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Net neutrality, cryptocurrency, iPhones and more: pick of the week’s tech news

Image credit: Reuters/Yuri Gripas

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

Josh Loeb, associate editor

FCC votes to roll back Obama-era net neutrality regulations in US

Net neutrality has become an intensely political issue, particularly in the United States. Though superficially boring and abstract, it has aroused passions of an intensity that is, well, a bit weird.

The phrase means different things to different people. Broadly speaking, though, ‘net neutrality’ describes the notion that telecoms companies should behave neutrally towards all content. They should not, in other words, make it any harder (or any easier) for internet users to gain access to certain material. No companies should be permitted to pay internet service providers to make their pages load faster. No ISPs should be allowed to block content based on their own moral or ideological judgements. All content was created equal, so the website of a long established and rigorously edited newspaper should not be afforded a level of user access priority any greater to that which is enjoyed by a random typo-filled blog written by a bloke sat in his mum’s basement wearing nothing but his stained vest, his boxer shorts and a tin-foil hat. To block or even slow down this guy’s rambling blog would be akin to discrimination, you see.

The only exception to this supposedly God-given principle is illegal content - child porn, terrorist manuals, that sort of stuff. Even most tech libertarians appear to concede that we should be allowed to discriminate against that sort of thing… but since illegal material stubbornly persists inside many crevices of the internet, that might be a moot point.

What interests me is not so much the political fault line dividing left and right, but the idea that it is possible to be neutral at all. Barack Obama set up a system whereby an adjunct of the US federal government was installed as the celestial guardian of ‘neutrality’. Is the state ever a neutral player? Now the Republicans are hell bent on handing this power back to the highly monopolistic telecoms market. This is undoubtedly problematic, given that the likes of Verizon are motivated by their own financial interests.

It’s not yet clear what the changeover will mean in practice – but that hasn’t prevented some campaigners from predicting an Orwellian world in which you are blocked from reading The Guardian and forced to consume endless hours of Fox News instead. Yes, the rollback of Obama’s regulatory structure could, potentially, make it slightly harder for you to stream your favourite Netflix series. I’m not really sure that’s a First Amendment issue though, particularly since many of the giants of Silicon Valley already appear to enjoy sweetheart privileges afforded to them by the telecoms network. By the way, Google talks the talk when it comes to net neutrality, but its algorithms are hardly neutral. Its very business model is based on the principle of prioritising certain websites above others in terms search results.

What this really boils down to is a series of questions. Do you believe the internet is now akin to a utility - like water, electricity, or even the air we breathe? Is life impossible without it? Should people or corporations be permitted to pay extra to leapfrog over others in order to obtain favoured status with the ISPs? If not, should the same principle apply to drivers’ access to the road network, where such things as toll roads exist? To broaden it out further still, what about private healthcare or private schools? Since those allow individuals to pay to obtain certain supposed advantages, should they be scrapped altogether? And, if so, isn’t that more of a priority for you than enforcing net neutrality?

Personally, I come down on the ‘Let governments regulate’ and ‘Equality is good’ side of the US net-neutrality debate. The internet before Obama worked reasonably well. But, equally, Obama’s reforms aren’t broken, so why fix them?

That said, I don’t think the issue is as clear cut as it is often presented. I also reject the notion that access to all, or indeed any, of the content of the internet is as fundamental a right as access to water or air. If I was prevented from drinking, I’d die pretty quickly. If I wasn’t able to access Twitter, I think I could live. Hell, I might even do something more useful with that time which I would otherwise have spent online!

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

View from Brussels: Time to look back

Pelle Neroth’s final ‘View from Brussels’ prompted me to do my own bit of looking back, to his first column in February 2008 (E&T Volume 3, Issue 2 for those of you who keep your back copies). I was news editor at the time, and I had been asked to find some international columnists for the pages I looked after, so I was very grateful when someone told me they knew of a Brussels-based journalist who could write in English and would be willing to cover engineering and technology policies. Neither of us knew then that he would still be writing for us ten years later, still less have guessed that Britons would even have been given the opportunity to leave the EU, let alone choose to do so. Even so, Pelle’s first column, headed ‘The European Vision – Good in Theory’, made it clear that not everything in the EU garden was rosy. He notes the idealists planning a better world, and the projects intended to bring people together, but he also writes about the turf wars and the inefficiencies. The Galileo satnav project was struggling, and the court of auditors had failed to sign off the accounts for the 13th year running. “Both the vision and the more sordid reality deserve to be more written about, to give undoubted power its due,” he concluded. Ten years on, not much has changed.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

View from Vitalia: Of cooking, food and restaurants

In the run up to Christmas, the year’s main gourmet festival among other things, let me expand a bit on my latest blog and talk about the signs of not just good and bad, but of best and worst restaurants.

