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EU threat to theatre lighting, ‘Am I Stoned’ app and more: best of the week’s news

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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.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Theatres could go dark under EU eco-lighting proposals

I recently searched Twitter to see what people were saying about the #SaveStageLighting campaign against the European Commission’s plans to impose harsh new limitations on the types of lighting used by the entertainment industry. “If one more person sabotages a #SaveStageLighting post to push their misguided pro-Brexit agenda, I won’t be responsible for my actions,” one lighting designer had declared.

Several others tweeting under this hashtag had European Union flags pinned to their profiles and had previously rhapsodised about their love for the EU. Now they were warning that EU bureaucracy could cause the collapse of theatrical performances and live music events across Europe. It was a tad confusing!

Now, it’s no great secret that people involved in the performing arts industry are not exactly known for being fans of Brexit. And while it may be frustrating when ideological zealots push partisan messages based on highly specific campaigns like #SaveStageLighting, I feel obliged to make the following two observations:

First, rather than being the implementation of a set of policies proposed by democratically elected MEPs, the absurd new lighting rules that campaigners take exception to emanated from the European Commission. The Commission is the unelected (and arguably unaccountable) body that actually runs the EU. I’m not making an ideological point here, it’s just the way things work in Brussels. Look it up if you don’t believe me. It’s the Commission, not the elected European Parliament, that launches legislation. Under this system, the most important element of the governance process is removed - as far as is humanly possible - from the electorate. Is it any surprise, therefore, that the EU can appear out of touch.

Second, when the EU issues a directive, all member states must comply with it. Although some discretion is allowed as to the means by which a directive’s aims are achieved, countries legally have no choice but to obey. That’s why the #SaveStageLighting campaigners are right to be taking their fight to Brussels. There would be no point in lobbying UK MPs about the proposed new rules, since they currently have no control over them. The decision to launch the contentious legislation was subcontracted to Brussels by the UK. It remains a matter for the EU – not for Westminster – for as long as the UK remains in the EU. It’s not ‘pro-Brexit’ or ‘anti-Brexit’ to observe this, it’s just a fact.

In my opinion, the democratic deficit at the heart of the EU has hitherto been blithely underappreciated by the most ideological Europhiles. I strongly believe it is legitimate for people to take the position that the UK should remain in the EU. I strongly dislike the notion that Europhiles are somehow unpatriotic or traitors. It’s also perfectly legitimate to believe that EU decisions should override the decisions of national governments.

However, it’s important to be honest about what all this means in practice. It means things like these new lighting rules can come into force without national governments having any real say over them.

The way the EU is presently designed means it’s virtually certain that those making the key decisions will be out of touch with public opinion in member states. Appreciate this, and you begin to appreciate why the Brexit vote cannot just be dismissed as arising from feral, pig-headed racism.

Perhaps campaigners hoping to thwart Brexit should do more to acknowledge that the EU, as presently composed, is extremely imperfect and is in urgent need of reform. Do this, and it might help heal the wounds of a disunited UK.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Is the tide turning against social media? It certainly seems like the tech giants are under growing pressure from many sides at once. In recent weeks we’ve seen consumer campaigns against Facebook in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica story, some of the worlds biggest advertisers announcing they are rowing back from social media, Facebook facing high-profile legal action from MoneySavingExpert founder Martin Lewis, and this week an angel investor launched a competition to find seven Facebook alternatives to finance

Now governments are piling on the pressure over social medias failures to take effective action on everything from properly reporting crime to their platforms effect on children. This week the UK government issued some pretty strong stuff on internet giants allowing children to sign up underage. A committee of UK MPs wanted to question Facebooks Mark Zuckerberg but yesterday had to make do with his CTO

Will all this pressure force social media to smarten up? It may have to if it wants to avoid regulation, but the fallout will be wide. For example, Zuckerberg was asked at his Senate hearing about illegal sales of ivory through his platform, but this week we learnt that tightening up data could be bad news for wildlife

Social media has changed the world and changing social media wont change the world back but it will change it all over again.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

