Quiz of The Week: 12 – 18 September



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Have you been paying attention to The Week’s news?

One-Minute Read

Gabriel Power

Friday, September 18, 2020 – 11:09am

Boris Johnson has had another tough week tackling the double whammy of coronavirus and Brexit, with critics lining up to take aim at the government. 

The prime minister faced a Tory rebellion over his controversial Internal Market Bill, which effectively breaks international law by overriding parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, but managed to secure victory in a Commons vote on Monday to push the legislation through to a second reading. 

But Johnson had no time to celebrate, as nationwide shortages of coronavirus tests hit the headlines, with a total dearth of testing supplies in England’s top ten Covid hotspots. Amid reports that Downing Street was planning to crack down on “frivolous” tests, Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said it “beggars belief ministers didn’t use summer to build up testing capacity in time for children back at school and many returning to the workplace”.

In further Covid chaos, speculation grew that the government was planning a two-week nationwide lockdown, in the wake of claims that England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty had advised the PM to implement the tough measure. As ministers jumped to dismiss the reports, Johnson told MPs that another national shutdown “would be completely wrong for this country” and that his government was “doing everything in our power to prevent it”.

To find out how closely you’ve been paying attention to the latest developments in the pandemic, and other global events, put your knowledge to the test with our Quiz of The Week:


Need a reminder of some of the other headlines over the past seven days?

Experts are struggling to explain a mystery mass die-off of migratory birds in the southwestern US that biologists have described as “devastating”.  Some experts believe the West Coast wildfires may be to blame, with other weather events linked to global warming also suggested as possible explanations. 

Back in the UK, meanwhile, Confederation of British Industry (CBI) director-general Carolyn Fairbairn urged the government and businesses to seize the opportunity to create green jobs and boost the economy by becoming a “global leader” in the fight to tackle climate change.

The country’s film and tourism industries are already set to get a much-needed shot in the arm, with Pinewood Studios announcing plans to build a £450m development called “Screen Hub UK” featuring a visitor attraction for film fans. The company says the new complex, to be located on a 77-acre site located to the south of the world-famous film and television studio in Buckinghamshire, will create 3,500 new jobs and generate £230m a year for the economy.


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Thomas Cook’s return journey: from collapse to relaunch in one year


Thomas Cook


Travel brand resurrected as online-only agent by Chinese owners Fosun

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Thomas Cook

Travel brand resurrected as online-only agent by Chinese owners Fosun

One-Minute Read

Mike Starling

Friday, September 18, 2020 – 11:28am

Thomas Cook is back in business again in the UK exactly 12 months after the collapse of the 178-year-old travel company. 

When the travel agent ceased trading in September last year, around 150,000 holidaymakers were left stranded abroad and 21,000 staff worldwide lost their jobs, including 9,000 in Britain.

But now Thomas Cook is back with a “Covid-ready” website “that will initially sell holidays to beach resorts and cities in countries on the UK government’s travel corridor listof countries exempt from coronavirus quarantine restrictions, reports The Guardian

In a message on the new site, the company says: “We want to give you certainty when you book so we only offer destinations with no quarantine.”

Who owns Thomas Cook? 

After going bust, the Thomas Cook brand assets were bought for £11m last November by Chinese conglomerate Fosun. 

The Shanghai-based group, which also owns all-inclusive holiday company Club Med, relaunched Thomas Cook in China in July, with the UK’s online operation launching this week, staffed by 50 employees working from home. The business is once again licensed by the CAA and is Atol-protected.

An additional £6m has been invested in the travel company, and the majority of the senior management team, including chief executive Alan French, are former Thomas Cook employees, a person with knowledge of the deal told the Financial Times.

‘Phase one’ for UK relaunch

Thomas Cook’s relaunch in China in July has been described as a “success”, with more than 170,000 customers so far.

Fosun Tourism Group chief executive and chair Jim Qian told the BBC that the Chinese operation is “more than just an online travel agency”.

“Instead, it is a lifestyle platform which offers a range of related products and services”, including hotels, tickets and entertainment, he explained.

Fosun says the online UK relaunch of Thomas Cook is just “ phase one” of what the BBC describes as the  “ambitious expansion plans” for the company’s brands once the global economy recovers from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“We launched as an online travel agency first in the UK but we want to add more and more so it becomes a similar platform [to China],” Qian added. 

