Bits + Bytes : A Miscellany of Technology

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 2, 2021 - August 08, 2021.
Bits + Bytes : A Miscellany of Technology
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NEWS

Advisory council set up to help small businesses use data responsibly

Global software provider Xero has launched a Responsible Data Use Advisory Council to advise small business owners on responsible data use. 

Said to be the first of its kind, the council comprises experts from the technology, small business and accounting sectors. The council will provide educational programmes featuring original content, resources and best practices on its website.

Xero, a cloud-based accounting software platform for small and medium enterprises, found that less than a quarter (17%) of businesses understand completely how their tech providers use their business’ data. 

“In addition, more than one-third admit their own customers probably do not fully understand how their business is collecting and using their customers’ data. When asked to identify the benefits, if any, of sharing data with tech providers, the most popular answer (36%) was none. 

“The most common concerns about sharing data were: data being sold/shared without permission; data being used in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable; data being stolen; or data being used to sell more services/products,” says Xero in its media release. 

AI-enabled marketing tech platform to help marketers design audience-centric strategies 

Content marketing agency Immedia has launched marketing tech (martech) platform Contrend — an artificial-intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML)-powered platform — to provide insights into how content marketing campaigns are landing with audiences.

Contrend’s standout feature is the ability to build complete content data sets from public and readily available data to identify true audience engagement, competitor insights and trends. 

With the platform, content marketers can develop audience-centric strategies and make data-backed decisions based on true audience affinity, not short-term social media spikes, says Immedia.

The traditional approach to content strategy relies on social media and data derived from search engine optimisation to understand audience interests. 

“Such traditional strategies miss out on insights about how video, audio, layout or use of imagery has an impact on content strategy, as they are derived from reactive data pointing to an engagement footprint biased towards a noisy 9% of audiences. 

“In this model, competitor comparisons are skewed towards direct and known competitors, which results in little differentiation from an already competitive content set,” notes Immedia.

i-Connect Fintech in Islamic Finance launched to spur innovation 

The i-Connect Fintech in Islamic Finance programme has been launched to create and nurture a conducive innovation ecosystem and provide funds to support and foster innovation in Islamic fintech in Malaysia. 

i-Connect has also set up a fund to foster innovation in Islamic fintech with two key focus areas — social financing smart solutions and digitalisation of shariah-compliant financial solutions.

International Centre for Education in Islamic Finance (INCEIF) has been appointed as the neutral entity for i-Connect by Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM), under the purview of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.

The research community and Islamic fintech start-ups are invited to submit proposals on innovations in Islamic fintech, particularly projects in the development and deployment phases. For more information, visit 

http://www.inceif.org/i-connect.islamicfintech.

PUC partners with Pahang and Sabah for digital banking licence

After nearly a month of silence on the identity of the members of the consortium formed in its bid for a digital bank licence, PUC Bhd has disclosed its partnership with the Sabah and Pahang state governments and a conglomerate.

The ACE Market-listed technology firm said that, with the participation of the two state governments, the consortium has “a sizeable ready customer base”, as Sabah and Pahang collectively account for about 20% of the population.

PUC CEO Cheong Chia Chou pointed out that Sabah and Pahang have the second- and third-highest B40 segments in their population respectively, and being a part of the digital banking network means they will have access to products such as mobile wallets, smart savings and microloans.

SME Corp and MIDF launch new financing scheme SMERF

SME Corporation Malaysia has launched a new financing facility called SME Revitalisation Financing (SMERF), aimed at providing financial aid to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in underserved sectors or that are facing financial difficulties during the pandemic. 

This financing scheme is part of the ongoing Pemerkasa stimulus package announced by the government in March this year. This initiative is launched in collaboration with Malaysian Industrial Development Finance Bhd (MIDF), whereby the funds will be channelled through SME Corp Malaysia, but implementation will be handled by MIDF.

“The introduction of SMERF will give breathing space to SMEs, including microenterprises, in the face of economic headwinds they are facing. The financing will ease cash-flow blockage faced by viable SMEs in revitalising and achieving business goals, strengthening core business and building capacity and capability,” says SME Corp Malaysia CEO Rizal Nainy.

