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Censorship, Windows Phone RIP, UK green strategy and more: the week’s top tech news

Image credit: FOTN 2016 report

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.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Online censorship: who are the gatekeepers of our digital lives?

Social media censorship: filtering out extremist content

Well, that’s it. The dream of a free and uncensored internet, where all content was equal and equally available, is dead. Now we have the likes of Facebook and Google policing what people can and cannot see, but getting it wrong often enough that the good can get hidden and the bad is left in plain sight. Of course, none of this is easy: one man’s family holiday photos can easily be another man’s pornography. The dark recesses of the human soul are impossible to predict. Who knows what evil lurks within the hearts of men? Well, unfortunately, the immediacy of the internet has allowed many evil men to show and share with the world exactly what lurks within their hearts - and thus content censorship has become deemed a necessity. However, is any of this evil actually the fault of the internet? Should we blame the messenger for the distasteful message? The internet is nothing more than a mirror for the world’s soul, reflecting all of its beauty and all of its ugly side, revealing the true state of the global human psyche in 2017. It’s not a pretty picture, is it? Is this the internet’s fault? Will banning a few websites, photos and videos change that? I’m afraid not. There are much deeper, darker forces at play: man is neither a wholly good nor trustworthy animal. Just read the comments section under any hot-topic article or popular YouTube video, or dig deep into Twitter, for a snapshot of the hate and bile that bursts forth like a toxic untapped oil well from apparently otherwise quite reasonable people once their gander is up.

Through all this talk of censorship I am reminded again of that famous quote - often erroneously attributed to Voltaire, but actually penned by English author Beatrice Evelyn Hall - which is regularly aired during these free speech debates: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. That must still be the guiding principle of the true internet, as it was originally envisaged. No good ever comes of any form of censorship, however well-intentioned or benign it appears to be. I would rather have the internet as it is today - even free-er, in fact, with all content available to everyone, everywhere - than have one ‘looked after’ for me by the commercial likes of Facebook and Google. Censorship is never about ‘saving us from ourselves’: it’s always about money, control and sustaining the illusion of power, for those who crave such redundant ephemera. It is precisely that sort of restrictive thinking that the internet promised to undermine and bypass, opening up the world to everyone, providing unfettered access to knowledge without boundaries or walls. Like Pandora’s box, we can’t only release the good. We have to live with the bad, too - and that was always in some of us to begin with. Evil predates the internet by millennia.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Book review: ‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’ by Simon Jenkins

No offence to Simon Jenkins, whom I have conversed with in the past and is a decent chap, but it hardly takes a genius to work out that us Brits don’t half love our choo choos. Behold the profusion of steam trains chugging along preserved branch lines past England’s pleasant pastures. Witness the way in which the very name of Dr Beeching is invoked as though it were the equivalent of saying ‘Voldemort’. Listen in wonder as otherwise staunch cynics of socialism announce that they have solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn’s calls for renationalisation (Somewhere in the folk memory, the demise of British Rail is akin to the Sack of Rome).

In a country so utterly obsessed with trains, do we really need another book about all this? Yet another tome to tell us what we know already – namely, that only the most chronically morose of hearts could fail to be gladdened by the newly reborn terminus of King’s Cross, while only those most full of gaiety could actually enjoy visiting Euston? Perhaps… but that only adds weight to my theory that Britain is a nation of railway nuts.

For good measure, and because Vitali Vitaliev suggests in his review that we all list some of our favourite railway stations, I will now venture to reveal a few of those that have captured my heart over the years.King’s Cross (an obvious choice, but did you know that this station is home to the excellent Parcel Yard pub?). Brighton (an oddly oversized station, and there are some nice cafes for when you have ended a long bike ride from London and are taking the train home). Manchester Piccadilly (only platforms 1 and 2 and 11 and 12, mind; I don’t like the rest). Downham Market (I don’t know, I just like it; there’s a nice looking pub attached to one of the platforms, but I’ve never been into it). In terms of the international scene, I confess an affection for Milano Centrale Railway Station, which was the brainchild of Benito Mussolini (am I allowed to like a fascist station?). Oh, and Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (what a strange feeling; it’s like being back at King’s Cross, but you’re in India!).

Well, that’s all, folks. Toodle-oo. The train on Platform 9 ¾ is about to depart and all that. Have I convinced you I’m British now?

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Online censorship: who are the gatekeepers of our digital lives?

