An artificial but beating heart

Review of Alita: Battle Angel

Directed by Robert Rodriguez; starring Rosa Salazar and Christoph Waltz

One cannot but approach Alita: Battle Angel with a certain amount of apprehension. The original anime, made by Yukito Kishiro, was not short of cybernetic action but at its heart was a surprisingly tender love story. The new version is twice as long, incredibly expensive, and directed by Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, El Mariachi), a fellow not known for subtlety. The movie’s trailers hint at a series of spectacularly pointless CGI fight scenes. Even more, Hollywood’s last attempt to make a blockbuster out of an anime, Ghost in the Shell, was an extended exercise in largely missing the point.

Alita #1But as it turns out Rodriguez (overseen by producer James Cameron) does a pretty good job of keeping the essence of the source material while adding the best that modern technology has to offer. Rosa Salazar, who has previously appeared mainly in supporting roles in so-so films, turns in a solid performance, although with CGI-enlarged eyes and a metallic body she does not always have much to work with.

The cyborg Alita, or at least a small part of her, is rescued from the scrap heap by compassionate Doctor Ido (Christoph Waltz), and while her memory is gone she soon reveals the talents of a super soldier. This allows Rodriguez to stage a succession of truly remarkable fights and races, and there are plenty of villains – uber-sleeze Mahershala Ali, smooth-talking Ed Skrein, and snarling Jackie Earle Haley – to contend with. There is also Jennifer Connelly, who was grown out of her pretty-girl looks into an interesting character actress – although here she comes to a very unpleasant end. Salazar manages to balance Alita’s cybernetic strength and human frailty as she struggles to define herself. There is even some fun along the way, such as her first encounter with an orange, and later with chocolate.Alita #6

And the visual look of the movie is undeniably stunning, whether it is the background details of Iron City or the hi-tech savagery of the Motorball stadium. In a tiny but beautiful scene, Alita slices a tear in half as it falls. There is a note at the end of the credits that the movie required hundreds of thousands of hours of work, and that sounds credible.

The weakest point of the movie is Keean Johnson, as Alita’s crush interest Hugo. He is hunky but rather bland; the character in the anime version had more depth, and his obsession with reaching the sky city of Zalem made sense. With Johnson it feels more like a plot device, a sudden change of mind to provide a conclusion. In fact, the whole movie begins to struggle in its final stages, perhaps because of the need to provide a pathway to the inevitable sequel.

Alita might not be the triumph that its makers wanted but it is still a success, and it is good to see another movie (after, for example, Bumblebee) in which it is a complex young woman who does the rescuing and the sacrificing, the fighting and the thinking. Hollywood does not always get the emotional tone right but in Alita Rodriguez and Cameron did not get it wrong, either.

Alita

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Alibaba Opens the Datafication Door

Appearing on site In the Black Digital, February 2019

 

In the Digital Age all successful companies use high-level technology but the Chinese giant Alibaba might be the one which has taken the underlying principles of e-commerce the furthest, with a model based on machine learning and the comprehensive datafication of customer interaction.

Ming ZengAlibaba, founded in 1999 by tech-entrepreneur Jack Ma, recorded a net income of 61.41 billion yuan, approximately US$9.6 billion, in the year ending 31 March 2018, and its market cap puts it firmly in the global top ten. A new book by its Chief Strategy Officer Dr Ming Zeng explains how Alibaba’s model was developed and how it keeps the company on a growth path.

In Smart Business: What Alibaba’s Success Says About the Future of Strategy*, Dr Zeng notes that Alibaba is sometimes compared to Amazon but he believes that the comparisons are incorrect. Whereas Amazon is a retailer, Alibaba is a portal to link customers to sellers (although it is now highly diversified, involved in everything from banking to film finance). Its strategy has been to apply technology to every part of the purchase chain, from advertising to delivery.

“Alibaba today is what you get if you take all functions associated with retail and coordinate them online into a sprawling, data-driven network of sellers, marketers, service providers, logistics companies, and manufacturers,” says Dr Zeng. “Alibaba does what Amazon, eBay, PayPal, Google, FedEx, wholesalers, and a good portion of manufacturers do in the United States, with a healthy helping of financial services for garnish.”

Ecosystem

Despite his key role Dr Zeng was not a part of the company at its inception. At that time he was working as an academic at Europe’s top business school, INSEAD, after completing his PhD in the US. He was teaching a course on Asian business when Alibaba caught his attention.

