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Damaged mobile mast in Birmingham

Ventilator go-ahead, 5G attacks, smart motorways and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: REUTERS/Carl Recine

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

Mobile mast for NHS Nightingale hospital attacked by Covid-19 conspiracists

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the issue of fake news, conspiracy theories and bad health information back onto the national agenda and governments are at last forcing tech giants to take some immediate and urgent action over posts on their social media platforms that could cost lives.

Much of the fake news these days originates from, or is boosted by, covert operations by antagonistic nation-states - as an investigation to be published here on the E&T website next week will show. Before the pandemic, 5G provided the subject matter for conspiracy theories and absurd health scares of various kinds. As Covid-19 spread, the pandemic itself took over as the prime subject for fake news, from MMR-like fake health scares to the wildest of conspiracy theories about biowarfare.

It's not surprising that the two have combined into one with the fake story that 5G is somehow weakening people's immune systems' ability to fight Covid-19. It seems that one didn't come from organised crime or national state actors, though, but rather from David Icke, who some readers may remember in connection with conspiracy theories even wilder than this one.

Back then he was ridiculed, which I felt to be a little unfair on a person who was clearly not thinking straight at all - more mad than bad, in the old manner of speaking. Then it crept into more 'mainstream media' through a TV presenter. E&T obviously doesn't report on every crazy conspiracy theory or false health claim about technology, but we did feel this one could not be ignored, for reasons ranging from vigilante damage and violence directed at 5G masts and associated telecoms engineers to its potential to harm the treatment of those most vulnerable to coronavirus via the spread of false information.

I sometimes think it's wisest to refrain from feeding the trolls, but the green ink brigade (as we used to call them in the days of handwritten letters) are not always so easily ignored when their views are amplified by social media.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Smart motorways: what are they good for?

I welcomed this piece from Helena Pozniak. The trouble with smart motorways is that in many cases ‘the public has decided’, when in fact it would be better if ‘the public stopped and thought first’. I saw a documentary covering the subject and looked at the horror of a car in the middle lane being ploughed into from behind. It was a dreadful accident and it could have perhaps been prevented by having radar-detection equipment in place to monitor the traffic, but it had nothing to do with there not being a hard shoulder. This car was not static in the inside lane. Yet people blamed it on the smart motorway, rather than the incompetent driving.

I believe we have the technology to make motorways smarter, but one of the problems is that it has not yet been invested in. Just having four lanes and some nice gantry signs does not make a motorway smart or safe. Despite it being a knee-jerk response that smart motorways are bad, I completely agree that there are things that are bad about them. The distance between refuges is one example, but it is the lack of proper road monitoring that is scandalous. The bit that actually makes the motorway smart isn’t there, apart from two short stretches.

If the correct monitoring equipment were put in place it could be a completely different story. Smart motorways could be safer and carry greater volumes of traffic, but will it be too late by then? The trouble is, the public has already decided.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Astronauts’ brains shown to physically change after long periods in space

It’s refreshing to have some news that isn’t about Covid-19. Albeit it’s about negative stuff. I’m stuck in this vacuum of coronavirus and it’s difficult to think of anything else. It’s hard to find ideas for work and create new content whilst in this annoying, saddening world of death and disease. So let’s talk about brain sizes instead.

Extended periods in space could have effects on the brains of astronauts, including reduction in overall brain matter and deformation of pituitary glands, researchers have said. Yay!

Health problems among astronauts have been known for some time. More than half of the crew members on the International Space Station have reported changes to vision following long-duration exposure to the microgravity of space. There’s also evidence to suggest that low-gravity conditions can cause ‘leaky’ gut problems, even after removal from a microgravity environment. Oof.

US researchers carried out MRI scans on 11 astronauts before they travelled to the space station. This was followed by further scans one day after they returned from space, then at several intervals throughout the following year.