SMERF offers financing amounts of up to RM250,000, or up to 90% of total costs of eligible items, with an interest rate as low as 3%. According to the official MIDF website, SMERF is open to new start-ups and SMEs from all economic sectors, with at least 60% equity held by Malaysians. 

The financing will come in the form of working capital or asset financing, such as the purchase of machinery equipment, commercial motor vehicles, IT hardware and software. The maximum repayment period is seven years, which includes the moratorium and grace period, both of which are optional.

Applications for SMERF are open from July 26. Interested applicants may visit MIDF’s official website, contact its business advisory unit at (1 300) 886 433, or email [email protected].

WhatsApp no longer bound by smartphones

Despite being the most used messaging app worldwide, WhatsApp has depended entirely on the availability of smartphone connections. This will no longer be the case, however, with the rollout of a limited public beta test programme for WhatsApp’s updated multi-device capability.

In a blogpost on July 14, Facebook engineers announced that the app can run on the user’s phone and up to four other non-phone devices simultaneously. Each companion device will connect to the user’s account independently while maintaining the same level of privacy and security — even when the phone is turned off.

Currently, the existing WhatsApp architecture uses the smartphone app as the primary device, with companion devices (such as WhatsApp Web) maintaining a persistent secure connection with the phone, simply mirroring its contents on its own user interface.

“By requiring the phone to perform all operations, companion devices are slower and frequently get disconnected — especially when the phone has a poor connection, its battery is running low or the application process gets killed by the phone’s operating system,” the blog post states.

“The new WhatsApp multi-device architecture removes these hurdles, no longer requiring a smartphone to be the source of truth while still keeping user data seamlessly and securely synchronised and private.”

As at the time of writing, the beta programme for the app is already full. Facebook engineers plan on further optimising the app’s performance and adding a few additional features before rolling the programme out more broadly.

An evening with a hologram of Whitney Houston 

The late Whitney Houston’s estate is setting up a new show to begin Oct 26 at Harrah’s Las Vegas, featuring a deepfake holographic Whitney Houston performing all her hits, backed by a live four-piece band, background singers and dancers.

This has been in the works since 2019, when the estate announced its partnership with Primary Wave, a private music publishing and talent management company. The project is a collaboration between Houston’s estate and Base Hologram, a holographic production and entertainment company.

Ethical questions on holographic technology have popped up, but Houston’s former manager and sister-in-law Pat Houston has repeatedly insisted that the late singer and actress would have appreciated the event, adding that this is another chance for fans to “relive and celebrate the talent that we were so lucky to receive for more than three decades”.

 

GRANTS/COMPETITION

Taylor’s online cook-off extended to Aug 11

Taylor’s Culinary Institute has extended its “Battle of the Best: Beyond the Boundaries of Taste” online cooking competition to Aug 11.  

The competition is open to all diploma students majoring in culinary arts. Participants stand a chance to win bursaries of up to RM5,000 to enrol in Taylor’s Advanced Diploma in Patisserie and Gastronomic Cuisine, along with a guaranteed three-month internship at a Michelin-starred restaurant in mid-2022 and a certificate of participation.

RM300,000 worth of grants up for grabs via [email protected] 

Innovation is often a necessity for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with strictly limited funds and resources to continue addressing developmental challenges. 

Understanding the complexities, Yayasan Inovasi Malaysia, SME Corp Malaysia, Biji-biji Initiative and Me.reka have collaborated to introduce the [email protected] programme to guide and connect 20 NGOs to 20 Program Perumahan Rakyat, commonly referred to as PPR (People’s Housing Programme) communities across six zones in Malaysia. 

Participants of the [email protected] will take part in a four-week virtual programme and a two-month mentorship with opportunities to implement their innovations with a grant worth up to RM300,000. 

Those interested have to submit a proposal concentrating on one focus area in the four pillars of social challenges — livelihood, community development, environment and technology adoption. 

The programme grants the NGOs access to skills, resources and expertise through virtual training modules on design thinking and science, technology, innovation and engineering (STIE) skills, structuring of innovative solutions, and empathetic and impactful social challenge solutions.

Only 20 NGOs — that are active, established in Malaysia and have at least one year of experience providing impact — will be matched with selected PPR communities under [email protected]. Applications close on July 31, 2021. 

