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Catfishing, lifeboats, hidden rivers 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.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Law criminalising ‘catfishing’ could prove hard to enforce, experts warn

Some people want ‘catfishing’ banned – despite the fact that no one seems to agree on what it means. To some, it refers to an individual using a photograph of a beautiful person in an online dating profile to disguise the fact that they are ugly. Normally this is easy to detect – at least once you meet the person in reality and discover that the slim, youthful girl you have been chatting to is a sad, fat old man. Personally, I’d be inclined to feel bemusement and a degree of pity for such a person, rather than wanting them sent to jail or worse (campaigners use a hashtag on Twitter that appears to suggest “killing” people who engage in this type of behaviour, though I don’t believe they mean it literally). I can’t help thinking that many people who adopt fantastical alter egos are suffering from a mental illness and could be as vulnerable as those taken in by their often crude deceptions.

But back to definitions. There are, it seems, some people who think catfishing encompasses other forms of lying that go beyond simply using a photograph of someone else – lying about one’s background or relationship status, for example. But who cares about the small matter of not being able to properly define something for the purposes of legislating against it when we can shout “Ban it!” and get the politicians to dance to our tune?

Ironically, I’m normally among the first to back such calls. I think people have too much freedom online – freedom to experiment with new identities, which can be healthy, but also to exploit others pitilessly. The retrial of Gayle Newland, which has been in the papers much of late, revealed just how baffling some people’s lives online are and raised questions too numerous to detail here. The problem I have with banning catfishing, apart from the fact that people aren’t really sure what it means, is that we already quite rightly have laws covering things like stalking, trolling, fraud, grooming, sexual assault and rape – including what is known as “rape by deception” – which can be used in prosecutions.

It’s a small point, but I also fail to understand the implied analogy with the swamp-dwelling fish. I watched the 2010 American film from which this annoying term ‘catfishing’ originates and, sorry, I still don’t get it. It’s to do with cod being “kept on their toes”, apparently. Perhaps the analogy works better in the US. Anyway, an online safety expert I spoke to suggested the word was ‘cat phishing’. Not a great start.

Maybe what’s needed instead of a new law are compulsory notices on all dating sites and apps stating: “Please be aware that the people in these profiles may not be who they say they are as they may be liars. It is likely they may in reality be the precise opposite of who and what they claim to be.” It would kill the romance, sure, but it would also banish those dangerous illusions.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

21st-century lifeboats: high-tech life-saving around Britain’s coastline

As someone who normally holidays in Britain, I’m in the habit of visiting lifeboat stations and thrilling to the stories of past heroic rescues in the teeth of adversity, before coming back to the prosaic everyday world by stocking up on Christmas cards in the fundraising shop. The funds are needed because the RNLI relies on private donations, and the best safety equipment doesn’t come cheap. What really caught my eye in Kate Parker’s article on the new Shannon class lifeboat, though, was the description of the associated ‘launch and recovery system’ – a tractor-borne launch carriage that operates as a mobile slipway and carries a turntable so the boat can be recovered from the beach bow-first and then turned round ready for the next launch. Impressive.

Hunt for missing MH370 aircraft uncovers secrets of Indian Ocean

The international effort to find the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has failed to locate the aircraft or its lost passengers, but the data uncovered in the search has yielded valuable information for fishermen, oceanographers and other researchers. Among other things it has revealed sea-bed mountains taller than Mount Everest, and a valley of underwater volcanoes running for hundreds of miles. It feels trite to talk about anything good coming from the deaths of 239 people, but perhaps the research might serve as some kind of memorial, at least.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

There’s been a lot of stories about science fiction film edging closer to science fact this week. On Monday, the government announced plans to fund technologies to spot terrorists in crowds. In the film ‘Minority Report’, law enforcers use psychic techniques to arrest murderers while in this case it’s behavioural science, but in both cases the aim is stop the attack before it happens. On Tuesday, we heard about how we could be wearing e-mesh devices that monitor our health, which sounds like something that Star Trek’s Bones would have in his bag. On Wednesday, Google relaunched its Glass for workplace. Google Glass looks like the smart eye wear Marty’s children ear in ‘Back To The Future II’. The gadget failed to catch on last time because people looked so stupid wearing them. It could be more acceptable in a workplace where you’re not alone and, like the computer, once people have got used to them at work they may start using them at home and ultimately in the street. Also on Wednesday, we heard how researchers are developing an ethical framework for robots, similar to the Three Laws of Robotics in ‘I, Robot’. On Thursday, we came a step closer to colour holograms viewable in ordinary light, just like the Princess Leia recording in ‘Star Wars’. Also on Thursday, researchers took a step closer to an invisibility cloak like Harry Potter’s. Alright, I admit that’s a fantasy reference but the idea appears in plenty of science too. This week the FBI also warned parents about the dangers of internet-connected toys collecting data. I can’t immediately think what science-fiction film that sounds like but it ought tone one and if it isn’t perhaps one of us should write that book right now before someone else does.

