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Social media addiction, steel-strength wood 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

Former Google and Facebook employees team up to fight tech addiction

This is the news that former Silicon Valley big hitters – including Justin Rosenstein, the creator of Facebook’s ‘Like’ button – have joined forces to create a ‘Center for Humane Technology,’ which will be pushing back against what its backers describe as tech companies’ “arms race for consumer attention”.

This push from within Silicon Valley is just another episode in the gradual, inevitable backlash against a sector that has gained too much power without responsibility and which knowingly uses psychological trickery to make us keep coming back for more. And why wouldn’t they, with nothing to stop them? The Center for Humane Technology will be lobbying for hard regulation of the tech sector; in my mind, this could be a good thing.

Although there are other areas facing criticism, social media is the big one. Social media isn’t like tobacco, alcohol or sugary food in that we do not directly experience physical harm from overconsumption. However, study after study has shown that it is somewhat addictive and psychologically harmful.

I consider myself a light social media user, but I could still use some help from above. So could all the poor sods on my Facebook feed actively engaging with the vapid tripe you find there. I’m struggling to remember the last thing I saw on Facebook that was worth the fraction of a second it took to consume. This week, I discovered that Facebook had been sharing my (private) relationship status with advertisers. I spend most of my time on Instagram angrily hiding all the sponsored content, which now take up 20 per cent of my feed.

Not only has it wasted a colossal amount of time, but every day it still makes me feel jealous, guilty, angry and unattractive. I’m slowly changing my habits; I kicked Twitter and Snapchat a while ago, switched off as many Facebook notifications as I can and on Instagram I unfollowed the professionally thin and beautiful, replacing them with cute parrots and stylish women of my age and build.

Unlike many, I don’t think all of social media needs to go in the bin (not that I would mind if it did). But I do think that it’s time for tough regulation to protect our privacy, time and wellbeing. Hopefully this well-connected, well-funded campaign could push us closer towards that.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Wood treated with new method could replace steel in aeroplanes, cars and buildings

I love wood. So much more beautiful than steel, plastic, concrete - anything man-made, frankly. Sustainable and environmentally friendly, too. Cut some trees down, plant some more, give it a bit of time and you’ve got more good wood to harvest. All the while, the growing trees are cleaning up our planet’s air. Begin the whole scene all over again. What a virtuous circle. Wood has a very promising future, too. Engineers at the University of Maryland have developed a method for rendering wood as strong as steel and titanium alloys, meaning that it can be used in exceptionally testing circumstances in place of other materials. Wood has always been pretty super: now it really is ‘super wood’.

Mozilla’s ‘Things Gateway’ to enable better smart home IoT device communication

We’re still hearing a lot about the Internet of Things and the smart home without any of it really appearing to get all that much closer to the all-pervasive reality it’s touted to be. Perhaps once 5G rolls out, the doors of IoT perception will be kicked open good and proper and the concurrent connection of myriad devices will become seamless. Clearly, a number of companies are already banking on such a reality. At the CES 2018 consumer technology show in Las Vegas last month, I noticed a lot of start-ups pimping gadgets that are hoping to become the unifying gateway and intermediary communicator between all the smart devices in your home. “One gadget to rule them all” is a phrase I saw used more than once in promotional materials being handed out. It makes sense, obviously. Like the ungainly collection of remote controls cluttering up our sofas for the TV, set-top box, soundbar, media player and games console in front of us, the last thing people want is a virtual grab-bag of controls for all their smart devices. It could even mean the death of the smart home concept full stop, if every time you want to leave your smart house you have to open up half a dozen apps just to turn off the lights, start the security bot’s perimeter patrol, lock the front door, adjust the heating and get the vacuum cleaner going. We all want an easy life. Hence Mozilla’s ‘Things Gateway’, which is intended to allow users to tie together all their connected devices to communicate with each other, regardless of which tech company developed them. The idea does require a Raspberry Pi computer, a microSD card, a dongle and the new ‘Things Gateway’ software, but other than that the only ones this sounds like bad news for are the aforementioned start-ups at CES, whose fledging products could be felled by Moz.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Porn filters, movie effects, Intel’s downfall and more: Best of the week’s news