“It had no Western counterpart so it was a perfect case for MBAs,” he says. “I contacted the company and management agreed to let me study the firm and conduct some interviews. I met Jack Ma for the first time in 2000 and I later worked as a strategy adviser for Alibaba Group. In 2006 I was finishing my first book in English, Dragons at Your Door: How Chinese Cost Innovation Is Disrupting Global Competition**, about emerging multinationals from China. I got a phone call from Ma asking me to join the company, which I accepted.”

Dr Zeng and Jack Ma realised that they had to think of the company as an ecosystem if they were to realise its potential. The strategic imperative was to make sure that the platform provided all the resources, or access to the resources, that an online business would need. The emerging technology of algorithms and machine learning, together with the decreasing cost of computing power, made it possible.

Dr Zeng says: “The formula for smart businesses can be summarized in a simple equation:  Network Coordination + Data Intelligence = Smart Business. That equation represents what is behind Alibaba’s success and captures everything you need to know about business in the future.”

C2B model

The technology allows the company to put customers at the centre of business, constantly collecting data on them and their purchase choices in real time. Dr Zeng calls this the customer-to-business (C2B) model, using feedback loops to drive machine learning. Now, when customers log on they see a customised webpage with a selection of products curated from the billions offered by millions of sellers.

The model requires several connected elements: a network that can dynamically adjust the supply and quality of service offerings, an interface where customers can easily articulate their needs and responses, a modular structure that can grow from an initial beachhead, and purchasing platforms than can provide agility and innovation. Every customer exchange supplies more data, which goes into the feedback loops required for machine learning.

This system requires that a large number of actions and decisions are taken out of human hands. Algorithms automatically make incremental adjustments that increase systemwide efficiency. Alibaba even uses AI-based chat-bots to handle a wide range of customer inquiries and complaints without any human interaction at all.

Facilitating the loop

Dr Zeng puts forward four steps as the basis for creating a smart business: creating datafication processes to enrich the pool of data the business uses to become smarter; using software to put workflows and essential actors online; developing standards and APIs to enable real-time data flow and coordination; and applying machine-learning algorithms to generate business decisions.

In this new environment, leaders no longer manage. Instead, they enable workers to facilitate the feedback loop of user responses to help the company along its evolutionary path.

Dr Zeng is adamant that the C2B model represents the future for all business.

“We live in a time of exponential change,” he says. “Everything I have described in Smart Business will soon be conventional knowledge. Change will be disruptive. But it will also bring massive opportunity.”

 

* Smart Business: What Alibaba’s Success Says About the Future of Strategy by Ming Zeng, Harvard Business School Press.

** Dragons at Your Door: How Chinese Cost Innovation Is Disrupting Global Competition by Ming Zeng, Harvard Business School Press.

Christmas Quiz: Accountants in the movies

Appearing in In The Black magazine, December 2018

 

  1. Which Australian-born actress explains financial terms while in a bath, drinking champagne? What is the movie?

2.  In what movie does Cher play an accountant? What is the opera that she and Nicholas Cage see?Cher and NC

 

  1. In the movie Midnight Run, why is Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas, an accountant played by Charles Grodin, on the run?

 

  1. The movie Other People’s Money features Danny de Vito as corporate raider Lawrence Garfield. What is his nickname? To what does he compare the products of the company he is trying to take over?

 

  1. In the television series Ozark, how much money does the crooked financial planner have to launder in order to avoid a grim fate?

 

  1. In a galaxy far, far away, why has turmoil engulfed the Republic? To what movie is this the background?

 

  1. In which movie does an accountant say: “The funny thing is, on the outside I was an honest man. I had to come to prison to be a crook.” What is the name of the accountant?

 

  1. In the 1967 movie The Producers, accountant Leopold Bloom comes up with a scheme to make money by producing a stage show that will fail and then become a tax dodge. Who plays the accountant? What is the name of the stage show?

 

  1. breaking bad   In the television series Breaking Bad, what business do the perpetrators buy to launder drug money?

 

  1. What is the English title of the 1987 Japanese movie in which a tax auditor investigates a chain of love hotels?

 

11. In the movie The Untouchables, for what crime is gangster Al Capone sent to jail?Untouchables

  1. In what movie does a forensic auditor, played by Will Ferrell, hear a voice narrating his life and approaching death?

 

  1. In the movie The Accountant, what is the affliction of the character Christian Wolff CPA, played by Ben Affleck?

 

  1. What is the name of the central character in the 2008 movie – described as a story about “love, lust, blackmail and revenge” – The Dueling Accountant?

