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Bristol air quality, Labour green jobs, Ring data and more: best of the week's news

Image credit: Dreamstime

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

Study confirms adverse health effects of bad air in Bristol

Bristol is an environmentally conscious city, being the first to declare a climate emergency, having a very active Extinction Rebellion movement, and probably with enough zero-waste, organic, and vegan shops to make Jordan Peterson shrivel into a ball of impotent rage. It is also considering introducing a ban on diesel cars in the city centre during the day in an effort to improve its air quality.

This is an appropriate first step towards tackling the air pollution crisis. A study published this week found approximately 260 people die every year just in Bristol due to air pollution. If hundreds of people were killed every year by some other unnatural means in Bristol (apart from road accidents, which are considered fair game), there would be mass fear and anger; it would be treated like a real crisis. To put this figure in context, 260 deaths per year is pretty close to the number of fatalities associated with stabbings across the entire UK.

The vast majority of UK zones report illegal levels of air pollution. Across Europe, approximately 400,000 people are dying every year from complications associated with air pollution. If the culprit were someone or something easier to point our fingers at (a virus, a small group of ordinary people, some youth fad), decisive action would have already been taken to prevent further deaths. Unfortunately, every one of us with a car is to blame, and we don’t like accepting blame and changing our habits, even when they are killing literally millions of people. Banning almost all petrol and diesel cars from city centres should not be considered a wacky policy suggestion but a necessity to prevent death on a scale usually associated with bloody and tragic wars.

It may also help cut down on the thousands of people being killed on UK roads every year.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Dear Evil Engineer: Could I build a freeze ray appropriate to my icy new persona?

If you’re someone who reads the print version of E&T from cover to cover you’ll already be familiar with Hilary Lamb’s ‘Evil Engineer’ agony column - but let’s be realistic. Most people simply don’t have time to do that, so you might have overlooked these gems, which combine a quirky imagination with some proper science and engineering. This week, the British Society of Magazine Editors named Hilary as Columnist of the Year for a business (i.e. not consumer) publication in its 2019 Awards – so if you haven’t read the column before, now is the time to take a look at what you’ve been missing.

The Eccentric Engineer: How Mickey Mouse and ‘Fantasound’ revolutionised film music

This is another column from the print magazine. I saw it before publication when I was editing the page proof, and it caught my attention – not least because it made me realise how little I knew about sound engineering, not to mention the difficulties of recording a full orchestra. It also brought back memories of my teenage self playing the cello in our school orchestra for a carol service that was held, for some unknown reason, at Alexandra Palace instead of the local church that we usually used. The high roof meant that there was a delay before the sound from the violins reached the cello section, so when we followed the conductor it sounded as if we were out of sync. I rather suspect it sounded like that to our assembled parents and the rest of the school, too. If only we’d known that the orchestra recording ‘Fantasia’ had encountered the same problems.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Labour’s promise on new green jobs, fact-checked

I picked this story for a couple of reasons. The first point is a bit self-congratulatory so I will keep it very brief. I think the author, Ben Heubl, has done a nice job of pulling together a balanced range of sources and apart from the very last comment, none from politically invested sources. It is typical of the ‘data-delving’ journalism that we have benefitted from since Ben joined us at E&T.

More to the point, it reveals that, despite a predictably optimistic edge, this aspect of Labour’s manifesto at least appears to be based on an honest assessment. I wouldn’t go so far to say it’s based on fact – only hindsight would give us that – but at least it’s a positive indicator.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the Labour Party would follow through on this course of action; that is another argument, but it would be an odd policy to neglect. A positive and large step towards meeting our CO2 commitments, developing new technologies in the case of hydrogen, and having 850,000 people dutifully working away and paying their taxes – what’s not to love?

Where these 850,000 people are going to come from could be a different matter. Around half of them will be fitting household insulation and that is a trade with a skill element attached. It is not just a lump that can be taken out of the 1.3 million currently unemployed.

However, my comment is really about honesty in the political circles. My feeling from these early days of electioneering is that the politicians have learned absolutely nothing of the public’s disdain for them. Their childish, arrogant and duplicitous behaviour means trust is at an all-time low. And consequently, it doesn’t really matter if any political party publishes anything truthful in their manifestos, people won’t believe it anyway. The Conservatives' ‘Fact Check UK scam’ underlines this point – when it is difficult to know who or what to trust then trust sadly goes out the window. Which is why Ben’s analysis is a breath of fresh air!

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Police use of facial recognition challenge heading for Court of Appeal

The argument that honest citizens with nothing to hide shouldn't object to widespread use of facial recognition is facile in its over-simplification of the issue. I'm an honest citizen with nothing to hide, but I object strongly to my face being captured and held on a database, with the present and future uses of that dataset murky, unknown and – without being forced to take serious legal action – well beyond my control. Even if this case does fail in the Court of Appeal, at least it is keeping the widespread public objections to routine state surveillance of all citizens, all the time, very much in the news, which in turn helps keep the prospect of that routine surveillance at bay.