The internet and the world wide web once held a revolutionary promise for good. The technologists were idealistic about it: information wants to be free, they said, and so it would be. The internet was originally designed to withstand a nuclear strike, so it could certainly withstand a road block. If anyone tried to block information going one route, it would simply find another way. The internet would democratise, empower, expose and, in the process, the truth would come out. It would be the end of censorship because it would become impossible. That was only a couple of decades ago but that vision now seems like an impossible dream. Countries have discovered they can pretty effectively limit internet activity – or at least make it difficult for most of their population. Not only that; they can interfere to provide their version of the truth in other jurisdictions beyond their own. In the latest issue of E&T, now online, we explore the subject of censorship and technology, wherever that may be found, for better or worse.

Microsoft quietly hangs up on its Windows Phone

Microsoft has finally called it a day for its mobile phones. I’m not surprised by the move, but I do have to admit to being a little sad about it. That's something I thought I'd never say, after my never-ending frustration with the Windows operating system over several decades. Microsoft’s Office software was always much better. I tried others but always came back to Word, Outlook, Powerpoint and Excel. Microsoft Office runs better on a Mac than Windows, too. I have to admit my expectations were very low, but I was pleasantly surprised by the recent Nokia handsets running Windows. They were quite well-designed and remarkable value for money. OK, so that’s not a ringing endorsement, but they could have at least grabbed the lower end of the market. Microsoft bought Nokia, the giant in mobiles before smartphones, to change up its game. It invested in consumer television advertising, but ultimately it was doomed by the lack of apps for Windows. Some of the biggest apps made Windows versions but smaller developers never got round to it. E&T itself is available on Android and IoS but not Windows. Today, a phone isn’t just a gadget, it’s a computer on which to run other software and if there aren’t enough developers feeding that platform, it will die.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Lost medieval chapel used as House of Commons rebuilt with 3D model

Nearly every London tourist guidebook and website has a picture of the Houses of Parliament with its splendid Victorian architecture and iconic clock tower. What’s less well known is that most of the older parliamentary estate was destroyed by a catastrophic fire in 1834, including the medieval St Stephen’s chapel, which by then was used by the House of Commons, having long ago ceased to be a place of worship. Now historians from the University of York have managed to reproduce it digitally in a full-colour 3D model, based on studies of medieval archives, Victorian records and surviving fragments of the building fabric. It’s a remarkable piece of work that would have been impossible just a generation ago - an example of modern technology casting new lights on the past.

Beware of the all-hearing pig’s ears in the walls

I count myself lucky to have grown up and lived my life with no personal experience of war and with no reason to fear my own country’s public authorities. Nobody warned me when I started primary school that I should keep my thoughts to myself, and as a journalist I’ve never had to submit my words to an official censor for approval. My colleague Vitali Vitaliev had a rather different experience in the Soviet Union, as he describes in this column. We should be grateful for our freedoms - but I’m going to add a caveat, there. We do need a measure of constraint around freedom of expression. People quite reasonably want to be protected against lies being told about them, or information that’s nobody else’s business being published, and there’s a clear line between arguing a case and inciting violence against people who disagree with you. Mostly it’s a question of finding the right legal balance - which is where democratically elected governments come in.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Government pledges £557m to ramp up green power projects in the UK

There’s lots of good stuff in the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy. I’ve had a flick through and it seems to cover most of the bases – how to reduce the amount of carbon we produce and minimise the impact of the carbon that we do. One thing stuck out for me though, and that was the investment in renewable energy. The headline said that £557m was to support the next generation of offshore wind farms and a further £177m to reduce costs of renewable energy, for example by looking at offshore wind-turbine blade technology. £460m was to be used exploring nuclear technologies and £265m on energy storage and grid balancing techniques. All of this is great, although how these numbers are arrived at or how they will be filtered out to the most useful recipients I’m not sure. My big gripe is in power supply, which will grow considerably given that this will increasingly be responsible for transport costs as we move to electric vehicles. Wind power is great when it’s windy, but there needs to be the base load for when it isn’t. Traditionally this was coal and more recently gas, oil and nuclear. There’s no reason why this needs to continue to be the case – other renewable-energy technologies are available. One that has grown massively in the last decade is biofuels. Although it still produces carbon dioxide when being used it absorbs carbon dioxide when being grown. The jury is out as to whether it is low carbon or carbon neutral. Biofuels were barely mentioned in the report and neither, more importantly, were solar and tidal. The UK may not be the sunshine state, but one thing you can guarantee is that the sun will be up there every day even if it is behind clouds and that is the biggest ball of free energy there is. Surely in the distant future that will be the answer to our energy requirements. What also happens every day – twice in fact – is that the tide goes in and out. The UK has some of the biggest tidal variations around and they are totally predictable. There are environmental concerns about harming marine mammals when using underwater turbines, or ecosystem change if deploying tidal barrages and lagoons, but these are areas that could be game changers if we get the technology right and should therefore have been more prominent in the Clean Growth Strategy. Of course it is easy to start criticising when there is something there to assess, and the Government’s efforts in bringing all these topics to the fore are commendable.

