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Myanmar’s gaming stars face barriers in tough eSports journey

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Myanmar eSport members watch a game on a phone at the SEA Games
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Myanmar’s eSports athletes must battle not only online opponents but also a creaky national infrastructure in their bid to make it in the ferociously competitive world of gaming.

A relative newcomer to the fast-growing electronic sports scene, Myanmar sees eSports as a way of connecting to the outside world, a top gaming official from the country told AFP at the SEA Games in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi.

ESports are a popular choice among many Asian youths seeking the promise of fame and fortune on the digital battleground.

But Myanmar’s budding gaming stars face challenges that are unthinkable for many of their rivals. 

Power outages and internet connection problems are routine obstacles in the developing country where the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi was toppled by the army in February 2021.

“Blackouts are a challenging factor,” Myanmar Esports Federation vice president Kaung Myat San said, adding that gamers who do not have back-up generators “will find it difficult”.

Myanmar is plagued by a frail energy grid that particularly stumbles during the hot summer months when electricity use is high, forcing locals to buy costly generators for their power needs.

Another barrier is the country’s internet, which although “getting better” is still slower than other countries, said Kaung.

Gamers can suffer “high ping” — a lag between the player inputting a command and the server responding to it — which can be fatal in a sport where fractions of seconds are the difference between online life and death.

“High ping is an issue for some games, especially to enter international events that are hosted online,” he said, adding that was however “only a small percent”.

He declined to comment if his country’s political troubles were a factor on local eSports performance.

Underlining the fears people have of being seen to criticise the ruling junta, one eSports player at the SEA Games declined to give his name in describing how they sometimes have to hop from one location to another in the middle of the day when the power cuts out.

He said that they usually get about 18 hours of electricity a day.

– ‘Catch up to the world’ –

ESports made its debut at the biennial SEA Games in 2019 and was also set to feature at the Asian Games in China later this year, before those Games were postponed because of Covid. Talk has bubbled away for years about eSports one day making the Olympics.

International gaming competitions meanwhile can draw vast online and in-person audiences and prize pools in the tens of millions of dollars.

The obstacles teams from Myanmar face has not stopped some making their mark in eSports.

The Burmese Ghouls, a professional team, took second place at the Mobile Legends M2 World Championship in January 2021.

At the SEA Games in Hanoi, a row of Myanmar eSports players furiously tapped at their phones against Singapore in a Friday group-stage match of League of Legends: Wild Rift.

After a 15-minute battle, the Myanmar group bowed out from the brightly lit stage with their second loss of the day after being beaten earlier to Vietnam.

The athletes declined to speak to the media, shying away from queries.

Kaung said despite the defeat, the country’s 29-strong eSports squad still stand a chance at winning medals in two other mobile gaming events in Hanoi.

He is confident about Myanmar’s long-term gaming prospects, but the players need help.

“For our players to overcome these problems, they have to join professional eSports organisations which can support them. Sponsoring them can grow their careers,” he said.

“Through eSports we can catch up to the world.”

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Lack of competition fueled US baby formula shortage

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Grocery store shelves where baby formula is typically stocked are nearly empty in Washington
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There’s no end in sight to America’s shortage of baby formula — and the crisis has highlighted the lack of competition that has spread to all parts of the US economy, even essential ones such as food for infants.

The problem “is not going to solve itself in a day or week,” Brian Deese, a top White House economic advisor, told CNN Friday.

He was unable to say how long the crisis would last.

Initially caused by supply chain blockages and a lack of production workers due to the pandemic, the shortage was exacerbated in February when, after the death of two infants, manufacturer Abbott announced a “voluntary recall” for formula made at its factory in Michigan and shut down that location.

The shortage has left many parents frantic and fearful their infants may starve. Formula is a necessity for many families, particularly in low-income households where mothers have to return to work almost immediately after giving birth and cannot breastfeed.

A further issue is that prices for the formula that remains have skyrocketed.

An investigation by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared Abbott’s formula but made 483 “observations” about the factory, Abbott said in a statement Friday.

“We immediately began implementing corrective actions and subject to FDA approval, we could restart our Sturgis, Mich., site within two weeks,” the company said.

The FDA promised to announce plans next week that would allow, among other things, the import of formula produced overseas.

– ‘Matter of weeks’ –

The FDA currently bans most foreign infant formula, including products made in Europe, not because of health concerns but due to labeling and packaging standards.

“We believe these and other ongoing efforts will help dramatically improve the supply in the US in a matter of weeks,” FDA head Robert Califf said Friday on Twitter.

US President Joe Biden also said it “will be a matter of weeks or less” to start fully refilling shelves.

He said that stock levels in stores had begun to stabilize this week.

According to the data collection agency Datasembly, as of Tuesday, 43 percent of the usual formula supply was out of stock, up 10 percent from the April average.

Deese stressed that safety was key in solving the formula shortage and said that Biden’s administration had been running on all cylinders to try and provide enough supply.

Accused of a wait-and-see attitude or even indifference, the White House unveiled some measures Thursday to tackle the issue, but the scope seemed limited.

Biden said Friday that his administration had intervened as soon as it was aware of the problem, but that they had to “move with caution as well as speed.”

– Just three manufacturers –

“The White House… is considering all sorts of options for helping parents, which is good,” Amanda Starbuck, a research director at the Food & Water Watch group, a food safety NGO, told AFP.

She said the crisis was indicative of the problem with extreme concentration throughout the food production chain.

Three US companies control 95 percent of formula sales, according to Starbuck.

