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A spiffy yacht, yesterday

Yacht racing, Razr’s return, 3D-printed guns and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: Alex Thomson

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.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Round-the-world racing yachts: designed to survive

I completely bought into this. Having visited the team, been out on the yacht (at speed) and spoken to the several members of the team, I was captivated by the race itself. It’s not the big one – that’s the Vendée Globe next year – this is the Transat Jacques Vabre, one of two main warm-up events.

Following the race on the website is intriguing because all the boats have their own tactics and read the weather conditions differently, so their relative positions as they meander down and across the Atlantic are a bit vague. Certainly, the boat that appeared to be the long-term leader – Charval – eventually came in third, beaten by two other French boats with APIVIA crossing the line first. It took them about 13-and-a-half days and they were half a day up on their nearest competitor. Top Brit was Sam Davies who came in seventh – congratulations to her.

‘Our’ team, Alex Thomson Racing in the Hugo Boss boat, failed to finish and limped to port in the Cape Verde islands having had a catastrophic keel failure following a collision with an unknown object beneath the waves.

Upon arrival, Thomson said: “It was a pretty scary experience for both of us and we’re very pleased to be on dry land safely with the team.”

This must have been a disappointment as Thomson also failed to finish last time he entered this race. But in stoic fashion, he said: “This is of course a setback, but the team will be doing everything in its power to move swiftly forwards. As for our objective to win the Vendée Globe in 2020-21? Nothing changes. That remains the sole focus of our team.”

My own experience of being in the Hugo Boss, racing along at 32 knots with Thomson cackling with glee at the helm, was pure exhilaration. But two things were at the forefront of my mind as we ploughed through the waves. First, how can a boat survive the relentless battering it takes, particularly when the majority of the 8-tonne weight is borne by the keel and foils? They are amazing bits of engineering. Although obviously the Hugo Boss team now needs to re-engineer bits of its keel.

The other thing is how people can survive such uncomfortable and stressful conditions for two-and-a-half months. In solitude. It will take a special boat and a special skipper. Hopefully when it comes to the Vendée Globe my ‘commentator’s curse’ won’t affect Thomson’s chances.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

2020 visions of the past and future

Our latest December/January issue looks ahead to the New Year and the promise of 2020, which has long been a landmark year for no particular reason other than that it was a nice round number and brought to mind the phrase 2020 Vision, which is familiar to opticians but has no relevance to futurology or forecasting at all. Anyway, we go back to the past to see what various forecasters thought 2020 would be and assess how well or how wrong they got it. And we look forward to imagine the life of a child born on New Year’s Day and how emerging technologies will shape it. We also look at the science fiction turning into science fact and whatever the real candidates are today for the flying car of the future that we were all hoping for in 2020.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Sharing 3D-printed gun blueprints ruled illegal (again)

This is the latest episode in a saga over the legality of distributing CAD files that allow anybody to 3D print a lethal weapon. On one side of the battle is Defense Distributed (the organisation which released designs for the first fully 3D-printed handgun) backed by the pro-gun lobby and Trump administration. On the other is sanity. This week, a federal judge overturned the Trump administration’s “arbitrary and capricious” decision to permit Defense Distributed to restart distribution of the CAD files (after the State Department ruled in 2013 that it violated the International Traffic in Arms Regulations).

This ruling is unlikely to mean the end of the saga; a representative for Defense Distributed told the New York Times that they plan to appeal it. Ultimately, this is a battle in the political war over gun rights - something I’m too European to even understand why there is even a debate over. The stakes are higher this time on account of the fact that distributing CAD files for handguns could allow anyone in the world to arm themselves with an unregistered lethal weapon.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Motorola sharpens Razr with cutting-edge folding screen

Another popular Noughties icon returns in the form of the Motorola Razr, with the company poised to launch its V4 model shortly featuring a full-body folding screen inside the handset. The Razr was probably the first smartphone to most effectively emulate that classic sci-fi clamshell flip-phone form factor (see the Star Trek communicator) and even the original Razr models still hold a certain cool cachet. That was then and this is now, though, so it will be interesting to see to what extent being on-trend plus evoking nostalgia can translate to sales in an age of multi camera-equipped smartphones and full-on folding-screen phablets.

