E&T news weekly #73 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday December 4 2015

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, reporter
UK government commits to zero emission transport by 2050

The UK joining the handful of countries paving the way towards zero emission transportation is certainly highly commendable. But let’s not forget that the UK is also one of the major culprits of the current climate change. According to American climate scientist James Hansen, one of the key people to help push the climate change agenda into the mainstream in the 1980s, emissions by current worst polluters such as China and India are just a drop in the ocean compared to what countries such as the UK, Germany and the USA released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Worst of all, Hansen said, the use of fossil fuels is still being encouraged by their low prices, which don’t reflect the total cost to the society – such as children getting asthma or Maledives being flooded as a result of rising sea levels.

Spacetime warping observation satellite reaches orbit

Is there really such thing as the warping of space time as predicted by Albert Einstein exactly a century ago? We may soon know as the European Space Agency has just sent to space its Lisa Pathfinder spacecraft carrying a unique experiment designed to detect Einstein’s ‘ripples of spacetime’ also known as gravitational waves.

Aasha Bodhani  Aasha Bodhani, industry features editor
Kids’ photos taken on Vtech toys stolen by hackers

Perhaps not the obvious choice of tech to be hacked, but toy manufacturer Vtech has been targeted leaving five million customers worldwide with their personal data stolen. However it would appear there is no intention to sell the data; instead the hackers have shown how flawed Vtech’s security approach is. Along with names, email addresses and encrypted passwords, the hackers gained access to 190BG worth of data and photos of children headshots. As children toys become more technologically advanced, such as embedded cameras and internet connectivity, hackers can not only steal data but it opens the doors to paedophilia and snooping.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Formula E announces driverless electric car championship

Versions of established motorsports using electric vehicles haven’t quite broken into the mainstream yet; maybe this initiative which takes the human drivers out of the equation to let driverless cars take each other on will be the thing to catch the Top Gear fans’ imagination. I’ve never got Formula 1, so whether or not there’s someone in the cockpit as the procession of highly engineered cars buzzes round and round isn’t that big a deal. In fact, I suspect there’s so much technology in this sport already that leaving it all to the machines isn’t a massive step. More interesting to me was the news that Formula E is running a competition to find a 21st-century equivalent of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’, which for so long has been the iconic theme tune of TV motor racing. If the cars are doing away with drivers though, isn’t it time to let computer-generated music provide a soundtrack?

‘Thousands of miles’ of British roads lack SOS signal

If you’re just setting off on a Christmas road trip to visit all those relatives you only see at this time of year, the fact that two per cent of the UK road network isn’t covered by even 2G mobile phone signals might not sound so worrying. Make that four and a half thousand miles – much of it inevitably in the most remote areas of the country – and this warning from the RAC Foundation might well send a shiver down your spine. Or you could remember that we’ve only been able to summon help without even getting out of the car for a decade or so and realise that with sensible precautions this shouldn’t be something to worry about.

Christmas tree lights slow broadband, Ofcom app reveals

More ammunition for the Scrooges among us who like to keep their Christmas decorations low-key. Now we can alert family members who want to turn the house into a mini Regent Street to the warning from communications regulator Ofcom that every flashing bulb is slowing down the home broadband just a little bit. So you can enjoy your display, but that shiny new gadget you’ll want to put through its paces on Christmas morning won’t be living up to its potential. Microwaves, baby monitors and lamps can hobble your wireless connection as well though, so maybe just ignore us killjoys and get on with decking the halls – boughs of holly might pose the risk of pricked fingers but won’t affect your internet access.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
China’s five-year plan for huge reduction in power emissions

The Chinese government has pledged to upgrade its coal-fired power plants over the next five years to cut pollutant discharge by 60 per cent – “saving around 100 million tonnes of raw coal and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 180 million tonnes annually” according to the ‘People’s Daily’ website. That bit about saving raw coal suggests the upgrades will provide more efficient combustion, which makes sense. No one wants to go back to life in the middle ages, but if we want to hang on to our modern-day comforts and spread them more widely we have to find ways to do it while using less of the world’s resources, as well as not destroying the environment we live in.

