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Car-share conundrum, cat music, viral memes and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: reuters

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.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Ride-hailing services are worsening carbon emissions, report finds

A smart city full of shared, autonomous vehicles for hire to take you wherever you want to go with a couple of smartphone taps is exciting for the environment as well as convenience and speed. No more cars doing nothing most of the time but depreciating in their owners' driveways. Intelligent networks supplied with near-perfect traffic data calculating the most efficient routes for speed and energy use. The possibilities of the move from wasteful car ownership to car sharing seem enormous - but complex. Ride-hailing services like Uber may not yet be driverless or as smart as the future promises, but they are sometimes cited as an early example of this trend anticipated by automotive manufacturers, who have all been investing in aspects of that technology.

However, a report this week highlighted the difficulties of predicting the consequences of any important technology trend. The problem is people - they are unpredictable and have the annoying habit of making decisions for themselves. When scaled to societal levels, small decisions can have large effects. In this case, it is that app-based ride-hailing services are not just substituting for private car use, minicabs or licensed taxi rides; they are also substituting for more environmentally friendly public transport, walking and cycling. That's not Uber's fault unless it's guilty of making its service just too darn convenient and easy to use. But it's unfortunate and will need to be taken into account when cities are planning their future smart transport strategies. Technology, however helpful, does not replace the need for good policies to continue to encourage and plan for the best transport modes for the environment.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Scientists find ‘purrfect’ music for soothing anxious cats

One of those research stories eerily reminiscent of Professor Denzil Dexter's finest work. Unsurprisingly (or so you would have thought), cats are more mellow when played classical-type music - presumably more Grieg's 'Peer Gynt, Morning Mood', less Wagner's 'The Ride of the Valkyries' - than when played heavy metal. Cue letters from readers whose cats positively love Iron Maiden. If my memory serves me correctly, this is exactly the same conclusion drawn by similar research into what types of music make car drivers mellow or angry. Aggressive music makes people feel more aggressive. Who'da thunk it? Great photo of ‘Cat listening to radio’, though.

Ride-hailing services are worsening carbon emissions, report finds

For me, companies such as Uber are poster children for the fake digital age, where the so-called benefits of their 'disruptive' business model are grossly over-sold and the real-world downsides suppressed, such that it only comes out years after the company in question has established its brand dominance and cornered the new market for itself. Or, as seems increasingly to be the case, has imploded in a failed or lacklustre IPO, after hard-headed investors got a proper look at the company's prospectus and financials and realised that it's been just another Silicon Valley smoke-and-mirrors confidence trick all along. Style without substance: looks good, ultimately disappoints.

Deaf moths use ‘noise-cancelling scales’ to evade bat capture

Moths don't actually have active electronic circuitry in their bodies, obviously, so the 'noise-cancelling' aspect of this story refers more to the evolutionary effect of how the moths have evolved to counteract the sonar pulses from hungry bats looking to eat them. Mottephobiasts should proceed to this story with caution, however, as it does contain some really excellent photos of magnificent moths.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

View from Vitalia: Reflections of a would-be cutlet-making apparatus operator

Since my latest blog went live earlier this week, I have received several readers’ emails with suggestions of other useless jobs that allegedly exist in reality.

Several suggested the role of ‘subway pusher’ in China and Japan – a man, or occasionally a woman, whose job it is to push the passengers into subway carriages that are already full to bursting point. I did observe members of this ‘profession’ in action during a short stay in Tokyo some years ago. I’m not sure if they were full or part-time pushers, but I beg to disagree with those who regard this truly stressful occupation as entirely useless. They helped me to board the seemingly full train carriages more than once and charged nothing for the free massage of my back and shoulders!

Another curious real-life job mentioned was ‘paint-drying watcher’. According to the Daily Mail, there is at least one real-life member of that profession (whose name is Keith Jackson) in the UK. He works at a paint-making factory and his only duty is to record how quickly the newly made paint dries on different surfaces. I hope Keith wears a face mask at work: fumes from freshly made paints can be harmful. In the Soviet Union, workers at similar jobs would get a free bottle of milk at the end of the shift as a perk.

Several readers suggested ‘life guard at international swimming competitions’, on the basis that international class swimmers are unlikely to drown and hence don’t require life guards. True, but what if a careless member of the public, or – worse – a referee, fell into the swimming pool accidentally? The judges don’t have to be strong swimmers themselves, do they?

Last but not least, the job that strikes me as a truly useless one: ‘electronic toll booth operator’. I’ve seen a number of these in France, sitting in state inside their glass booths with cups of coffee in their hands. Of course, they sit there just in case the toll starts malfunctioning and letting the drivers pass through it for free. In such a situation, they’re expected to get off their seats and, having put their coffee cups aside for a moment, step down onto the road and fix the problem. To be honest, I’ve never seen a malfunctioning toll booth on French, or even British, roads.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

One in five Britons believe AI could handle Brexit better than politicians

There is this misconception that AI is perfectly logical and objective; qualities that many humans (and especially politicians) lack. In fact, machine-learning algorithms just copy what we teach them, whether that be accurate, prejudiced, rude or just plain stupid. Whether you are pro or anti-Brexit is irrelevant here: an AI taught how to handle Brexit from previous experience will just produce more of the same.

I expect that what these one in five survey respondents really wanted was a logical approach to divisive political matters: essentially, evidence-based policy.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Hands-on review: F(x)tec Pro1 smartphone

This is an interesting throwback to the short window of time before the iPhone was released but after 3G phones and mobile internet connectivity became mainstream.

This golden era was rife with innovation and phones of all different shapes and sizes were being churned out as firms were trying to figure out what makes an enjoyable mobile internet experience. Before the world and its dog agreed that a black touchscreen rectangle was the only way forward, each new release could bring something genuinely new and exciting.

