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Porn filters, movie effects, Intel’s downfall 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.

Hilary Lamb, news reporter

Virginian legislators propose removable porn filter on all new devices

Firstly, I should say: I’m largely anti-porn. Not as a matter of principle: in an ideal world, if two or more (consenting) adults want to share their nude escapades with the rest of the (consenting) world, good for them. Adult work is work after all and, if you look for it, there is plenty of content out there that brings all people involved a lot of joy.

However, the reality is that with the majority of instantly accessible content out there on the internet, it’s hard to know under what circumstances it was made. A few years ago, Stoya, one of the world’s most famous adult actors largely known for her honest and witty blogging about her work, accused James Deen – her former partner and another member of porn royalty – of raping her. Her accusation was followed with those of other adult actors towards Deen of aggressive and inappropriate behaviour. Even when we are not inadvertently enjoying watching an alleged rapist at work, we have to question other aspects about how much of the industry operates. Some adult actors choose this work out of financial necessity and find themselves being grossly exploited (this is not exclusively a problem with adult entertainment, of course), most content is intended to fulfil twisted male fantasies of women as impossibly perfect and submissive sex objects, and studies suggest that excessive consumption of porn can be damaging in a number of ways (not least to viewers’ real sex lives).

So, given all my qualms with the adult entertainment industry, why do I feel that this legislation – which would require all PCs, tablets and phones to be sold with a porn filter, which you must pay to have removed – is a waste of time?

Firstly, there is no suggestion as to how such an ‘obscenity’ filter would work in practice. What counts as obscenity? Will websites that host adult material as well as SFW material be blocked? Whose responsibility is it to apply the filter, and how can this be enforced? All the evidence suggests that this has not been given sufficient thought.

Secondly, this has very little to do with human trafficking. To name this bill identically to the federal Human Trafficking Prevention Act – which takes real steps to raise awareness of and put an end to modern slavery – is disingenuous to say the least.

Thirdly, this probably violates the USA’s First Amendment right to freedom of press.

Finally, take a look at where this legislation has emerged from. Dave LaRock, the state representative behind this bill, is best known for tearing down advertising for an erotic bookshop, railing against abortion rights and his anachronistic fearmongering about the LGBT+ community. I cannot speak about LaRock himself, but can say with confidence that this group of socially conservative Christian fundamentalist dinosaurs are uninterested in empowering society’s most downtrodden women.

Yes, there are some serious issues with the adult entertainment industry. But the industry will not be made a place where the rights and desires of women are respected as much as those of men are by indiscriminately censoring adult content. Instead of proposing this unenforceable porn filter, how about guaranteeing protections for sex workers, pushing for the continued liberation of oppressed minorities and supporting full body autonomy for women, Mr LaRock?

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Movie magic hinges on more than dazzling use of technology, study finds

I picked up on this story because I’ve just finished writing a short feature for the next issue of E&T about new technology in films. The film I was looking at was ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’, due for release in March, which involves alien monsters coming to our world through a portal in the Marianas Trench with a view to wiping out humanity. My objective was to take a sideways glance at the engineering involved in this science-fiction caper and see if it was likely to be possible given the state of current technology.

Given that this is set less than a decade away, I concluded not, whereas next month I intend turning my attention to the new Steven Spielberg film, ‘Ready Player One’, which is set in the 2040s and describes a virtual-reality world that is probably more feasible.

Nonetheless, I think the plausibility of the technology isn’t terribly important, as long as it doesn’t make the film ridiculous, and can certainly add to the magic of the film. We go to the movies to be entertained, and suspending the analytical mind of the typical E&T reader, if it can be achieved, is probably a good thing. I certainly enjoyed Pacific Rim.

This news story from E&T reporter Hilary Lamb isn’t about the technology depicted in films, but about the technology used to make them. The referenced study concludes that just using the latest animation or CGI tech doesn’t necessarily make for the best movies. Which is no surprise. ‘Toy Story’ was groundbreaking in its day because of the animation technique, but it was also superbly made, well written, charming and funny. Studios are using technology to make visually more impressive films all the time, but they still need good film-makers to make a good film.

I recently watched Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’, with flickering shadows representing the angry birds in a way that would be laughable today. But because Hitchcock knew how to engage his audience, it remained tense to the end. The crows might not have been as real as could be depicted today, but their threat seems as dangerous as anything conjured up by CGI now. It makes you wonder what Hitchcock could have achieved with modern technology.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Samsung ends Intel’s 25-year reign as dominant chip manufacturer

This news comes as no surprise considering Intel’s utter failure to capitalise on the smartphone market during its early years. In the late 1990s the chip manufacturer had it all, dominating the processor sector like no other with AMD as its only real competition. Moore’s Law was also still holding water with a clear roadmap on how to miniaturise transistors in the years to come. But with the release of the first iPhone, which was incidentally powered by a Samsung-made processor, the direction of travel for semiconductor technology shifted rapidly and Intel just didn’t adapt fast enough.