“It was a soft launch to test the process and make sure things are working well ahead of a full recovery. We will gradually add more products on this platform.

“The companies that can survive this travel downturn will be much stronger on the other side as they have shown they can be efficiently managed.”

Cautious welcome

Although the Thomas Cook relaunch is good news for the ailing travel industry, some experts are warning warning consumers to be cautious when it comes to booking holidays, with Atol protection proving less secure in recent months. 

Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said: “While some previous Thomas Cook customers may be pleased to see it relaunching as an online travel agent, the events of the past few months should act as a reminder that just because a brand is a household name it does not mean you can necessarily rely on it to treat you fairly. 

“While package holidays booked through Thomas Cook would be Atol protected, many of the big online travel agents have proven time and time again through the pandemic they aren’t able to offer the same level of protection or customer service as better, traditional tour operators, making it difficult to secure refunds that customers are legally owed for cancelled holidays.”


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VCs have to train themselves to ‘ask the stupid questions’, says Hoxton Ventures’ Hussein Kanji


If venture capitalists could predict the future, why wouldn’t they just start companies themselves? That’s the question Hussein Kanji, founding partner at Hoxton Ventures, asked rhetorically at Disrupt 2020.

“If anyone says that they have predictive power in this industry and says they know where the future is gonna be, I just question the wisdom of this,” he said during a session exploring how VCs seek out new markets before they even exist. “Because if you could figure it out, you could come up with the idea, you’re capable enough to be able to put all the pieces together, why would you not found the business?”

Instead, the key to betting on the future is to learn to ask the stupid questions. “I think it’s actually perfectly fine in the venture industry to not be the smart person and to kind of train yourself to be stupid and ask the stupid questions,” said Kanji. “I think a lot of people are probably too shy to do that. And a lot of people [are] probably too risk averse to then write the check when they don’t really understand exactly what it is that they’re investing into. But a lot of this stuff is a lightbulb moment”.

One of those lightbulb moments was Hoxton Ventures’ investment in Deliveroo, the takeout food delivery service that competes with UberEats and helped turn almost every restaurant into a food delivery service. However, Kanji reminded us that the European unicorn wasn’t the first company to try takeout delivery, but new technology, in the form of cheap smartphones coupled with GPS and routing algorithms, meant the timing was now right.

“People did try delivery,” he said, “they tried it back in the 90s. Everyone forgets about that. There’s a company in New York City called Cosmo that would go off and like get you a pint of ice cream on demand. You know, it never worked because they used pagers. Like, do you remember pagers? Like, that’s how they ran the fleet. They couldn’t move the fleet around. They couldn’t get the driver to the apartment and the driver to the store in any kind of efficient way… The breakthrough for delivery, and for that whole industry, was you had smartphones, you could give smartphones to the drivers, you could track what the driver was doing, which is good because then you could route logistics, you know, with a smartphone… light bulb moment”.

Kanji said that, although they are very different businesses and markets, Hoxton’s two other unicorns, Babylon and Darktrace, involved similar lightbulb moments. Yet you don’t get that light bulb moment until someone walks in the door and explains it to you. “Then your natural question is… why now… what’s actually changed? Like, what makes this so interesting? Why didn’t someone come up with this a year ago? There’s almost always usually a reason for that kind of stuff. And then then the harder part of the job is … are you really picking number one?”

Entering or helping to create new markets is often not without controversy — which both Babylon and Deliveroo has attracted for different reasons. As real disruption inevitably creates societal consequences, it often raises ethical questions that, the Hoxton co-founder argues, aren’t always possible to anticipate early on. However, as the picture becomes clearer, he says VCs should absolutely care, along with, of course, founders and CEOs.

“One of the constant criticisms in the tech industry is, I think the maturity of our industry… we behave more like teenagers. And it’s great to be libertarian, it’s great to be free markets and say markets are gonna sort it out. But you’re gonna have touch points with a lot of other places in society. You’ve got to figure out, and I think, get ahead in terms of…what the impact is going to be, and be more responsible”.


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China’s vaping giant Relx gears up for US entry


The backlash against vaping in the United States has not deterred a Chinese challenger from entering the world’s largest vaping market.