‘Thousands of miles’ of British roads lack SOS signal

When the mobile-phone companies quote figures about their network coverage, they usually refer to population, not land area. That means there are a lot of remote places where you can’t get a signal, even in relatively crowded Great Britain. You might expect that on a mountain top, but surely it can’t be too hard to introduce some kind of public service obligation for coverage along the length of roads?

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield,assistant features editor
Christmas tree lights slow broadband, Ofcom app reveals

All young people in the UK would rather not celebrate Christmas in their homes if they find this out. No Christmas would be complete without some colourful, twinkly fairy lights! However, Ofcom has threatened the livelihood of these pretty things that brighten up this gloomy time of year. Okay, it’s not that serious, but I bet some whinging person will be pointing the finger at their sparkly Christmas tree if the broadband plays up. This is all down to the UK communications regulator launching an app that looks at the quality of your Wi-Fi connection and what is slowing it down. One of them was our beloved Christmas tree lights. What is this sorcery? The app is called Wi-Fi Checker and can also give you advice if there’s a problem with your connection. Apparently, almost six million homes and offices could improve their broadband by eliminating the interferences. Like putting your Xmas lights back up into the loft to die. They won’t glow as brightly when you’ve abandoned them for Facebook updates. Baby monitors are another culprit of interference. Perhaps we can use them on the thousands of people that will be crying about their slow Wi-Fi and lock them in their rooms with no turkey. Come on people, it’s Christmas. Quit worrying what’s online and spend time with your family. It only happens once a year.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
China’s five-year plan for huge reduction in power emissions

With Paris climate talks underway and smog blanketing Beijing, China has pledged to cut its CO2 emissions from coal power by 180m tonnes, and all emissions from major pollutants by 60% over the next five years. It’s an important promise considering that China’s coal consumption is still rising and is expected to peak around 2020. China’s capital Beijing has been choking in smog this week, which prompted officials to announce an “orange” alert, the second-highest level. The move has led to shut highways, suspended construction and a warning to people to stay indoors. It remains to be seen how the Chinese government plans to execute its plan to cut emissions, and whether the country will indeed manage to make its air a bit more bearable.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor-in-chief
New black cab app launched to challenge Uber

Uber, the app that allows people to ‘hail’ minicabs from their phones as and when they need them, was controversial from its launch but it is symbolic of how better information and communication breeds new business models and perhaps even new economics. The traditional black cabs of London and their equivalents in other capitals hated Uber because it seemed to turn private hire vehicles that could only previously be booked in advance over the phone into an ‘instant hire’ more like hailing a black cab off the street. It has been controversial too for employment law reasons with disagreements between drivers and Uber about their relationship under employment law. But the app technology is forcing change in various ways, with the black cabs making concessions to compete. The cab:app now allows users to hail black cabs though their mobiles and pay using their credit cards. Meanwhile, Uber is introducing a cab sharing option that reduces the cost for the user but also benefits the environment. Uber has become a symbol of the growing ‘sharing economy’ but the disruption has only just begun – not just for the taxi business but for city transport in a wider sense.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Christmas tree lights slow broadband, Ofcom app reveals

Just what you need on Christmas Day, as the extended family gathers en masse under one roof and – as is the modern way – each member breaks out their connected device: your magnificently decorated and blindingly illuminated Christmas tree is apparently interfering with your broadband signal. Cue 21st-century, First World-problem tantrums from your guests because they can’t watch that hilarious video again on YouTube or post Merry Christmas messages to all their beloved friends/random strangers who follow them on Facebook.