Once, in Paris, I came across an article by Francois Simon, the food critic of Le Figaro, criticising the list of the world’s 50 best restaurants published by a British trade magazine. The wrath of the respected French foodie was most likely triggered by the fact that not a single French restaurant had made it to the top ten, and the first spot was taken by some obscure Danish eatery with a ‘minimalist’ menu based on roots and herbs. The famous Parisian Le Chateaubriand, with its three Michelin stars, scooped just 11th place – a fact which, in Simon’s highly refined (if only in the culinary sense) opinion was “hilariously surreal,” no less. “How, tell me, is it possible to come to a decision that an excellent creperie is better than a delicious couscous restaurant, a Japanese sushi bar or an Italian trattoria?” he fumed and proceeded to branding the whole list “idiotic”. “There’s no such thing as the best restaurant in the world,” he concluded.

He might be right here, albeit I somehow think that had the list had been compiled by a French source, not by some miserable Les Anglais, with shepherd pie as their biggest gastronomic achievement, and had it been consequently topped by French restaurants, the respected food critic wouldn’t have been that categorical in his appraisal. With taste – like beauty - being a hugely subjective experience very much in the mouth (if not the eye) of the beholder, the world’s best restaurant is rather hard to define.

It’s easier with the world’s worst restaurant, and I know exactly which one I would choose – Restaurant ‘Mari’, attached to the eponymous hotel in the no-less-eponymous Turkmenistan town of Mari on the Afghan border.

I had a misfortune to stay at the hotel once, many years ago. I remember a bearded Turkmen woman solemnly giving me the key to the hotel’s only ‘luxury suite’. The room was filthy, semi-dark and smelled like a mortuary. It was 42 degrees of heat, but the air conditioner didn’t work. Nor did the shower. The biggest surprise, however, was that I was supposed to share the room and the only medium-sized bed with a male Communist party official from Ashkhabad. He was snoring and fretting on his side of the bed all night, and I when I finally managed to nod off, I dreamt of an earthquake.

As for the hotel’s restaurant, it was swarming with fat Central Asian flies, and only had eggs and cucumbers on the menu (not to count the flies which often fell onto patrons’ plates and were matter-of-factly consumed by some as the only bits of meat they could ever hope to taste). That proved enough, though; after just one meal of fried eggs with cucumbers and flies, I got severe food poisoning and nearly died.

Unlike some pseudo-omniscient ramblings of French and/or British restaurant critics, food poisoning and a resulting near-death experience are powerful qualifying criteria that cannot be disputed. So rest assured, if you happen to kick the bucket after a meal at a restaurant, you (or rather your grieving relatives and friends) can easily and without fear of repercussions brand that particular catering establishment the worst restaurant in your life.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Record highs for low-carbon energy sources, producing over half of UK electricity

Getting half of our electricity from non-fossil fuels is a great achievement, but there is a still a long journey to travel if we are to combat carbon emissions. The problem is, and the majority of E&T’s audience know this already of course so apologies for stating the obvious, that electricity generation is a completely different thing to energy usage.

Earlier this week I attended a very interesting conference called Hybrid & Integrated Energy Storage. During one of the presentations a well-known graph from Dr Grant of Sheffield University was shown. It demonstrated that daily electricity usage was gradually diminishing to around 700GWh per day, depending on the time of year. As the report above states, the line on the graph that represents non-fossil-fuel electricity generation is trending towards half of this. However, more significantly there is a line for diesel usage which is of similar amplitude to total electricity usage and petrol consumption is around 50 per cent of that. When road transport, and possibly other modes of transport as well, are predominantly powered by electricity, the demand for generation will be increased by 150 per cent based on these figures. Meanwhile, space heating, predominantly using natural gas, can peak at over 2500GWh per day in the winter, the biggest energy use of all.

So for all that the progress made by renewables for electricity generation is welcome and impressive, there’s a long way to go before it meets our energy needs.

Mentorship: a business match made in heaven

This sounds like a great competition and the consequences are bound to be beneficial to all concerned. It is just a tip of the iceberg of course, even within the engineering sector, let alone the wider community. And this is a great shame. I suspect life is a lot less structured and predictable than it was in bygone generations. There are probably fewer stresses now concerning real poverty, hunger and disease, most of which can and have been addressed by developing a responsible society. Maybe we’re not quite there yet but we have come on in leaps and bounds.