Relx, one of China’s largest e-cigarette companies, is seeking to submit its Premarket Tobacco Product Application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by the end of 2021. Upon completion of a review process that will take no longer than 180 days, the FDA will take “action”, which could be marketing authorization, a request for more information, or denial.

The vaping startup has requested a pre-submission meeting with the FDA and is expected to meet with the regulator in October, said Donald Graff, the two-year-old startup’s head of scientific affairs for North America, appearing in a video during a press event this week in Shenzhen.

Graff had a brief stint at Juuls Labs as its principal scientist after a 13-year streak at clinical research company Celerion where he oversaw tobacco studies. He’s now spearheading Relx’s PMTA application.

PMTA is an extensive, meticulous, costly bureaucratic process for vaping products to establish that they are “appropriate for the protection of public health” before being marketed in the U.S. Relx, headquartered in the world’s e-cigarette manufacturing hub Shenzhen, has set up a team to work on the application process, including hiring third-party consulting services and clinical partners to generate data from tests that are necessary for the submission.

All e-cigarette companies currently on the U.S. market needed to submit their PMTA application by September 10 this year. To date, no products have received marketing authorization by the FDA.

The high costs of PMTA keep many small players from entering the U.S. market, but Relx has the financial prowess to bear the costs — it estimates the entire process will cost it more than $20 million. A Nielson survey Relx commissioned showed that the company had a nearly 70% share of China’s pod vape market.

As the risks associated with e-cigarettes continue to draw attention from regulators around the world, Relx has ramped up its research investments to examine vaping’s impact on public health. At this week’s event, its chief executive Kate Wang, a rare female founder of a major tech company in China, and previously the general manager of Uber China, repeatedly highlighted “science” as a key focus of the startup.

Recently unveiled is the company’s Shenzhen-based bioscience lab, which is measuring the effects of Relx vapors through in vivo and in vitro tests, as well as conducting pre-clinical safety assessments.

Despite its ongoing efforts to prove the benefit of switching from smoking to vaping, Relx alongside its rivals faces regulatory uncertainties across various markets. The Trump administration banned flavored vape products last year (Relx plans to submit unflavored products for PMTA review) and India banned e-cigarettes citing adverse health impacts on youth.

When asked how the startup plans to cope with changing policies, a Relx executive said at the event that “the company keeps a good relationship with regulators from various countries.”

“You can’t make conclusions on something that is still in the process,” said the executive, referring to the early stage of the vaping industry.


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Google pulls India’s Paytm app from Play Store for repeat policy violations


Google has pulled Indian financial services app Paytm from the Play Store for repeatedly violating its policies, two people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

Paytm is India’s most valued startup and claims over 50 million monthly active users. Its marquee app, which allows users to exchange money with one another, disappeared from the Play Store in India earlier Friday.

On Friday, Google said that Play Store prohibits online casinos and other unregulated gambling apps that facilitate sports betting in India, a day before the popular cricket tournament Indian Premier League is scheduled to kick off.

The Android-maker, which maintains similar guidelines in most other markets, additionally noted that if an app leads consumers to an external website that allows them to participate in paid tournaments to win real money or cash prizes is also in violation of its Play Store policies.

Previous seasons of IPL, which last for nearly two months and attract the attention of hundreds of millions of Indians, have seen a surge in apps that look to promote or participate in sports betting. Today’s announcement is Google’s attempt to remind developers about its Play Store guidelines and crack down on future sketchy practices, TechCrunch understands.

Sports betting is banned in India, but fantasy sports where users select their favorite players and win if their preferred team or players play well is not illegal in most Indian states.

A person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that Google has also asked Disney+ Hotstar, one of the most popular on-demand video streaming services in India, to display a warning before running ads for fantasy sports apps.

“We have these policies to protect users from potential harm. When an app violates these policies, we notify the developer of the violation and remove the app from Google Play until the developer brings the app into compliance,” wrote Suzanne Frey, Vice President, Product, Android Security and Privacy, in a blog post.

“And in the case where there are repeated policy violations, we may take more serious action which may include terminating Google Play Developer accounts. Our policies are applied and enforced on all developers consistently,” she added.