Zuckerberg launches green charity funded by Facebook shares

Talking of Facebook, I’ve never admired – or even much liked – Mark Zuckerberg and the company he helped found, but it would be churlish to find a negative angle on this story of gargantuan philanthropy. There has to be only good news in one exceedingly rich individual (or rather two, in the case of Mr and Mrs Zuckerberg) pledging to give away shares valued at approximately £30bn over the course of their lives, with the aim of improving the world we, and future generations, inhabit. It is said that having children changes a new parent’s view of the world. With the recent new arrival of their own little bundle of joy, this fiscal gesture from the Zuckerbergs seems to be that premise writ very, very large. This news also came a few days after Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ announcement about his multi-billion dollar clean energy research initiative, so we may yet have the geeks of the world to thank for stepping up to tackle the world’s most serious problems while national governments can only prevaricate and squabble over those same issues.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Kids’ photos taken on Vtech toys stolen by hackers

There are few things that annoy me more than self-people lamenting about ‘the good old days’ when kids played outside, families sat down for quiet dinners uninterrupted by mobile phones, toys worked without batteries, and everyone was at risk of dying from smallpox. That said, stories like this, and the knowledge that Russian spies can, and have, hacked into baby monitors, make me long for an a time when the idea of fun was pushing a hoop with a stick down a dirt road. Seriously guys, is nothing sacred anymore? Steal my credit card details if you want, but leave the kids out of this!

Google accused of storing data on children by EFF

If the idea of a hacker stealing your child’s picture wasn’t enough to upset you, you’ll be pleased to know that Google has also been spying on children, and using the data for the company’s own personal gain. Yes, this week it emerged that the EFF has filed a complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission against google, for mining and storing data on school children, including browser searches. Isn’t that nice? Way to exploit your country’s future workforce, Google.

China’s five-year plan for huge reduction in power emissions

China has announced, rather ambitiously, that it will reduce emissions of major pollutants from the power sector by 60 per cent in the next five years. I don’t know how they’re going to do this; in fact, no one really does – very few details of the ambitious plan have been released. But the announcement couldn’t have come at a better time. Did you see the pictures from Beijing this week after the city was put on orange alert due to ‘extremely hazardous’ pollution levels? I know, shocking right? If there is any hope of stopping China’s buildings, and people, from disappearing into permanent smog then something needs to be done, and quickly.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
New black cab app launched to challenge Uber

As an old corporate saying (which I have just invented) goes, if you can’t convince them, imitate them. That was – roughly – what London Cabs did to their much reviled competitor, Uber. By adopting the “Cab App” similar to the one used by Uber, the Black Cabs might have won the competition, but they have definitely lost the argument, for Uber was always saying that they should be allowed to operate alongside licensed taxis in accordance with the rules of free capitalist market. So what happened is a direct opposite of General De Gaulle’s famous “France has lost a battle! But France has not lost the war! (La France a perdu une bataille! Mais la France n’a pas perdu la guerre!)”. Uber, in this case, has definitely won the battle (read argument), but lost the war for the control of London’s lucrative taxi scene.

Zuckerberg launches green charity funded by Facebook shares

Three (billion) cheers to the generous Chan/Zuckerberg couple! Giving out all their wealth to charity causes. Well, nearly all. A quick calculation suggests that the philanthropic couple will still keep around $500 million worth of the Facebook shares for themselves. Not to count their other well-deserved and well-earned (and I mean it!) multi-billion assets. What can I say? Their life is of course going to be tougher from now on, but – with caution, care and parsimony – they will somehow get by, I am sure. So let’s not worry about them. I will certainly try not to.

Virgin unveils new Christmas trains designed by children

I rather like this new Christmas railway word game invented by Virgin: Pendolino transformed into a Penguilino, and a Class 91 into Claus 91. It would be good if other train companies could join it too. Capital Connect, for example, could then become “Capital Neglect” – just for the time of the inevitable Christmas and New Year engineering works, when hapless passengers and commuters (including yours truly) won’t be able to record many new railway puns, for most of them will be keeping their fingers “Kings-Crossed”!

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