 

  1. In the Monty Python sketch ‘Chartered Accountant’, to what profession does the accountant hope to transition to?MP accountant

 

 

 

 

ANSWERS

 

  1. Margot Robbie. The Big Short.
  2. Moonstruck. La bohème.
  3. He embezzled $15 million from his gangster bosses.
  4. Larry the Liquidator. Buggy whips.
  5. $500 million
  6. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.
    Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace
  7. The Shawshank Redemption. Andy Dufresne.
  8. Gene Wilder. Springtime for Hitler.
  9. A car wash.
  10. A Taxing Woman. The Japanese title is Marusa no onna.
  11. Tax evasion.
  12. Stranger Than Fiction.
  13. He suffers from high-functioning autism.
  14. Mungo MacDiamond.
  15. Lion tamer.

Margot Robbie

 

How data analytics is transforming audit

Appearing on In The Black Digital site, 7 November 2018 – https://www.intheblack.com/articles/2018/11/07/data-analytics-transforming-audit

 

Data analytics is allowing auditors to check much larger amounts of information and focus on areas of risk.

 

The auditor of the future will use data analytics to check data of much larger sets of information from a wide variety of agencies, according to Ben Jiang, director – data analytics in the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO).

“It once would have been impossible to analyse all of the transactions of a large agency,” Jiang told CPA Congress in October 2018.

“The traditional approach of sampling was necessary in its time but now the volume of transactions is so high that analytics technology has to be the way to go.”

A major advantage of analytics is that the contributing agencies can provide data in almost any format. Clients lodge their data, usually monthly, through a secure portal.

Algorithms for data analysis

Jiang’s team has written a series of algorithms to transform the material into a common format for analysis, as well as run checks for completeness. The aim of the algorithms is to streamline processes that were formerly done manually.

Image result for auditingThe result is a dashboard of aggregated, summarised data relating to each contributing agency. This allows auditors to easily access information and drill down as they need to. The common format allows for easier extraction of data, and also the checking of anomalies and outliers. The analytics program can create “red flags” to draw a matter to an auditor’s attention.

In the VAGO, the system is still in its development phase. The dashboard system will be used in conjunction with traditional auditing methods for a complete audit cycle. The two methods will then be compared and assessed, and any problems with the analytics methods will be identified and addressed.

The first wave of clients involves 35 agencies across the range of government entities, which includes departments, universities, councils and others. Second and third waves are planned, with improvements to the system being made as more experience is gained.

Auditors’ focus on risk

“The aim is to free auditors from mechanical tasks so they can concentrate on what they really need – and want – to do, which is auditing,” Jiang says.

“They can focus in on areas of risk that the analytics have flagged, such as classes of transactions. Ultimately, it will allow for better performance benchmarking and resource use as well as auditing oversight.”

To get the most from the analytics system and the dashboards, additional staff training will be needed. While auditors are generally very pleased with the prospect of not having to perform routine data collection, processing and checking, the new system requires some new skills and a different mindset.

Data analytics requires a large amount of computer processing power, so this led to a rethinking of the IT system at VAGO. Safeguards also had to be built into the IT changes to ensure data security.

Jiang notes that the software packages used to design and operate the new system are Microsoft SQL Server, Qlik Sense and Python.

“We are aware that we are writing the rulebook rather than working through an existing one,” he says.

“Especially in relation to performance auditing, I think we are just scratching the surface. And we take the view that analytics is meant to supplement and improve auditing. Analytics is the first post of auditing, and then human experience, insight and judgement take over.”

 

Looking for shoes and finding a new direction

Appearing in the UpStart section of September issue of In The Black magazine

 

Children’s book a whole new challenge

 

Going from a senior role in corporate risk management to writing a children’s book has been a huge but very satisfying transition, says Naomi Vowels, an Australian CPA who has re-located to Singapore. The company established by Naomi and her sister Frances, Red Shoe Stories, is set for success, with an innovative approach and a lot of energy.

The company’s debut book is called Where Are My Shoes?, aimed at the 0-6 age group. It is about a favourite pair of shoes that have gone missing; the main character recalls what they did that day to try and remember where they left them. A key part of the book is that it can be customised so that it features the child, including their name and with suitable illustrations. It also allows for the choice of an ‘adventure buddy’, and even gives the child the chance to choose the shoes they wear in the story.

Naomi Vowels“Frances’ two children were the inspiration for the book,” said Naomi. “They love hearing stories about themselves and their possessions. Frances had her third child in April – just ten days after the birth of my first son.”

