Australian desert, the site for an electrified fence

Australia's cat fence, VR at the dentist, Grenfell fire and more: top tech news

Image credit: Australian Wildlife Conservancy/Wayne Lawler

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.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Gigantic electric fence erected to defend against feral cats in Australia

As an Australian passport holder who lived down under for a number of years, I am now seriously worried for the future of the endemic feral cats (as well as rabbits who also feature in the list of dangerous predators the fragile Australian environment has to be protected against). Let me explain. Once I received an unorthodox gift from a New South Wales reader in my Melbourne Age office: a crate of fresh wallaby meat. By sending me that unusual parcel, the reader wanted to underline the fact that wallabies were actually pests who had to be hunted down and eaten up. And that is exactly what they were doing in Australia 20 or so years ago: all those cute wallabies and kangaroos were systematically exterminated as hopping threats to farmers and their crops. And now? Some of them seem to be turning into Red List (i.e. endangered) animals… Have they overdone it in Oz again? Quite possibly. This is why the Trump-style electric fence appears to me a bit of an over-reaction too, and I won’t be surprised to see feral cats (as well as rabbits, alongside dingo dogs and Tasmanian devils) on the protected species list in the foreseeable future.

Visiting virtual beaches could make trips to the dentist less stressful

As someone who has spent many days of his life in a dentist’s chair, I can assert with confidence that no pictures of beaches, seas or even of the Garden of Eden are capable of mitigating the pain and the suffering that are part and parcel of most dental procedures. On the contrary, they can only underline the patient’s misery and make their posture – reclining in a chair with their mouth wide open – appear even more pitiful and ridiculous. I recently had a chance to visit the operating theatre of one of UK’s major cardiology hospitals – not because I wanted to, but strictly out of necessity. (I had to undergo open-heart surgery and then another general anaesthetic procedure.) The theatre had a spacious ante-room where the patients were waiting on trolleys before being wheeled inside. I had ample time to look at the moving images of enormous bright flowers projected on the walls with the aim of relaxing patients before surgery, no doubt. They looked like some sinister man-eating weeds stretching their petals towards you, as if trying to gobble you up. I and my fellow sufferers on neighbouring trolleys were staring at that cannibalistic virtual reality image with awe. It did little to relax us, but definitely succeeded in stressing us out of our minds, for being stuck on trolleys we were unable to run away from those wriggling killer-petals. “What do you think of our flowers?” a nurse asked while pushing me into the theatre. “Scary…” I mumbled before falling asleep as the anaesthetic took its toll. The first thing I saw when I woke up after the surgery seven hours later was the same greedy virtual reality flowers on the wall. I cannot therefore agree more with Professor Sabine Pahl, quoted in this story, that merely distracting patients isn’t enough, but that it is “the environment for a patient’s visit” that needs to be welcoming and relaxing. And that, I am sorry to say, will never be possible to achieve in either dental clinics or in cardio hospitals’ operating theatres.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Grenfell Tower fire raises fears over lax building regulations

Would Jeremy Corbyn have won if the Grenfell Tower fire had happened just before, rather than just after, the election? I’m sorry if that’s not the sort of thing one is supposed to ask in the wake of such a devastating disaster, but there are enough of us thinking it. The symbolism of social housing tenants hurling themselves from windows rather than be burned to death in a Conservative-run borough (one of London’s wealthiest) is too ripe a source of propaganda for Labour activists not to weaponise. The horror is so unfathomable. The anger is so raw. These are intensely political times. ‘Politicising’ often equates to asking legitimate questions, though, and I for one would rather people did that than spouted the usual platitudes, so I don’t blame the keyboard warriors – particularly since the Tories have been dragging their feet when it comes to carrying out a much-needed review of fire regulations, perhaps for fear of upsetting housebuilders.

Yet partisanship can also obscure other urgent questions. It appears the type of cladding installed on the exterior of Grenfell Tower may prove central to the investigation into how the fire ended up engulfing the 24-storey block so fast. I know of at least one Labour-run council in London that has allowed what seems to be precisely the same type of cladding to be installed on one of its estates. Part of the rationale for these installations is to improve energy efficiency, but would anyone in their right mind seek to lay the blame for this disaster at the foot of environmentalists? Of course not. Final point: MPs were raising concerns about a potentially dangerous loophole in building regulations surrounding cladding way back in 2000, when Labour was in power. So it’s not necessarily as simple as the tweets suggest.

I expect the recriminations will continue for a long time while investigators soberly seek to gather facts and find out what actually happened, and all the while inhabitants of council-owned tower blocks will sleep fitfully, fearing another inferno.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Proposed COVFEFE Act will keep a permanent record of Trump’s tweets

As arrogantly confident as Donald Trump appears most of the time, I have the suspicion that inwardly or behind closed doors (although not the closed doors of Russian hotels, apparently) he is self-aware enough to be able to watch himself lurching from crisis to crisis, blundering through his days like a man with too much to do but not enough sense or restraint to do any of it rationally. A walking embarrassment to himself, never mind his own mother's adopted nation or mankind in general. His devotion to Twitter has engendered many legendary entries already, but the covfefe classic tops them all. Now the idea that Trump’s tweets could be permanently preserved as presidential records if a Democratic lawmaker’s proposed COVFEFE Act becomes law would encapsulate for the ages the precise moment at which US politics - and perhaps politics in general - began its inexorable slide into banality, irrelevance and the void of vapidity.

What women want from wearable technology

I imagine what women want from wearable technology is much the same as what men want: something that looks good and works well. This is, apparently, much harder to do than it may seem, judging by the morass of ugly, ill-thought-out wearables currently on the market. We can only hope that more people for whom style is as important as substance become involved in developing wearable technology, regardless of whether they are men or women, or designing for one sex or the other.

Jade Fell, assistant features editor

Swimming and wriggling robots unveiled for Fukushima clean-up

A super cool/gross wriggling, snake-like robot has been developed by Japanese scientists to aid in the clean-up of the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. With plans to begin removing melted fuel from the plant currently set for 2021, the task at hand is to specify the exact location of the fuel – a task which cannot be completed by human workers owing to the extremely high levels of radiation. Robots able to withstand the radiation levels have long been thought to hold the key to exploring the plant, but previous robotic designs, including those inspired by scorpions, have become stuck among debris, or otherwise failed to navigate the site. This new camera-equipped robot, which can stretch to eight metres in length and moves at speeds of up to 10cm per second, is able to wriggle through wreckage in a slippery snake-like motion, propelled by tiny vibrating hairs which cover its revoltingly awesome body. Most impressive, though, is the robot’s ability to climb over obstacles, a must for navigating through piles of debris, which is does by rearing its ugly little head by shooting a small jet of air – a real first for the world of robotics.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Technology dolls: toys for young engineers

I had a suspicion while putting together this article for the new issue of E&T that it might not be every reader’s cup of tea. As I should have expected, it’s already attracted disapproval from some readers, with one suggesting that ‘real’ engineers don’t play with dolls in their formative years but will be irresistibly drawn to Lego and Meccano. I’m sure we’ll get plenty more feedback, but for me at least it was interesting to see the wide range of science-related characters that have hit the market in the years since my own daughters were in the target demographic. Would they have been more likely to consider a career in science or technology if they’d been given an engineer Barbie or Lego palaeontologist to play with at an impressionable age? I wouldn’t like to say, but it looks like there’s at least a demand for this sort of toy. Companies like Mattel don’t develop their valued brands in a particular direction for philanthropic reasons, so we can only assume they reckon in a hard-headed commercial sense that there’s money to be made.

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