‘We can stop the pollution at source’: Emily Penn, Exxpedition, on tackling ocean plastic

Easier said than done, of course, but there's the solution to plastic pollution in one simple statement: tackle it at source. Once it's gone through an entire lifecycle and ended up (often in tiny, near-invisible pieces) in the ocean, we're really fighting a rising tide. Tighten up the processes, globally, for every step backwards to the point of initial production and we might have a chance of getting an effective handle on the problem. Can we do this? In a single brutal, blunt word, no. It will cost too much money, which manufacturers and other vested interests (petroleum companies, for example) don't want to shell out, so it will almost certainly never happen. Not for decades, at least. Look around your house today: count off all the items shipped in plastic containers. The toothpaste tube in every bathroom, for example. How do we change that? What about all the cheap clothes the world buys, the fast fashion items in our wardrobes? Those garments are cheap for a reason and plastics make it possible. All we can do, each of us as individuals, is be mindful of our own plastic consumption and apply commercial pressure when and where we can to - hopefully - drastically reduce the problem.

Flying cars take to the skies: top models rated

As much fun as the idea of a flying car sounds - and as cool as some of them could look, if you read this feature - I still can't see them happening for years to come. There are way too many legal and regulatory issues clouding the skies ahead, not to mention the initial engineering and aerodynamic challenges inherent in creating a reliable flying car that isn't really just a small plane or helicopter. Persuading the public to embrace flying cars - "It's like a taxi in the sky!" - might also prove to be a significant mountain to circumnavigate, especially when it's horrifyingly true that the airborne vehicles we already have are patently neither crash- nor death-proof.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Morris J-Type van gets electric reboot after 58-year hiatus

Worcestershire start-up Morris Commercial is hoping to give the Morris J-Type van a new lease of life with an all-electric version. It appears to be well designed for light commercial use, with a decent amount of accessible space and a range of up to 200 miles between charges. Even so, I can’t imagine that many small-business owners will want to pay £60,000 for a retro image when they can buy a conventional van for a fraction of that price.

Sharing 3D-printed gun blueprints ruled illegal (again)

We might have too many guns in the wrong hands in this country, but at least no one tries to argue that it should be legal. In this case from the US, the supplier of the design files has been defending its activity on free-speech grounds. I just don’t quite see how that translates into a freedom to be able to shoot people.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

After All: The ‘precision-engineered’ wines of Canton Vaud

Since my latest After All column appeared this week, I have received a couple of readers’ queries about the methode champenoise’ mentioned in it as one of the technologies used by Les Frere Dutruy winery in the Swiss canton Vaud that I visited recently.

Indeed, there’s a bit of a confusion about this term. Champagne producers in the eponymous French region have been lobbying the EU for some time to restrict its use exclusively to their wines. Recently, they succeeded, and now winemakers from elsewhere have to use the term methode traditionelle instead.

To increase the confusion, the latter term is obligatory only for the sparkling wines sold within the EU, whereas the labels on those intended for sale in non-EU countries can still carry on with methode champenoise. Due to the fact that Swiss winemaking remains predominantly artisanal and aimed primarily at the local market, with 99 per cent of the wines sold and consumed inside Switzerland itself, my usage of methode champenoise in reference to the Freres Dutruy’s bubblies was fully legit.

At the end of the day, however, what really matters for consumers (read drinkers) is not what the wine is called or how it was made, but what tastes like.

So what does methode champenoise, aka traditionelle, actually involve?

I’ve been to lots of wineries in many countries where it is used and can testify that there’s little excitement in the technology itself. On the contrary, it is probably one of the most tedious technological processes in existence. Its essence is that the second fermentation of the product takes place inside the actual bottle, so bottling has to be carried out after the first fermentation, which is not very different from that of any other wine. All kinds of chemical processes happen inside the bottle during that second fermentation, but the essential part of it that each bottle has to be slightly shaken and then turned right and left every day. That cumbersome and rather tedious process (imagine doing it daily to many hundreds of bottles in the cellar), which is called riddling, or ‘remuage’ in French, is performed by a specially designated person, the riddler. I saw a number of riddlers at work can vouch that none of them was smiling.

