A kinder teacher I know, instead of googling answers herself, involve students in working out the answer to their questions.  This means a lot more work for her, but I look forward in 10 years time to the next young batch of inquisitive young scientists/engineers/makers.

For more information about time and glass, Steven Johnson has an excellent series called “How We Got to Now” episodes of which is available now on ABC iView.  Time and glass episode have expired now, but cold and light are still on.  I am sure you can get the DVD/downloads from the usual retailers if you want to catch up.

PS I am coining the term “Science Anthropology”.  Let us know if you think there’s a better (or more official) name out there.


This is not a sponsored post, nor do we have any association with ABC or Steven Johnson.

Why the short post!?

This post may seem out of style with our usual posts, but we are madly working on 2 concurrent exciting projects at the moment (yes yes, I know what people say about multitasking…).  Stay tuned for sneak peeks and news over the next few weeks!

It’s National Science Week. Let’s Do Something!

Its that time of the year again!  A national science week where we celebrate all cool things science.  Instead of hearing me rant on about science all around us, you (and your kids) can get a few hours of entertainment while staying out of the chilly Melbourne weather.

I am glad to see that there are a handful of events for pre-school aged children.

As part of this (unofficially), I will be doing a science storytime at my local kinder, helping poor Rexy and Tako find their crown. 🙂  I strongly encourage anyone to put their hands up to do something locally, even if its just making a bicarb volcano!  Anything will help our kids discover science all around us, not to mention looking really cool for making “science magic” happen.

For your nearest events, visit their website.

What’s your favourite science activities/moments you had with kids?  We would love to hear about all your experiences below!

Flour: A Line Up

Bread, cake, AP …. what does it all mean? With the variety of flour that is available on the market, it is easy to be confused. When you then add in the wealth of overseas recipes that seems to call for a particular kind of flour, it makes for one major headache before you have even turned on the oven!

In Australia, there are 3 main types of flour available:

  • Plain/White (aka All Purpose, AP) Flour – this is your stock standard flour that you sees in the shops. It is what most recipes calls for. Generally this will contain ~10% protein.
  • Bread Flour – Not to confused with “Bread Mixes”, these are pure flour that contains more of the gluten components that gives bread that stretchy feel and rise. This contains ~11.5%+ protein. This is generally used for breads, pizzas, rolls and anything that needs that resistance to tearing. This is made from a harder variety of wheat than white flour.
  • Cake/Pastry Flour – These are special low protein flours that do not contain as much gluten. This is milled from a soft kind of wheat. Due to the low gluten level, it is used in cakes and products that need to be soft and crumbly. It generally contains <9% of protein. This is milled from a breed of wheat that are inherently softer. In fact if you put a bit of plain flour next to cake/pastry flour, you will find that cake/pastry flour will look more like baby powder than the plain flour.

(Note in America you can buy Cake or Pastry flour in the shops, one has been bleached to absorb more water in a recipe. However in Australia it tends to denote just low protein flour in general.)

Where's that cake flour when you need it?!

On the internet, it is a common advice to add some cornflour to all purpose flour to substitute for cake/pastry flour. But remember, all different types of flour are milled from different TYPES of wheat with its own characteristics. Substitution will get an approximation of the desired result, but its not a long term strategy.

This is a good experiment to do. Take your favourite cake recipe that calls for cake flour. Use cake/pastry flour for one batch and use plain flour + cornflour flour for the other batch. Don’t change anything else. If you compare the end results side by side, you will find that there will be a texture difference. In fact, depending on personal preference, you may choose to alter your recipe permanently!

PS am happy to take any left over cake as part of this experiment. 😉


Majority of the wheat flour in Australia will fall into one of the above categories. Any other terminology are likely to be a description of how and where the wheat has been processed.

Next up: Willy Wonka world of sugar…

Why are Fridge Doors Magnetic?

I was explaining to a child recently how the fridge door works (two magnets or a magnet and piece of metal stick together to hold the door closed).  The child then asked the inevitable question, “Why a magnet?”

This started me on a journey that reminds me of how much human oriented design every product should be…

Warning! Contains content not safe for children. Click here for full post.

In the good old days, fridges came with a handle and a latch.  It was the best way to make sure that the door was sealed tight against the fridge body, keep the cool air in.

However that had an unintended consequence….it created a airtight seal between the outside and inside.  Good right? Only until children realised that fridges were the best places for playing hide and seek in…

The airtight seal kept fresh air out and screams from inside the fridge in.  After a few accidental deaths, the US government brought in legislation that require fridge doors to be able to opened from the inside.

So what did the designers do?  After all the old design latch was good at holding the door closed.  After due consideration, they went back to experiments on how much force a child can push with from inside a confined space.  With that data, they hit upon the magnet that generated enough force to hold the door close, but not too much…


This is a classic tale of how a product evolved because of human behaviour.  It is not a consequence that any designers could have foreseen.  The latch was, and is still, the best solution to hold doors close. However it is good design principle to design with human behaviour in mind, even if it means compromises. After all there is no point in putting out a product that nobody can/will use.

How do we get there? Now that’s a whole different discussion altogether…

Do you know of  times when design had to unexpectedly bend around human behaviour? Tell us below.

Flour – Wheat: A Tear Down

Episode 2 of our flour series….

Wheat is a little seed, called kernel, that sits on top of a grass stalk. One stalk can have multiple wheat kernels. In fact, each little kernel is potential for a new stalk of wheat to grown. Inside each kernel are 3 main parts, germ, endosperm and bran.

