E&T news weekly #64 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday October  2 2015

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Hope for life on Mars after flowing-water discovery

Data from a NASA spacecraft has shown what appears to be flowing water on Mars, sparking hopes that the planet could be capable of supporting life. This is the most exciting Mars-related news since the Mariner 4 spacecraft completed its flyby of the red planet 50 years ago, when Earth breathed a disappointed sigh, its hopes of a sister-world shattered by the realisation that Mars was nothing more than a vast, red desert. The discovery of flowing water is big news as it could point to the existence of microbial life beneath the planet’s surface. I can’t be the only one who’s comforted by the prospect that we might not be completely alone in the universe. Ok, so the potential for microbial life under the surface of the planet is a far cry away from the likes of ‘Mars Attacks’, but life is life, right?

Twitter considering changes to 140-character limit

Twitter is working on a new product to allow users to share tweets that are longer than the current 140-character limit. Finally! Have you tried sticking to 140 characters? It’s agony! The company’s executives have announced that they are considering excluding elements such as links and user handles from the character count to allow for longer posts. Imagine the possibilities – gone are the days of having to heartbreakingly choose between @bae and #blessed in your lovey dovey tweets. Huzzah! It may sound as though I’m being insincere; in reality, in writing my daily fan tweets to Hulk Hogan I find it very frustrating at not being able to add #teamhogan at the end of every picture of myself bench-pressing 50kg. Nice work Twitter.

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, online news reporter
Cyber talent to be recruited in virtual skyscraper

The ‘virtual skyscraper’ designed to attract cyber talent is the kind of pie-in-the-sky idea that is absolutely destined to fail. The intention is to encourage users to partake in a series of puzzles and ciphers that will demonstrate their cyber-security skills to employers. The concept falls down when you realise that these puzzles take place in a virtual space that requires users to construct an avatar and navigate the area like a scene from the much maligned 1990s Angelina Jolie film ‘Hackers’. The ‘virtual skyscraper’ is a flashy attempt to futurise the internet when in reality it looks more dated than ever.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Shell abandons Arctic drilling plans as ‘too expensive and risky’

Yes! Polar bears, Inuits and all other sane human beings rejoice. Shell has pulled out of Arctic drilling, probably not forever – the lure of an estimated 20 per cent of the world’s natural oil and gas resources lying deep beneath the sea ice will always be too strong to make that pledge – but at least they’ve called off their rigs “for the foreseeable future”. The aborted venture could end up costing Shell around $9bn in total – all for naught and a barrel-load of the worst oil business PR since BP’s Deepwater Horizon ruined the Gulf of Mexico.

Text message tweak to appointment alerts could save NHS millions

Whodda thunk it? Flat out telling time-wasting ne’er-do-wells how much it will cost the UK taxpayer every time they can’t be bothered to turn up for a hospital appointment does actually guilt-trip a higher percentage of them in to rolling out of bed and shuffling up to the hospital. It’s a £160 saving every time they do.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Online university to provide refugees with higher education

In terms of the problems faced by students, the hassle involved in getting the first of my own children safely off to university this week is clearly a proverbial first world problem compared with those faced by refugees desperate to not let fleeing their war-torn home country prevent them getting a good education. German students are trying to help by setting up an online university that cuts through the paperwork usually associated with getting started and provides essential resources. Donations of food and blankets will help address the migrant crisis in the short-term; if you want to support an initiative that’s taking a longer view then look for ways of supporting the Kiron project through an online donation.

Text message tweak to appointment alerts could save NHS millions

They call this sort of persuasive technique ‘nudging’, and it’s proved to be very effective in changing behaviour. Apparently, highlighting the £160 cost of a missed NHS appointment in a reminder text does a lot to reduce the number of patients who fail to turn up. Prepare to be bombarded with emails and SMSs from a plethora of organisations looking to guilt-trip you into being at home to receive a package, at the airport on time or whatever.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Bloodhound SSC Project: driven to distraction

The supersonic car Bloodhound made a public appearance at Canary Wharf in London last week. It’s a project that’s running years behind its original schedule [see http://eandt.theiet.org/magazine/2015/07/bloodhound-ssc-landspeed.cfm%5D but it’s now nearly ready. It will attempt a new role land speed record next year of 800mph before its ultimate goal of 1000mph in South Africa in 2017.

UK skills shortage among worst in Europe, survey says

Strict immigration rules are making the UK’s skills shortages worse, says a new survey, and that threatens productivity and economic growth. We hate to say ‘told you so’ but E&T focused on this problem before the election [http://eandt.theiet.org/magazine/2015/03/index.cfm] and there is no sign of parties changing their policies to fix it.

Ford voice activation recognises Scouse and Geordie

You can now ask a Ford car to phone for a kerry-out, hear music on the Aunt Joanna or set navigation for ‘yem’ or ‘Toon’. Well, it can now understand Cockney, Scouse and Geordie accents, among hundreds of others from around Europe.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology editor
Most new diesel cars have high emissions, study finds

Following the scandal that has engulfed the diesel car industry over Volkswagen’s emissions-test cheating, a study has found that actually, most new diesel cars emit considerably more toxic emissions than is shown in official lab tests. Europe’s largest motoring organisation, German automobile club Adac, has found that vehicles by Renault, Nissan, Hyundai, Citroen, Fiat and Volvo have all been found guilty of producing much more harmful emissions than officially declared when tested under conditions that are closer to real-life. That certainly won’t be great news for car owners and environmentalists around the world. Britain hasn’t been left out of the scandal either – Volkswagen has recently announced that nearly 1.2 million of its cars sold in the UK are fitted with the cheating software.

Aasha Bodhani  Aasha Bodhani, industry features editor
Twitter considering changes to 140-character limit

In August, Twitter removed its 140-character limit from its direct messages; reports now suggest it plans to do the same to its tweeting feature. However not everyone is pleased with the proposal and have expressed the character limit to be one of the site’s defining features. Though Twitter has declined to comment, it is thought the change in design will offer greater competition against Facebook and entice users to spend more time on it.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Most new diesel cars have high emissions, study finds

Coincidentally, it was a Volkswagen Golf diesel that I drove during a short holiday in Iceland the week before last. I went for it as for the only automatic car available from the rental company (since I am only licensed to drive cars with automatic transmission). It was a couple of days before the emissions scandal broke out, otherwise I might have thought twice before choosing it. What can I say? It was a very nice driving experience, and not just because the roads of Iceland are generally empty everywhere except for Reykjavik, the capital, and its suburbs. The car itself was smooth and easy to steer. The only hitch was that I had to be careful not to fill the tank up with petrol instead of diesel. The day before I had to return the car before flying back to the UK, the emissions scandal hit the news. “Do you think Volkswagen will recall the cars of this model in Iceland as they are likely to do in the States and in the UK?,” I asked the rental company official (several days later, I learned that they were indeed about to withdraw 4000 vehicles form the UK’s markets – see the news story).“I doubt it,” he replied. “You see, in Iceland we don’t so much care for emissions as we do for eruptions.” I couldn’t help smiling at his pun, although thinking about it, the combined emissions from the millions of Volkswagens and other diesel-fuelled cars on the roads globally could perhaps rival the eruption of an average Icelandic volcano.

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