Naomi decided to make the change from the corporate sector to small business owner and author when she and her husband relocated to Singapore from Geneva in early 2017. She had held a number of private sector roles, and worked in the Australian diplomatic service, but her most recent position had been as Vice President at Lombard Odier, a private bank, working in strategy and risk.

“Frances and I enjoyed our former careers but they were never really our passion,” she says. “We always knew there was something more ‘us’ that we could be doing. It just took us a bit of time and courage to get there. We set up our business in Singapore because it is easy to register a business there, there is support given to start-up ventures by the government and the private sector, and our key suppliers are based there.

“My former colleagues were extremely supportive of my decision. In fact, many of them expressed some jealousy that I was taking the opportunity to step out of the corporate world and pursue something I feel passionate about.”

Support and advice

Naomi believes that the expertise she gained as a CPA has been invaluable – not only the technical skills but also the peers who provided support and advice.

The next step is to get the book into the marketplace. The sisters launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the website, which is the means for customers to buy the book.

“The campaign was financially successful but we also saw it as a way to connect with potential customers all over the world,” says Naomi. “On the website, customers are able to personalise their stories and see a flip-book preview of their book. We also plan to exhibit at several book fairs in Asia, Australia and Europe, and we will continue to build our audience on social media.”Shoes book #1

Naomi and Frances have also partnered with the charity Room to Read, which promotes childhood literacy and girls’ education. One book is donated to the program for every book sold.

“We plan to make the book available in languages other than English, and we have started writing our next book,” Naomi says. “We will continue writing books for as long as they are enjoyed by children and parents. It has been hard work but I don’t think I have ever been more satisfied or happy than I am right now, writing and running our business.”

 

Red Shoe Stories Website: redshoestories.com

Social media: @redshoestories

 

The sweet spot in the coffee business

 

Appearing on In The Black Digital site, September 2018, url https://www.intheblack.com/articles/2018/09/07/coffee-club-data-sweet-spot

 

The Coffee Club is using data analytics to understand customers better and stay ahead in Australia’s highly competitive café sector. Here’s how your business can use data to arrive at new solutions.

Behind a simple cup of café coffee lies a highly competitive industry, with a fickle customer base and complex marketing issues. In such an environment, the effective collection and analysis of data has become essential, as the franchise chain The Coffee Club has learned.

“In 2011-2013, The Coffee Club was riding a wave where the café industry was exploding,” says Jimmy Wu, analytics manager at The Coffee Club.

Jimmy Wu of Coffee Club“However, this growth hid a lot of problems. Data strategy at The Coffee Club was vague and ad hoc in nature, and many executives and internal stakeholders relied on summarised reports.”

The measurements were purely financial and not customer-focused.

“In 2014 there was a marked increase in competition from other chains and from independent cafés,” recalls Wu.

This put The Coffee Club brand at the crossroads between its heritage and the premium, value and convenience players in the market.

Using multiple data sources

Wu has introduced a comprehensive data analytics strategy aimed at building a complete picture of existing customers and profiling new ones. Point-of-sale data was collected on the time of day of purchases, the day of the week, other items purchased in the same transaction, and traffic count versus average spend.

Wu notes that the primary transaction data was already available, but it had not been used in the right way.

Unstructured data such as customer feedback, perceptions and behavioural patterns was also incorporated. Another data source was 150,000 active VIP customers, which provided data on their buying patterns through repeat visits.

There was also cross-referencing with other datasets. It was found, for example, that a drizzle of rain on Saturdays would increase traffic in stores, but heavy rain on Sundays would deter customers from shopping centre sites.

Comprehensive profiles on each store were developed, combined with Australian Bureau of Statistics and GIS (geospatial) data, to model the best sites for possible new stores and examine growth options within the franchise chain.

Using data to arrive at new solutions

“We are always on the lookout for better data analytics solutions as this space changes rapidly,” Wu says.

“I am a big fan of Tableau Software because it allows users to discover structured data quickly. There are also other packages that we use for different purposes, such as Power BI, SPSS, Qlik, R, and Python.

“The challenge that most organisations using advanced analytics techniques face is that you reach a point where your traditional data warehouse will not accommodate the sheer size and calculation power needed. To address this, we are moving into cloud infrastructure. This will allow us to not only take advantage of addressing our current 5Vs – volume, velocity, variety, veracity, value – but also explore innovative areas such as machine learning capabilities, and data lake [data repository] and discovery sandpit areas.”

Data-related possibilities for the future include facial recognition technologies and having AI robots answering reservation phone calls, or even having a personalised digital menu based on customer preferences with product recommendation systems built in. Another idea is to leverage AI to enable store-level operational improvements.

