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Silver Surfers, Super Monster Wolves and more: pick of the week’s news

Image credit: Dreamstime

E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Attitudes more important than access in encouraging elderly to adopt tech, study suggests

Many off-the-shelf IoT devices require no effort to hack, study shows

First up here is some new research suggesting that the reason older people aren’t embracing the web isn’t just a result of their inability to get their head round the technology, but is as much to do with their mistrust of it. Not a groundless fear or phobia, mind you, but a reasoned belief that everything in the brave new world of the internet of things isn’t as rosy as it’s painted. Parents and grandparents, for example, are likely to think about the consequences for their offspring before taking advantage of an app that might in the long run be putting someone out of a job. There’s an element of laziness too, the report suggests, with the older generation often using their age as an excuse for not wasting their time – as they perceive it – getting to grips with the latest innovation that some well-meaning bright spark came up with to make their life a little easier.

It’s easy to roll your eyes and accept this as something everyone with elderly relatives is going to have to get used to. The conflict between wanting them to get online, and avoid being excluded from the tsunami of services that are shifting there, and knowing that you’re probably going to end up as a personal IT helpdesk every time the technology doesn’t work as promised or they see a story in the media about how cybercrime is becoming all pervasive.

And who’s to say their anxiety is misplaced when stories like this one about how pathetically vulnerable to hacking most off the shelf connected devices are unless you’ve got some level of expertise. The researchers in Israel who disassembled and reverse engineered some of the gadgets you’d expect to find in your local supermarket these days described the ease with which criminals can take them over as “truly frightening”. When even the experts are using that sort of language, never mind the tabloids, is it surprising that so many potential silver surfers are choosing to stay on the beach and just enjoy the sunshine?

Jack Loughran, news reporter

UK’s 2040 ban for diesel and petrol cars ‘lacks ambition’, MPs say

2040 is the new de rigueur date when the world’s environmental issues will all be sorted out, that’s according to politicians and large multi-national corporations anyway. Here’s a list of things that are promised for 2040:

·         Diesel and petrol vehicle bans in the UK

·         Diesel train bans in the UK

·         Reduced demand for fossil fuels due to driverless cars

·         Oil and gas production to be stopped in France (a pretty cheeky one this, since France barely produces any of these anyway)

·         Electric vehicles to make up over a third of sales

·         Norway to electrify all short-haul flights

I wondered what all the fuss about 2040 is about. After all, other than being a round number, it’s basically a completely arbitrary date. The reason 2040 is bandied around so liberally these days is that it sounds just soon enough to keep treehuggers off politicians’ backs while being far enough in the future that no one has to bother implementing any policies that might upset anyone anytime soon.

As an added bonus, by the time 2040 actually happens, no one will remember what politicians were promising to do in 2018. After all, who is still talking about environmental policies from 1996? With very little actual policy to back up the Tories alleged goals, they can present an environmentalist front while still secretly sticking to their inner belief that climate change has been made up by scientists to sell overpriced solar panels and ruin posh people’s backyards with noisy wind farms.

They’re probably hoping that the UK will ultimately be swept along with the increasing global trends towards electric vehicles and renewable energy without them having to lift a finger. But considering the International Energy Agency said in 2016 that the world will have to completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector by 2040 to prevent temperature rises beyond 1.5 °C, maybe a little push from the government couldn’t hurt, even though 2040 is 22 years away.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Human rights and precious metal: tracing the story of ‘tainted’ gold

I held a gold bar worth hundreds of thousands of pounds a few weeks ago. You can do it, too, at the Bank of England’s excellent museum, where you can also learn about the intricacies of the global financial system. It’s a fun place and I’d recommend a visit, with the parts of the museum devoted to gold among the most eye-opening.

I like to think I’m fairly immune to fashions in bling and statuswear. I wear a basic Casio digital watch rather than a shiny, glittery one, I loathe flash cars and I find shopping for formal clothing incredibly tedious. But touching that gold bar, I felt faintly aroused. It was - how can I put this? – sexy. It had a power I cannot define.

Even in this age of cryptocurrency, real, physical gold exerts an irrationally intense pull on the human psyche. In times of war, people with money buy gold. Its beauty and solidity elevate it into being a safe store of legitimate wealth, but its shapeshifting properties and relative lack of traceability also make it an excellent vehicle for money-launderers and other big time crooks. As my feature on ‘tainted’ gold and the human rights abuses that can be entailed in gold-mining describes, there is an unsettling backstory to this still important component of international finance.

What all this says about us humans, I’m not sure. Perhaps that we are far less rational creatures than we might often like to believe. We are all in thrall to hormones and prejudices. Anyone who claims to be free from such impediments is deluding themselves. Gold assumes near-cosmic meaning because we have infused it with that meaning over time. We feel a visceral impulse because of something that exists in our minds but has a fairly tenuous relationship with objective reality, just as ‘beauty’ itself is a vague concept dictated by the heart not the head. Maybe there is some evolutionary reason for why we find gold so alluring. A random by-product of ‘survival of the fittest’, perhaps - or does science lack answers? I’m not sure.

Some weeks before visiting the Bank of England Museum, I dropped into the British Museum (entry free, so why not go there too?) and feasted my eyes on a display of objects from the Sutton Hoo hoard - treasures from the burial place of a king of early Anglo-Saxon England, among them gold belt buckles, sumptuous gold jewellery and a gold-tinged helmet and shield. Wow! Just wow. I can’t explain it, but I felt moved.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Help choose the World’s Worst Banger

Well, it’s voting time! I am happy to report that the battered, yet still roadworthy, banger of our photo competition is chugging along - slowly but surely - to its final destination where the winner will be announced and the prize awarded.