More to follow…


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Alcohol gift guide: unique sets and bottles


Drinks by the Dram Gift Collection Series

Drinks by the Dram
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Drinks by the Dram Gift Collection Series

From whiskies and gins to rums and beers there’s plenty here to fill your shopping basket

In Depth

Mike Starling

Friday, September 18, 2020 – 8:38am

What do you buy for that certain someone who has everything? 

If they enjoy a tipple, you can’t go wrong with getting them something to drink. 

In this guide we pick out some of the most unique alcohol gift sets and bottles on the market right now, including a 24-carat gin and boozy tea to dram collections and craft beers.   

Unique alcohol gifts and sets 

Bacardi x Floom: grow-your-own garnish kits

The Bacardi drinks group has partnered with artisan florists Floom to create three “grow-your-own” garnish kits. Each kit features two fully-grown seasonal plants – such as rosemary, mint, basil, and edible flowers – and are paired with a 35cl bottle of either Bacardi rum, Bombay Sapphire gin or Grey Goose vodka. Each kit is accompanied by a cocktail recipes.

£29.99; floom.com

58 Gin’s Make Your Own Gin

Gin enthusiasts can create two personalised bottles of bespoke, hand-crafted gin based on their own unique recipe. A simple selection process invites you to define your flavour profile utilising up to six beautiful botanicals, choose whether you want a pink or clear liquid, name your gin and personalise your bottle. Your recipe is then handed over to 58 Gin’s Master Distiller to be brought to life using a classic base London Dry recipe where juniper, orris and angelica root delicately balance your chosen flavours. A gift box of two 70cl bottles of your customised gin will then be delivered directly to any UK address. 

£99; 58gin.com

NOVELTEA alcoholic tea-lover’s pack

NOVELTEA has created a boozy blend of cold-brewed teas infused with a matching spirit. Flavours include The Tale of Earl Grey (London dry gin), The Tale of Moroccan Mint (white Carribean rum) and The Tale of Oolong (Scotch whisky). The tea lover’s pack includes a trio of 70cl NOVELTEA Tales, a glass teapot and teapot warmer.

From £79.95; noveltea-drinks.com 

Drinks by the Dram Gift Collection Series

Drinks by the Dram has announced its brand new gift collection series. Each set contains 12 specially-curated drams presented in beautiful wax-sealed 30ml bottles. The range includes whisky, premium rum, premium gin, tequila and mezcal, and Irish whiskey.

From £39; drinksbythedram.com 

BenRiach 10 Year Old Scotch Whisky gift pack

Ten-year-old whisky from the BenRiach Distillery in Speyside, Scotland. A fresh and lively single malt, it’s available in a gift box with two glasses. 

£36.90; thewhiskyworld.com 

Black Bowmore DB5 1964: forget martinis, Mr Bond, try this £50,000 whisky

Bottles of gin

24 Carat Gin

The luxurious distilling and distribution company Liquid Gold Alcohol brings to the market a premium and exclusive product for the most discerning clients with the finest palate. 24 Carat Gin is a magic alcohol drink that combines an exquisite dry gin with the delightful touch of real 24-carat liquid gold.

£1,250 pre-order; 24caratgin.com

Massingberd-Mundy Distillery’s ‘his and her’ gins

South Ormsby Estate’s most enigmatic couple have been reunited thanks to two new gins from Massingberd-Mundy Distillery in the Lincolnshire Wolds. Making perfect “his and her” gifts the Burrell’s Dry and Marie Jeanne Pink gins have been distilled to celebrate Charles Burrell Massingberd and his socialite wife Marie Jeanne Rapigeon of Versailles. 

Each bottle costs £39; southormsbyestate.co.uk

VII Hills Italian Dry Gin

Considered to be the No.1 Italian dry gin brand in the world by critics, VII Hills is the ideal gift for gin connoisseurs. Exclusively handcrafted in Italy, this unique spirit is made with seven botanicals found within the hills that surround Rome. The result is a perfectly balanced spirit with a distinctive body, strength and flavour that is slightly bittersweet with hints of blood orange and an herbal aroma. It can be enjoyed on the rocks, in a G&T or any other gin-based tipple. 

£31.25; thewhiskyexchange.com 

Elephant Gin (London Dry Gin)

Inspired by the traditional sundowner experience after a day out in the African bush, Elephant Gin is a handcrafted gin made with rare African botanicals. A complex yet smooth taste, encompassing floral, fruity and spicy flavours. 