“In this business, understanding your customers is crucial,” says Wu. “And it’s an ongoing journey. The moment you think you’re successful is the moment where your competitors start to outperform you.”
coffee

Takeaway coffee

  • Use data to profile existing and potential customers
  • Look to see what information is already held but not used
  • Cross-reference with other datasets
  • Stay abreast of new analysis tools
  • Ensure warehouse capacity

 

Blockchain shifts solutions thinking

Appearing in In The Black Digital site, url https://www.intheblack.com/articles/2018/08/22/how-governments-using-blockchain-technology

 

Blockchain tech offers public sector answers

 

There has been a fundamental shift in thinking about blockchain technology in the past year, and blockchain-related innovations are already providing solutions to longstanding problems.

Public sector agencies in particular are exploring its potential, according to Katrina Donaghy, co-founder and co-CEO of Civic Ledger, which focuses on civic applications of the technology.

Katrina Donaghy of Civic Ledger“In Australia, we are still in a development stage, with government, industry, banks, academia and business exploring blockchain technology through proof of concepts,” she says.

The federal government is sending positive messages about blockchain technology. Standards Australia is the Secretariat for the International Standards Organization’s international technical committee for blockchain standards, and is looking at standards, definitions, rules, and other elements of the technology. This will provide a clear decision framework on issues such as governance, jurisdiction and interoperability of the technology.

“This role by Standards Australia will, I believe, be very significant in the long term,” Donaghy says.

“Another critical step is that the Australian Government’s Digital Transformation Agency is taking a lead with exploring blockchain uses in government. In our experience, their digital marketplace is very useful for Australian start-ups looking to secure government as their first customer.”

Donaghy also notes that the Australian Digital Commerce Association is working with government on behalf of the blockchain and cryptocurrency industries, assisting with the design of policy, guidelines and legislative changes to encourage innovation in the area.

Solving problems

In developing and adapting blockchain technology, Donaghy makes comparisons with the early days of the internet, when no one really knew what to do with it. It was sometimes seen as a solution looking for a problem.

Within a remarkably short period, however, the internet became a central part of both business and social life. She believes blockchain technology will follow a similar path.

“Like the internet, we did solve the problems of scale, improving its use and imagining new applications,” she says.

“There are thousands of very smart people around the world working on building the blockchain infrastructure, most of which is done through open data protocols.”

Donaghy argues that blockchain has a special role to play in public administration as governments look for ways to modernise their services along digital lines.

Blockchain provides a neutral place for a transaction to occur, creating what Donaghy calls “a shared truth” of data.

This is crucial when governments take the role of the authenticator of data and, through rules, determine the allocation of resources and benefits.

She says a change of thinking will be required. Blockchain is not owned or governed by a central authority, and the data is decentralised and distributed across thousands of computers.

Government agencies are inherently centralised, so change management in relation to issues of control and the future of work will have to take place as the technology is being explored.

Peer-to-peer platforms

Donaghy points to a project that her company delivered for the Australian Government. The key issue was how to improve information in the Australian water industry to increase participation and confidence in water trading.

Civic Ledger developed Water Ledger, based on the public blockchain, Ethereum. The blockchain-enabled platform provides a means to verify all water trades and update state registries in real time to prove that a water trade has happened, as well as showing the location of the trade.

A crucial part of the system is the “tokenisation” of a physical asset: megalitres of water.

“It showed how blockchain technology could address very complex problems involving many participants and a large number of rules – in fact, over 15,000 rules,” says Donaghy.

“Water Ledger has become a key success story and is a case study of a peer-to-peer exchange platform that increases the transparency of activities across borders and jurisdictions.”

Civic Ledger has developed similar solutions for other agencies, including IP Australia and the City of Melbourne.

The company recently won the FinTech Australia award for Australia’s Emerging Fintech Organisation of the Year for 2018, which Donaghy sees as an important step forward.

“To be recognised by our peers and industry is a tremendous honour but we also see it as a signal to government, industry and business that blockchain technology is a real opportunity to redesign economies and societies that are inclusive and democratic,” she says.

“The award sends a message to other start-ups who are building blockchain applications or infrastructure that this is an area where there are opportunities to succeed.”

 

Key points about blockchain

  • There are opportunities for blockchain start-ups in government procurement.
  • Blockchain is very suitable for commerce which has many participants and complex rules.
  • The real-time nature of blockchain enables transparency and accountability.
  • The decentralised nature of blockchain will require changes in thinking, particularly within centralised organisations.