When BlackBerry came on the scene, it appeared to solve the keyboard conundrum. The screen and keyboard were just large enough for acceptable online use while still fitting in your pocket. In those days, touchscreens were primarily based on resistive technology – two thin layers of plastic that you needed to physically press down in order to register where the touch was coming from. I owned an early resistive touchscreen smartphone from Nokia and let me tell you the experience wasn’t good, especially when it came to typing.

When the iPhone came out, it was a revelation how much easier it was to type on the new capacitive touchscreen. It wasn’t the first phone to demonstrate the technology - that honour goes to the LG Prada, which was released shortly before Apple’s device - but it was by far the most well-known.

People quickly came to realise that virtual keyboards were the future and when the Swype keyboard starting doing innovative prediction-based typing on Android devices, it was clear that BlackBerry didn’t have long for this world (something that BlackBerry itself failed to notice until it was way too late).

There will still be a small niche of (probably older) smartphone users who crave a physical keyboard. This phone is for them and I’m glad to see someone is still waving that flag for those that want it.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Scientists find ‘purrfect’ music for soothing anxious cats

Okay, this isn’t exactly core for us, also it may sound absolutely ridiculous, but it’s a charmer nonetheless. Researchers from Louisiana State University in the US have found that playing specially composed music can help calm the nerves of cats going through the stressful experience of visiting the vet.

I have a cat myself: he's quite a young cat. We’ve taken him to the vet a handful of times and we can just tell how anxious he gets in that setting – not to mention he gets very aggressive, especially towards ferrets, for some strange reason. I’m sure my fur baby isn’t the only cat to go through this experience. I can imagine all kind of pets get nervous about going to the vets.

This research might be the answer to a cat lover’s prayers. It analysed the impact of different types of music a step further by investigating the calming effects of music composed specifically for cats.

According to experts in the field, musical pieces that are considered pleasing to the human ear often have a beat similar to the human resting pulse rate and contain frequencies from the human vocal range.

This principle has been extended to cat-specific music, which is composed of lines based on affiliative cat vocalisations – such as purring and suckling sounds – as well as frequencies similar to the feline vocal range, which is two octaves higher than for humans.

For the study, 20 fluffballs who participated in the experiment were played 20 minutes of either cat-specific music, classical music or no music (silence) in a random order at each of three physical examinations at a veterinary clinic, two weeks apart. They appeared to be less stressed during the examination – as indicated by lower cat stress scores (CSSs) and handling scale scores (HSs) – when they were subjected to cat-specific music, compared with both classical music and no music.

If this cat-composed music does actually soothe cats in such an incredibly stressful environment, then I may try it on my own pet. In fact, the researchers concluded that that cat-specific music may not only have benefits in terms of the welfare of the cat, but owners can feel reassured that their cat will have a more comfortable visit and the veterinary team will be able to assess their feline patients more accurately.

I’d be very surprised it cat owners don’t get on-board with this idea. After all, pet owners will do anything to ensure their fur babies are getting the best of care and are happy, right?

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Diseases shown to interact and spread like internet memes

I think these researchers are trying to be more ‘down with the kids’ to get them interested in diseases, comparing them to the good ol’ meme. For me, I do enjoy a good meme, I also like making my own, but I don’t tend to share them among the masses. Who knows, if I did, perhaps they would become viral. Viral! How appropriate for this topic.

Anyway, a University of Vermont study has found that some contagious diseases such as pneumonia and flu are transmitted in a similar manner to memes. Diseases like flu or Ebola are normally treated as isolated pathogens with the forecast magnitude of an epidemic proportional to the rate of transmission (complicated, am I right?). The researchers say the presence of even one extra contagion in a population can make the pattern of transmission far more complex.

A tiny change in transmission rate can trigger significant changes in the forecast size of the epidemic. This is just like the spreading pattern social scientists have seen in social trends, such as slang, internet memes and new technologies.

Social trends are spread through reinforcement (when multiple friends adopt the same slang term or use the same internet meme, for example). Just like a viral meme, multiple diseases reinforce each other and make an infection more contagious. For instance, a sneezing virus like the common cold can help spread pneumonia, or an infection could weaken the host’s immune system, making them more susceptible to further infections.

The researchers’ model shows how diseases reinforce each other and accelerate through a population, before slowing as they run out of new hosts, follows the same ‘super-exponential’ pattern as social trends, like viral content being shared online.

'When the flu hits' meme

Image credit: Dreamstime

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Recycle and reuse buildings to curb climate change, report insists

Venture onto any local history group on social media – particularly the old-timers’ favourite, Facebook – and you’ll soon come across the phenomenon of the ‘then and now’ gallery where a member with more than a smattering of basic Photoshop skills has taken a vintage, sepia-toned picture and merged it with an image of the same scene taken today.

As sure as night follows day, the majority of posts like this will be followed by a plethora of comments along the lines of, “Wish it still looked like that now/why did they knock down those lovely old buildings?/I remember it like that when I was a lad and it was so much better”. Occasionally, an ageing voice of sanity will recall that they lived in that quaint old tenement in the background of the photo with no running water or electricity and an outdoor toilet and they much prefer things as they are today, thank you very much. For the most part, though, there’s a yearning nostalgia for the days when buildings had a bit of character and a wish that there were more of them still around and fewer cookie-cutter new builds.

All of which lends weight to Historic England’s suggestion that knocking down houses that have been standing for decades to build new ones in their place might not be such a great idea. There might be financial incentives for property developers, and a modern home may theoretically be more energy efficient, but demolition and rebuilding can release 13 times as much carbon as simply refurbishing, it says.

There seems to be an appetite for this among potential buyers. Maybe if it catches on, the contrast between past and present in years to come may be more ‘spot the difference’ than an exercise in nostalgia.

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