For the full list of requirements and criteria of selection, please visit https://www.rumahrakyat.org/ngo-makerthon. For further inquiries, contact Me.reka at 03-6419 4755, Rashvin at [email protected] or Afifah Normazuki at [email protected]

 

SOS

Rakan Tutor offers extra lessons 

A group of young working adults came up with a programme called Rakan Tutor to assist students who need additional lessons, to cope with the rapid changes caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Many students were left behind in the wake of changes in teaching and learning methods, after schools were forced to shut temporarily and in-person classes were replaced by online lessons. 

A prolonged period of remote learning comes at a cost to students, with an estimated loss of 0.9 years of learning after seven months of school closure, reported the Malay Mail. For more information visit https://rakantutor.org.

Kuching Food Aid lends a hand in Sarawak 

Non-governmental organisation Kuching Food Aid has collaborated with Bowerhaus to distribute food aid in the state. Sarawak Women for Women Society has also joined in by providing sanitary products to those in need. Those in need of assistance may contact them via Instagram at @kuchingfoodaid and @sarawakwomen.

 

PEOPLE MOVES

Diana Boo joins Boost Holdings as ED of marketing

Diana Boo has joined Boost Holdings in the newly created role of executive director of marketing, following the forming of a partnership between Axiata Digital and Great Eastern last June.

Great Eastern has invested US$70 million (RM296.3 million) in Axiata Digital’s financial services business through the newly formed holding company Boost Holdings, taking a 21.875% stake in it while Axiata Digital holds the remainder.

Boo was chief marketing officer of Lazada Malaysia. Before Lazada, she was with iflix and CtrlShift.

 

PICTURE OF THE WEEK

Global surveillance system exposé by Pegasus Project

Pegasus, a spyware developed by the Israeli cyberarms firm NSO Group, can be covertly installed on most mobile phones. Information disclosed by the Pegasus Project suggests that the software can exploit all recent iOS versions up to iOS 14.6, and enables operators to extract messages, photos, emails, and record calls and secretly activate microphones.

The leaked database contains a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers believed to be people of interest by clients of NSO. Human rights activists, journalists and lawyers across the world have been targeted by authoritarian governments using the hacking software, as reported by the Guardian.

The Pegasus Project is a reporting consortium consisting of 80 reporters from 17 media organisations. NSO insists the technology is intended for use only against criminals and terrorists.

 

MUSINGS

Why do audio cables look like faces?

In an increasingly wireless world, it is a wonder that audio professionals still rely on heavy-duty cables while the rest of us have migrated to Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity. The answer lies in balanced audio, and it also explains why XLR connectors used in these cables have three or more pins.

In short, balanced audio cables deliver a stronger and much cleaner audio signal than unbalanced audio cables. Most audio connectors that consumers are familiar with, such as the microphone jack, deliver unbalanced audio because they carry two internal wires — a signal wire and a ground wire.

As the name suggests, the signal wire carries the audio signal, while the ground wire acts as a reference point for the signal wire. However, the ground wire sometimes picks up unwanted noise caused by electromagnetic interference, which introduces a droning, humming sound in the audio. This issue is especially pronounced when the cable is long and in close contact with power cables and electrical devices.

A balanced cable solves this issue by having two signal cables — a hot (positive) and cold (negative) signal. To the human ear, audio is perceived as vibrations in the air, with the audio signal going “up down up down”. Reversing the direction of the signal “down up down up” will produce the exact same sound to the human ear despite being in the opposite direction.

In ideal circumstances, combining both signals will produce silence because the peaks and troughs will cancel each other out. With a balanced cable, however, what remains is pure noise picked up from the ground wire, which can be used for noise cancellation, which delivers cleaner audio signals.

So, heavy-duty cables are generally preferable over wireless options such as radio frequency signals. In a concert environment, not only do wired connections eliminate the need for battery packs, but a hall full of human bodies is also both a reflector and absorber of radio frequency signals. In addition, walkie-talkies and photography equipment also emit radio frequencies that may interfere with the audio signal.

 

DIGITIONARY

Function creep

“Function creep” refers to the gradually expanding use of a particular technology or system beyond its originally intended purpose. It is a term often used in discussions around data privacy and breach of consumer trust. 