Stress and unhappiness these days is concerned more with expectations, failure to meet them, insecurity and loneliness. One of the worst cases is in the ranks of professional football players. There are many really young boys who are groomed through their teenage years for a life in the first team, only to be let go when it comes to offering professional contracts. Typically these lads - and probably young ladies in the future, too - will have ignored education in pursuit of the dream and will have nothing to fall back on when the axe drops. Worse still are those who do make the big time. With no experience of the real world they are thrust into the limelight at a young age and plied with riches, none of which prepares them for a career end that may be only a decade away. Many ex-footballers suffer from depression and a few have sadly taken their own lives.

The point being that a mentor would serve such people well, not just through the duration of their time with one football club or company, but throughout their careers. It shouldn’t be too much to ask a retired professional footballer to take on the interests of a handful of 16 year olds to help them through the decisions and challenges that lie ahead.

Equally, we could do the same in the engineering. We are told that the age of the average engineer is too high, and that a whole generation of CTOs, engineering directors and technical specialists are set to retire without having ready replacements lined up. Should we not use that human resource while it’s there? Marry up 15 or 16 year olds, before A levels, who are interested in engineering, with some battle-hardened professionals who could help them through school, apprenticeship, university and early careers. It could keep many students in the engineering fold who might otherwise have lost faith. The best advocates for engineering are engineers themselves and it is not always our gift to go out of our way to communicate that. Perhaps a structured, nationwide mentoring scheme could do that – not the awful Named Person (or snooper’s charter as it is also known) proposal in Scotland, but something with structure and obligation on both parts, probably with benefits to both as well.

It may be a pipe dream for Christmas, but there’s no harm in that! Happy Christmas to all our readers and I look forward to sharing with you an exciting 2018 in the engineering and technology sector.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

A number of stories caught my eye this week, piquing my pre-Christmas curiosity. While some of them on the surface initially seem like silly season stories, there is a genuine technology thread running through each one. Merry Christmas!

The news that Apple has admitted it deliberately slows down older iPhones at first glance appears to confirm every iPhone user's long-held suspicions about their device's waning battery life and has served to fuel every Android fanboy's foaming fury about Apple's devious marketing strategy. Could the Californian computing behemoth be deliberately hobbling older iPhones via crippling iOS updates simply to cynically force people to upgrade to a new handset? Turns out this is partly true, partly internet fake news. Read the story to get the full picture.

The problem of innocent people being grilled by police about paedophila and murder due to Internet data bungles isn’t happening a lot, statistically, but even one case seems like an unusual and cruel punishment through which to put an innocent person. Imagine being accused of, and interrogated over, a suspected murder, merely because someone, somewhere mistyped a few digits or cross-referenced the wrong IP address details?

Taxi for Uber! As soon as anyone reads or hears about the EU court decision that Uber should be regulated as a taxi service, they instinctively know the truth. Uber is really reaching in claiming to be - and asking to be regulated as - an internet company, a mere facilitator who brings people and services together and not a transport company, nothing of the sort, no sirree bob. Uber is a taxi company, plain and simple; everyone knows it, that's precisely the service on which Uber has built its name, its business and - all too often - its somewhat shady reputation. The European Court of Justice has now ruled that Uber is indubitably a transport company, a ruling celebrated by Europe's existing taxi drivers, all of whom Uber was dead-set on putting out of business. By, exactly, being a taxi - sorry, a ‘ride-hailing’ - service. Uber's claims to the contrary simply sound like a company desperately trying to wheedle its way out of something.

The report that the Pentagon spent $22m a year investigating UFOs is a true story, in as much as anything to do with aliens, UFOs and government cover-ups can be said to be undeniably true. It might be only a fraction of the $600bn that the Pentagon gets as a budget every year, but $22m is still $22m. That's the kind of money that should buy you a decent amount of UFO investigation time. Or possibly research into building your own? Or maybe further reverse-engineering work on crashed and recovered UFOs already stored in secret locations in underground government facilities? The truth is out there and $22m should go a long way in helping you find it. Perhaps it’s no wonder the US government stopped the funding after five years - did the programme get too close?

Finally, the report on how chickens’ journeys from farm to fork can be tracked with a combination of blockchain, wearables and facial recognition is a fascinating deployment of several leading-edge technologies by Chinese chicken farmers, all done to reassure buyers and consumers of the good provenance of their meat. You can virtually follow your chicken, from free-range farm to toasted sesame seed bun! 

Jack Loughran, news reporter

White House and IMF consider cryptocurrency monitoring

Bitcoin has had a ridiculous year. It was valued lower than £1,000 in January and climbed to almost £15,000 last week, the majority of that growth in the last few months alone. It’s something that I’ve repeatedly regretted not buying into in the last few years, thinking that the peak had already been reached and it was too late; I was so wrong.

