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Facebook’s Libra, porn-filter delay, diversity benefits 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.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Facebook announces its own Libra cryptocurrency

Not content with becoming the world’s largest social media company and ripping apart democracy and decency in the process, Facebook is now establishing a digital-payment service, and it’s about as welcome as athlete’s foot.

Many better-informed commentators have explained why this is something to be worried about, what Facebook is hoping to achieve by launching Libra, and what regulators will have to say about it, but here’s some fun trivia. Mark Zuckerberg was accused of stealing the idea for Facebook by the Winklevoss twins (the wealthy, inseparable, identical, 6ft 5in Action Man-like Olympic rowers) while they attended Harvard together: these events were dramatised in the 2010 David Fincher film ‘The Social Network’. The Winklevii subsequently sued Zuckerberg and received $65m in cash and Facebook shares. They became early investors in cryptocurrency (including bitcoin), making them even wealthier than before.

According to reports, Facebook staff consulted with the Winklevii’s cryptocurrency exchange (Gemini) while preparing to launch its own cryptocurrency. Speaking to CBS last weekend, one Winklevoss commented that now Facebook was wading into the world of cryptocurrency, they needed to become ‘frenemies’ with Zuckerberg. If Facebook is going to continue trampling on human civilisation in the pursuit of power and profit, we may as well enjoy the drama behind the scenes. I’m holding out for ‘The Social Network 2: Crypto Boogaloo’.

Legislative cock-up means porn filters may not come for six months

This might be the best headline I have ever written.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Legislative cock-up means porn filters may not come for six months

Our team's reporting on the anticipated delay of the youth pornography block policy led me to scrutinise some data. The exploration yielded more than I could have hoped for.

At the start, I'd like to share that I find it remarkable that such a system would be the first of its kind in the world. I am impartial and would not want to attach 'remarkable' to a positive or negative sentiment. On a side note, I think it is perhaps difficult to be first in such a situation. There is a lot of backlash on the topic and criticism. Perhaps a delay could allow some breathing space.

What’s hypocritical is that there are a good bunch of supporters of the block who don't think it will be effective. I personally don't understand the logic of supporting something that I don't think works. Forty-four per cent of those surveyed by YouGov said they support the legislation but don’t think it will be effective.

With the majority thinking it will be ineffective but with a minority opposing the block, how does this even make sense? It's perhaps also little surprise that those who claim never to watch porn gave their utter support to the new system.

The temptation of the data led me to take a look at demographics. Older people are more likely to never watch porn – little surprise there – while nearly one in ten of those between 18 and 24 watch it every day. Perhaps younger people are more open on the topic than previous generations.

People belonging to the C2DE lower-income socioeconomic groups are less likely to have ever accessed pornography. In terms of geography, people from the north seem most keen – with nearly every fourth person saying they would watch it at least once a month or more frequently – while Scots are least likely to have never watched smut.

The data also has a political angle. Digging deeper, we learn that Conservatives are 16 per cent more likely to have never watched porn compared with Labour voters. Brexit supporters were 18 per cent more likely never to have done so. What does this tell us about people? Perhaps some are more prudish than others. Perhaps some are more honest than others. We may have to take these self-reported results from an online survey with a grain of salt, I suggest. Seeing someone on their computer answering questions on 'have you ever watch porn', and then succumbing to the urge to say 'no', could perhaps include more people than some might hope for.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Where is our missing workforce? Diversity, inclusion and skills

As well as Sunday 23 June being this year’s International Women in Engineering Day, this month marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Pride movement and the Rainbow flag is flying over the IET's Savoy Place headquarters. The latest issue of E&T looks at the companies who are employing more engineers from those groups usually under-represented in engineering, how they do it, how they manage the adjustments that are sometimes necessary and what it all means for their company performances. I visited a company employing only autistic individuals as IT consultants. Neurodiverse people tend to possess the very skills and abilities that industry most needs in spades, yet only 16 per cent of autistic people are in full-time employment.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Out, proud and at ease in the workplace

I’m plugging one of my features again; don’t shame me. Anyway, this was a super interesting one to write. And it was good to hear about Fujitsu’s initiatives that support its LGBTQ+ employees. Also, spreading the word about what the company does could help other organisations take action and make everything more inclusive.

So it turns out the proportion of people identifying as heterosexual in the UK is falling, but a lot are still afraid to be ‘out’ at work. I had a look at what companies are doing to help individuals feel comfortable enough to be themselves. According to some stats, about one-in-five LGBT employees have experienced verbal bullying at work because of their sexual orientation, which is ridiculous, and people don’t come out at work because they think it would restrict their career progression. Eurgh. It sucks that society makes people believe this would happen.

