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NSA surveillance, shale gas, microwave CO2 and more: best of the week's 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

House of Representatives approves continued NSA internet surveillance

Which is more vital, privacy or transparency? It’s a tough one, so perhaps it’s not surprising the self-styled whistleblowers who lifted the lid on Western states’ surveillance programmes seem confused about their answer.

This article by E&T reporter Hilary Lamb refers to Edward Snowden and his National Security Agency leaks. The controversial NSA programme that Snowden abhors has been renewed by the US House of Representatives, meaning it will continue until at least 2023.

Snowden, remember, revealed how US and UK spy agencies are - shock horror! – spying. Well, not only spying but actually harvesting communications metadata indiscriminately. In some cases, spooks read the contents of people’s emails without a warrant. They also apparently do things like keep dossiers detailing the online porn habits of some supposedly pious Muslim clerics suspected of trying to radicalise their more gullible followers.

The pro-privacy crowd regard the NSA’s practices as outrageous. They cite the right to a private life as if it were sacrosanct. Securocrats, meanwhile, point out that people cease having a private life - or any life at all - once they have been successfully blown up by a terrorist at a pop concert, say. In other words, the extent of the spies’ snooping practices is necessary to save lives (so the argument goes).

The point about the extremists’ porn habits is that this information can usefully be deployed to demonstrate their hypocrisy and thereby discredit those scumbags pretending to be religious while encouraging youngsters to blow themselves up in the name of God. Should this information be revealed in the name of transparency or kept under wraps? It’s a question tabloid journalists often wrestle with when it comes to Christian politicians’ extramarital affairs. Do the hypocrites deserve to be unmasked?

What interests me most about Snowden is the irony of his urge to spill the beans all in the name of privacy. He seems to think secrets must be kept secret unless they are state secrets - in which case all must be revealed without delay. To me, this seems contradictory – a bit like the idea of going to war for peace (something I nevertheless think is sometimes necessary, so I’m open to being proved wrong about Snowden).

The tensions within the privacy vs transparency debate are even more apparent in the activities of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning (formerly Private First Class Bradley Manning). Both Assange and Manning have won praise from Snowden. Assange’s website, Wikileaks, has in my opinion been justified in revealing some classified US data about civilian deaths resulting from military actions in Iraq. According to an analysis by the Associated Press news agency, the site has also disclosed the names of teenage rape victims, the medical histories of random mental health patients and other sensitive data relating to ordinary private citizens. This, surely, is wrong. In one case, Wikileaks even published the name of a Saudi citizen suspected of being gay, thereby endangering this man’s life. The lives of US security operatives working secretly abroad have also allegedly been put at risk.

All of this is exactly what one expects of a site that claims to be motivated by concerns about privacy but which at the same time argues there should be total transparency, or “no secrets”. These twin aims are obviously incompatible. It’s one or the other.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Shale gas one of the least sustainable ways to produce electricity, study shows

I’m a sandal-wearing, wishy-washy environmentalist by nature, although I draw the line at hugging trees – and things that negatively affect my lifestyle too much.

However, I find the constant negativity towards fracking slightly bewildering. The north Americans, admittedly going about their business in rural areas, have managed to overcome the technical obstacles surrounding getting shale gas out of the ground. As I understand it, it is not particularly noisy or intrusive and earthquakes don’t happen. Putting chemicals into the groundwater is unlikely to be an issue depending on depth and location, but would clearly need to be closely monitored, which leaves the outstanding problem being that of investing in fossil-fuel-based energy. I think we would all acknowledge that while we transition to a carbon-free future we need a cheap and reliable source of energy, and natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel. It is also the fuel used for the vast majority of our space heating in the UK.

So, at a time when energy security remains a threat, why would we not use our own gas? The wording of this report, with statements that it would need to improve its environmental performance by 329 times to be the most sustainable fuel option, seems to miss the point that it needs to be as sustainable as possible. It needs to perform better in this respect than gas from Russia or oil from the Middle East, it doesn’t need to be better than a wind turbine going at full pelt on a breezy day.

I also don’t understand how a technique for getting gas out of the ground can be deemed as so unsustainable in the UK when it has transformed the country’s economy. My gut feeling is that people have become trained into thinking that fracking is evil without trying to understand the process or its consequences. Or indeed the consequences of not protecting our energy supply. Equally, I’m not burying my head in the sand about global warming. I just believe that even while we wean ourselves off fossil fuels, we will still need some of them, and fracking may not be the catastrophic option that some people like to present.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Microwaves ‘could be as bad for the environment as cars’

This microwave oven story has generated a lot of traction in the mainstream press, but I don’t believe the study has taken everything into account. It claims that the EU’s combined microwaves cause the same carbon dioxide emissions every year as nearly seven million cars, or roughly 19 microwaves to one car. That sounds bad, but what are people supposed to do? Not heat their food?

While microwaves undoubtedly do use a lot of energy, surely this is essential to maintain a basic standard of living. People don’t superfluously microwave things for the fun of it, unlike cars where they could take more energy-efficient forms of transport like trains or buses. The obvious alternative to a microwave is a conventional oven, a significantly less energy-efficient way to heat food, so microwaves arguably reduce energy consumption in cooking overall.

