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Trolls, taxes, fracking and more: our picks 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.

Hilary Lamb, news reporter

Don’t feed the trolls: computer model predicts toxicity in online debates

Have you ever been on the internet? Horrible, isn’t it?

There is something about being online that brings out the worst in us. It’s too easy to interpret the innocuous as hostile when you’re not face-to-face with the people you’re speaking to. In anonymous spaces, we can be as nasty as we like without any social punishment. And people online are often bored, tribal and looking for an argument. Hence Godwin’s law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1”.

Now, US researchers have analysed more than a thousand discussions between Wikipedia editors and developed a model which identifies early signals that a conversation could turn toxic. The idea is that this could be deployed online to help defuse tension early, such as by sending a user an automated message letting them know that their comments could be interpreted as hostile. I’m glad someone is thinking practically about how to get a handle this, and yet the cynical and much-trolled side of me believes that someone who is a stubborn piece of poo online will continue to be a stubborn piece of poo online, automated messages be damned.

Unless you are being persistently targeted by trolls* (in which case: call the police) the best thing you can do when you run into a toxic argument online is to go elsewhere. This is the meaning of “Don’t feed the trolls”. They’ll still be launching their turds into the void, but you’ll be watching a video of a dog riding a tortoise on YouTube.

* It is slightly sad that “trolling” – which used to mean the act of innocently winding up strangers online by pretending to misunderstand them (and before that, the act of being an ugly Scandinavian cave dweller) – now refers to sickening bullying and harassment.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

EU calls for tax on digital economy at G20 summit

Should the world introduce a global tax? Could it? These are the kind of big, broad and some would say bad questions emerging from this week’s G20 meeting of the world’s top economies. It was grappling with the thorny issue of tax in the digital age, when national governments face declining tax revenues as global companies can move their operations around the world to save money through avoidance of or arrangement with the tax regimes. The meeting heard calls from – perhaps unsurprisingly - European finance leaders for a tax on large digital companies. Just as unsurprisingly, their US counterparts disagreed. This meeting marks the early days of what will be a really important worldwide debate. The problem is only going to get thornier as economies are turned upside down by automation, VR, 3D printing, Internet of Things and every other new digital buzzword on its way. Workforces will have to be deskilled and retrained, someone is going to have to pay for that, but it will be harder to collect those revenues. Yet it has to be done globally to be meaningful and that’s going to tricky.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Cuadrilla’s Lancashire fracking site approved by government

The government’s decision this week to push through Cuadrilla’s fracking application despite the myriad number of reasons not to smacks of ideological stubbornness.

The company first found gas reserves in Lancashire in 2011 but tremors in Blackpool swiftly put a halt to the initial drills over concerns they were responsible.

Cuadrilla then tried to push through the operation regardless of the possible risk to the local environment but was ultimately stopped by Lancashire County Council in 2015 on grounds of visual impact and unacceptable noise.

But the saga didn’t end there. Following the ruling, the government escalated the final decision over the project to the communities’ secretary, overriding any local decisions and effectively ignoring 18,000 objections from residents.

Initial works then started in 2016 but protests by environmental advocates and delays over the final decision halted the project from going ahead until now.

So despite massive local opposition, clear risks to the nearby environment and government pledges to shift the UK’s energy mix towards carbon-free technologies, the decision was forced through anyway.

Meanwhile renewable electricity, especially offshore wind, is rapidly falling to all-time lows in terms of cost.

In 2012, it emerged that many of the government’s most senior advisors on energy policy had some very close links to the oil and gas sector.

This included Foreign Office minister Lord Green, Treasury alumni Baroness Hogg, and most tellingly the former BP boss Lord Browne, who worked at the Cabinet Office until 2015. One of Browne’s principal roles was to appoint executives to government advisory boards - did I mention that he was the chairman of none other than Cuadrilla itself for almost a decade?

On balance, the decision to approve the Lancashire project, despite the many reasons not to, seems tainted from day one by the decisions of those with personal interests outside of their public service role.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Don’t feed the trolls: computer model predicts toxicity in online debates