Companies must strive to do their part and ensure that everyone, no matter their gender or sexuality, feels comfortable, safe and able to be themselves.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Can big data help curb the opioid crisis?

I have to admit that I don't know much about the opioid crisis, as it's a much bigger problem in the US than in the UK. In the US, it has been building up for years into the healthcare epidemic that is now engulfing American hospitals and doctor's waiting rooms. I listened to a Radio 4 documentary about the opioid crisis recently and from that I gather that – as you might expect – the problem snowballed from the bad practices of several major drug companies who flat-out lied about the addictive nature of their new painkilling drugs, simply to make themselves billions more dollars in profit and to hell with the human repercussions. I was reminded of the scene in an episode of 'The Simpsons', where some drug researchers are developing a new diet pill. One of them says to the other, "Who's going to buy a pill that makes them go blind?" The other replies, laughing derisively, "We'll let marketing worry about that".

Nissan serves up electric ice cream van

One of those engineering solutions that seems so obvious once you've read it that you can't believe it's taken this long to come to pass. Why would anybody want an ice-cream van parked next to a beach, a playground or other public recreational space, with its diesel engine idling all day, endlessly wafting nitrogen dioxide and black carbon particles into the atmosphere? Here's your 99, with a flake and asthma. In 2019, this sounds especially ridiculous. Small wonder that several London councils – who already have enough dirty air pollution problems to contend with – are banning ice-cream vans completely from their streets.

An electric ice-cream van seems like the obvious answer and could be a big step forward for cleaner summer air in towns and cities. Better still, why not eschew the van altogether and use a pedal-powered ice-cream bicycle instead, like the beachfront vendor in the seaside town where I live? He cycles up and down the promenade, dispensing delicious home-made ice cream in a genuinely zero-emissions fashion. He also doesn't need an atonal, distorted, near-nightmarish recorded electronic nursery rhyme snippet to signal his arrival either, opting instead for the old-fashioned elegance of a long, slender brass horn to announce his presence, tooting a melodious two-note ethereal siren song into the beach air to draw customers to him.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

After All: An historic German transport link that remains forever Belgian

I thought I’d use this space for the latest update from Vennbahn, the former German railway that used to cut into Belgium and is now one of Europe’s longest cycling paths. Work to asphalt one of the oldest sections of the Vennbahn rail track between Auel and Oudler started on 12 February this year, and with the works nearing completion it’s expected that by the end of June all 128km of Vennbahn will be open to cyclists. There are over a dozen border crossings on the route of this uniquely ‘cosmopolitan’ cycling path running through not two, but three countries: Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg.

The route goes through varied natural landscapes: from the Monschauer Heckenland Region with its hedges and the moors of the Hohes Venn (High Fen), through to the valley of the beautiful 78km-long River Our, which, just like the cycling path itself, flows through the same three countries: Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.

An alluring summer adventure, if no longer for train buffs, then definitely for cyclists and hikers alike.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Domino’s to trial autonomous pizza delivery in Houston

What an age we live in, when a quick message on your phone can have a meal on its way to you by way of a man or woman shooting perilously through the traffic on a bike.

Hang on, though. Aren’t we just going full circle back to the days a century ago when cheery urchins would slog up a cobbled hill to the strains of stirring classical music to deliver a solitary loaf of bread? I’m assuming ‘Old Ma Peggotty’ had put the order for her loaf of fresh wholemeal in with a quick call to the village baker.

The classic Hovis TV spot regularly tops polls of the most fondly remembered television adverts. Don’t forget, though, that it was broadcast in the days of only three channels, when you had to get up and walk across the room to change channel if you thought there might be something better than a bread advert on one of the other two.

What I find the most intriguing prospect about Domino’s trial of pizza delivery by driverless robot – apart from putting a bunch of students with cars in search of cash-in-hand labour out of business – is that the vehicle they’ll be using is designed specifically to carry food, with special compartments that are opened using a code that’s sent to the hungry recipient.

I’d be amazed if at least one canny fast-food company isn’t already looking at the logical next step of actually cooking things in transit rather than sending a robot back to base to pick an order up. Pizza sounds an ideal candidate – all the basic options could be stored on board ready to be transferred into an oven for delivery piping hot and fresh from the oven.

Nuro, which has developed the self-driving delivery vehicles entrusted with the important task of getting customers’ Domino’s to them quick enough for it not to be free, admits that during the trial period they’ll be followed by a human-driven car during its journey to the customer’s house.

They’ll be needing to keep an eye out in areas with big student populations, too. Having an unattended cargo of piping-hot pizza driving round and only protected by a PIN-protected door sounds to me like a challenge that a lot of tech-savvy students will find it hard to resist trying to hack.    

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