The study also found that the lifespan of microwaves has reduced by almost half since the 1990s. This is definitely a legitimate criticism. Planned obsolescence and upgrade culture put a massive, unnecessary strain on the environment, but this is a larger issue that spreads far beyond kitchen appliances.

Ultimately, greater microwave use would surely reduce carbon emissions overall. They work by selectively heating just the water molecules in food rather than the entire space contained within. Research carried out by Moneywise found that a typical 500g frozen meal costs just 2p to heat up in comparison to a typical oven, which will cost 23p. In addition the power can be generated by renewable sources that are carbon-free (unlike gas ovens, although the same argument doesn’t work for electric). Case closed.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

EEG monitoring shows difference between jazz and classical brains

This is an interesting piece of research. Scientists in Leipzig studied 30 professional pianists - half of them jazz specialists and the other half classical musicians - while they attempted to copy a hand on a screen playing a sequence of chords scattered with mistakes in harmonies and fingering. Analysis of their brain patterns showed clear differences between the two groups: jazz pianists were better at replanning their actions to play unexpected harmonies, while classical pianists found it easier to follow unusual fingering. The researchers say this shows that if you’re studying what happens in the brain when musicians are playing, it’s important to look at more than one genre, just as you can’t fully understand linguistic processing from studies in just one language.

AI scientist Eve finds toothpaste ingredient may help fight malaria

Some scientific research is just tedious and slow - a process of trying something, looking at the results, making changes and trying again. A laboratory machine with artificial intelligence can do this much faster than a human, and without getting bored or wanting a day off. In this case, the automated process has shown that a common substance can attack the malaria parasite. If that knowledge can be applied to produce a practical drug, AI machines will be life-saving, not just time-saving.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

$400,000 helmet for F-35 fighter pilots ‘absolutely’ worth the money, creator says

It's a very nice helmet, but $400,000 each? How many F35 fighter pilots are there in the UK armed forces? Will they each get one of these helmets? Given that the helmets are custom-fitted to the individual, can they be repurposed in the event of a pilot retiring from flying? War sure is an expensive business to be in - or highly lucrative, depending on whether you're buying or selling.

Nintendo’s cardboard Switch accessories enable bizarre new ways to play

This announcement from Nintendo about forthcoming accessories for its runaway success Switch games console, which sold over 10 million units in just nine months during 2017, is a curious and endearing mix of the analogue and the digital. Mixing low-tech cardboard DIY kits with the high-tech electronic capability of the Switch console, players will soon be able to construct their own fold’n’make add-ons to their gaming, such as a cardboard piano, a cardboard fishing rod and even cardboard robot body armour. Initial pricing announced is reasonably low for each card kit - which for many gamers, and the cash-strapped parents of gamers, is a godsend - and presumably the kits must be partly, if not wholly, recyclable, being made of cardboard. Whether or not this is a conscious effort on Nintendo’s part to counter the tide of mass-produced plastic and packaging and plug in to a more eco-responsible steampunk maker culture, it's a cool and unexpected switch (ahem) from the Japanese manufacturer.

EEG monitoring shows difference between jazz and classical brains

It's long been thought true and now a study has found strong evidence to support the commonly held belief that musicians brains are wired differently. You simply might not be able to get a highly skilled and proficient classical musician to freely jam and extemporise over the top of a rhythm the way a jazz musician will - their brain just isn't wired that way. Equally, good luck getting a freestyle jazz player to stick to the notes on the printed page and keep within the structure of a piece of classical music. Not that any of this is really a problem - far from it. The more diversity we have in music and the more forms of it we can enjoy, performed by players who have found the ideal niche for their brain, the better. As jazz legend Miles Davis once said, "Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself."

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Microwaves ‘could be as bad for the environment as cars’

An object lesson in how urban myths are created this week, as a considered piece of research from the University of Manchester fell into the hands of journalists with a shaky grasp of science. It’s easy to imagine how competent but hard-pressed writers responsible for covering the general area of ‘consumer news’ could have been presented with background information on the report and ended up – as it did in at least one national newspaper – with a story warning that a “shocking study” has revealed “microwaves across the EU alone emit 7.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year”.

In fact, as most coverage got round to explaining eventually, the figures were based on what’s claimed to be the first detailed analysis of whole-lifecycle emissions associated with a typical microwave, including sourcing raw materials and manufacturing. Nevertheless, I reckon there will be many people now labouring under the misapprehension that every time their oven whirrs into action heating up a ready meal or quickly cooking a jacket potato it’s silently pumping out invisible plumes of greenhouse gases into the kitchen. That’s a shame, and something scientists will probably always have to put up with if they want their work to get coverage in the mainstream press, but shouldn’t distract from the value of the research and the fact that it’s come up with some specific recommendations that would reduce emissions linked to cooking with microwaves.

At a basic level, we’re probably overcooking our food. Maybe just a couple of minutes here and there, but the generating the electricity to do that, when added up across thousands of households, is a significant amount. More significantly, like so many consumer devices, microwaves have a shorter lifespan now than they did 10 or 15 years ago. We live in a throwaway society, and many of us will chuck out a perfectly good oven after just a few years simply because we fancy a new one with a couple of additional features. Few people are going to want a second-hand microwave, so the old one will go for recycling. And with much of the carbon emissions warned of in this story linked to manufacturing the replacement we’re adding to the problem before the first lasagne has even started to rotate on the turntable.

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