I’ll be honest, I’m pretty keen on football – sport in general, but particularly football. As any football fan knows, any online forum is open season for the keyboard warriors whose sole purpose is to annoy, offend, insult and generally suck the joy out of any meaningful discussion. In fact, it therefore sucks the meaning out of meaningful discussion. I may as well come clean and admit I am a Liverpool supporter. Any forum, even the ‘Have your say’ comment columns that are opened after relevant articles on the BBC, Guardian et al, are immediately jumped on by the trolls. And it is nasty stuff. Principally, but not solely, Manchester United trolls will always jump in with often repeated and pointless comments designed to deflect the conversation away from football and immediately into conflict. Frequently it goes further and references to Hillsborough and Heysel go way beyond the boundaries of how decent people should behave towards each other. It is a disgrace and Liverpool supporters consequently brand their Manchester foes as scum, which in fairness is probably a fairly accurate description of those internet trolls. Of course, it is exactly the same in reverse. Comment sections about stirring Manchester United victories (I believe they do happen), will soon be infiltrated by Liverpudlians who will spout exactly the same sort of offensive rubbish – substitute Hillsborough with Munich. All as bad as each other. I am perfectly sure that should I look at Arsenal/Spurs, Birmingham/Villa, Sunderland/Newcastle etc etc, the same rubbish would appear everywhere. The consequence of course, even if you take it with a pinch of salt, is that it denies proper football fans a platform on which to have a proper discussion. So could this technology provide an automatic filter? It would certainly be a good test as I can’t imagine there are many less reasonable and more toxic online environments than these. Peace and harmony is not going to break out between all these rivals - in fact, that would spoil a bit of the fun - but to take away that extra layer of hatred that is fuelled by these inadequate individuals, so brave in their anonymity, would be something of a blessing.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Facebook suffers record-breaking $100bn-plus market value plunge

Not in the habit of rejoicing at other people’s poor performance or failure, I nevertheless welcome Facebook’s severe market plunge. Firstly, because with the company’s (and its owners’) multi-billion budget, the loss of $100 billion for them is like for me wasting a fiver on a scratchcard on the spur of a moment. Secondly – and primarily – I do believe that Facebook’s role in society is both negative and destructive. It trivialises friendships and relationships reducing them to some meaningless ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ at a press of a button. Consciously or not, it encourages bullying, violence, intrusion of privacy, commercialism and – indirectly, by not removing the militant posts fast enough - even terrorism. More than anything else, it turns its users, particularly young people, off real and proper culture - books, arts, classical music - by leaving them little or no time for intellectual pursuits. As John Humphries once put it laconically, it (Facebook and other social media) “promotes idiocy”. A similar opinion can be found in the book “Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” by former Silicon Valley leading scientist Jaron Lanier, who asserts that social media is tearing us apart and the best way of becoming a nicer and better person is to delete your accounts straight away. Hear, hear. Looks like a growing number of people all over the globe are starting to follow the scientist’s advice.

Kremlin to send gunslinging androids to ISS

If I am reading this correctly, the “entirely robotic crew” could be just a euphemism for a bunch of unquestioning Putin supporters You never know with Russia.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Humans adapting to hotter climates driven by global warming, study suggests

A classic case of ‘read the full story to get the true picture behind the headline’. It may be that humans are learning to cope with rising temperatures, but this doesn’t address or tackle the fact of these rising temperature at source, i.e. climate change, caused by the damaging actions of the world’s growing population. Statistically, there might have been a reduction in deaths from heat-related illnesses over the years, but it’s also true that medical assistance, government advice and improved and more readily available air-conditioning units are behind this downturn. We’ve invented new ways to keep cool and survive. Take the hospitals and air-con away, though, and the death curve would almost certainly begin to rise again. The world is clearly getting hotter and becoming more arid, with each year warmer overall than the one before it. That is an unsustainable trend to which humans will never be able to truly adapt. It’s a bit like saying people could learn to cope with radioactive fallout after a nuclear war. There might still be human existence, but you’d hardly call it living.

The real-life sandcastle: New Mexico cave carving complete

Two years of carving stone in the heat of the New Mexico desert: that is dedication to one’s art. The end result is a beautiful, impressive, natural home. I’m assuming it’s cool in summer, too, which would be a welcome relief from the scorching heat outside. Stone enclosures also tend to have a pleasing acoustic to them and natural soundproofing - perhaps hence the image of animal-skin drums and shakers placed ceremonially in one large, high-ceilinged space. You can also make as much noise as you like way out in the desert - neighbours complaining are not really an issue. In a similar echo across time and space, a few years ago, in the pouring rain (it was another record-breaking summer, albeit for the wettest of reasons), I trudged up a muddy stubble-flecked hill in Wiltshire to explore West Kennet Long Barrow, opposite Silbury Hill, a few miles from Avebury’s famous stone circle. It wasn’t until I was actually in sight of the megalithic stone tomb, mere feet away from the low entrance, that I finally heard the pulsating throb of the prolonged, intense bongo jam taking place inside. Several blissed-out musicians had situated themselves one in each chamber, such that the natural reverberations of the structure created an overlapping, trance-inducing rhythm in the stone(d) space. Perhaps something similar is intended for this New Mexico venue - a new non-denominational sacred space in which to tap uninhibited into the primal beat to which we all respond, to a greater or lesser degree. I would like to be there to experience that.

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