Just as a footnote. If President Trump gets his way and the USA starts burning coal without restraint again, then logically you might think that we are all going to hell in a handcart anyway. But assuming that the next administration is not dismissive of inconvenient science then clean energies will once again become required, only the USA will have been set back by four years, while countries like the UK continue to progress. It could actually be an opportunity.

Microsoft quietly hangs up on its Windows Phone

I haven’t got much on this one other than the highly subjective observation that having had a Windows phone for a couple of years, I thought they were pretty good. Marginally more instinctive than Android and as for iPhones… well, you either love them or hate them. My children told me my viewpoint was wrong and that was a fact, apparently. However, I would have liked to have seen the platform survive and prosper.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Beware of the all-hearing pig’s ears in the walls

Let me start with an apology and then a warning. Apology: sorry for choosing my own column as my pick of this week’s new content on the E&T website. This was done for reasons practical rather than egotistical, for most of my working time last week was spent sorting out and filing readers’ replies to the sacramental question I posed in the above column: why burnt out (read dead) light bulbs were a coveted merchandise in late-1980s Moscow? I regard the sheer number of emails – an absolute record in the 11-odd-year-long history of my After All column - as yet another proof of my old dictum about the main quality of a true engineer being unending curiosity about the world. This charming character trait normally starts in early childhood with an irrepressible itch to pull apart toys, just to see what’s inside and how they work.

Now, a warning. Do not expect any spoilers below. The answer (which, incidentally, a couple of the readers have guessed correctly) will be revealed (this time, for sure) in my next ‘After All’ column, after which the winners can legitimately claim their prize – a broken ballpoint pen that doesn’t write (which doesn’t mean they are going to get it, by the way). Another little warning to those who are still spending sleepless nights in search of an answer: do not try to look for it on Google which is, firstly, not fair, and secondly, can easily prove misleading. It is your own ability to delve into a peculiar Soviet mentality and your knowledge of how a totalitarian system works that are being tested here.

In short, I look forward to more emails with readers’ guesses – no matter correct or not – for every response demonstrates not just well-developed engineer’s curiosity, but also, as I think, a degree of compassion for the less lucky fellow humans who found themselves living in a totalitarian state and had to show ingenuity on a daily basis in order to survive. So, again, keep them coming for the next couple of weeks or so. The email address is the same: vvitaliev@theiet.org.

And another thing: I am still waiting impatiently for your brilliant photos (with no-less brilliant captions) of decrepit cars in the World’s Worst Banger competition. This challenge, unlike the above-mentioned light bulbs quiz, has a real prize attached to it. Good luck, fingers crossed and FIAT LUX!

Hands on with ‘Vincent’, the AI that creates ‘works of art’ from simple sketches

On this occasion (unlike the previous one – see above), I will be brief: “Move over, Leonardo! And not just DiCaprio!”

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Stretchy surgical glue could seal wounds in 60 seconds

Self-disinfecting textile could prevent cross-contamination in hospitals

England’s chief medical officer may be warning that the world faces the prospect of a “post antibiotic apocalypse” due in part to the reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to plough research funding into this area drug development, but engineers are still gradually making small but significant breakthroughs in other areas of medicine. This week alone, they’ve come up with a squirtable glue for sealing wounds without the trauma of stitches and a textile that cleans itself in seconds and could be used on door handles and the like wherever there’s a risk of infection. I’ve been lucky enough never to have broken a bone or needed even a couple of stitches to a wound but the idea of an adhesive alternative that can be formulated to last only as long as it’s needed sounds a brilliant idea. Self-cleaning door handles are even better, and would be welcome outside the world of medicine. How often do you carefully wash your hands after using a public toilet, then on leaving wonder how scrupulous the person before you was before they made their way out?

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