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Carbon targets, train trauma, royal wedding and more: our pick of the week's news

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.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

UK will fail to meet carbon targets due to falling renewable investment, MPs warn

Last week, I went to the Orkney Islands to investigate the progress being made in marine renewable energy. That progress has been considerable and there is a combined optimism and self-belief in the capability and technology that is infectious.

The archipelago in the Northern Isles of Scotland now generates approximately 115 per cent of its electricity needs, but is actually in the position that wind turbines are shut down if capacity is reached, as the link to the mainland grid across the Pentland Firth is too flimsy to support extensive electricity export. Applications have been made to update this link, so far unsuccessfully. The wind resource up there is difficult to imagine for those of us further south. Prevailing winds from the west blow straight across the North Atlantic while northerly and easterly winds are equally unhindered by land. The consequence is it is usually windy – on closer inspection the lush landscape seems to be almost vibrating as the grass is buffeted by the breeze. Arguments that wind energy is unreliable are true, but less true in some places than in others!

Far more reliable is the movement of the tides and the technology being developed at the European Marine Energy Centre has already progressed to the point where it can nearly compete with the costs of offshore wind-energy generation. It works and devices have been in the water long enough to prove that they work. MeyGen, with a small array in place, could be regarded as pioneers of commercialisation. Furthermore, companies have grown up in the supply chain and are exporting their expertise to the few sites around the UK and the world where wave and tidal schemes are being developed. The UK is currently at the forefront of this technology and could come to build a significant industry exporting the technology and expertise.

Most important is the energy source itself. We all know the world is physically changing and that if we want it to remain a pleasant and diverse place to live in we must change our ways. One obvious way to do that is use the renewable resources that are available to us, but it appears we lack the political will to do so. It is at least reassuring that there are some people in Westminster who appreciate this, hence the conclusions of the report, as there seems to be a lack of genuine understanding in Government that this needs long-term cross-party commitment. The truth is that backing the marine renewables industry will not yield a financial return by the end of this parliament, nor a meaningful cut in carbon emissions - but it will by the end of the following five-year spell and even more so going forward from that.

Cross-party, long-term energy strategy has to make sense for the country and ultimately for the world. The sooner green technology becomes available and affordable, the better, but it will not happen unless there is some form of central funding or long-term initiatives (like those that were removed for renewables in 2015) to make private investment in renewable technology an attractive prospect again. Unfortunately, constituency MPs largely regard renewables only as wind turbines and those are not things that their constituents want blighting their countryside. As an aside, communities in Orkney actually invest in their own wind turbines to provide cheap electricity and income from feeding excess to the grid. A wind turbine is something they are proud of rather than regarding an eyesore. 

So, behind the Orcadians’ entrepreneurial spirit and technological confidence, there is incredible frustration that all the good stuff, all the difficult stuff, behind making tidal and wave energy work is well within our grasp, but will only be realised if Government stops paying lip service to tackling climate change and really starts to invest taxpayers’ money in our future.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Book review: ‘For the Love of Trains’

This week, I’ve cheekily chosen my own review of the superb ‘Love of Trains’ compendium as one of my picks of the week’s news. Not just because I feel a bit lazy after a short holiday in Greece, but rather to have an excuse to share with you a horrendous train experience I had to endure last Wednesday when returning home in the evening after a full day of meetings in London. While still at King’s Cross Station, I could smell a rat: hundreds of frustrated commuters were running around chaotically – bumping into each other and cursing under their breath. I could overhear snippets of the brief verbal exchanges of the painfully familiar type: “overhead cables…,” “signalling problems…”. It soon became obvious that all Great Northern trains between London and Stevenage, or possibly even between London and Ely, were experiencing indefinite delays. Lots were cancelled, according to the electronic timetable, but my long commuter experience taught me not to trust timetables and announcements. Indeed, I suddenly spotted an unidentifiable train in Platform 11 that was seemingly ready to depart. I dashed for it, got in, the doors closed and – my lucky stars! – we started moving.

It was a mistake of course, for three minutes later, having hardly left the station, the train came to a firm stop. And that was what my long (two and a half hours instead of the usual 30 minutes) journey home was like that evening: countless stops inbetween stations (and often no stops at the designated stations, “due to train congestion”); endless apologies from the driver; long queues to the toilet, the state of which was simply indescribable, and – on top of it all the quiet stoicism of the commuters. “This happens every day,” a sullen-faced fellow sitting in front of me (yes, we were lucky, we had seats!) kept mumbling periodically to no-one in particular. “They are the worst train operator ever,” echoed a woman in a business suit standing in the aisle. “Doing nothing to improve the service, but never forgetting to raise the prices!”

On the whole, though, the complaints were rare. And I thought then how lucky Great Northern and other train companies should feel having to deal with the docile British commuting crowd – as opposed to their counterparts in Italy, Russia, France or almost anywhere else who would… Well, I am not so sure what exactly they would do - go on strike, smash the train carriages, waterboard the driver? - but they would never take those inexcusable daily tribulations half as calmly.

To cut a long story short, the “love of trains” about which I wrote in the above book review, can be very easily transformed into hate of trains (who said there was just one step from love to hate anyway?) unless British train operators - in a highly improbably scenario - finally get their act together.

P.s. As I was writing the above lines, a curious piece of train-related news arrived from Japan, where a major train operator has just apologised to the commuters for a train departing 25 seconds earlier than scheduled. “The great inconvenience we placed on our customers is truly inexcusable,” a spokesman for the company said. Outrageous, isn’t it??