So next time you’re sipping an ice-cold champagne, or Cava (which is made using the same technique), give a wee thought, as they say in Scotland, to the persistent and tireless riddler, in whose caring hands your festive drink has been – quite literally – matured and nurtured.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Sharing 3D-printed gun blueprints ruled illegal (again)

This might be the most concrete evidence that the Trump administration is literally evil incarnate. They have tried repeatedly to ensure that 3D-printed gun designs are available to anyone on the internet who happens to own the right equipment (in any country mind). Apparently denying people who might suffer mental disorders from making their own guns and going on shooting sprees, which they already do enough of without the ability to make their own guns, would be a desecration of first amendment rights. Luckily a federal judge has had the sense to block the decision, labelling it as an “arbitrary and capricious” violation of federal law. Personally, I would support allowing the gun blueprints to be made widely available online as long as Trump agrees to spend a weekend locked up in a 3D-printing factory alongside a large group of left-leaning criminals.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

AI discovers tricks to bypass internet censorship

There are some serious allegations against Chinese 5G tech swirling around the news world. But the more significant threat associated with mass surveillance, in my view, is 5G in general. Undoubtedly, the opportunities to monitor individuals via a 5G connection are much richer than without.

Telecommunication firms have already been found to be selling customers’ location data to marketing companies while law-enforcement agencies have been using it to track protesters. A source I met with recently told me that the most preferable route to establishing a mass-surveillance capability is to start an ad-tech company. With 5G, the opportunities just amplify this potential.

Some claim that paired with facial-recognition software and armed with AI, data streams and location capabilities of 5G could render anonymity a distant dream. True, 5G’s ability to aid in increased data collected from geo-tracking the way people move about can help transport providers, city planners and healthcare professionals. But what about my right to privacy? Location is a fundamental aspect of my personal privacy. How can this be such a fluid commodity that is being traded with so openly?

Turning off location tracking in your Google maps app may not be enough any more (and never really was). Via several other built-in apps, your movements and activities may still be tracked. You can turn most of them off, but that renders many apps useless or at least less usable. You can delete your location history from your operating system, but the damage may already been done.

So, with China already having 50,000 5G relays in place, its government’s political position against minority groups could benefit a great deal from more 5G. It really nudges up the capabilities of mass surveillance and as a result repression. In my view, 5G is a boon for dictatorships in the 21st century.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

AI discovers tricks to bypass internet censorship

Interesting that a flurry of announcements on broadband infrastructure by the UK’s two biggest political parties is one of the subjects that has stimulated the most lively debate so far in the general election campaign. Labour seems to have hit a rich seam with its pledge to provide broadband for all under a nationalised internet access service, whereas the reaction to Conservative promises that it would achieve the same at much lower cost through competition has received a more lukewarm response.

Sceptics point to previous manifesto commitments to rolling out high-speed access to all, apparently regardless of the cost of reaching remote parts of the country, that were quietly forgotten as soon as the count was completed. And I suspect that – like much of what politicians say when they’re canvassing frantically for our votes – we all take it with a pinch of salt anyway.

What’s changed I suspect, even since the last general election in 2017, is our fundamental attitude to the ability to get online, even at slow speeds. Think of it in terms of how long it takes to download a movie and it’s still something of a luxury that households might choose to pay extra for. Then look at the fact that so much of everyday life relies on a reliable connection (how many parents have experienced the trauma of the internet going down the night an important homework assignment that relies on it for completion is due to be handed in?) and it’s more of a mundane utility like clean water and energy that we should all have a right to.

Pundits who favour state support are quick to point to the fact that countries which have adopted that approach – regardless of the administration’s political persuasion and its other consequences – are at the vanguard of rolling out the most advanced technologies and look set to remain way ahead of the UK for the foreseeable future.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that a nationalised communications infrastructure would provide a faster, more comprehensive or more reliable service than we have at present. What’s unfortunate about debating this in the context of a general election, though, is that prospective governments are encouraged to talk about it either in terms of ridiculously ambitious short-term promises that can be achieved within a few years or longer-term plans that they know they’re unlikely to be around to have to live up to.

Which brings us to the machine learning tool capable of circumventing the sort of state censorship that some must fear would be part and parcel of a nationalised comms infrastructure. Hearteningly, it’s found dozens of ways of getting round blocks on internet freedom, but does raise the question, would you trade unfettered access to the web for a reliable superfast connection provided free of charge to your home and mobile device? If the answer’s no, perhaps you should start thinking about what you’re paying at the moment, not in terms of freedom, but in the currency of personal information which has its own value to providers of ‘free’ services.


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