“It matters a little less if… we’re talking about soda or chips. But it matters a lot more when we’re talking about essential things like milk,” she said.

The current situation is the result of a decades-long movement. The concentration has benefited US companies that, in the absence of competition, have been able to agree on prices among themselves, Starbuck explained.

“But the blame is not completely on these companies,” she said. “Why has our government allowed for… just three companies to control so much?”

Not to mention that the companies’ giant size does not make them more efficient.

“It’s not efficient when there’s a single recall that affects every single parent across the country who needs to feed their child,” she said.

Starbuck said it’s time to turn back the clock, even if it means dismantling the huge corporations.

“What we need to do now is pass comprehensive antitrust legislation in order to better scrutinize companies, to break up companies that have gotten so big that they’re abusing their market power,” she said.

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Ukraine’s key IT sector booming despite Russian invasion

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Leading IT companies in Ukraine put in place contingency plans ahead of Russia's invasion in February
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Ukraine’s IT sector is booming despite the Russian invasion. Workers with stickers on their laptops recline on beach chairs outside a warehouse for start-ups in the east Ukraine city of Lviv giving off major Silicon Valley vibes.

But the atmosphere inside is different.

Through the glass doors of the complex, young Ukrainians zig-zag between stacks of bulletproof vests and cardboard boxes filled with helmets ready for the front.

They are part of Ukraine’s burgeoning tech sector which was forced to adapt after Russia’s invasion and has become key to supporting the war effort.

“Most tech companies had developed contingency plans” in case of war said Stepan Veselovskiy, the head of the “IT Cluster Lviv” community.

He told AFP that companies transferred servers to secure locations and established back-up systems outside the country before Russia invaded on February 24.

When Russian bombing started, IT companies shut offices in the capital Kyiv and eastern city of Kharkiv and engineers found refuge in western Ukraine or Poland next door.

Veselovskiy said there were already around 500 tech companies in Lviv before the war but now estimates that 80 percent of the sector is in the western city. 

One is Infopulse, which provides various digital services to mainly European customers.

It brought 300 of its 2,300 employees to Lviv, where it has offices in one of the city’s few buildings equipped with a bunker.

There are bunk beds and stable internet underground so employees to continue working in the event of an air raid.

There are also generators in case Russian forces target power stations and terminals for Elon Musk’s Starlink internet service.

“Even in the most drastic conditions, business can continue,” regional manager Ivan Korzhov said. 

They can even thrive. 

– Tech army –

Since the start of the war, Infopulse has gained four new customers and in April — the second month of the Russian invasion — it created 25 new jobs in Ukraine.

It is not the only tech company in Ukraine to do so. 

Veselovskiy says February — when Russia attacked — was a historically good month for Ukraine’s tech sector and its estimated 200,000 employees. 

“It slowed down a bit in March, but we are very optimistic for the future because the war doesn’t stop us from growing,” he said.

This is a stark contrast to other industries, battered by the invasion. Exports for traditional sectors such as steel and agriculture have collapsed.

But the tech sector, naturally, has not been affected by the destruction of bridges, roads or the blocking of ports. 

It has, according to Veselovsky, made more than $2 billion since the start of the war and has become the country’s leading exporter. 

“It’s a good thing for Ukraine because we generate income in dollars every month when the country really needs it,” Korzhov said.

“We pay our taxes and give a lof of money” to the government. 

The IT Cluster Kyiv has already allocated $2 million, mainly to buy equipment for Ukrainian soldiers.

That’s how its offices ended up looking like an army depot.

The sector has also offered its brightest to help the military.

Softserve — one of Ukraine’s biggest tech companies — has worked on the military’s websites for free and IT Cluster Kyiv modernised one of the military’s command centres.

Infopulse also participates in a joint project by the Ukrainian army and the ministry of digital transformation.

“Specialists in tech and cybersecurity work with the government on the information front,” its regional manager Korzhov said. 

He then repeated a popular slogan in Ukraine: “We are not waiting for peace, but for victory.”

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US baby formula shortage could last for some time: official

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Grocery store shelves where baby formula is typically stocked are nearly empty in Washington, on May 11, 2022
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The nationwide shortage of baby formula in the United States could last for some time, a top White House economic adviser cautioned on Friday. 

The problem “is not going to solve itself in a day or week,” Brian Deese told CNN. 

US families have grown increasingly desperate for formula amid a perfect storm of supply issues compounded by a massive recall.

While he would not offer a specific timeline, Deese said, “We are looking at every possible angle that we can to try to address this issue.”

The average out-of-stock rate for baby formula last week hit 43 percent, according to Datasembly, which collected information from more than 11,000 retailers.

The scarcity initially was caused by supply chain problems and labor shortages, but the problem has been worsening since February 17 when manufacturer Abbott announced a “voluntary recall” for formula made at its factory in Michigan after the death of two infants,.

That recall included Similac, a brand used by millions of American families.

A subsequent investigation cleared the formula, but production has yet to resume.

“We’ve got to see how this progresses in real time,” Deese said.

It is the latest crisis to confound President Joe Biden’s push to get the US economy on sound footing amid the highest inflation in four decades and the ongoing global supply chain bottlenecks.

The United States produces about 98 percent of the formula it consumes, and the Biden administration plans to increase imports of the powdered milk.

“The most important step that we can take right now is to give retailers more flexibility on the types of formula that they can sell, and consumers more flexibility for the types that they can buy,” Deese said. 

Officials also are working with manufacturers and he noted that domestic output has been recovering. 

Over the past month “there has been more production of formula than there was in the weeks preceding the recall,” Deese said.

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