Birth control on your phone, biometric rail travel, STEM women: E&T editors comment

In case you missed them: our editors’ thoughts on the stories that caught their eye in the news this week.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Contraception app certified as effective birth control

Besides your phone telling you what time to get up, what your calendar looks like today and what the weather and traffic are like on the way to work, now your phone can also tell you when it’s time to snuggle with a loved one - or not. The Natural Cycles app works by recording the woman’s daily temperature and uses an algorithm to plot fertility on an in-app calendar. It was used in a clinical study in 2016 featuring one million women that claimed it could be as effective as the contraceptive pill. If you do feel inclined to put your reproductive faith in this tech - putting all your eggs in one basket, digitally speaking - at least be sure to keep a beady eye open for any new updates and bug fixes for the app. There’s much more at stake if this app goes wrong than sluggish graphics performance or OS incompatibility.  

'Hidden Figures' - uncovering the truth of women and STEM

Talking about the female of the species, this is an interesting article about the genius mathematicians during the nascent days of Nasa who helped shape the success of the early US space missions. Those mathematicians were, it turns out, black women - a double whammy of prejudice both in 1950s and 1960s America and also in the scientific community predominantly ruled by men in which these unlucky women demonstrated their considerable excellence. It’s a strong story, regrettably without any happy ending in terms of sexual equality and equal employment opportunities  - as millions of women across the world today will ruefully testify.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Iris and fingerprint scans should be used to pay for rail tickets, industry plan suggests

For those of us who don’t travel by train often enough to justify buying into contactless ticketing on a pre-payment card or even mobile phone, this sounds like the ideal solution to those cold winter mornings when you don’t want to pull your gloves off and negotiate a ticket machine (or, if you’re lucky, a human behind a counter) before squeezing through a turnstile as the more seasoned commuters seethe behind you, audibly tutting. What could be better in these days of increasing passenger numbers than technology that performs some discrete biometric scanning as you enter and leave the station in the morning and automatically charges your travel account for the journey you’ve made? Some will have privacy concerns about the dystopian prospect of yet another situation where the public will be tracked throughout their working day, but CCTV is so ubiquitous now it’s unlikely to make a massive difference. More vehement, surely, will be the outcry from passengers in some parts of the UK who are quite happy with the whole ticketing process as it is and don’t mind a little bit of queueing, but would like their trains to run on time and have enough seats for most people who’ve paid to travel on them. Admittedly, the blue sky ideas about biometric scanning come in the same document that contains proposals to increase seating capacity by a third and increase standing room. The bad news is that that would be accomplished by changing seat design, which isn’t all that comfortable now, so passengers sit in a more upright position. Good to see the rail industry doing some lateral thinking about how to address its current challenges, but I can’t help thinking there are more fundamental issues it should get to grips with if it’s going to persuade customers to think about the more speculative plans.

Jade Fell, supplements editor

Contraception app certified as effective birth control

Here’s an app you definitely want to make sure is kept updated at all times. Or, you know, don’t use it because it’s stupid. The Natural Cycles app is marketed as a hormone and condom-free contraceptive method which works by recording the woman’s daily temperature and uses an algorithm to plot fertility on an in-app calendar. This story goes against everything I thought I knew about contraception and I can categorically state that I do not approve. I was always made to believe that there was always a risk of pregnancy with unprotected sex – more or less regardless of where you are in the ovulation cycle – so why the change now because it’s suddenly in app form? OK, so it’s proved fairly successful in trials, but I bet you know more than a few people who tested out controversial contraceptive methods, including the ol’ ‘standing up’ method, during their teenage years and didn’t get pregnant. Doesn’t mean much, does it?

What’s more, sexual health experts have said fertility apps cannot guarantee they will effectively prevent pregnancy. But you know what is quite good at preventing pregnancies? Condoms. OK, they’re not 100 per cent effective, but they do offer protection against STIs, which is something you certainly don’t get from an app. It seems crazy that there are so many contraceptive methods out there that help people avoid getting pregnant, but just a handful that actually work to prevent the spread of disease - and still stupid apps like this are being developed to help people avoid getting pregnant. Why invest so much time in trying to avoid pregnancy? It’s something you might want one day, but no sane person has ever wished they had gonorrhoea. And don’t even try and tell me you need this kind of app because you want a ‘natural’ contraceptive method. There are options out there which don’t involve putting unnecessary chemicals and hormones in your blood – case in point, condoms.

On the whole, I’m not totally convinced that an app which more or less encourages unsafe sex is a good idea. Sure, you can go on the pill and go out and have as much unsafe sex as you like without getting pregnant, but it does involve a trip to the doctor’s where you will inevitably be asked a few intimate questions about your sexual history. The one saving grace with the app is the price – you’ve got to pay a monthly subscription, which, reviews would suggest, a lot of people are pretty unhappy about, so hopefully it won’t take off. Condoms are free at your local sexual health clinic, yo!

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