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Vatican ‘eRosary’, porn passes, air pollution and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network

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

Vatican launches ‘eRosary’ for Catholic technophiles

The news of the ‘e-rosary’ launched by the Vatican didn’t come as a great surprise to me. As someone who has visited the Holy See often and has written a lot about it, I know only too well that the Vatican has always been surprisingly tech-savvy for what is often referred to, incorrectly in my opinion, as the world’s smallest state.

From a purely statistical point of view, the Vatican, with a population of under 900 and area of just 44 hectares, can qualify as such. Yet, while in possession of some sovereign territory, it lacks another important criterion of statehood – the bulk of a permanent population, with more or less permanent residents constituting only about 230 people out of the 900. As we all know, most of the temporary residents are ecclesiastical officials from different parts of the world who are on short or long working assignments. Here I tend to agree with the writer Thomas Eccardt, who in his recent book ‘Secrets of the Seven Smallest States of Europe’ refers to the Vatican as being more akin to “the headquarters of international organisations” than to a state in its own right.

Statehood aside, it is not common knowledge that the Vatican runs a state-of-the art observatory, formerly based in the Roman College in Rome and now located in Castel Gandolfo on Vatican City territory. It also operates a cutting-edge telescope at the Mon Graham International Observatory in the USA, the Vatican City Heliport on its own territory, and – if we do regard it as a nation – is home of the world’s shortest national railway system, which is just 300m long.

The city is served by the independent Vatican Telephone Service, controls its own .va internet domain, runs the Vatican Radio service started by Guglielmo Marconi himself and broadcasting both on several different frequencies as well as the internet, and broadcasts from the Vatican Television Center.

Against this background, the emergence of ‘e-rosaries’ on the already existing www.clicktopray.org website strikes me as a logical development, for it was the technologically advanced Pope Francis himself who said recently that “the heart of the Church’s mission is prayer”. Whether the prayer is verbal or digital shouldn’t really matter that much.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Rubbish-collecting bot and dissolvable packing method win IET challenge

Regular readers may remember that the IET launched a ‘Global Challenge’ earlier this year in conjunction with Greenpeace and the Green Seas Trust, inviting teams of young engineers to come up with ideas for reducing plastic waste in the oceans and cleaning up the cigarette butts on beaches that make their own toxic contribution to marine pollution. Now the winners have been chosen and will be formally recognised at the IET Innovation Awards next month. Congratulations to Team NanoMalaysia and Team Baywatchers.

Vatican launches ‘eRosary’ for Catholic technophiles

Well, I suppose this will appeal to some people, though as a wearable bracelet-type device it doesn’t look very comfortable. It’s intended to help tech-savvy younger Catholics to pray for peace in the world, which is certainly a laudable aspiration, so out of curiosity, I checked the information about the associated ‘Click to Pray eRosary’ app. Apparently an audio guide "will lead you through the mysteries and it will help you to contemplate the Gospel. Background music and specialized content are available to aid you in your spiritual concentration.” Personally, I think I would find all this background music and fiddling around with screens somewhat distracting, but each to their own.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Government puts porn filter plan to bed

Porn and privacy aficionados rejoiced this week when the government put to bed its controversial plans to introduce age-verification gates to prevent children accessing porn. Following a series of technical and administrative cock-ups – after which it seemed that the porn filter plans were screwed – the government finally pulled out of the plan, shafting the British Board of Film Classification (which was all ready and set to enforce the policy) and handing responsibility over to the online safety regulator. This regulator doesn’t exist yet, but I’m sure it’ll come soon.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Air pollution blamed for 400,000 premature deaths in Europe in 2016 alone

Relying on numbers that are more than three years old, as a report produced by the European Environmental Agency that links bad air quality to the deaths of 400,000 people in 2016 does, doesn’t really help work on interventions for now and next year. The claim that "air pollution is a major cause of premature death and disease and is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe” is based partly on figures from 2012.

The government should increase cross-disciplinary data-collection efforts – having researchers from the Department of Health & Social Security working with the Department of Energy & Climate Change, for example – to address this problem in a more timely manner. This includes making air-quality statistics and hospital admission available online for data journalists and researchers. 

The figure of 400,000 deaths was widely used in media headlines. The problem is that a single number doesn’t tell the whole story; in other words, policy makers may do little with the figure. It doesn’t really allow you or I to act on it. It’s good to get the European public excited, I agree, but does that really help us? One solution is providing detailed stats for groups, regions, units via providing comparison in the article on a per capita basis, regional grouping basis etc.

It’s true that a transition to cleaner energy sources would have immediate benefits. This is one reason, among others, why people like Emil Dimanchev, a senior research associate at MIT Centre for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, recently argued in a letter to a large magazine that societies have ample reason to act on climate change now – not only to counteract the emissions that risk causing the most drastic changes in the next 50-100 years, but to see immediate benefits in health and premature deaths. 

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Rubbish-collecting bot and dissolvable packing method win IET challenge

You can protest, you can boycott and you can cast your vote in an election or even vote with your feet. Every action helps a little bit when it comes to the environment, but the best direct action is coming up with solutions. Consumer choice and protest might one day help to save the world from global warming but the best direct action of all is engineering. It's tomorrow's engineers that will really make the difference in cutting greenhouse gases, cleaning up the environment or building the infrastructure for a carbon-neutral economy. These daunting goals look more achievable with engineering and technology than persuasion and policy alone. That's why it's so good to see the IET's Save Our Seas competition produce such worthy winners.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Government puts porn filter plan to bed

Digitised faces shown to reduce self-checkout theft

In what’s become a good year to bury bad news, never mind the proverbial day, the government may have hoped that Brexit shenanigans might have eclipsed the announcement that it’s discarding plans to introduce an age-verification system for online pornography that was already postponed from April 2018. Internet users wanting to view adult content would have had to provide suitable ID or a so-called ‘porn pass’ purchased from a shop.

Technical issues and concerns about how the legislation would be enforced have held up implementation. Nicky Morgan, the minister responsible for this in her role as Digital Secretary, claimed in a written statement, however, that its objectives would be best achieved as part of wider proposals for preventing online harm that include establishing an online regulator charged with coordinating regulations designed to tackle problems like terrorist propaganda and cyber bullying.

For a government that’s sometimes obsessed with hacking away what it perceives as ‘nanny state’ legislation there’s an inevitable ideological conflict between the genuine need to police the web and complaints about political correctness stifling debate. Whereas issues like child pornography and stalking are usually black and white, deciding what constitutes propaganda or misinformation takes us into a more ambiguous world where how laws are drafted and interpreted can have significant implications.

There’s possible good news for a potential regulator from Scotland though, where researchers have found that displaying a realistic, human-like avatar on the screen of a self-service checkout till deters shoppers from trying to slip items through without paying, even if they know they’re not being any more closely monitored.

The findings aren’t entirely unpredictable – a case of ‘expected item in bagging area’ maybe – but give a clue as to how online porn purchases could be policed, or even eliminated. Make would-be customers navigate a couple of screens where a Nicky Morgan avatar sternly asks them whether they’re definitely over 18, then to confirm that they definitely want to proceed, and I reckon a lot would have second thoughts. Like most technological challenges, it’s the simplest solutions that are most effective.

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