‘Am I Stoned’ app for cannabis users created by academics

So researchers from the University of Chicago have developed an app that’s supposed to help weed smokers understand how it affects their functions. Erm, I think marijuana users understand how the drug is affecting them. Just like when you get drunk and you can’t stand upright sometimes and your head says “How drunk are you?!” and you’re just like “Shut up brain, it’s the world that’s sideways, not me.” So phone-based tasks from this app called ‘Am I Stoned’ – if you’re on the app, you probably are baked, otherwise you wouldn’t be asking – let you know just how much of a stoner you are. Weed impairs memory, reaction time and attention, but the researchers claim it’s difficult to assess in a casual, natural setting. They gathered data from users in the field, so the app will also contribute to the overall scientific knowledge in terms of how cannabis affects users. Neat. Go forth, stoners. Have a great time. Just don’t operate heavy machinery when you’re high.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Ice on Mars revealed in first ExoMars Orbiter images

Mars – the mysterious red planet – has just got a tad closer; that’s how I feel. And not just because the ExoMars Rover was built by Airbus, the company whose HQ is right across the road from the E&T office in Stevenage. To me, the knowledge that they found some ice on Mars (as opposed to life on Mars) makes the planet look and feel a bit more familiar - like England, or maybe even like Stevenage (what a scary thought), with snow, ice and other cold-bringing ‘beasts from the east’ never leaving its wind-beaten shores, not even in the middle of spring, as is the case now. The good thing is that the first people on Mars, whom President Trump has promised to dispatch there in 2020, won’t have to worry about bringing ice cubes for their drinks (and they will consume a lot to celebrate their successful Mars landing, I am sure). But, if I were one of them, I would certainly bring an umbrella.

Life-size hologram system could revolutionise videoconferencing

I was saddened by this news, heralding the end of real-life congresses, conventions and conferences. No more exciting assignments in exotic destinations, where people, normally glued to their desks from nine to five every day, can let their hair down. During my several-month-long travels in the USA some time ago, I often stayed at hotels where all kinds of conventions were taking place – from the national gathering of smoke-alarm manufacturers (a rather quiet event it was) to the All-American Congress of Ventriloquists (that one was noisy). I got used to the sight of the formally dressed convention delegates nursing their pina coladas in hotel lobbies, and that was all they seemed to be doing there. A number of them told me honestly that they regarded conventions as welcome additions to their short, much too short, ‘vacations’, as they say in America. No more of those, it seems. From now on, all those ventriloquists and smoke-alarm makers can communicate with each other holographically – without being unglued from their desks. I wonder if holographic cocktails are going to make an appearance soon?

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

PA Consulting challenge rewards young inventors’ Raspberry Pi ideas

No one who attended the finals of this competition at the IET’s Savoy Place building in London can fail to have been inspired by the projects on show. I was lucky enough to be invited to act as a judge, which gave me a chance to quiz the competitors on the thinking behind their entries, which all used Raspberry Pi devices to solve a problem linked to sustainability, and I was almost as impressed by the level of teamwork and collaboration on show as I was with the creativity and innovation. On the upside, too, I learned that although the early days of the contest, now in its sixth year, were dominated by private schools who can find time and resources for extra-curricular activities like this, the 111 groups that entered this time around were far more representative of UK education.

One thing I couldn’t fail to notice though, and which we’ll be addressing in E&T later this year, was the fact that while all the primary school and sixth form/college teams were pretty much balanced in terms of gender, the groups aged between 11 and 16 were made up exclusively of boys. Chatting with a few of the teachers who’d come along with them, it seems – perhaps predictably – that there’s still a significant challenge getting girls engaged in technology activities at this point in their education.

Initiatives like this ought to help by showing that ‘engineering’ isn’t all about fixing machines, and definitely is about addressing problems like climate change which – anecdotally at least – are a bigger concern for girls than they are for boys. If you’re involved with a school and want a great idea for encouraging the young people coming out of primary school bursting with enthusiasm for hands-on technology to continue that in their choice of subjects, I’d definitely recommend finding out more about this competition.

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