Friday 19 August 2016
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
I cannot recommend the International Baccalaureate strongly enough, having witnessed my eldest son Dmitri completing it in Australia some years ago. Our decision for Dmitri to take up the IB at Melbourne’s St Leonard’s College, the only such course available then in Victoria, was dictated by a number of personal circumstances (not all of them favourable). For my son it also meant a certain disruption, for he had to leave his high school a couple of years before he was due to finish it. Yet from the very first days at St Leonard’s he started enjoying it. The course and the students were very different from his previous schools. The range of subjects was impressive, and Dmitri’s class mates were a truly international crowd which included German, Belgian, British, Russian and Australian kids. The IB had a special emphasis on IT and computing, so it came as no surprise when after graduation Dmitri decided to take up computing at his ‘uni’. Fifteen or so years on, he is one of the world’s leading cyber security experts, specialising in cyber security for human rights defenders, director of a non-profit profit company based in Montreal but operating globally. Author of several cyber security manuals, he was recently asked to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York to talk about his work. I am very proud of Dmitri’s achievements and have reason to believe that their foundations were laid by that excellent International Baccalaureate course. From what I know, he is still in touch with his former classmates from all over the world.
My reaction to this news story is rather mixed. First of all, as someone who used to drive an old and suitably sturdy Volvo GL as my very first car after receiving my driving licence in Australia, I find it hard to image a self-driving Volvo. But my main objection to driverless cabs is more social than technical. How about a friendly and always revealing (if at times loaded with extreme opinions) chat with a taxi driver on the way to or from an airport or a train station – part and parcel of most travellers’ introduction to a new country or city? During my recent visit to Kiev, I had to use local cabs often. Not just due to the 9-hour delay of my return flight which made me travel to and from the airport several times, but also because of the fact that taxis there were extraordinarily cheap (by Western standards), and an average trip to or from Zhuliani Airport would cost the hryvnia equivalent of $2 – yes, two US dollars! For those trips, I used a company called Uklon (‘Gradient’) – a local equivalent of Uber. Why would a taxi company be called Gradient? Search me, as they say in the States, but the fact remains: all Uklon’s cabs were clean, punctual and – luckily – not yet driverless, for I had grasped heaps of interesting facts and opinions about life in modern Ukraine from the cabbies. These conversations had helped me a lot in understanding all those complex processes currently underway in my native country, to which it was my first visit after 22 years of absence. Driverless taxis therefore are not for me, and I do hope that with all those astounding new technologies in action, it will still be possible to have a ‘driver-full’ (as opposed to ‘driver-less’) cab, even if only on special demand.
Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Right, so it’s all been pretty cool, what with this hybrid helicopter blimp-thing taking to the skies. It’s got all these potential uses, which could help out a lot of industries. It can be used for things such as spying, delivery aid and transporting really heavy stuff. So why does it have to look like a bum? There was a ruckus on the internet a year ago, when images were released of the Airlander 10 in its preliminary stages. I know I’m not supposed to find this that funny at my age, but it is! They’re trying to take themselves all seriously, like: “We will help you spy so discreetly on the Russian Mafia (do they still exist?) WITH OUR GIANT FLOATING DERRIERE!” It’s even been dubbed ‘The Flying Bum’. Come on, guys. You should have thought about switching the design around a bit, so it didn’t have to look like gas-filled buttocks. Want stuff done? Ask the huge Flying Bum.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
In the same week when it’s become an annual tradition for UK websites to be rammed with photos of delighted young people literally jumping for joy at their amazing A-level exam results, a reminder of the paradox that still exists between the subjects they’re likely to have been studying and what might lead to a successful career once they’ve left university saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. A survey – and it’s by no means the first – has found that graduate engineers are among the best paid in the country, with salaries approaching £30,000 a year. Actual figures vary between discipline, but it’s clear evidence that a degree in engineering, unlike a lot of other subjects, is something that employers are actively looking for. One of the reasons for this is the simple law of supply and demand. And as the IET’s response to this year’s exam results highlights, it doesn’t look like a horde of new graduates is going to flood the market and suppress salaries any time soon. The depressing trend that sees so many young people making choices at the age of 16 that effectively close the door on science and engineering seems to be continuing, with entries for maths and physics down year on year. The perennial problem is how to convince students who’ve done a wide range of GCSEs and have to narrow down to three or four subjects that science is the way to go. In practice, they’re forced at a relatively young age to make a life-defining choice between that and arts or social sciences. At least there’s one solution in the shape of the International Baccalaureate, which covers a broad range of subjects within a single A-level equivalent qualification, including maths and a science. The IET wants more state schools to consider offering it than the handful where it’s available at present. Unless teenagers and their parents start voting with their feet in response to news about high salaries, this looks like the best way of plugging a skills gap that seriously threatens the UK’s economic prospects.
Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
It seems that the age of self-driving cars is taking off from companies other than Tesla. Ride-sharing firm Uber is set to launch a self-driving car service in the next few weeks, and the company’s master plan is to eventually replace all of Uber’s one million drivers. The main element of this plan is to get lots of different car companies working together to gather an uber-fleet of Ubers. I feel sort of bad for the drivers though – I’ve heard some great stories about Uber drivers who have really found their calling. However, what’s safer – getting into a car with a complete stranger or getting into a car with no driver at all?
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
I’ve been following Airlander’s progress with some interest ever since I had a chance to see the craft for myself at an earlier stage of its development, so I’m delighted that it has made its maiden flight at last from the historic airship base at Cardington. Now its developer, Hybrid Air Vehicles, has to continue proving the technology and – just as importantly – convince business backers of the economic case for civilian airships.
At school I was a ‘good all-rounder’ with no real idea what I wanted to do later. I chose science and maths A Levels because that option kept more doors open (and I’m still grateful to my chemistry teacher, Ballinda Myers, for making that argument so convincingly), so I would have been very happy if I’d been able to take the broader International Baccalaureate, but I’m not convinced that it would be the right path for all sixth-formers. Forcing calculus on those with no aptitude for it is just going to be counter-productive – and where are the additional maths and science teachers going to come from? Of far more use are the initiatives to promote engineering careers to students, teachers and parents long before sixth-form choices have to be made – and in that respect there has already been enormous progress since my own schooldays, much of it thanks to the IET and the other professional engineering institutions.