Economist 3/10/15

  1. VIRGIN ATLANTIC on March 10th, the carrier announced it had returned to the black after three consecutive years of losses. It reported a profit of £14.4m ($21.7m) in 2014, compared with a £51m loss the year before. Virgin is reaping the rewards of cutting its costs by buying new and efficient planes, culling unprofitable routes to Africa and Asia.Delta, the world’s second-biggest carrier by passenger numbers, bought a 49% stake in Virgin in 2013, the most that it is allowed under European Union aviation rules. This has enabled the pair to fly code-shared flights across the Atlantic, and given Virgin the chance to feed customers straight into Delta’s huge network.
  2. Germany’s grand-coalition government implemented a law for a minimum wage, then a mandatory quota for women on corporate boards in the first few months of 2015.Supporters of such bills say that while women may enjoy power in German politics, private workplaces are a different matter. Women earn 22% less than men do, one of the worst rates in the European Union (the average is 16%). The gender wage differential is often explained as a result of women taking maternal leave. However, difference persists well beyond the years when women might be taking care of young children: it is actually greater among older, better-qualified workers.
  3. Politicians from all the big parties in Britain agree: apprenticeships are a terrific thing. Around 440,000 people started one in 2013-14, up from 280,000 in 2009-10. That costs money: the government has a £1.5 billion ($2.3 billion) pot for covering part or all of the training costs. The Conservatives want to fund 3m apprenticeships by 2020. But British apprenticeships are quite different from the well-oiled machines elsewhere.Continental European apprentices are often kept on for three or four years; in Britain, the minimum requirement is a year.By contrast half of British firms surveyed for a government study in 2014 only offered Level 2 apprenticeships (the equivalent of a GCSE).Another 2014 study found that apprentices trained to a Level 3 standard (the equivalent of an A-level) experience a larger wage boost than do those who only study to Level 2; they also seem to sustain this wage premium for longer. But better schemes are costly. It takes three years and seven months for an engineering firm to recoup the costs of training an apprentice to a Level 3 standard.
  4. According to the United Nations, livestock uses around 30% of the world’s ice-free landmass and produces 14.5% of all greenhouse-gas emissions. Making meat also requires supplying animals with vast amounts of water and food: in the United States producing 1kg of live animal weight typically requires 10kg of feed for beef, 5kg for pork and 2.5kg for poultry.Patrick Brown, founder of Impossible Foods, based in Redwood City, CA  has raised $75m to develop plant-based meat and cheese imitations.The company has also spent a lot of time working out what gives meat its unique flavour. According to Dr Brown, the secret to a burger’s taste is haem, a compound found in all living cells, including plants. It is especially abundant in haemoglobin in blood, and in muscle tissues as myoglobin.Beyond Meat, based in Southern California, has also been studying the components of meat to emulate its texture and flavour. The firm’s flagship product, Beyond Chicken Strips, has been on sale since 2012, and has a surprisingly authentic feel when eaten.San Francisco-based Hampton Creek has replaced eggs with plant proteins in the products it has released so far. Its Just Mayo and Just Cookie Dough are now distributed in 30,000 stores, including Kroger and Walmart.
  5.  Estonia’s “digital continuity” project is the most ambitious yet. It aims to ensure that even if Estonia’s government is sabotaged it will continue to function over the internet, providing services and enabling payments.Estonia’s first dry run of digital continuity, carried out in September last year in conjunction with Microsoft, had several elements. One was to maintain e-government services by using back-up computers within Estonia. If that became impossible, the services migrated abroad.A more complicated effort involved the State Gazette—the official repository of all Estonian laws. These do not exist in paper form. As well as backing up the data, the experiment tried to see how accessible it would be in an emergency. Laws on personal data, and public expectations of privacy, are strict in European countries; just as with back-up services for computers, users need to be sure that their data will be properly safeguarded if they are sent abroad. Storing such personal information in “digital embassies”—computers in Estonian diplomatic missions abroad—helps as they are Estonian sovereign territory. Estonia’s public and private databases exchange information over a peer-to-peer network called the X-Road, a kind of information federation. Users give their digital consent, by using their ID card and PIN, to allow one database to get information from another.

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