Statue of Lenin outside football stadium in Russia

World Cup hackers, climate change food threat and more: picks of the week’s news

Image credit: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

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.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

World Cup 2018 hackers will target players and punters, warns US security chief

Hacking of visiting fans’ electronic devices is a relatively new trick that will face British and other foreign tourists during the soccer World Cup in Russia that got underway this week. On top of that, as some observers note, some of the only-too-familiar dust-throwing and window-dressing tactics are going to be used, too. As someone who lived in Moscow for the whole duration of the botched 1980 Olympics and survived to tell the tale, I cannot help noticing some striking similarities between the kind of the cynical pokazukha (window dressing) used on that occasion by the Soviet authorities and the ‘measures’ carried out by the current powers-that-be. In 1980, all people with criminal records, as well as prostitutes and - for some obscure reason - schoolchildren were temporarily evicted from the Soviet capital to an area beyond the 101km mark, probably to create an impression that Moscow was both crime-free and dead quiet. Thirty eight years on, student dormitories were emptied in Yekaterinburg, one of the World Cup venues in the Urals, and in Moscow – despite the protests of animal rights activists – all stray and unattended dogs have been caught and put down. Just like in 1980, sex workers (albeit in 1980 all those were strictly ‘unofficial’), beggars, rough sleepers and the homeless have been routinely rounded up and bussed out of the World Cup cities. The list goes on. It saddens me to think that, despite all the lip service to democracy and the superficial name changes and door-plate replacements, there have been very few alterations to the Soviet-style mentality of some of Russia’s rulers.

Neural network predicts the future, learns to prepare salad

Having read with interest about the use of salad-making ‘algorithms’ in robotic programming, I’d like to suggest that the success of this pioneering technology must be conditional on which kind of salad is used. Whereas the inventors claim that preparation of an average salad requires 20 different actions, I can argue that a proper Russian Salad - as opposed to its gooey and sick-like English or Spanish version - takes at least 50 different actions (and as many ingredients) to prepare. What’s more, the order of those actions is totally arbitrary, if not to say chaotic, and therefore not of much use for algorithms. There exist over 200 recipes of the proper Russian Salad and whenever I cook one, it is always a different – yet invariably delicious – one, the preparation of which, let me assure you, is as difficult as predicting the future. Possibly, even more so. To paraphrase the famous expression by Confucius, you can never make the same Russian Salad twice.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Climate change could drive up price of healthy food, study finds

One of the interesting things here is the whole premise for this study is that there will be less water around. All I have to go on is the actual news story here, so I don’t know what assumptions have been made, but surely the reverse is true.

Fundamental laws of physics state that warmer air holds more moisture. Therefore more condensation from the oceans; more moisture in air; more rainfall. Admittedly, that rain might fall in large amounts in places that are already wet, rather than be evenly distributed around the globe, but that becomes an issue of water management rather than water shortage.

It is nothing new for studies to conveniently prove whatever it was they set out to – whether that’s the appalling science that linked autism to the MMR injection or the medical incompetence in Cleveland that saw many children separated from their parents for incorrect sexual abuse accusations. That doesn’t of course mean a study that sets out to prove a point is necessarily wrong. It could be that crop yield is affected negatively in the future, although personally I suspect overuse of pesticides and herbicides is more likely to come back to haunt us than rising temperatures and a change in rainfall.

I definitely would count myself as an environmentalist, albeit not of the banner-waving variety, but I am also an engineer and like things to make sense. Linking global warming to the cost of carrots in Tesco seems to me to be chasing the headlines by appealing to the ‘pound in your pocket’ mentality. Global warming is even more frightening than some of the world’s uber-macho politicians and, unlike the politicians who ultimately will be caught up by time if not before, it doesn’t look like it will ever go away.