It took us some time to get together ten best readers’ photos of the ten worst jalopies – all in different stages of disrepair but still plying recklessly the roads of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and America. A surprisingly high number of entries came from the USA, one world’s most technologically advanced nations, which nevertheless seems to be still enjoying a love affair with old, very old and simply decrepit vehicles. On the other hand, hardly any photos featured bangers on Britain’s roads – probably due to the UK’s unique and rather strict MOT rules.

Cast your vote now for your favourite contentious car. No need to drive to a polling station - this one is right in front of you on your computer screen!

Good luck to everyone, apart of course from the careless keepers and drivers of the bangers themselves. Happy voting!

Hilary Lamb, news reporter

‘Super Monster Wolf’ unleashed to scare pests away from Japanese farms

The Japanese wolf – one of the tiniest wolves to have lived – went extinct decades ago thanks to destruction of its habitat, conflict with human interests and the arrival of rabies. The loss of this species led to its former prey flourishing, particularly wild boars. This turned out to be bad news for farmers, who report that a significant fraction of their crops are being consumed by hungry boars every year. Have no fear though, for a perfect substitute for the wolf has arrived: Super Monster Wolf. This howling, shouting, rubber-faced, splay-legged, devil-eyed monstrosity resembles a wolf about as much as I do, but apparently it works. Wild boars are just that stupid.

Dickon Ross, editor-in-chief

Rare earth elements: the global battle for precious metals

Rare earth elements, vital to electronic and electrical industries ranging from mobile phones to renewable energy, are said to be the new gold and mining companies have worked to secure sources. There was even talk of a new gold rush with Africa tipped to be the next big source of rare earth metals. We examine  who uses what from where and what that means for industry. China is both the world’s largest producer and largest user and, worryingly for the rest of the world, it increasingly looks like it’s cornering the market. Are technology companies prepared to rely on China for their raw materials? Paul Dempsey investigates.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Machine learning used to distinguish between male and female smiles

Researchers at the University of Bradford have discovered that women smile differently from men. They mapped various points on the face and monitored how much they move during smiling, leading to the discovery  that women’s smiles are generally wider. Then they used that knowledge to develop a machine-learning algorithm that can assign gender correctly in 86 per cent of cases. I don’t know how useful that is, but it’s interesting anyway.

Elizabeth line track maintenance to be reduced thanks to simulation software

The University of Huddersfield is building itself a solid reputation for practical railway research. That includes work to reduce track wear on London’s newest underground line, the Elizabeth line, by optimising cant - the height of one rail above another in curved track. The Huddersfield team is also working with Transport for London to develop maintenance planning software for the line, which is expected to open at the end of this year.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Physicist Stephen Hawking dies at 76

Perhaps as memorable now to many millenials as simply ‘that wheelchair guy who appears in multiple episodes of The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory’, Hawking’s passing this week is a landmark moment for physics and science in general, as well as their place in popular culture and in the minds of young students. Hawking also appeared as himself in episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Futurama and his scenes were always well-received and appreciated by fans of those shows. While to some more high-minded, po-faced (read: jealous) scientists Hawking’s appearances in mainstream TV comedy shows might have seemed like an unnecessary sideshow and to have been trivialising scientific matters, Hawking himself had the good sense and scientific taste to use these opportunities to promote science to a wider audience far beyond the ivory towers of academia. Hawking himself enjoyed The Big Bang Theory long before he was invited to appear as a guest star because the show features a lot of discussion around physics problems, the conversations about science are technically accurate and even the equations written on boards used in some scenes are correct. Hawking’s appearances on The Simpsons and Futurama typically revolved around a scientific conundrum which Hawking would resolve, using both his towering intellect and - crucially - his unfailing sense of humour. As the great man himself observed, “Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”.

Gold recycling from laptops: there’s gold in them thar Dells!

Aside from the obtuse punning (panning?) of the headline (which makes a lot more sense if you read it aloud in the heavy American Smokey Mountains’ hillfolk accent of a grizzled gold prospector in the 1880s, as was much practiced by certain members of the E&T team in the office this week), this is an interesting story about the reclamation of gold from laptop motherboards. While an awful lot of motherboards are required for a modest amount of gold - approximately 15,000 laptops for 2kg of gold - this is still otherwise gold being buried in landfills and consigned to the dustbin of history. To put that gold to good re-use is the obvious circular-economy step to take. Finally, enough people in the world are questioning why good materials have been allowed to go to waste, when with only a modicum of effort they can be returned to the production cycle, thus obviating the need to search for freshly mined material. There is real promise that while half the world consumes and disposes of objects at will, with little regard for consequence or opportunity, the other half of the world spies the treasure, magpie-like, that is being discarded and swoops in to reclaim it for their own productive use.

3D-printed concrete houses set to improve life for slum dwellers

This is a fantastic story: a great and simple idea that quickly, efficiently and most importantly cheaply has the potential to transform the fairly miserable lives of the many millions of people around the world who live in unsatisfactory, unsanitary conditions. A 3D-printed concrete house costing a few thousand dollars, to be paid off courtesy of an affordable interest-free mortgage and which can replace the delapidated corrugated tin-and-wood shacks typically inhabited by the world’s poorest people, comes across as one of the best applications of leading-edge technology that I’ve heard about in a long time. This is what technology should be doing: uplifting and empowering suppressed individuals who find themselves at a lesser advantage to the rest of us, merely by dint of where they were born and raised.

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