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Ageism, evil genius, cyber wars and more: the week’s top tech news

Image credit: IBM

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.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

100,000 older workers kicked out of IBM, as company craved Google’s ‘cool’ image

The way for such an influential tech giant - the ninth-biggest company in the world - to appear as a "cool, trendy organisation, such as Google and Amazon" is not by discriminating against the old. That much is certain. It’s an obnoxious example of how wrong the efforts towards an image-revamp can go, if the claims against IBM are corroborated.

The irony is that IBM recently pushed development in ‘ageing in place' solutions to help the elderly in their homes. On one hand it may have forced out older staff, as the lawsuit claims; on the other, it marketed a product to help the elderly at home? What a bizarre strategy.

Old age in organisations is something that needs to be talked about. Yes, there are organisations that are around for decades and feature older workers by default - fewer hipsters in their twenties. But old age should be considered an asset, not a liability, and organisations need to wake up to the fact now, not when the 'new young' are old themselves.

With an increasing trend for individuals to work past 65 and an ageing population, the challenges that come with old age need to be discussed in a sensible manner. Research papers point out that very little work has been done looking at the health and safety aspects of people working beyond the state pension age. There is a gap. The irony is that any millennial today not supporting the premise to aid older workers will likely be shooting themselves in the foot for when they grow older.

I had an interesting experience this week when we interviewed a couple of retired engineers who experiment with the idea of green energy production in their farming shed. It draws a perfect illustration of why the UK economy simply can’t afford to relinquish innovation to mere millennials.

Another note on IBM: if the company was after a facelift for the organisation, why not replace a few board members first, which demonstrated an average age of 64, according to my calculations? Wouldn’t that make more sense than firing thousands of qualified workers, if the objective was to appear young and cool?

As consumers, any one of us has a voice and a vote. First and foremost, I couldn't care less whether my technology products are built by old or young employees. However, I would choose not to buy a product from a company that strategically discriminates against old age.

IBM’s strategy remains opaque and it is unclear what happened to its 20,000 employees in the UK. The firms annual report issued a statement that it closed its UK benefit plans to future accruals for most participants and implemented a new retirement policy. It is expected to address approximately 290 individual actions alleging constructive dismissal and age discrimination brought against IBM UK in 2010 by employees who left the company at that time. Good luck, IBM, in talking yourself out of that shemozzle.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Senate bill targets social media ‘psychological tricks’

In terms of wasting time on central legislation this has got to right up there. A fan of social media I am not and I only dabble round the edges that open up better communication with family and friends - friends of the non-virtual type, that is. However, even I have to concede that social media is very good at what it does. To accuse Facebook or Twitter of ‘using practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of chain’, i.e. make it more addictive, is like telling any manufacturer to stop making your products appealing.

There are many downsides to this shift to an online existence, the finger pointing most frequently at the gaming and social media companies for being at the root of all ills. I don’t think a realistic answer is to tell these companies to determine what their audience want and then not give it to them.

We are not all alcoholics just because alcohol exists. Instead there are restrictions on its use, most of which are self-imposed. Ultimately, every one of us is responsible for how we use our time and if an evening passes scrolling endlessly through Twitter then that is surely the user’s fault and not Twitter’s. Unfortunately, this is another example of a society that likes to have someone to blame, rather than accept individual responsibility.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Evil genius: Lemony Snicket, a series of fortunate escapes

In E&T’s 2019 summer tablet edition, we delve into the world of the best-known villains and evil geniuses in fiction: from Bond’s enemies to the flying minions of the Wicked Witch of the West. One notable evil villain in this edition is Count Olaf in the Netflix show ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’.

Originally an enjoyable series of novels by American author Daniel Handler, more recognisably known as Lemony Snicket, ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ has been adapted into a not-so-great film starring Jim Carrey and, in 2017, was rebooted in the form of a fantastic 25-episode Netflix Original.

Arguably seen as one of the best noir franchises for children of any age to appear in print and on screen, as Nick Smith writes, the plot follows three orphan siblings, the Baudelaires, who time and time again have to outwit their ‘guardian’ Count Olaf – played by the excellent Neil Patrick Harris in the Netflix show – who is seen as the archetype of the evil genius. 

Rather than focusing on the ever-so manipulative Count Olaf and the games he plays on the poor orphan children, however, Smith explores the inventions and plans of bright Baudelaire sibling Violet, whose ideas throughout the franchise perhaps make her one of the best heroines in fiction.

The grappling hook, the lockpick and the staple device are what make Violet’s engineering brain kick into the highest gear, broadening her chances of defeating one of the world’s most evil geniuses. Our feature explores these three scenarios and ways in which the bright young heroine comes up with practical solutions, including one in which she even saves the life of one of her siblings.

P.S. If you haven’t seen the Netflix version of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ yet, I’d highly recommend it. This isn’t a shameless plug; it’s genuinely worth the watch!

Jack Loughran, news reporter

The UK’s Brexit-stricken car manufacturers report 20 per cent fall in production

There have been a few announcements recently, such as BMW and Jaguar building new electric cars in the UK, that temporarily gave me hope that the UK’s car manufacturers might pull through the Brexit kerfuffle partially intact. Well, the latest figures show that those projects are just positive drops in an ocean of bad news for the UK’s automotive sector.