Its absence from the market for handheld devices left a yawning gap that was quickly filled by Qualcomm, which also had a leg up thanks to its expertise in 3G and later LTE. Intel failed to see that power consumption was quickly becoming as big a factor in chip design as speed and compatibility. Too little, too late sums up Intel’s early attempts to force their way into the smartphone market. Finally, after throwing money at it for several years, Intel packed it in in 2016 and decided to stick to what it does best in the PC sector.

But recent revelations around the ‘Spectre’ security flaw have seen the company’s reputation tarnished here too. It turned out that every chip Intel had released in the last decade could be hacked to extract essential information such as passwords. AMD also came out on top here since its chips weren’t affected in the same way.

Intel has also struggled for years to perfect its extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) fabrication process, an essential step if it was to create 10 nm processors that people can get excited about (for more details see my feature last year). In recent months it has hinted that it’s finally getting somewhere with EUV, an essential step to maintaining the Moore’s Law roadmap for a few more years, but nothing concrete has so far emerged. It looks like Intel is set for a rough 2018 as it tries to recuperate from Spectre and bring out new processors that promise more than just tweaked versions of the last generation.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Lock up your cat to boost environmental credibility, study suggests

If I could punch the number of cats that have come into my garden and hunted wildlife, I would be extremely satisfied. The thing is that these cats aren’t very good at killing. They bat around and play with the half-dead animals, and the small critters’ last breaths are a thing of mockery to the feline.

I do like some cats. Ish. And when I say like, I mean tolerate. If they’re all right with me, I’m all right with them. But if one comes into the vicinity when wild birds are feeding, and I can see their sneaky faces ready to pounce, I’m going to start sprinting and scream like a banshee towards them, flailing my arms. The birds are scared away and lose out on lunch, but as long as they don’t die, I’m cool with it. I used to have a dog for that, but I have taken responsibility. My brother and sister-in-law’s cats have bells on. And they’re indoor cats for the majority of the time. So when they go outside for fresh air and a wander, there’s no way they’ll be prowling for innocents.

Anyway, according to a study by researchers at Cornell University, allowing a pet cat to roam around outdoors can damage the sustainability cred of their owners, even if they’re careful to continue all the same sustainable practices as indoor cat owners. Keep your cred intact. Store your cat indoors for the sake of humankind!

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

“Systematic mis-selling” over electric car range, MP alleges

Consumers are repeatedly being told that the range of electric cars is longer than real-world performance prior to purchasing, according to Labour MP Helen Goodman. The opening paragraph of this story should really have gone on to add “... who recently bought a Nissan Leaf (the worlds best-selling electric car) and has been moaning on about it ever since.”

Goodman got up on her high horse (no need to recharge that) and declaimed how motoring officials have been misleading customers in a “serious breach” of consumer rights and trade descriptions, remarking on how last week her Leaf “conked out” after 14 miles when it stated it had enough charge left for 22 miles. Aside from not knowing the exact driving conditions, her tyre pressure, the speeds she'd been driving at, what the load of the car was, what other electrical functions she was using in the car at the time etc, surely everyone takes manufacturers’ claims about their devices (of any kind) with a pinch of salt? When my iPhone says it has 4 per cent of battery life left, I don't think “Great, I can do this, this, this and this before it conks out,” I think, I’d better plug this in before it dies on me. It seems more like Goodman simply left it too late to recharge her car properly for the journey she intended to make and now wants to blame the entire electric car industry just to distract from her own foolishness.

Funnily enough, if you don’t put enough petrol or diesel in a combustion engine car, they also conk out before you reach your destination. An electric car companys stated maximum is exactly that: a theoretical maximum, achieved under optimum driving conditions. If Nissan says the new Leaf has a 300-mile range, we know that this is really more like 200, maybe 250, to be safe. There are so many variables that can affect the range of any car – electric, petrol or diesel – that you can’t bank on one statistic to carry you home.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

HS2 steams ahead despite ‘white elephant’ criticism from Tory MPs

The current HS2 bill making its way through Parliament is intended to give approval for the ‘Phase 2a’ stretch from the West Midlands to Crewe. This week’s debate gave MPs a chance to make speeches that will play well in their constituencies and to raise some legitimate concerns, such as about the level of oversight, but they overwhelmingly approved giving the bill a second reading.

Meanwhile work is pressing on to find the companies that will build the first phase, between London and Birmingham. Personally, I think that a country with a growing population and expanding economy will see some real benefits from a new railway line, and the sooner it’s built and earning money the sooner we can get on and extend it northwards – but the programme really will need some strong, well-informed oversight to keep it on course.