£30.90; elephant-gin.com

58 Gin’s sustainably-sound gins

London-based artisan spirits distillery, 58 Gin, has recently launched two new hand-crafted gins – 58 English Berry Gin and 58 Apple & Hibiscus Gin – created using wonky apples and foraged berries.

£34; amazon.co.uk

Sibling Negroni Gin 

Sibling Distillery, a family (sibling)-run distillery based in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, has taken inspiration from the Italian cocktail to create a gin that mixes with tonic to make a fresh and herbal G&T. Best served with tonic, a slice of orange and ice, it’s a citrus lead, herbal gin with the classic aperitivo bitterness and a refreshing zesty finish. 

£40; siblingdistillery.com

Salcombe Gin Voyager Series ‘Restless’ 

Restless is the fifth limited-edition release in the award-winning Voyager Series from Salcombe Gin. Crafted in collaboration with two Michelin-starred chef Niall Keating of Whatley Manor in Wiltshire, Restless is inspired by Keating’s passion for Asian cuisine and has been distilled with kombucha, marking the first time a gin has ever been created with a liquid botanical. 

£65; salcombegin.com

The 15 best gins: here’s some you must try

Bottles of whisky and bourbon 

Nc’nean Organic Single Malt Scotch Whisky 

Smooth, elegant and organic, Nc’nean Single Malt Whisky is produced in small batches for an easy-going and delicious tipple. Packaged in the industry’s first-ever 100% recycled clear glass bottle and made in the 100% renewable energy distillery, Nc’nean is a pioneer of sustainable production. It has tasting notes of lemon posset, peach and apricot, and spiced rye bread.

From £47.95 (October delivery); ncnean.com

Old Forester Bourbon 

Award-winning bourbon with a great heritage and a rich taste, it was America’s first bottled bourbon and its classic taste is still very popular today. In 2020 Old Forester celebrates 150 years of producing flavoursome bourbon. 

£23.95; amazon.co.uk

Old Forester Statesman 

Old Forester Statesman is inspired by the dynamic characters in the film Kingsman: The Golden Circle. Old Forester Statesman offers bold flavour blended from hand-selected casks of the famed Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky. Because true character is only revealed after a little heat, the Statesman product offers an exceptional balance of heat and spice.

£58.95; thewhiskyexchange.com

How to become a whisky ‘expert’ in just two hours

Bottles of liqueur

Magnum Scotch Cream Liqueur

This liqueur was last year crowned one of the top-selling products at Edinburgh Castle after more than 12,000 bottles were snapped up by visitors to the historic landmark between January and November 2019 alone. Magnum’s smooth, creamy caramel notes play off single malt scotch whisky for a balanced taste with a warming ginger afterglow.

£19.95; royalmilewhiskies.com

Bottles of rum

Cabby’s White Rum by the Taxi Spirit Co

“In the daytime, I drive a black cab. At night time, I distil.” These are the words of London cab driver Moses Odong, who has opened the capital’s first ever rum distillery, aptly named Taxi Spirit Co. The first product to be launched was the award-winning Cabby’s White Rum, which has rich, full-bodied taste notes of sweet cane, delicious black treacle, a hint of oak and refreshing coconut and citrus. Taxi Spirit Co also offers Cabby’s Spiced Rum and Cabby’s Gin.

£29.50; taxispirit.com

Copalli Barrel-rested Rum 

An organic, single estate rum from the heart of the Belizean rainforest, crafted with conservation, community and authenticity at its core. It’s made from just three ingredients, sugar cane, canopy water and yeast. The rum is “rested” in casks that previously held bourbon, giving it gorgeous vanilla-rich notes.

£41.25; 31dover.com

Mad City Botanical Rum

This premium white rum by Foxhole Spirits is enhanced and invigorated with a recipe of 25 botanicals ­- with more depth, more flavour and more complexity than ever before. Mad City is the ultimate tipple for rum fans, cocktail lovers and curious drinkers who are looking beyond gin. 

£29; foxholespirits.com

Equiano Rum

Equiano, the world’s first premium aged rum from African and the Caribbean, is 100% natural and is made with no spices, no additives and no added sugar. Inspired by the Nigerian-born writer, entrepreneur, abolitionist and freedom fighter Olaudah Equiano, the rum offers a blend of two cultures, two distilleries and two islands. 