While much of the UK’s manufacturing has disappeared over the last 30 years due to policy decisions and cheap Chinese labour, the automotive sector has managed to cling on in one form or another. These latest results showing a 20 per cent fall in production over the course of a year suggest that Brexit really could be the final hammer blow.

Once we’re out of the EU there will be no incentive for automakers to set up shop in the UK, as we won’t have cheap labour or easy access to the Eurozone - the worst of both worlds, if you will. Considering the global nature of manufacturing in 2019, with components flying in and out of countries all over the world, it’s just not worth it for automakers to try and fight through the Brexit headache when there are so many other options.

It’s time to say goodbye to the UK’s car industry (and probably many others). I hope the “people’s mandate” and “getting our country back” will be worth the loss of huge sectors of our economy.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

British Army bolsters its cyber-warfare capabilities with Sixth Division

Military scientists partner with video-gaming company

"The first duty of a government is to protect the lives of its citizens." I’m not quite sure where that notion originated, but there’s no doubt that in today’s world a hostile opponent could cause life-threatening chaos through a cyber attack without resorting to conventional bombs and explosives (though sadly there are plenty of those being used around the world today, often against civilians). That means the British Army’s formation of the Sixth Division trained in cyber skills is a sensible move.

Equally sensible is the decision by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) to work with a developer of commercial video games on production of military analytical wargames, tapping into its expertise on making it easy for players to learn how to use them.

I’d rather the world's politicians focused on living peacefully with their neighbours, but I’m reminded of another quotation, this one dating from Roman times: "If you want peace, prepare for war”.

Hilary Lamb, news reporter

Consent must be given for tracking via Facebook ‘Like’ buttons, EU court rules

I 'Like' this.

This ruling means that websites which embed Facebook’s ‘Like’ button – allowing for browsing activity to be tracked and the data transmitted to Facebook for ad targeting purposes – can now be considered joint ‘controllers’ of user data. The result is that these websites will be required to seek consent from visitors in order to collect and transmit this data. I can already see how this will pan out in reality – with dark patterns nudging visitors to submit to data collection by making the process of declining long, confusing and complicated – but the ruling is welcome regardless.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Fragrance-releasing fabric could help neutralise sweaty clothes

Don’t we kind of already have this kind of thing? A lot of washing powders and fabric softeners have a sort of ‘scratch'n'sniff’ technology, where you move around in your clothes and sweet fragrances are released. Also, I’m sure there are much more useful ways to spend time and money. Battling climate change, for example?

Anyway, researchers from the University of Minho in Portugal have modified cotton fabric to release a lemony citronella aroma upon contact with sweat, which is meant to help sweaty people who live in hot places or during exercise. Would the citronella also repel insects?

Through the smelly years, scientists have developed smart fabrics that react to stimuli such as light, temperature or mechanical stress and respond, like changing colour, or conducting electrical signals.

One of the first things researchers did was use a protein to release the scent, which is found is pigs’ schnozzles, which is odd. Does it mean the fabric isn’t vegan? Not very modern, guys.

I digress. My point is, why can’t scientists use their energy to research useful solutions to more serious life problems? Not sweaty people who could use a shower. 

Dickon Ross, editor-in-chief

Evil genius: Dastardly tricks to make chips sick

Evil genius: Lemony Snicket, a series of fortunate escapes

Evil genius: Davros, creator of the Daleks

Would the Bond villains' plans have ever worked at all? Where in the world are the best candidates for a baddie's HQ lair? And how would an evil engineer really go about breaking the internet? These are some of the vital articles we dusted off from the E&T archives to produce our first special summer collection in the E&T app, on the science and technology of spy movie villains. Ideal for reading next to the pool - with or without sharks. And just £2.99.

We also added some new features, and you can read these for nowt online now. Hacking has to be at the top of any self-respecting villain's evil plans for the future and Chris Edwards explores just how evil a hacker you could be, from the days when it was just a way of getting free phone calls to the future of hacking and the vulnerabilities in the Internet of Things. Nick Smith examines how a heroine engineer kept foiling the villain in Lemony Snicket's Unfortunate Series of Events with a brilliant series of inventions. Caroline Hayes explores the science and engineering behind the Dalek leader Davros. Yes, all right, we know those last two are not strictly spy movies, but they are evil masterminds, geniuses or, to flatter them a little less, villains.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

100,000 older workers kicked out of IBM, as company craved Google’s ‘cool’ image

Are younger people better? They're generally cheaper. Are they less reactionary? Also less experienced. No one has a divine right to stay in a job, just because they've been there for decades. If the work has moved on and evolved, so must the worker. Otherwise, you're in danger of turning into a technological Luddite, smashing up Twitter with an ink quill. At the same time, sweeping out all the older employees and replacing them with millennials is hardly the way to go, a questionable approach of which IBM is being accused.