Amazon-owned Ring under surveillance from Senators

Talking of covert surveillance, a group of Senators in the US have challenged the data-harvesting threat posed by Amazon's connected-doorbell product, Ring. With millions of people already using Ring's internet-connected video doorbells, a huge amount of data is being uploaded and held on Amazon’s servers, a vast trove of video footage detailing the lives of ordinary citizens in and near their homes, as well as capturing the activity of any visitors. The Senators' concern is that hackers, including state-backed ones, could threaten national security if they were to acquire this data. My concern would also be that Amazon knows it is sitting on a potential data goldmine – all quietly gathered through the very products that it sold in the first place at a tidy profit. Sell product; make money; have product beam back valuable customer data that you couldn't capture otherwise; analyse data; find way to monetise it. It's beautiful, in its own insanely greedy, cynically manipulative way. Amazon might not be actively doing anything with this data yet, but I'm pretty sure it already has some ideas. It is merely biding its time until it figures out how to leverage the data without causing a public outcry. Watch that space, as it watches your face. 

Christmas shoppers urged to ditch polluting wrapping paper and crackers

I have been trying out alternative ways of wrapping birthday and Christmas presents for the last couple of years, as the gargantuan waste of paper increasingly struck me as unnecessary. I've also received presents in novel wrapping or other presentation. I feel like we default to shiny, attractively printed paper for wrapping presents as the accepted norm. What would people think if I wrapped their present in newspaper? Most people, I believe, wouldn't actually care. The paper inevitably gets torn to the brink of destruction anyway and it's lucky if it even gets recycled and doesn't just end up straight in the bin, off to landfill. Using expensively produced paper specifically designed for wrapping presents seems like a decadent modern-age indulgence we can all live without. If someone is gifting me an iPhone 11 Pro Max in Midnight Green, say, for Christmas (hint, hint), what do I care if you wrap it up in pages from yesterday's Daily Mail? Actually, scratch that one - that would offend my sensibilities. At least use pages from a publication of superior intellect and moral fibre, like The Beano.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Labour’s promise on new green jobs, fact-checked

I’d say that economy with the truth has become common practice for Labour since Tony Blair’s memorable promise to scrap student tuition fees before increasing them. I remember feeling angry and let down, but have stopped experiencing any strong emotions when faced with politicians’ untruths since then. And not just those of Labour, for if Boris Johnson, say, was to be trusted at all, his dead body should now be peacefully resting in a ditch, in accordance with his own notorious pre-election promise that he would rather die in a ditch than delay Brexit.

And how about the Clintonesque and now nearly iconic “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”? Let alone President Trump’s numerous, almost daily, denials of something that did happen and acknowledgements of something that didn’t? Perhaps politics and lies are like conjoined twins who cannot survive without each other? Remember George Orwell: “In politics, language is designed to make lies sound truthful…”?

My hope is that one day an honest politician will finally grace the world with his or her presence. As modern science, technology and medicine have shown more than once, even conjoined twins can be separated, after all.

Police use of facial recognition challenge heading for Court of Appeal

I am genuinely surprised that this case was accepted for consideration by the Court of Appeal. The right of the police (already severely understaffed and underfunded) to use the latest technology, including facial recognition, as an aid to catch criminals must never be questioned. As I have said and written repeatedly, honest citizens, with nothing to hide, have nothing to fear from their faces being looked at by the guardians of law and order.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Dearth of engineers a major concern for majority of UK tech companies

A hustings event that I attended at the Royal Society in London this week gave representatives of three of Parliament’s biggest political parties the opportunity to present their science and engineering policies to a packed room. (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat representatives were there, the Scottish National Party was invited but sent its apologies, saying it’s focusing its activities on Scotland.)

Judging by the mood of the audience and the questions fired at the politicians, the perennial skills shortage identified yet again by this year’s IET ‘Skills and Demand in Industry’ report is among the factors that will determine where many in the sector will cast their vote next month. Predictably, Brexit was the topic that everyone wanted to talk about. The Conservative attitude is that ‘getting it done’ will level the playing field between EU citizens who currently enjoy freedom of movement and their counterparts from the rest of the world who face significant bureaucratic and financial obstacles. The question, which Labour and the Lib Dems were quick to pose, is whether that level and how it’s dictated by immigration policy, will be a net benefit to the science and engineering industries that as much as any need to be able to attract talent from all over the world.

Talk moved inexorably on to the long term, and how workers of the future currently in secondary or even primary education can be persuaded to consider careers in technology. All parties have good ideas and the best of intentions, but that’s not going to address the fact - found by the IET – that more than half of UK companies polled for this year’s survey believe a shortage of engineers threatens their business. At the moment, only one in five expect the situation to improve in the next few years.

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