Moreover, it is such a big and intangible issue that we largely bury our individual and collective heads in the sand about it. The more we get good information, the better the situation is likely to be. If, on the other hand, there is information that just makes people question its validity, then it weakens the argument rather than strengthens it. People will assume, if it suits their own arguments, that if one thing is wrong then everything written on the subject is wrong and apart from a few days in the headlines, nothing positive has been achieved.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Visa shakeup and tech investment package announced by UK government

Theresa May’s tech investment package and relaxed visa rules smack of a government reeling from falling interest in the UK following the Brexit vote. It makes sense to try and attract as much as interest as possible before the big day comes, so that maybe it will soften the blow.

Signs that big tech companies were starting to doubt the logic behind investing in the UK started at the end of 2016, several years before the EU exit was even due to take place. And who can blame them? The position of business leaders before the vote, other than some such as James Dyson, was that leaving the EU would make it more difficult to conduct their operations in the UK and would make the rest of Europe more appealing. It’s obvious that the collective might of Western Europe is stronger and more appealing than the UK on its own. What about straight bananas, the NHS, or bureaucrats in Brussels, I hear you cry out. Every claim debunked, yet we’re still going ahead with this madness, steamrolling towards economic suicide regardless of the consequences because it is ‘the will of the people’. Sometimes, the people don’t know what’s best for them.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Manchester needs congestion charge zone to cut air pollution deaths, report claims

This correspondent lived in Manchester for a number of years in the early 1990s and even back then driving anywhere around the city centre was an onerous chore. It’s actually a comparatively small and compact zone - a bit like considering London’s city centre being a radius of a mile or two around Oxford Circus - and Manchester’s road network did not lend itself favourably to any weight of traffic, given the cars, the legendary orange double-decker buses and the Metro tram system that occupied its streets. I can only imagine that this traffic has increased tenfold in Manchester over the years, just as it has everywhere else, so the idea of a congestion charge seems sound, if not also inevitable.

World Cup 2018 hackers will target players and punters, warns US security chief

As if anyone needed the particular dots of ‘World Cup’, ‘Russia’ and ‘hacking’ joining together for them, the director of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Centre has warned football fans that they could be subject to hacking if they bring their electronic devices to the World Cup in Russia. Quelle surprise. It’s about as surprising as a warning over racist, violent Russian football gangs taunting and attacking other nations’ supporters. Although it’s possibly not as surprising as the Russian football team - FIFA’s lowest-ranked team in the competition - opening the tournament with a resounding 5-0 thumping of, er, Saudi Arabia, the second lowest-ranked team. Home team advantage always counts for something.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Neural network predicts the future, learns to prepare salad

So the robots will be taking our employment as everyone has predicted? Like the odd-job guy in the kitchen who prepares the salad? What will he do now? Researchers have developed software that predicts what will happen minutes into the future, using salad prep as an example. By predicting the timing and how long it takes to make a salad, robots could work with humans by equipping them with the ability to anticipate actions like people. So the odd jobs guy might be out of a job. Uh oh.

Drones with asphalt printers could automatically repair potholes in the future

My car is suffering because of the council’s inability to fix our roads, which have been blighted by craters because of weird weather, so I think the UK could do with one of these bad boys. In the future, drones with 3D printers could automatically fill potholes as soon as they happen, according to experts. This could mean that we would see drones flying over roads during the day to find those pesky potholes. Then, when night falls, more drones would be deployed to fill up the holes with asphalt, for minimal disruption to traffic. Boom. Problem solved.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

School mobile phone ban ‘En Marche’ through French parliament

Bad news for the young people of France when they return to school in September means the likelihood of entertainment for observers from other nations. Prompted by concerns about mobile phone use disrupting lessons, Emmanuel Macron’s government has pushed through a bill that takes the characteristically Gallic step of simply banning their use - and that applies to the teachers as well. Anyone with school-age children will be aware of the problems that mobiles can cause, largely as a result of letting kids engage with each other on social media throughout the day. At least the UK sensibly leaves decisions about how to deal with it in the hands of schools, who take different approaches that work for them. In France, I guess, it’ll still be schools who end up having to enforce whatever measures end up being enshrined in law. If this ever comes into effect, I’ll be fascinated to see what the consequences will be for those who are considered to have failed and how anyone’s going to find out they have in the first place.

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