£49.95; equianorum.com

Bloody Mary

The Bloody Classic

Bloody Drinks was launched in 2018 when founders Will Best and Harry Farnham made it their mission to find the perfect Bloody Mary. They started making their own for friends and family and the Bloody Drinks brand was born from there. Their Bloody Classic is created using high quality ingredients including premium vodka and Amontillado sherry for body, the finest tomatoes from Italy and Spain for natural sweetness, fresh lemons for acidity, Worcestershire and soy sauce for a rich, umami-packed base, and the legendary Tabasco sauce for that much needed kick.

Bloody Classic cans are sold in packs of four (£13), six (£19) or 12 (£36); bloodydrinks.co.uk

Craft beers, lagers, ales and porter 

Harvie’s Choice by Harviestoun Brewery 

Based at Alva, near Stirling in Scotland, Harviestoun Brewery is a pioneering producer of nine high-quality craft beer and lagers and its online shop sells a range of multi-packs, kegs and fridge packs. The Harvie’s Choice selection, a mixed case of award-winning beers, is chosen by Harvie, the company mascot who has featured in various guises on its beers through the years. Included in the mixed case are: Schiehallion 4.8% craft lager, Bitter & Twisted 4.2% golden ale, The Ridge 5% pale ale, Forth 4% craft lager, IPA 5.8%, Whippet 2.3% pale ale, Old Engine Oil 6% craft stout, Wheesht 0.0% dark ale, Ola Dubh 8% barrel aged ale plus a free Harviestoun tankard glass.

£25; harviestoun.com

Salcombe Brewery Mixed Case of 12 Bottles

The mixed case of 12 x 330ml bottles includes Island Street Porter (an award-winning, rich, velvety porter); Salcombe Pale Ale (a classic, full bodied pale ale with a bouquet of orange, pink grapefruit and anise); and Sun Drop (a gluten free and vegan friendly, dry-hopped ale). 

£22.50; salcombebrewery.com 

Ciders and perries 

Cider Is Wine at-home packs

The mission of Cider Is Wine is to create a new global drinks category for ciders and perries made from 100% apple and pear juice (never-from-concentrate) that lovers of the finer things in life will recognise as simply representing the best of the best. Its online shop sells at-home packs, case of the month, online tastings and subscriptions. 

At-home packs start from £40; cideriswine.co.uk  

Aperitivos and digestifs 

Primo Aperitivo Negroni 

Transporting you to an authentic Italian aperitivo hour, Primo Aperitivo Negroni is one of the most luxury ready-to-serve Italian cocktails on the market. It has been exclusively handcrafted in Italy using the finest ingredients including a bespoke blend of dry gin, vermouth and bitter aperitif. To serve, simply pour the readily crafted drink over ice into a rock glass and garnish with an orange wedge. The striking bottle comes delivered in a beautifully branded gift box. 

£26.90; http://primoaperitivo.com 

How to make a Negroni cocktail: top hotel bartenders share their recipes

Stambecco Maraschino Cherry Amaro 

Stambecco is a bitter-sweet Italian Amaro infused with luxury maraschino cherries, bitter citrus peel and local Italian mountain herbs. It’s produced at the Vergnano family distillery, Torino Distillati in Piedmont, north-eastern Italy, where the tradition of making Amaro began. The liqueur is carefully crafted in a large, bespoke copper pot still which has been specially installed at the distillery for the exclusive, small-batch production of Stambecco.

£26.99; amazon.co.uk

Bottles of Vermouth 

Discarded Sweet Cascara Vermouth

Every year, billions of tonnes of the coffee berry Cascara are wasted in coffee production after the bean is extracted. Discarded takes what would be wasted and re-purposes it to bring a new flavour dimension to create a Vermouth like no other. Discover the versatility of Discarded Sweet Cascara Vermouth, a perfect addition to any drinks collection and a welcome gift for any occasion. The taste is full and sweet, with indulgent fruity notes that merge perfectly with the characteristic bitter notes of Vermouth.

£19; waitrose.com


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Ride-hailing was hit hard by COVID-19. Grab’s Russell Cohen on how the company adapted.