I wish we had their problems.

The Royal Wedding: tradition meets tech

Police facial recognition matches ‘almost entirely inaccurate’, privacy group warns

As the nation prepares to watch the royal wedding, which this time promises to be full of innovation, including special facial-recognition technology which would allow TV viewers to spot and identify celebrities in the crowd, I can only hope that it will be more accurate than the one used by police and reported by E&T this week, the title of which pretty much speaks for itself.

Happy watching, everyone!

Hilary Lamb, news reporter

“Alexa: what should I call my baby?” Amazon Echo turning parents off robot assistant’s name

A Maryland-based sociologist who has long tracked the popularity of names has crunched the numbers behind 2017 baby names in the US and made a few interesting discoveries. Most notably, he found that the popularity of the name “Alexa” has been dropping off rapidly since Amazon launched its smart speaker, which speaks with the voice of the eponymous fembot.

No-one wants their daughter to be laughed at in school by children saying, “Hey Alexa, tell me a joke” or “Alexa, turn on the lights”.

This is an example of a phenomenon called “name contamination”, whereby the association with unpopular or unpleasant public figures negatively affects the popularity of a name. Interestingly, the most contaminated name in US history may not be Ebenezer (Scrooge) or Adolf (Hitler), but actually Hilary/Hillary, which began to fall in popularity following the arrival of former First Lady Hillary Clinton in the White House. I concur; I don’t think anyone has ever said anything nice about my name.

Incidentally, the popularity of the name Donald, which has been gradually falling since Donald Duck appeared on our screens, is now dropping with “new urgency”.

Name contamination doesn’t just affect names shared with famous dictators/bigots/idiots/frumps; it can also happen when you associate a name with a despised ex, boss or auntie. Given this problem, I think there’s a good case to be made for encouraging greater creativity in naming babies.

Not all cultures have this problem; a Taiwanese friend recently explained to me that she and all her young peers have unique names created by their parents and they are unlikely to ever come across anybody who shares their name. Consequently, names never become contaminated. This parental approach is frowned upon in Anglophone cultures, where creativity in baby-naming leads to (completely legitimate) concerns that the former baby will be bullied and never taken seriously. Which is why everyone needs to start doing it.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

The Royal Wedding: tradition meets tech

I don’t want to go over the top about the royal wedding, but I’ll almost certainly watch it on television and I do appreciate the contribution of technology to making the event itself go smoothly, to the security around it and the huge broadcast operation. On the other hand, some of the applications listed in this story just seem rather tacky.

Laser beam lift-off for wireless winged robot

I’ll be honest, I only opened this because I liked the alliteration in the headline, but I’m glad I did. I’ve read about tiny insect-like drones before, but I hadn’t realised that they needed to be tethered to their power supply to avoid being weighed down by battery packs that would prevent them taking off. Now engineers at the University of Washington are trying to overcome the problem with the help of a PV cell and a carefully directed laser beam. Their video shows that this is clearly still a work in progress, but that short-lived first flight is at least a start.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

‘Alexa: what should I call my baby?’ Amazon Echo turning parents off robot assistant’s name

A modern lesson in the waxing and waning in popularity of children’s names. Of course, any ordinary name at any time might find itself rendered unpopular or obsolete by events of history (Adolf, anyone?), but even a more exotic name like Alexa or Siri may now find that technological developments largely sweep the nomenclature rug of parental choice out from under its feet. Kudos to Google, I suppose, for choosing to not explicitly name its own virtual assistant. I sincerely doubt - hope - that no one had previously called their baby Google.

Google faces mass resignations in protest against military contract

Talking of Google, no kudos at all to it for this story - not from me and not from the dozen or so people who have resigned their positions at the company in protest at its continuing involvement with the US military over a surveillance drone project. It is disappointingly inevitable that the protests of these principled ex-employees - as well as the hundreds of still-gainfully employed Google workers who have made their feelings known within the company - will amount to little more than a minor inconvenient blip, a futile unified show of ethical and moral honour, to the company who quietly changed the mission statement on which it built its empire from “Don’t be evil” to “Do the right thing” in 2015. The latter motto is obviously open to interpretation - given successive revelations of questionable activity at the parent company and its subsidiary companies, we might legitimately ask: do the right thing for whom?

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Dorset area that replicates early Mars to help future probes discover life

There’s something about Stevenage which seems to make it inherently amusing to TV and newspapers that the town is home to an artificial Martian landscape used to test vehicles destined for the Red Planet. The building where it’s housed happens to be a stone’s throw from the E&T office and while it’s interesting to see how many high-profile figures stop by for a photo opportunity that takes advantage of the UK space industry’s great success, the fact that reports always start with a snarky aside about how appropriate or unlikely the location is can get a bit wearing.

Now North Hertfordshire has some competition, in the shape of the admittedly more scenic St Oswald’s Bay in Dorset. While the warehouse-size premises in Stevenage has been built to mimic conditions on Mars as they are today, this area of the south coast is apparently similar to what it was like in its ‘middle ages’, billions of years ago. Not quite a dead ringer, but home to acidic sulphur streams hosting bacteria that thrive in extreme conditions.  Scientists who have studied the environment speculate that it might provide evidence that similar lifeforms might have existed on Mars prior to its drying period.

A trip to Dorset isn’t really going to give you a taste of what standing on the Martian surface aeons ago would have been like, although I’ve got to confess that unless you’re coming to see the space research, it’s probably going to be preferable to a visit to Stevenage.

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