Comment

Brexit, self-healing roads, a trip to Vitalia and more: the week’s top tech news

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

View from Brussels: Was Brexit a self-destructive battle in Britain’s ongoing class war?

Trigger warning: the story I’ve picked from the news and comment that’s appeared on the E&T website this week is about Brexit. Those apt to let out an anguished cry whenever this subject is broached, look away. Everyone else, keep calm and carry on reading. I use that last phrase intentionally. I don’t think one can understand Brexit without some rudimentary acquaintance with the history of my country, Britain (or the UK, should you prefer that name). Principally, I don’t think one can underestimate the relevance of the Second World War (I know it’s impolite to mention it, but it’s hard not to).

Britain was on the side of the angels in that war but wound up crippled. After 1945 the country lacked the resources to continue behaving as the world superpower it still claimed to be. With the Cold War by then revving up, the nation faced a choice: It could throw its lot in with the Americans or forge a new role for itself as the leader of Europe. In some ways, the latter might in hindsight have been preferable. The process that would result in the emergence of the EU was just starting. Britain would have commanded the moral authority to call the shots, but Prime Minister Clement Attlee couldn’t bring himself to take the plunge and so France filled the void. When Britain did - finally and after much frustration - join what was by then called the Common Market, it was already too late. Western Europe, notably West Germany, had revived itself while Britain had declined. Germany and France had experienced their respective defeats and humiliations in the war. It is not surprising that they viewed the drive for ‘ever closer union’ positively, as a way to start anew. Britain, by contrast, had won the war but appeared to have ended up comparatively worse off. Many British citizens resented having to cede powers to a Brussels bureaucracy that appeared to be run, at least partially, for the benefit of Berlin.

There endeth the history lesson. One cannot understand the psychology of Brexit without appreciating that in Britain even Europhile politicians have tended to be quite anti-EU compared with their continental counterparts. Pelle Neroth, E&T’s Brussels correspondent, writes in his most recent dispatch about a different kind of war that never seems to have quite gone away in Britain. I am referring of course to class war, for the class system is still alive and well over here. Pelle writes of a “George Orwell moment” he experienced when, on a recent visit to these shores, he saw a woman working in a fish and chip shop in some humdrum seaside town and wondered if “the Brexit fantasy” had filled “a hole in her life”. Orwell experienced the Blitz and understood patriotism and the working class. He had a deep knowledge of Britain’s history and national psyche. He died in 1950. Had he lived to see the establishment of the EU, one wonders what he would have made of that solitary woman in the chippy.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Self-healing asphalt road method inspired by oily Masterchef technique

When I return to my childhood homeland in Glasgow, I’m often aware of the poor state of the roads. Although it doesn’t stop the complaining about the potholes in Kent, where I live now, the roads are generally pretty good. It reflects different priorities of course. If Scotland wants to educate its students for free and distribute prescriptions at no cost, it is not as some would believe because of English benevolence, but because the priorities are different. It seems an obvious choice unless you are repairing a puncture for the umpteenth time, as many people have to do. And cycling requires very careful attention. What Scotland (and many other parts of the UK) need is a better solution to road surfacing.

There could be a magic fix only a little way further up the road with this development from the Nottingham Transportation Engineering Centre – little balls of sunflower oil. If it works then what a good idea it is. It strikes me that driveways, which always crack after time and often remain in that state for decades, would be an ideal application for this technology. Purely from an engineering point of view, I would have thought that including these little capsules in the road surface would create a good path for lines of weakness, so maybe it would solve problems it was creating itself. Or perhaps if it was in a place where cracking was particularly likely, this ability to crack and heal would in fact be the ideal way of achieving long-term stress relief. It would also stop cracks becoming potholes, which is the real problem. If the answer really is sunflower oil, I find it surprising that it has not been used before. Presumably there is something special in the delivery of it through these spherified microcapsules, or the council roads maintenance team could just roam the streets with a bottle of sunflower oil – it’s only £1.15 a litre in Tesco you know!