Co-op developing biodegradable teabags to cut plastic waste

I’m generally quite diligent about putting my waste in all the correct recycling bins, and I routinely carry vegetable peelings down the garden to our own compost bin, but I used to throw away my teabags until I saw a small feature in Hertfordshire County Council’s magazine for residents, which specifically urged us to compost them. I assumed therefore that the bags must be biodegradable, but it seems that’s not entirely true. They also contain polypropylene – which can’t be good for the soil and certainly not for all the slugs and worms that inhabit my garden bin. Let’s hope all the other manufacturers and retailers will follow the Co-op’s example.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Lock up your cat to boost environmental credibility, study suggests

As I am writing these lines at home, I can clearly see (and hear) a bunch of our neighbours’ cheeky moggies ransacking my back garden and frequently polluting my environment with their ‘biowaste’, which I have to clean up afterwards. They also enjoy sitting in state on the rug on the porch of my garden office hut, which, due to its small size, must carry a particular appeal to them. They probably regard it as their own little house and get annoyed when, having interrupted my writing, I pop out and shoo them off with the hissing Russian sound “Kh-sh-sh-sh!!” (that was how we used to shoo off cats there), which they are supposed to be scared off. In fact, they pay no more attention to my war cries than they would to a distant buzz of a passing plane high above them in the sky. No wonder, they are English cats and their command of Russian must not be that brilliant. At times, it seems that – in their feline arrogance – they derive pleasure from ignoring me, as if I do not exist at all. Yet before leaving they never forget to mark the uncomplaining porch of my office as their territory in their habitual environmentally unfriendly way!

I have tried repeatedly to raise this sensitive feline issue with my neighbours, to which they normally reply that they have no control over their moggies, who, in the style of their famous ‘relative’, described by Rudyard Kipling, prefer to ‘walk by themselves’ and do not ask permission on where to empty their seemingly bottomless bladders and their no-less-bottomless (pun unintended) tummies.

So this news story is my very last hope to call my unruly neighbours to order. Perhaps the knowledge that giving their cats a free range not only irritates other people, but also shows their disregard for the environment thus undermining their own ‘environmental credibility, will have an effect. To slightly modernise the expression by the 19th century Russian satirist Nikolai Gogol, even those who are not afraid of anything at all would still be afraid of political incorrectness. In that respect, neglect for a clean environment is on a par with climate change denial, racism, chauvinism and mild sexual harassment, so the repercussions could be severe!

I will do that tonight, when my neighbours return from work, and let you know the result. In the meantime, the only thing I can do is keep hissing, “Ksh-sh-sh-sh!!”

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

US military base locations exposed by fitness app’s data visualisation

Theres so much attention around cybersecurity right now that its easy to forget the more accidental dangers of big data, but one widely reported story this week underlined them. It seems soldiers from various countries have been uploading their exercise activity data and now that's been made public for everyone to see – including anyone who might want to work out where their supposedly secret remote bases are. Maybe no harm was actually done in the end – who knows – but it shows how easy it is to overlook how our data is being used and where it resides. Fitness data is just the beginning in terms of the amount of data that everything and every person will be generating in the age of the Internet of Things. We need to wake up to how that will be managed because if multiple foreign military operations arent too aware of what their own staff are innocently uploading to the public domain, what chance do us individuals interacting with less security-aware commercial organisations stand?

Lock up your cat to boost environmental credibility, study suggests

Do you let your cats outdoors or keep them in? And does your choice make you more or less environmentally friendly? One study this week implied people were wrong to think those with solar panels, for example, were more environmentally friendly than those with roaming cats. I disagree because the measures are quite different aspects of ‘environmental friendliness, which is a broad term. Solar panels are a small contribution to limiting global warming – the big, global environmental problem. Roaming cats can harm local wildlife but it need not even be endangered wildlife. We let our cat out and I accept she may be damaging local biodiversity without our knowledge but what I do know is she catches a lot of mice and the odd baby rat – which helps our immediate urban environment. Global climate change, conservation and animal rights are often confused under the broad ‘environment term but they are different, albeit sometimes related, and it's important to be clear which we are really talking about when it comes to ‘environmental measures.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Co-op developing biodegradable teabags to cut plastic waste

Isn’t it great that we’re all so much more environmentally aware than previous generations and keen on doing our bit to protect Mother Earth? Well, maybe not so much as far as Britain’s traditionally favourite beverage is concerned.

I don’t drink a huge amount of tea, but I’ve always felt slightly virtuous that the used bags either go in my own garden compost bin or the council organic waste collection. Turns out that although they appear to rot down nicely, the small amount of plastic needed to seal the bags so they retain their structure persists and adds up to a large amount of polypropylene hanging around when you consider Britain drinks an estimated 165 million cuppas every single day. Older members of my family, who have always brewed up using tea leaves which they put straight on the garden, deserve an apology. I could never detect the difference in taste they insisted was obvious between ‘real’ tea and something made using a bag, and thought the resulting waste all ended up making the same net contribution to saving the environment.

There’s a compromise while the Co-op is developing its fully biodegradable bags, if you can’t be bothered with the faff of using a teapot and strainer, then washing out the used leaves – tea balls which you load up, leave to brew in a mug then empty straight out. No bag, just a little more fuss, and you can regain that smug feeling of not contributing even a tiny amount to the masses of plastic that are creating such a problem.

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