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Electronic voting, BA IT fiasco, microbeads and more: best of the week’s tech news

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E&T staff pick their favourite news stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Electronic voting would boost turnout and save money, IET claims

On election day, the IET called for electronic voting to boost turnout and save money. Why do we still vote with a stubby pencil to put a cross on a piece of paper, when most people are much more used to casting their votes in reality TV shows with a tap of a finger on their smartphone or a click of their mouse on a web site? The answer of course is that it is not a reality TV show, and the IET acknowledges the security must be much stronger for a national election than for a dance contest. There’s an even bigger challenge though: elections are secret ballots and it’s vital to keep it that way. Canvassers in London tell me they frequently knock on doors and speak to women who say they can’t talk to them but they can talk to their husbands who decide how the household is to vote. That’s shocking but may well be ineffective because once those relatives are in the privacy of the polling booth they can vote any way they choose. Secrecy is potentially an issue in postal or proxy voting too but remote voting technology could make it more widespread. Keeping technology to the privacy of the polling station would maintain secrecy and avoid constituencies that are too close to call, like Kensington – which as I write is waiting on a third recount. But it would be expensive and perhaps, with the security checks necessary, make it less attractive to vote rather than easier. And you’d still have to struggle out in the rain to a draughty town hall

Josh Loeb, associate editor

British Airways IT catastrophe blamed on ‘human error’

I can hardly be the first to point out that British Airways has been tying itself in knots as it seeks to explain what went so horribly wrong with its IT systems over the busy bank holiday weekend at the end of May. The airline’s explanations still appear to make no sense. We are now told an engineer, apparently employed by a third party, disconnected the power supply and then wrongly reconnected it. I’m sorry, what? What was this engineer doing exactly? Was he or she bumbling around unsupervised in the back end of the data mothership? If they were doing non-urgent maintenance work, why had this been timed to coincide with one of the airline’s busiest periods? I mean really, it’s like something out of ‘Airplane!’, the satirical 1980s comedy starring Leslie Nielsen. I was at an information security event this week and everyone I spoke to about BA’s woes expressed puzzlement. One said that the airline’s narrative was akin to saying someone had tripped over a power cable or accidentally pulled out the multiplug before hastily bunging it back into the socket in the wall, at which point all the computers blinked back into life again and loudly proclaimed: “No.” Well, if you say so, BA, but what about your backup systems, which, if I understand it right, are supposed to kick in to keep things ticking over smoothly in a scenario such as this? There is sheer bemusement in the IT community about how a computer crash as catastrophic as this could befall so high profile and (presumably) technologically sophisticated an organisation as Britain’s flag-carrying airline. Is there more to this story than the company’s head honchos are letting on? A cyber-attack or sabotage perhaps? As a self-respecting journalist I have a severe allergy to conspiracy theories and always prefer facts to speculation, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. Yes, there is more to it. There must be, because if there isn’t then the airline’s systems are so rudimentary that we might as well all give up and go home.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Biodegradable microbeads to replace polluting plastic particles in cosmetics

The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is borne out by the image accompanying this story. This alone should encourage people to think and act more responsibly towards their consumption and the products they choose. In turn, such a shift in consumer habits should oblige manufacturers to re-engineer and reconsider the makeup (no pun intended) of their products to be more environmentally friendly. It’s people power at its most basic and most devastatingly effective. If we all stop buying bad products, bad products will disappear from our supermarket shelves. When there’s a cleaner, greener solution available to manufacturers, we can all lean on them with our collective might to persuade them to adjust their commercial ethics.

Algorithm generates millions of Nutella packaging designs

And now for a bit of light-hearted commercial fun. Ferrero (Italy’s celebrated creator of the classic gold-wrapped Rocher chocolate) has used a computer algorithm to create unique labels for millions of jars of its Nutella chocolate spread. The computer program was provided with a database of bright, bold patterns and colours (naturally judged to be brand appropriate). The software then randomly combined these patterns and colours to generate seven million different designs to print on jars of Nutella, to be made available only in Italy. According to the company, the ‘Nutella Unica’ jars all sold out within one month.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Electronic voting would boost turnout and save money, IET claims

Better late than never, or so they say. It’s good to see the benefits of electronic voting getting universally recognised at last. In the small Baltic country of Estonia, the world’s e-voting pioneer, they have known them for well over ten years, and, I am proud to say that E&T and yours truly were among the first to promote that ground-breaking Estonian, or shall we say E-Stonian, for the country is often referred to as ‘E-Stonia’ for her prowess and leadership in all matters electronic: e-banking, e-medicine, e-schools and even e-police, experience (e-xperience?). In view of the UK general elections, the final results of which are being counted as I write, the turnout this time was surprisingly high (69 per cent according to latest counts), even with no e-voting involved. Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to adopt it, for who knows, with e-voting in place, the turnout in the future could potentially reach truly Soviet proportions: 99 per cent! (One per cent was usually deducted to increase the credibility.) Mind you, in the USSR all those 99 per cent would vote for the same – one and only – candidate. But that’s a totally different issue.

