Economist 1/23/15

  1. No matter how good voice-recognition software becomes, it will always be hostage to its sonic environment.Previous attempts to get computers to lip-read have focused, understandably enough, on the shape and movement of the lips as they produce phonemes (individual sounds like “b”, “ng” or “th”). Such shapes-of-sounds are called visemes. The problem is that there are just a dozen visemes for the 40 to 50 phonemes in English; “pan” and “banned”, for example, look remarkably similar to a lip-reader. That makes it rather taxing to reconstruct words from visemes alone. Instead, Dr Hassanat has been trying for the past few years to detect the visual signature of entire words all at once, using the appearance of the tongue and teeth as well the lips. VocalZoom is an Israeli start-up whose idea is to use a low-power laser beam on a speaker’s cheek to measure vibrations, and from those to infer the frequencies of speech.
  2. A TOUR of the Middle East by Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, was knocked sideways by the news on January 20th that Islamic State (IS), the extreme jihadist group in Iraq and Syria, threatened to kill two Japanese hostages unless Japan quickly pays a ransom of $200m. The sum demanded is equal to an amount Mr Abe had committed days before in Egypt to give to countries battling IS.He vowed to use all means to secure the two men’s release. Yet paying a ransom would anger America, Japan’s ally.
  3. Myanmar, with a bigger population than Spain, is one of the last great “unphoned” countries. In 2013 its military-backed government invited bids for the right to build its first modern mobile networks. The services that Telenor and Ooredoo, a Qatari rival, began to roll out last year are a crucial step towards reanimating an economy anaesthetised by five decades of dictatorship.Locals once paid $1,500 each for SIM cards raffled by the state network, and coverage was scant. Now a SIM costs just $1.50, and new towers are popping up everywhere. Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications, the state-run incumbent, is transforming itself in partnership with KDDI and Sumitomo, two Japanese firms.Since Telenor lost its domestic monopoly in the 1990s it has rediscovered the Viking spirit of adventure, launching into foreign markets ranging from Bulgaria to Bangladesh.Ooredoo, a brash outfit owned by the government of Qatar. Known for years as Qtel, Ooredoo did not venture abroad until 2005. It is now one of the world’s fastest-growing mobile firms.
  4. Now, many private-equity funds are making Africa a primary target, and record amounts are being raised to invest in businesses there. On January 12th Helios Partners, a London-based firm, said it had raised the first Africa fund worth more than $1 billion. Abraaj, a rival, is expected to follow suit soon.In some respects it is no surprise that Africa has become such a popular destination for business investment. It certainly needs more capital—an extra $90 billion a year for infrastructure alone, the World Bank reckons.Large funds usually want to buy businesses worth more than $100m, but last year there were only seven such deals, and about half the firms bought were worth less than $10m.Local partners are often unwilling to sell, and undeveloped or non-existent local stockmarkets make it hard to unload a stake by means of a listing.One thing successful managers agree on is that investors should not expect to fly in, do a deal and fly out again. The funds that are doing well are those with a strong understanding of local conditions and good business connections in their target countries, such as Catalyst.Ahmed Heikal of Qalaa Holdings, an Egyptian firm, has concluded that it is not. His firm has abandoned the private-equity model and now follows a strategy of buy, improve and hold.
  5. In America the main providers of e-book subscriptions include Amazon, Oyster and Scribd. Similar companies have sprung up in Spain, Scandinavia and China. Their reach is limited so far, but it is growing. Around 4% of book buyers have tried an e-book subscription service in America, according to Nielsen.Consumers have shown an increasing preference for such all-you-can-eat bundles, as opposed to buying each item separately. That worries book publishers and authors, who still make most of their money from sales of single copies.Only three of America’s five biggest publishers have so far made their works available on Oyster or Scribd.The record companies tolerate music-streaming services like Spotify, which pay them only modest fees, because the alternative is a continued rise in music piracy—on which they earn nothing at all. However, piracy of e-books is not such a problem.

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