The MRI results showed long-duration microgravity exposure caused expansions in the astronauts’ combined brain and cerebrospinal fluid volumes. The combined volumes remained elevated a year after they’d returned, suggesting a permanent alteration. The pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure at the base of the skull often referred to as the ‘master gland’, was also changed. Most astronauts had MRI evidence of pituitary gland deformation, suggesting elevated intracranial pressure during spaceflight.

My pick from the week’s news will no doubt be followed by another example of corona content. Sigh. Try and have a nice weekend.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Lockdown Challenge: build a greenhouse, grow tomatoes and use tech to keep you fit

These days, I often repeat my favourite Albert Einstein quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It’s truly amazing what lengths my friends and compatriots will go to to beat the sameness, boredom and immobility of their enforced isolation. This story lists just some of them, but every day I’m confronted with ingenious new pastimes to be conducted with the help of modern technology.

Let’s look at yesterday evening as an example. Having taken my dog for a walk in the fields, I cooked dinner - a yummy Georgian dish called Chakhokhbili chicken, the recipe for which I took from ‘My Grandma’s Pocket Cookbook’ by Svetlana Bagdasaryan, an e-book that I acquired last week for my Kindle.

I finished cooking just in time for the online gathering of my local Triratna Buddhist group (via Zoom: what a marvellous app!) which included a guided metta bhavana (‘loving kindness’) meditation and a Dharma talk. We broke for five minutes at 8pm to join in the nationwide round of applause for our NHS heroes.

At about 9.30pm, I had a call from Mary, my former Taekwondo teacher and once the highest-ranked (5th Dan) female in the UK, who now lives in a small town in Suffolk. She said she was forwarding me something by email. 

That something was a short video, a recording of a Taekwondo class Mary started conducting for the neighbours in her street a couple of weeks ago. Dressed in her black-belted ‘dobok’, she stood in the middle of the road next to her house, demonstrating Taekwondo movements, patterns, punches and so on, with two of her neighbours on both sides (maintaining their ‘social distancing’) repeating them outside their houses and passing them on to their respective neighbours who, in their turn, showed the movements to theirs and so on. As a result, the whole street – men, women and children - were taking part in an extraordinary pandemic-triggered martial arts class, with some of the participants well in their seventies and eighties!

I called Mary to congratulate her on that amazing endeavour – terrific exercise and beautiful to watch. She confided in me that she is now thinking of doing the same class via Zoom. I said that I would be the first to join.

I’m now planning to take my own moth-eaten dobok out of the loft in preparation for yet another extraordinary technology-assisted form of activity, generated by the pandemic. I know for sure that we are going to beat it, for no virus can survive under the barrage of the well-aimed Taekwondo (and other metaphorical, yet wisely coordinated on a national level) kicks and punches! 

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Apple reveals £419 iPhone SE

As acquisitively triggered as I am by the announcement of almost any new Apple product (Apple really does produce best-in-class, hot button-pushing work in the promotion of new products: the product page alone for this new iPhone is undeniably a technical tour de force), the real headturning aspects of the iPhone SE redux are the tech spec and the price.

After years of the price of smartphones inexorably ballooning past the £1,000 mark - an insanely ungreat trend - here's a brand-new iPhone equipped with the A13 Bionic chip smarts of last year's iPhone 11, plus a Retina HD screen, for practically the price of a burner phone (an upscale, well-appointed burner phone, I grant you). Some people will scoff at the 4.7-inch screen size - mostly those who have become used to carrying around a phone so large that it no longer fits in any of their pockets - but this is to miss precisely the appeal of the SE design for those who love it.

The SE's screen size is actually the same as the iPhone 7 and 8, so it's not exactly as Lilliputian as some would have it. The price tag is also sympathetic towards these austere times when the economic reality for many people is that a new phone is approximately #100 on their list of priorities. Personally, my iPhone 7 is still working perfectly and is in 90 per cent like-new cosmetic condition, which is why my money will continue to be directed to those areas of my life where it's needed most. If I were in the market for a new phone, however, I'd be looking this new iPhone SE squarely in its single-camera eye. Other smartphone manufacturers are of course available, but the heart wants what it wants.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Adapted ventilator model becomes first to get regulatory nod

Government cancels order of ‘BlueSky’ ventilators designed by F1 teams

This week, an adapted version of an existing ventilator became the first of the ‘Ventilator Challenge UK’ models to get the regulatory nod and a colossal order of 15,000 from the Government. Meanwhile, a provisional order of new ventilators designed a by group including F1 teams was cancelled after it emerged that the model was not quite appropriate for supporting Covid-19 patients through their complex symptoms (it turned out not to be suitable for frequent setting changes).