In July, I was about two mouse clicks away from buying a whole Bitcoin for about £1,500 during a short-term slump, something I definitely should have done in retrospect. But the old adage “don't invest in what you don't understand” always haunted me, making me hesitant, and exacerbating my already risk-averse nature. I’m not a natural gambler.

No matter how many articles about the cryptocurrency I read, I just never felt totally on top of it. The complexity of even the most basic tasks, like a transaction, seemed overwhelming, an inherent flaw in a technology touted by some as a replacement for traditional currencies. Converting Bitcoin back into real money seemed even more risky and complex and since I was in the final stages of buying a house, I really needed to have the ability to turn it back into pounds sterling quickly and easily. That, coupled with the fact that watching the price fluctuations was starting to become a compulsive, stressful task, led me to abandon plans to buy into the currency altogether.

Technical limitations present in Bitcoin’s implementation of blockchain technology are also starting to have some serious implications. Simply moving Bitcoin from one wallet to another can take hours, or even days, and comes with ridiculously high fees that are only set to rise as more users flock to the platform. Workarounds and technological upgrades have been proposed or partially implemented but have led to bickering amongst the community who cannot agree how to solve some of the cryptocurrency’s most glaring issues.

Ultimately the technology doesn’t seem ready to replace traditional currencies; at the moment its value seems to be soaring purely based on speculation that it will go even higher. Its inherent value as an actual currency seems far less proven and when buyers realise this, it could all come crashing down. A 30 per cent drop in the last week suggests that maybe this is already happening. Having said that, knowing my luck, it’ll hit £100,000 this time next year and I’ll feel even more regretful not buying in July than I do now.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Our last issue of 2017 was our first paperless issue - in more ways than one as we look at all things paper-free and not so paper-free - as well as being our first ever digital-only bonus issue. You can read my introduction here or dive straight in here. It's a little Christmas present to E&T readers, complete with some festive offerings including an article on the science of Willy Wonka in which we look at the feasibility or otherwise of everything from everlasting gobstoppers to lickable wallpaper. The Victorian age was one of invention and it was that age that gave us today's idea of a cosy, family, fireside Christmas with a log on the fire and a roast on the table. We look at Christmas then and now.  It's sobering to think that now, three days before Christmas, you've missed the last posting date but back then there would still have been time.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Even if you make a point of reading this review of the week’s news every Friday, or better still have signed up for our daily email alert of what’s fresh on the E&T website, there are probably a few stories you’ve missed during 2017 that are worth revisiting. A quick check with Google Analytics reveals what pulled in the most traffic in the past 12 months.

Items with proverbial ‘long tails’ that people were consistently coming back to included a report originally published in 2016 about a Chinese university’s claims that lithium-ion batteries can produce dozens of dangerous gases when overheated. Another big hit from 2016 that persisted into 2017 was the results of our competition to find ‘the world's worst wiring’.

Moving into 2017, automotive technology was particularly popular, with a sports car that morphs into a helicopter and claims that particle pollution from electric cars could be worse than from diesel ones racking up lots of views.

Lots of Londoners wanted to know about plans to repurpose defunct rail track for pedestrian use, while on the international stage the German Defence Ministry warned that operation of the A400M military transport plane could be affected by technical and legal obstacles. Looking ahead, we talked to Greg Yeric, director of future silicon technology for ARM Research, who warned that “I don't think anyone could confidently tell you that they have a plan for 15 more years of Moore's law.”

Once of the articles that prompted the biggest response was when we asked seven creative ad agencies to take a fresh look at how they might promote engineering to young women and invited readers to choose their favourites. Finally, the popularity of our regular programme of hands-on reviews of new consumer tech shows that engineers are just as interested in how gadgets work in real-life as they are in the design behind them. If you’re thinking of getting a new vacuum cleaner, lots of people found the tests of the Vax Blade Cordless 32V and the Miele Blizzard CX1 Cat & Dog vacuum cleaner useful.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Apple admits it deliberately slows down older iPhones

Oh Apple, you naughty fruit. So the company is slowing down older iPhones as their batteries age to protect their processors. There’s an app to measure the speed of an iPhone’s processor, and the data collected seemed to show slower performance in the iPhone 6s and 7 models as they aged. Apple claimed that its iOS system manages performance on older models to preserve battery life by slowing them down. I reckon it’s just a cheeky way to get people to buy new iPhones. Because no one wants a slow smartphone. Anyway, Merry Christmas! And if you have an old iPhone, try to get a new one as a Xmas gift!

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