A contactless delivery performed by a Grab delivery driver

A contactless Grab delivery

Ride-hailing services around the world have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Grab was no exception. The company is one of the most highly-valued tech startups in Southeast Asia, where it operates in eight countries. Its transport business suffered a sharp decline in March and April, as movement restriction orders were implemented.

But the company had the advantage of already operating several on-demand logistics services. During Disrupt, Russell Cohen, Grab’s group managing director of operations, talked about how the company adapted its technology for an unprecedented crisis (the video is embedded below).

“We sat down as a leadership group at the start of the crisis and we could see, particularly in Southeast Asia, that the scale of the challenge was so immense,” said Cohen.

Grab’s driver app already allowed them to toggle between ride-hailing and on-demand delivery requests. As a result of COVID-19, over 149,000 drivers began performing on-demand deliveries for the first time, with Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand seeing the most conversions. That number included tens of thousands of new drivers who joined the platform to make up for lost earnings during the pandemic.

The challenge was scaling up its delivery services to meet the dramatic increase in demand by consumers, and also merchants who needed a new way to reach customers. In March and April, Cohen said just under 80,000 small businesses joined its platform. Many had never sold online before, so Grab expedited the release of a self-service feature, making it easier for merchants to on-board themselves.

“This is a massive sector of the Southeast Asian economy that effectively digitized within a matter of weeks,” said Cohen.

A lot of the new merchants had previously taken only cash payments, so Grab had to set them up for digital payments, a process made simpler because the company’s financial unit, Grab Financial, already offers services like Grab Pay for cashless payments, mobile wallets and remittance services.

Grab also released a new package of tools called Grab Merchant, which enabled merchants to set-up online businesses by submitting licenses and certification online, and includes features like data analytics.

Modeling for uncertainty in the “new normal”

Part of Grab’s COVID-19 strategy involved collaborating with local municipalities and governments in different countries to make deliveries more efficient. For example, it worked with the Singaporean government to expand a pilot program, called GrabExpress Car, originally launched in September, that enabled more of Grab’s ride-hailing vehicles to be used for food and grocery deliveries. Previously, many of those deliveries were handled only by motorbikes.

The situation in each of Grab’s markets–Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam—is still evolving. Some markets have lifted lockdown orders, while others continue to cope with new outbreaks.

Cohen said ride-hailing is gradually recovering in many of Grab’s markets. But the company is preparing for an uncertain future by modeling different scenarios, taking into account potential re-closings, and long-lasting changes in both consumer and merchant behavior.

“Unpredictability is something we think a lot about,” Cohen said. Its models include ones where deliveries are a significantly larger part of its business, because even in countries where movement restrictions have been lifted, customers still prefer to shop online.

COVID-19 has also accelerated the adoption of digital payments in several of Grab’s markets. For example, Grab launched its GrabPay Card in the Philippines three months ago, because more people are beginning to use contactless payments in response to COVID-19 concerns.

In terms of on-demand deliveries, the company is expanding GrabExpress, its same-day courier service, and adapting technology originally created for ride-pooling to help drivers plan pickups and deliveries more efficiently. This will help decrease the cost of delivery services as consumers remain price-conscious because of the pandemic’s economic impact.

“Purchasing behaviors have changed, so for us, when we think about the supply side, the drivers’ side, that means we’ve got to make sure our fleet is flexible,” he said.


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Airline’s ‘flight to nowhere’ sells out in ten minutes


Video of Qantas vs Tesla

And other stories from the stranger side of life

One-Minute Read

Friday, September 18, 2020 – 6:41am

An Australian airline says its seven-hour scenic “flight to nowhere,” which will take off and land at the same airport, sold out in ten minutes. Qantas says the unusual flight will depart from Sydney and return on the same day, offering passengers low-level scenic views over Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef, and other spots. People snapped up seats, priced between $575 and $2,765.

The world’s oldest animal sperm is found

Paleontologists have discovered the world’s oldest animal sperm, hidden in a 100 million-year-old piece of amber. The experts discovered the sample in the reproductive tract of an ancient female crustacean encased in resin. The results “double the age of the oldest unequivocal fossil animal sperm,” the report authors wrote in Royal Society journal on Wednesday.