Experience is crucial, in any endeavour, and blending youthful enthusiasm with the wisdom of elders is a time-tested method for success. There is probably more nuance to this story which the court case has yet to reveal, but there does already appear to be some validity to the accusation that IBM deliberately embarked on an aggressive Human Resources policy to shake up its ageing employee demographic and clumsily grab some of that 'Silicon Valley cool'.

The old man of IBM really wanted to be down with the kids - and, as is often the case when someone tries too hard, the results are plain embarrassing.

Home Secretary Patel claims end-to-end encryption helps ‘empower criminals’

Not that Priti Patel should ever be considered an expert on technical matters, let alone a trusted source on anything full stop given her dubious commercial activity and flagrant disregard for Parliamentary rules, but the question of end-to-end encryption remains a thorny issue. There are those who argue that if you have nothing to hide, you shouldn't mind your data being accessible to anyone with the wherewithal to legally gain access to it, if the theoretical net gain is greater protection of national security.

The other side of that particular coin is that even if your private correspondence is entirely innocent, concerned solely with petting kittens and pressing flowers and such like, it should remain private. Mind your own business. Allowing state actors to have carte blanche access to comb through it all, rummaging around for anything suspicious, is the thin end of a very troubling wedge for our wider individual freedoms. If the state is allowed to snoop around in any conversations that it deems worthy of investigation, where does that particular road lead? Where does it end?

Also, the whole point of end-to-end encryption is that it is unbreakable. No one can hack into it, good or evil. As soon as you introduce back-door access for security forces, ironically to better protect us, the jig is up. If a human created the lock, another human will figure out the key soon enough. Anyone can then hack into your correspondence, including the very people - the 'criminals' highlighted in this story - that those opposed to encryption claim that encryption 'empowers'. Ending end-to-end encryption only serves to enable the criminals.

The Five Eyes alliance will most likely get its way and end-to-end encryption will be removed or handicapped in the likes of WhatsApp, but then of course a lot of the criminals will simply move to another platform, to other communication channels, and the skewering of end-to-end encryption will have achieved little.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Evil genius: Lemony Snicket, a series of fortunate escapes

When I was asked to come up with the names of some notorious techno villains for E&T’s 'Evil Geniuses' summer special, my first suggestion was Fantomas – a baddy from the eponymous French comedy trilogy which was cult viewing in the USSR of my childhood. In fact, one of my first quests after settling in the West (first in Australia, then in Britain) was to get the videos (then on video-cassettes) of those movies for my collection. That quest failed miserably for, as I soon discovered to my huge surprise, one of my childhood’s most memorable films was all but unknown (or perhaps just firmly forgotten) not just in Australia and in Britain, but also in France, where it was made, and therefore its anti-hero, Fantomas, was unsuitable for our selection of famous villains.

Besides, unlike most of the better-known evil geniuses, he was neither an engineer, nor a scientist, but just a successful and highly ingenious criminal, with good acting and voice-imitation skills.

My weekly news pick, however, can be a proper slot to say a couple of words about that scary green-faced character, thanks to whom countless Soviet schoolkids (including yours truly) missed countless boring classes, for playing truant to watch (often, for an umpteenth time!) one of the Fantomas movies was a very popular sport among the not overly diligent Soviet teenagers.

I will never forget a doggerel (it rhymed in Russian) written with chalk on a blackboard in our class one morning: “Don’t go to school, kids, because your teacher can turn out to be Fantomas!” (“Ne khodite, deti v klass: vash uchitel – Fantomas!”)

In his three movies (‘Fantomas’, 1964; ‘Fantomas Unleashed’, 1965; and – my favourite – ‘Fantomas Against Scotland Yard’, 1967), which, incidentally, were all adapted from the eponymous 1913 French silent crime series, Fantomas the criminal uses an array of very well-made face masks, allowing him to impersonate anyone whom he wants, including his own nemesis, the hapless police ‘commissaire’ Paul Juve, played by the brilliant French comedian Louis de Funes and skilfully dubbed into Russian (all foreign movies in the USSR were dubbed) by Vladimir Kenigson, who even managed to reproduce for the mesmerised Soviet viewers Fantomas’s famous blood-chilling “ha-ha-ha” laughter.

The villain also managed to pass for the Parisian journalist Jerome Fandor (played by Jean Marais, one of the biggest French movie stars of all time), who assists ‘commissaire’ Juve in his largely unsuccessful hunt and who – probably due to the staff shortages at the Soviet film-dubbing agency - was voiced in by the same Russian actor, Kenigson.

At some point in the series, Fantomas – in the best traditions of James Bond movies - kidnaps a distinguished scientist, Professor Marchand, whom he forces to develop a super-weapon that would allow him to control the world. To carry out the kidnapping, Fantomas disguises himself as the scientist and attends a scientific conference in Rome.

Some other techno details from the movies that come to mind are Fantomas’s underground palace which also houses his scientific laboratories; his flying car and a high-tech mini-submersible in which he repeatedly escapes ‘commissaire’ Juve’s chases, accompanied by his stunning wife, whose name (if I remember it correctly) was Lady Belle Dame.

Why that serial was allowed in the USSR whereas James Bond movies were strictly banned is anyone’s guess. One reason may be that, unlike in the latter, there are no Russian baddies in ‘Fantomas’ – only French and British ones!

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