Bran – its like our skin and clothes we put on. Its job is to protect the content inside from the weather and animals that may attack it. To do this, it is made of a tough material. The brown bits that you can see in wholemeal flour is mostly from the bran which is golden. This tougher material contains a lot of fibre, which is good for our health when we eat it.

Germ – Germ is where the core from which the baby wheat would have grown. As such it is high in protein, vitamins and minerals that the baby wheat would have needed to grow.

Endosperm – This makes up most of the wheat, sitting in between germ and bran, like a cushion. This is the part white flour comes from once the wheat is crushed. If you open a wheat up and zoom in, you will see mostly of this white powdery substance. It is also where the gluten (the stretchy component where bread and other baked goods get their texture) is located. Hence this is why most coeliac sufferers cannot eat wheat flour.

What is gluten free?

People who suffers from coeliac, gluten sensitivity has a digestive system that do not react well to gluten in food. If they eat lots of gluten, their guts will become irritated and can not absorb nutrients properly, amongst other consequences. Hence a lot of these people avoid gluten altogether to manage their condition.

Different people have different levels of sensitivity to the level of gluten in their diet. In Australia, for a food to be labelled gluten-free, they must not contain any detectable levels of gluten (which is different to rules in other developed countries). This means for most food makers having a gluten free recipe does not allow them to label the product as “gluten free”.

Why? If there are already trace levels of gluten in the air, preparation surface, walls (e.g. from a previous product that contains gluten), this can be transferred to the food. Usually, “gluten free” manufacturers have dedicated gluten free facilities to cater to this requirement.

This is why, due to our custom nature, while The Project Counter can use dietary requirement specific recipes in our cakes, we cannot offer specific “allergy free” products.

Composite Sushi Roll?

Hokkaido University have recently come up with a new material that is 5x stronger than carbon steel. They did this by combining hydrogel (a wobbly jelly like substance) and glass fibers, creating a composite material.

What is a composite material?

Composite material is a blend of two (or more) materials, where the materials work together to each give the new material their type of characteristics that they are good at.

Think of a sushi roll as a composite material. The outer seaweed layer stops the rice from spilling out everywhere. The rice stops the seaweed getting wet, while tightly binding the middle ingredients together. The filling, especially if you got a vegetarian one, gives the sushi a hard core to stay up straight while we chomp away.

Take away any one of these materials, you will end up with a sushi roll that you can’t eat without a big mess:

  • No seaweed – rice spills everywhere at the pressure from being picked up (Ok this doesn’t apply if you are a sushi master.)
  • No rice – sloppy wrap that will tear from moisture and you end up with a soggy mess of vegetable
  • No filling – a roll that will flop over at first sign of wobble

Next time you look at a sushi roll, think of the ingenious composite that is your lunch.

What about Nigiris?

Ok… so how does Nigiris (a cube of sushi with filling on top) stay together without the seaweed? Nigiris are often made with a higher level of stickiness in the rice. The stickiness means that you do not need to have a seaweed wrapper. The stickiness of the rice makes the seaweed’s characteristic of holding the rice together redundant.

This emulates an evolution of composite in real life. If one material of a composite gets more desirable characteristics as time goes on, the composite can become simpler (usually also cheaper) to manufacture. Eventually, some composites become obsolete when another material is discovered that replaces all the useful characteristics of the original composite. (Newspaper as wall insulation, anyone?)

Flour: An Origin Story

Flour is a generic term that can applied to any grains that had been pounded into a powder form. However these days it’s commonly used to mean powder that has been produced from wheat grains.

But where did the ubiquitous powder come from? And what does it actually consists of? This series explores all of these.

Step 1

Wheat grass is harvested. In the old days it used to be done using a scythe and then the wheat grains are beaten off the stalks in bunches. These days a machine called a combine harvester is used to remove the seeds and leaves the stalks behind on the field.

What happens to the stalks then?
The stalks that are left on the ground are not going to waste. Usually a machine called a hay baler, is sent through the fields, after the combine harvester, and tie up the stalks into huge bales/rounds. These hay bales are then used for other purposes such as feed for animals. A great example of using up every part of a plant.


Step 2

The wheat grains are then cleaned and sorted so that any non-wheat things, like pebbles, twigs, are taken out. These are then sent to be “tempered”. See this as a hot bath for our wheat grains which makes it softer for crushing later.

Step 3

The wheat grains are then taken to be crushed by giant rollers. Each time the wheat germs are crushed, the fluffy white bits in the middle of the grain(called the endosperm) are crushed to a powder and that passes through the sieve. Anything that doesn’t get through are crushed again. This step is repeated until all the flour are extracted. What you have left are the skin and kernel (aka brans and germs) in the sieve.

Hang on...Whole... what?
Wholegrain and wholemeal are two words that are used to describe the fact that the germ and the bran (not just the endosperm) are crushed down and put into the flour as well.



Step 4

It is mandatory, in Australia, for millers to add folic acid to flour, with a few select exceptions. This is added to the product before bagging and shipping to shops all over the country.

What's that in my flour?!
The folic acid addition is a reaction to concerns that folic acid levels have been declining in society. As folic acid has been shown to be critical to baby development BEFORE conception (up to a month before), this is a strategy that hopes to maintain folic acid levels in everyone with its flow on effect to the next generation.



Up Next in the Series…

A look inside the grain to see how this versatile grain gives us flour

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