Vitali Vitaliev

Book review: ‘London’s Hidden Rivers’ by David Fathers

I swam in the River Fleet! Yes, I did. Having accumulated several books on London’s ‘secret’ (or ‘lost’) rivers in my collection, I tend to agree with the book’s reviewer that the epithet ‘hidden’ must have been chosen by the author just in an attempt to differ. Indeed, in many cases, the underground rivers of London, in a direct challenge to the strict Victorian rule of children’s behaviour, can still be heard if not always seen. Working at the Guardian newspaper many years ago and walking to the office from Farringdon Tube station, I would always stop at the now defunct pub, the Coach and Horses, in Saffron Hill. Not for a morning pint (that has never been my style), but for a brief rendezvous with the River Fleet, for if you cross Ray Street, in which the pub is located, half-way and stop in the middle of the road (take care not to be run over by a speeding car dashing out from around the bend), you can clearly hear the river rushing past you underneath a solid steel grating. I had always found that voice of the ‘secret’ River Fleet both soothing (a welcome morning meditation before a busy day at the Guardian) and highly intriguing, as if coming from some mysterious fantasy world.

Eventually, the Fleet became a ‘character’ in my fantasy novel ‘Granny Yaga’. In one of the chapters, the book’s protagonists, the Sablin family – migrants from the fictitious East European country of Slavonia, or the USELES (Union of Slavonic Entirely Liberated Equalistic States, no need to tell you which former empire I had in mind) – manage to learn perfect English after one quick dive in the Highgate Ponds. Yadwiga, alias Baba Yaga, the witch who patronises the family, explains that Hampstead Heath is one of the few places in London where the Fleet, that underground river, comes up to the surface and mixes with the waters of the Ponds thus giving them the magic power to evoke the bathers’ chakras – the centres of spiritual power, responsible, among other things, for musicality and linguistic prowess. Having heroically dipped into the Ponds one early morning in January (!), all four members of the Sablin family, who could only speak Slavonian prior to the dive, emerge speaking perfect colloquial English, with a slight North London accent.

On my publisher’s suggestion, I had to re-enact the Sablins’ fictitious achievement during the launch of ‘Granny Yaga’, which was held at the Highgate Ponds and dive off the jetty into the River Fleet-cum-Mixed Pond waters – head first – after reading an extract from that relevant chapter to a small crowd of journalists and general public. It was not January, it was May, but the temperature of the Pond’s water, always kept cold by the River Fleet springs, was 11° C (as I found out later) – enough to take my breath away briefly. I was shaken, but nevertheless happy to have become one of the people who had actually swum in the ‘hidden’ River Fleet.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Amazon expected to launch all-in-one messaging app

Amazon can be remarkably forward thinking sometimes and has done some amazing things in online retail shopping as well as other ventures like the Alexa platform. I was recently gifted an Echo Dot for example, and the voice recognition is simply incredible, hands down better than Google, Microsoft or Apple’s implementation even if the AI behind it may not be as strong as Google’s.

But this is not the case with Anytime, Amazon’s forthcoming messaging app. Platforms such as these bring forth the old chicken and egg quandary. Users will not join it without other users already being there. I fear that the ship has already sailed on new messaging apps with Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp proving to be very difficult platforms to usurp (except in China of course).

Maybe the prospect of having “new ways to hang out,” such as allowing group food orders and assistance with bill splitting, will entice younger users. Personally it sounds like something that would be easier to organise IRL (I’m 29, am I too old to use this bit of lingo?).

This feels like one of those baffling decisions from Amazon like the doomed Fire Phone that came out in 2014. The attempt to enter the phone market about 7 years too late fell flat on its face the moment it was released. I could have told Amazon that the public reception would not be good as soon as I heard what they were trying to do. Its USP was some lame camera thing that tracked your movements or something that no one cared about.

Although it concerns me that Facebook has so much control over the world’s messaging platforms (by owning WhatsApp too, the only competitor to Messenger), I don’t think Anytime will be the app to muscle in on this space. Even if it was I’m not sure I’d want Amazon to be the company holding the keys as they already dominate the online retail sector to a scary degree.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Google Glass relaunched for the workplace

When Google’s ‘Glass’ smart eyewear came out five years ago it swiftly became visual shorthand for an exciting new world of wearable technology that would see us all enjoying various kinds of augmented reality with the help of clunky-looking spectacles. That proved to be optimistic and the device retreated into the background. Until now, when it’s been relaunched as an ‘Enterprise Edition’ designed for the workplace, where presumably employers can insist on staff using it like any item of equipment. Trials where it’s being used to record medical consultations while doctors keep their hands free and to send instructions to DHL delivery drivers have gone well enough for Google to go public with the idea. One major privacy issue comes immediately to mind – if the specs are sending a video stream of what you’re liking at in real time, presumably it’s possible to tap into that and see exactly what you’re looking at? Most people would need some reassurance about who’s going to be able to pull that up on their computer screen as a way of keeping tabs on users before they’d happily pop their glasses on.

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