A great example would be John Hancock, one of the oldest and largest life insurers in North America. Although fitness trackers used in smartphones and smartwatches are designed to encourage healthier lifestyles, the insurance giant decided to include fitness data in customers’ premium calculations from September 2018. Privacy advocates warned that insurers could use tracking data to punish customers who fail to meet certain health targets.

 

EDITOR’S MUST-HAVES

The ultimate DIY massager 

Working for hours on end and making do with a less-than-stellar office set-up are partially to blame for muscle aches and pains.

There is nothing better than a good massage if you have a few kinks to work out but, with the Theragun Mini, you can treat your aches and pains at home.

Considerably powerful, the drill-like massage tool uses vibration and force, or percussive therapy, to relieve soreness and muscle pain. According to the makers of Theragun, percussive therapy increases blood flow to your muscles, which helps reduce tension, break apart bad knots and calm inflammation.

The entry-level Theragun is said to provide great relief for tight shoulders and back muscles that are often left tired and sore after a long day in front of the computer. The portable mini device comes in a soft case with a standard ball attachment and a power adapter.

With three speeds of 1,750, 2,100 and 2,400 percussions per minute to choose from, the Theragun Mini, which uses the adapted QX35 Motor with QuietForce Technology, is quiet and powerful enough to ease a stiff neck after a long day.

The Theragun Mini has a battery life of 150 minutes and a charge time of 80 minutes. While there is only one attachment included with the mini — the standard ball head — it is compatible with all fourth-generation attachments, which can be purchased separately. 

Available at https://www.theragun.com/us/en-us/mini-us.html for US$199. 

 

TECH BOOKS

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

The Innovators is an illuminating story of the people who invented the computer and the internet. The book starts with the story of Ada Lovelace, who published her pioneering theories about computer science in the 1840s. Contrary to the belief that enthusiasts of technology are often dorky and unromantic, Lovelace is said to be imaginative and poetic, traits that were most likely inherited from her father, Lord Byron, a famous Romantic poet.

Unlike biographies that often depict the sole protagonist as one who transforms the world, the central theme in this book is teamwork. Although computers and the internet are revered as life essentials today, few are aware of the personalities that have pushed technological innovation forward.

The wonders that technology has achieved today are thanks to the collaborative efforts of more than 60 geniuses, geeks and entrepreneurs across different eras. Lovelace, for example, would not have become the world’s first computer programmer without the support of her colleague, Charles Babbage, who is known to have designed the first proposed mechanical general-purpose computer.

Isaacson also explores the lives of personalities that started our current digital revolution, such as Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, J C R Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Robert Noyce, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee and Larry Page. 

He delves into how their minds worked and what made them so inventive. The book narrates how their ability to work together and master the art of teamwork made them even more creative. Available on Amazon.

 

WHILE YOU WERE WORKING (FROM HOME)

A cloud offering for flexible workplaces 

Microsoft recently unveiled Windows 365, a cloud service for homes and businesses of all sizes. It takes the operating system to the Microsoft Cloud, securing and storing information in the cloud instead of on the device. This includes applications, data, and settings to personal or corporate devices.

The tech giant claims to be creating a new category of hybrid personal computing that turns any device into a personalised digital workspace — the cloud PC. Users can log in and pick up where they left off across devices. Seasonal workers can also cycle on and off teams without the logistical challenges of issuing new hardware or securing personal devices.

The cloud also provides versatility in processing power and storage, enabling IT to scale up or down based on needs. It can also procure, deploy and manage cloud PCs akin to how it manages physical PCs.

Workers are expecting greater flexibility and more options to work from different places, while still ensuring security. Windows 365 is available for both home and business this August, with tiered per-user per-month pricing.

 

“I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this ... Thank you from the bottom of my heart very much.”

 — Jeff Bezos, earth’s wealthiest person, thanking Amazon employees at Blue Origin’s post-launch briefing for his trip to space. Union leaders have called out Bezos’ comments as obscene, and representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says in a tweet that Amazon employees paid for the trip ‘with lower wages, union busting, a frenzied and inhumane workplace, and delivery drivers not having health insurance during a pandemic’.