Solar lights spell the end of kerosene for over a million Kenyans

It makes me feel truly ancient, but the phrase ‘kerosene lights’ immediately rang a bell and reminded me of my childhood. When I was 5 or 6 years old, my grandparents used to take me in summer to a dacha in a small Ukrainian village, where they – and we too – routinely burned kerosene lights, for lack of solar panels, or any other sources of energy for that matter. We also used to cook our meals in small kerosene ovens, which hissed loudly when operated and stank of… kerosene of course, what else? Until now, the peculiar smell of kerosene is closely associated in my mind with my early childhood. Needless to say, I am more than happy for more than a million Kenyans for whom that smell will now be firmly relegated to the past.

Jade Fell, assistant features editor

Coconut oil used to recycle car parts for insulating foam

Is there anything that coconut oil can’t do? I’m in the midst of a long-standing love affair with the firm, sweet-smelling substance. It’s a staple in our kitchen for everything from shallow frying to making raw vegan treats. The subtle sweetness it adds to food it great – but I mainly advocate the stuff for its health benefits. These go a lot further than internal consumption: it’s great for use as a moisturiser, cleansing oil, eye cream, conditioner and toothpaste – and it leaves you smelling like a Bounty bar, what more could you possibly ask for? Even my cat loves it – and not just because she is a little fatty, it actually helps to control hair balls. As if all this wasn’t enough, this week it emerged that researchers have discovered that this super oil can also be used to recycle leftover plastics from cars. Mind blown, right? Scrap cars contain an enormous amount of waste plastic in the form of polycarbonate (PC) and polyurethane (PUR), which, when extracted can be used to manufacture other items including fridges, packaging and insulation foam. But until now, this reuse has been limited, owing to issues with extracting the plastics in usable form, with many current methods leaving the material brittle or useless. This week, researchers discovered a new method, using coconut oil and microwaves to convert the scrap plastics into recycled polyols. Initial trials has shown that resulting recycled products do not degrade, and remain stable at high temperatures, opening the door for future use in insulating foams and other useful products.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Electronic voting would boost turnout and save money, IET claims

So the votes are in and after a drawn-out campaign where the Tories appeared to be actively wanting to lose while Corbyn put in his best overall performance since becoming leader, we’ve ended up with a chaotic hung Parliament. It appears that higher turnout, especially among the younger demographics (with a Labour promise of free university education), has swung it for the reds. During the count, there was an element of farce watching people running around with huge boxes of paper slips with teams of people furiously counting them into the early hours. Surely in 2017 electronic voting should be already here, countries such as Estonia implemented online voting as far back as 2007. But when it arrives, what kind of impact will it have? Will it galvanise the youth vote? If so it could lead to a temporary swing to the left until parties like the Conservatives realise that they need to expand their appeal beyond the geriatrics.

Tim Fryer, Technology Editor

Solar lights spell the end of kerosene for over a million Kenyans

Using kerosene lamps and stoves doesn’t sound like one of the world’s biggest problems, but it is actually incredibly important. Approximately a fifth of the world’s population doesn’t have electricity and are forced to use kerosene. 780 million women and children, according to the World Bank, inhale fumes from kerosene lamps that is claimed to be the equivalent of smoking 40 cigarettes a day and 1.5 million people in India are reported to have burns resulting from knocking over kerosene equipment. So this solar powered solution is both valuable and important, and having a mobile phone charger built in could also help those in the poorest countries move closer to first world technology. The story did jog my memory of a product I came across that tackles the problem in a different way. Gravity light, as the name suggests, is powered by gravity. The user just needs to lift a weight and using some nice gearing as the weight very slowly descends, it creates enough rotation to drive a dc generator that powers an LED, which is much brighter than the flame of a kerosene lamp. The fundamental idea is not hugely different to the mechanism of an old grandfather clock. Lighting is such an important commodity and hopefully, irrespective of whether the fuel source is gravity or the sun, it can become as taken for granted in Africa and India as it is in the UK.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Virtual tour of Bletchley Park computing museum goes online

Museums that are letting people wander around their halls in virtual reality could be blamed for doing themselves out of visitors. Why would I make the short journey from my home over to the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park when I can check out exhibits from the comfort of my own home? It turns out the museum’s got the balance just right with this online tour of some of its fascinating space. It gave me just enough of a taste to want to make a return trip a few years after the last time I was there. Plus, this being a similar environment to Google Earth, there are intriguing doors and corridors that you can wander up and down while looking from side to side, but eventually you come to a door which, although it’s clearly open, you can’t walk through. Only one way to find out what’s on the other side and that’s to go and have a walk round in real life. So that’s one more visitor they’ve got heading their way this summer. I hope it’ll do the trick for visitors from further afield, because the whole Bletchley Park experience is well worth a day out.

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