Please forgive my unmitigated temerity in choosing my own contribution to last week’s comments on recent additions to the E&T web site as my personal pick for this week. I hope you will understand why when you read the feedback received from Florida-based reader Peter Brooks. Just to remind you, my pick last week was a story (picked up by a number of my colleagues) reporting ground-breaking research by Cornell University to the effect that allowing one’s pet cat to roam freely (or in Kipling’s words, to “walk by himself”) outdoors can seriously undermine the cat-owning household’s environmental credibility. I chose the story as an excuse to describe my protracted and largely futile struggle with my neighbours’ cheeky cats, who have all but colonised my back garden and all but taken over my garden office. Here’s what Peter Brooks had to say, reproduced with his permission:

I have just read your comments about the domestic cat problem around your garden office. I only have two suggestions that may solve your cat problem:

1. Get yourself an active medium-size dog like a Beagle.

2. Consider changing the type of rug/mat on your front porch to one that is very rough, like that used to clean mud off boots.

Consider yourself very lucky that domestic cats are the only things prowling in your garden. Here in my backyard we have seen snakes, armadillos, squirrels, raccoons and feral cats. However, in the Orlando area homeowners also get bears and monkeys. The monkeys were originally imported to Florida to support the Tarzan movies made at Silver Springs.

Well, what can I say to that? It’s great that our picks are being read as far afield as Florida. Having read Mr Brooks’ comments, I momentarily felt very happy not to be residing in the Orlando area and therefore not having to deal with snakes, armadillos, squirrels, raccoons and feral cats (let alone bears and monkeys), all emptying their stomachs and bladders onto my uncomplaining lawn. On reflection, though, I decided that it would be kind of fun to bump into an armadillo (if not into a bear) while walking across the back garden to my office or taking out rubbish. And, believe it or not, the other day I did spot through the window a large moving creature, whom I initially mistook for a fox or a very large dog (it was dark) eating fallen apples in my backyard. Then I remembered that dogs normally do not eat apples and took a better look. It was a full-size, adult muntjac deer!

I knew that there is a small muntjac deer colony dwelling in our town’s park, better known as Norton Common, but that’s quite far from my house. It was a fascinating sight and, curiously, since the deer’s short visit, the cats - presumably put off by the creature’s impressive dimensions and its strong wildlife smell – have stopped crossing into my garden. I am now seriously thinking of perhaps acquiring a ‘medium-size’ muntjac instead of an equally ‘medium-size’ Beagle, which would probably be cheaper. How can I persuade a deer to swap the thick bushes of the Common for the empty space of my back garden with its solitary apple tree? I will be awaiting readers’ further suggestions with impatience.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

SpaceX preps Falcon Heavy for debut launch, loads cargo hold with Musk’s Tesla Roadster

The first great space race was between nations locked into the Cold War, as one superpower competed against the other to get their astronaut scientists first into orbit and eventually the Moon. The stakes were political more than anything as nations understood the value of propaganda for their different socio-economic models in an unstable world. This time around it’s commercial as private companies race to get paying tourists, freight and even colonisers to the Moon and even Mars. Who’s winning? It’s moving fast, but this week was a good one for Elon Musk’s SpaceX project, which performed a successful flight of his reusable vehicle with his personal Tesla electric car on board. This is our coverage before the big event, including that car on board. Is Musk winning the new privatised space race? Mark Williamson assesses his chances in a more detailed analysis on our website, and there’s more on the subject of space in general in our February issue.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Tobacco farms transformed into solar farms could benefit all, study

Plenty of us would argue that transforming tobacco farms into just about anything different would benefit the world. Sadly, the industry is well established enough and wields enough political, not to mention economic, influence that there’s going to have to be a better argument than reducing consumption of its products to persuade producers to make any sweeping changes to their business. Money talks though, and this study claiming that converting land used for growing tobacco to host solar energy infrastructure could turn out to be more profitable in the long term ought to at least get some people considering making the move. The academics behind it reckon farmers could increase profits by thousands of dollars per acre, based on a pilot study in North Carolina that took into account declining rates of smoking and the increasing cost of electricity. The current US administration doesn’t seem to worried about environmental effects on health; perhaps the prospect of big payouts for landowners could create just a little leverage in the battle against its preoccupation with fossil fuels and climate change scepticism.

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