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Number plate system proposed for IoT devices to boost security

Is it time for Internet 2.0? One senior government advisor thinks so, in view of the security risk posed by the billions of devices set to join the Internet of Things over the next decade. Internet 2.0 will have much tighter security built in, drawing a parallel with how better physical and electronic security led to a decline in car crime. Internet 1.0 will wither away he says, as everyone gravitates to the new more secure Internet out of necessity. We have a long way to go. Today, many online devices are easily hacked due to low security on the part of the manufacturers and users who don't get around to changing their fault passwords from 0000 or 1234. E&T's most popular video features a security company demonstrating how easy it is to hack a CCTV camera.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Number plate system proposed for IoT devices to boost security

Given that current predictions estimate that by 2020 there will be at least three Internet of Things devices connected to the Internet for every human being on the planet (ie billions of the things), the question of effective security is already at the crucial stage. Not to mention the fact that an awful lot of these devices never have their passwords reset by the new owners to change the factory default from ‘0000’ or ‘password’, making them about as secure as a house with no locks. The idea in this news story of introducing identifiable labels for every device, like car number plates, and obliging new owners to change the factory password or their new toy simply won’t work seems like an eminently sensible suggestion.

View from Brussels: Was Brexit a self-destructive battle in Britain’s ongoing class war?

Yes. Yes, it was.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

View from Vitalia: Of maps, traps and mediums

Starting a new blog, or a column, is always very exciting for a writer. In my 37 years in journalism, I’ve written regular columns for the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the Melbourne Age, the Australian, the Glasgow Herald, the South China Morning Post, the Canberra Times and a number of other periodicals, including of course E&T, where my ‘After All’ has recently marked its 11th birthday – a rare longevity for a regular magazine feature. But ‘View from Vitalia’ is my first ever blog - a column that will appear online only. Frankly speaking, I was a relative latecomer to the digital world and only got my first mobile phone fewer than ten years ago, which made me then one of the last remaining mobile-less humans in the Western world. I remember meeting a fellow mobile refusenik in Cork, Ireland, while researching a feature for Dublin-based Village Weekly magazine where I then worked. So thrilled were we to come across another phoneless individual that we first marked the occasion with a couple of pints of Guinness, and then (over the pints) decided to form an international mobile refusenik club – an idea that never came to fruition, because shortly after that my girlfriend forced my first mobile phone on me under the threat of dumping me if I refused. Well, I’m happy to report that 12 years later, I am still with her and am still with my mobile phone (now an iPhone). I love them both very much and cannot imagine my life without either.

This is also what my new blog is going to be about: coming to grips with technology in all its multiple manifestations and embracing (at times, reluctantly) the digital age. As for the its title, here’s a more detailed justification of it which I cut out from the blog itself for reasons of space.

Having lived in the West for nearly 30 years now, I am still often faced with the sacramental “Where are you from?” question, particularly in Britain. During my first ten years in the ‘free world’, I would patiently explain that I was a Ukrainian-born Russian with Australian and British passports residing in Britain, or in Australia, or Ireland, depending on where I was residing at the time. I soon noticed that after the Australia bit, my interlocutors would normally lose interest and stop listening to what I was saying. So, using the famous dictum of my favourite writer Anton Chekhov to the effect that “brevity is a sister of talent”, I decided to come up with something shorter. And punchier too. On hearing the regulation where-are-you-from question, I started replying, “From Vitalia,” using the name of the imaginary country of my childhood. That went down better than I thought, and it was very seldom that I would be questioned on Vitalia’s precise whereabouts and its political and economic status. Perhaps, everyone thought that I meant Italy, but with the poor knowledge of English most foreigners are guilty of, used a distorted version of it. I didn’t mind that in the least as long as I was left alone.

That was how the mini-nation of ‘Vitalia’, with no set borders and the population of one, was born. I hope you enjoy my new blog. See you in Vitalia soon.

Self-healing asphalt road method inspired by oily Masterchef technique

Having read this news story, I realised with sudden clarity that I must have been mistakenly served an oiled piece of asphalt instead of a cotoletta alla Milanese in my local Italian restaurant yesterday!

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Home broadband speeds could get dramatic increase with new hardware technology

It’s interesting to consider how the public would react if established utilities like water, electricity and gas behaved like internet access does. Granted, we’ll sometimes notice a slight dip in water pressure, or a slight flicker of the lights, but largely we take for granted that a consistent flow of any of them will be available at the flick of a switch or turn of a tap. With broadband, we’ve got used to accepting a supply that can vary wildly depending on time of day and how many neighbours are online at the same time. And rather than complain, unless it’s a persistent and really annoying problem we’ll usually just tut and, wander off and come back to what we were doing later. Researchers at UCL and the University of Cambridge believe they’ve brought us a step closer to a panacea of internet access that’s always as fast as it needs to be with a device that exploits a coding technique originally designed to prevent signal fading in wireless communications.

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