It has been heartening to see companies set aside their rivalries to work together on an unquestionably good cause, although these two stories go some way towards confirming my suspicion that designing, testing, approving and manufacturing entirely new ventilators in an emergency may prove to be a distraction and - in some cases - perhaps even a matter of misplaced hubris regarding British engineering.

Though I would be happy to be proven wrong, I expect that the urgent demand for invasive ventilators will be met entirely through procurement and by scaling up production of existing or adapted models like the Penlon Prima ES02.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Tracking the coronavirus: privacy vs. protection

One thing that isn’t mentioned in this analysis of personal data tracking in connection with coronavirus is the situation in China, which has put extensive measures in place to enforce its lockdown. Already known to be pro-active in online surveillance of its citizens, the Chinese government backed an app launched in February that can only be activated with the user’s phone and national ID numbers. And after Chinese tech giant Alibaba rolled out a health-tracking feature that assigns people to different risk groups, it was criticised by human rights group Amnesty International for sharing data with law-enforcement authorities. Alongside this data tracking there are a number of other measures being implemented, such as heat-sensitive drones to monitor citizens.

Online censorship and the spread of misinformation have also been invigorated by the spread of Covid-19. If you’re in any doubt about this, look at the headlines in English-language newspapers that are supportive of the Chinese administration, such as Global Times and China Daily, for evidence that the country is ramping up positive propaganda around its ‘heroic’ response to Covid-19. A number of UK-based human rights think tanks have warned of the consequences of the sweeping online censorship measures that are accompanying this trend, so bear in mind China’s notorious stance on supressing dissenting voices when you read about how well the country dealt with the pandemic.

In Hong Kong, which last year witnessed unprecedented anti-government protests, data tracking has been received with mixed results. The StayHomeSafe mobile app, which when coupled with a wristband tracks Hongkongers, has been criticised for requesting permission for intrusive tracking via Bluetooth and location and received overwhelmingly negative reviews on the Google Android App Store. This and other examples are a stark sign that, although new tech solutions exist, they may not be particularly well thought out at this point.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Eamonn Holmes takes flak for airing 5G Covid-19 conspiracies on This Morning

One of the consequences of a politician who still enjoys a senior role in government claiming indignantly that “people in this country have had enough of experts” is that a TV presenter can feel they’re representing a significant number of viewers when they challenge solid scientific facts solely on the basis that they “suit the state narrative”.

When Michael Gove dismissed predictions of economic catastrophe should the UK leave the EU in the run up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, he was talking about economists who would be the first to admit that there’s an element of guesswork built into even their most confident forecasts. Sadly, his soundbite was seized upon by every tinfoil-hatted internet conspiracy theorist as evidence of support at the highest tiers of society for their belief that some kind of elite exists across academia and professions of all kinds which either doesn’t know what it’s talking about or is actively trying to hide something from us.

As if the latest manifestation of this – claims of a link between 5G communications technology and the spread of Covid-19 that have prompted some true believers to attack vital communications infrastructure – wasn’t bad enough, ‘This Morning’ host Eamonn Holmes challenged, well, himself really, by describing criticism of this vandalism as “mainstream media immediately slapping that down as not true when they don’t know it’s not true”.

Anyone watching would have been in no doubt that Holmes was questioning the fundamental science which makes talk of a coronavirus-5G link obvious nonsense. Fair enough, we should encourage the public to question everything they see and hear, but taking ‘balance’ in the media to this extreme in the current situation is simply dangerous.

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