Alligator on gas wins an improbable prize 

An alligator on helium gas has won an Ig Nobel prize. Researchers undertook the experiment to try to understand how alligators communicate. The prizes are awarded by the science humour magazine, Annals of Improbable Research. Other winners this year included the team that wanted to see what happened when earthworms were vibrated at high frequency.

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Apple will launch its online store in India next week


Apple will launch its online store in India on September 23, bringing a range of services directly to customers in the world’s second largest smartphone market for the first time in over 20 years since it began operations in the country.

The company, which currently relies on third-party online and offline retailers to sell its products in India, said its online store will offer AppleCare+, which extends the warranty on its hardware products by up to two years, as well as a trade-in program to let customers access discounts on purchase of new iPhones by returning previous models. These programs were previously not available in India. 

“We know our users are relying on technology to stay connected, engage in learning, and tap into their creativity, and by bringing the Apple Store online to India, we are offering our customers the very best of Apple at this important time,” said Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s senior vice president of Retail + People, in a statement.

TechCrunch reported in January that the iPhone-maker was planning to launch its online store in India in Q3 this year. A month later, Apple CEO Tim Cook confirmed the development, adding that Apple will also launch its first physical store in the country next year.

On its website, Apple says it also plans to offer financing options to customers in India, and students will receive additional discounts on Apple products and accessories. Starting next month, it will also let customers check out free online sessions on music and photography from professional creatives. And if they wish, they can engrave emoji or text on their AirPods in several Indian languages.

The launch of the online store will mark a new chapter in Apple’s business in India, where about 99% of the market is commanded by Android smartphones. The iPhone-maker has become visibly more aggressive in India in recent years. In July, the company’s contract manufacturing partner (Foxconn) began assembling the iPhone 11 in India. This was the first time the company was locally assembling a current-generation iPhone model in the country.

Assembling handsets in India enables smartphone vendors — including Apple — to avoid roughly 20% import duty that the Indian government levies on imported electronics products.


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TikTok’s Chinese rival Kuaishou becomes a popular online bazaar


In China, short video apps aren’t just for mindless time killing. These services are becoming online bazaars where users can examine products, see how they are grown and made, and ask sellers questions during live sessions.

Kuaishou, the main rival of TikTok’s Chinese version (Douyin), announced that it accumulated 500 million e-commerce orders in August, a strong sign for the app’s monetization effort — and probably a conducive condition for its upcoming public listing.

On the heels of the announcement, Reuters reported that Kuaishou, a Tencent-backed company behind TikTok clone Zynn, is looking to raise up to $5 billion from an initial public offering in Hong Kong as early as January. The company declined to comment, but a source with knowledge of the matter confirmed the details with TechCrunch.

There are intricacies in the claim of “500 million orders.” It doesn’t exclude canceled orders or refunds, and Kuaishou won’t reveal what its actual sales were. The company also said the number made it China’s fourth-largest e-commerce player following Alibaba, JD.com and Pinduoduo.

It’s hard to verify the claim as there are no comparable figures from these firms during the period, but let’s work with what’s available. Pinduoduo previously said it logged over 7 billion orders in the first six months of 2019. That means it averaged 1.16 billion orders per month, more than doubling Kuaishou’s volume.

Kuaishou’s figure, however, does indicate that many users have bought or at least considered buying through its video platform.

The app, known for its celebration of vernacular and even mundane user content, boasts 300 million daily active users at the latest, which suggests on average its users made at least one order during the month. Many of the products sold were produce grown by its large base of rural users. The app gained ground in small towns and far-flung regions early on exactly because its content algorithms didn’t intend to favor the “glamorous”.

Over time, it gathered pace among Chinese urbanites who found themselves enjoying others’ candid filming of country life and happily ordering their farm products. The focus on bringing rural produce to urban areas also squares nicely with China’s push to invigorate its rural economy, and it’s not rare to see Kuaishou using terms like “poverty-alleviation” in its social media campaign.

Douyin, which leans towards polished videos from “influencers”, also enables its content creators to monetize — through both sharing ad revenue and hawking products. With a DAU twice as big as Kuaishou’s at 600 million, the app vows to bring 80 billion yuan ($11.8 billion) of income to creators in the coming year, the chief executive of ByteDance China, Kelly Zhang, said recently at Douyin’s creator conference.


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