Amazon strike, incognito with juggalo, HS2 costs and more: Best of the week’s news

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.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Amazon workers in US to strike during Prime Day over job conditions

Have the big tech retailers reduced themselves to being the modern day equivalent of the Victorian mills or coal mines? Places where human dignity and indeed health is subjugated by tyrannical employers?

I have no idea what it’s like to work in Amazon’s Minnesota warehouse, but now there is ‘trouble at t’mill’ as Amazon approaches its self-generated bonanza – Amazon Prime Day – its very own Black Friday. The workers are revolting.

Irrespective of the company involved, shouldn’t we now expect a bit more from life for a bit less effort? That’s what technology development is all about, surely? When we still have over a million and a half people unemployed in the UK, shouldn’t work be evened out slightly with more people in work, but all of them doing less work?

Employees against this believe that they are indispensable and couldn’t job share and don’t want to risk being paid less anyway. Employers against this simply want to keep employment costs to a minimum and have faith in their hierarchical management systems.

Both need to update their thinking. Modern working practices should allow people to earn a fair wage while getting that all-important work-life balance in order. But part of the trouble is that there is an element of entitlement these days, particularly in the millennials, who sometimes expect the rewards to come before the graft. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the rarefied atmosphere of professional football, where young men flounce around ignoring contracts and abandoning responsibility as they are paid weekly, I’m guessing, more than an average Amazon warehouse worker gets paid in a decade.

Young engineers, you would hope, would be a bit more balanced and self-aware, but it doesn’t mean that everyone is arriving at a new way of working in the same frame of mind. Owners, particularly of SMEs, can tend to be better engineers than managers and as a consequence do not always get the best from their staff, while the onus on staff should still be to do a good a job. One positive thing, I think, about the Amazon warehouse story, is that it demonstrates that a trade union still has a role to play in ensuring a fair working environment – whether they succeed or not remains to be seen.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

‘Some jobs in Birmingham’ not enough to justify high cost of HS2, MP says

To describe the cost of HS2 as ‘high’ is like saying the surface of the Sun is ‘a trifle warm’. £100bn is an enormous amount of money by anyone’s estimation (even Jeff Bezos) and given that this is a government project, we can almost certainly expect that figure to rise even higher as it is inevitably delivered late. Although the comment from this MP comes off as ignorant, London-centric and dismissive of an entire region (basically the Tory Party manifesto since Thatcher), I have questioned the value in spending this amount of money on what will be merely a marginally faster rail line that will only serve a small section of a small island, in an era when technology is rapidly negating the need for working people to physically move from A to B and back again. HS2 seems like a project that even a few years ago was already starting to seem ill-advised and with each passing year looks ever more foolhardy a venture. I’m fairly certain that the government could spend £100bn in other ways to improve business development and job opportunities in the regions HS2 is purported to be serving.

‘Those words of Armstrong will be with us forever’: David Whitehouse, ‘Apollo 11: The Inside Story’

Being quietly fascinated with all things Moon (and it’s bonanza time for Moon-thusiasts this year), after reading this interview with the author of the latest Apollo 11 book, I immediately wanted to read the book for myself. Kind of like books about The Beatles, even after all this time, there is still the potential for new angles and new information to be uncovered. Just when you think you’ve read it all, along comes a book that shines new light on hitherto darkened corners or simply illuminates a world you’re already familiar with, causing you to appreciate it anew. If, like me, you are drawn to any retelling of the Apollo programme, this book looks like an essential purchase. You might also want to keep an eye out for the film ‘Armstrong’, which I was lucky enough to see at a preview last month. It’s a very good movie that’s going to be available to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray from 15 July.

Bloodhound to head to South Africa for land speed record attempt

Aren’t these obsessive pursuits of speed records somewhat out of step with the world these days? Is this where we should be investing time and money? I know people will defend this long-running, seldom-racing project as a high-profile example of cutting-edge engineering, serving a noble higher purpose in drawing attention to the industries involved and the innovations they may have delivered, but personally I can’t help feeling that mankind has moved on and that the pressing needs of society and the planet, which engineering and technology are well-placed to help solve, are much greater, more urgent and of more lasting human benefit than figuring out a way to make a car go really, really fast, once. Maybe twice. I genuinely hope Bloodhound LSR does eventually break the land speed record – it’s been waiting long enough – but after that, I feel like it’s time to park our fixation on speed and pour our collective intellectual energy into solving the real issues of the modern world.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Facial recognition tech could be trumped by juggalo makeup

Insane Clown Posse are an interesting group with interesting fans. Led by two devout Christians from Detroit, many of their songs feature murder, cannibalism and even necrophilia. Their fans – Juggalos – often turn up to shows sporting exaggerated clown makeup in a specific style. It turns out this very makeup has a quality to it that can evade facial recognition algorithms, which typically base their assessments on areas of strong contrast such as around the nose, chin, and eyes.

Maybe this research will trigger an explosion in Juggalo makeup being worn by criminals and people keen to hide their identity for one reason or another. Innocent fans of ICP could see themselves getting arrested for crimes they didn’t commit. Alternatively, the band could have their esteemed reputation laid to waste by a sudden upsurge in crimes perpetrated by apparent fans. Maybe ICP gigs will become havens of crime, heinous acts escaping justice as the police scrabble around failing to identify anyone. Either way I shouldn’t imagine the boys in the band will concern themselves too much with this, their scepticism of research-based endeavours has already been laid bare in their megahit song ‘Miracles’: “I don’t wanna talk to a scientist, y’all mother****ers lying and getting me pissed!”

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Climate change investment demands clearer goals from UK government

There were no surprises in this week’s report from the UK Committee on Climate Change. No surprises here. The government has made almost no progress, it claimed, despite being overly ambitious on paper.

On one hand this was a statement that some of the government’s machinery, its departments if you will, may merely by paying lip service to the idea of protecting the climate and reducing emissions. Undoubtedly, the honeymoon period is over. The difficult work has to start now. That means the government needs to make difficult decisions about where investments should flow into.

On the other hand, the CCC results were an important verdict that setting targets, especially when they’re 30 years in the future, can be totally useless if they a) are not met, and b) not being enforced (or people and organisations are not fined).

Take this example. You’re supposed to finish your PhD in one year. You are on your couch with your books, the sun is out and your partner insists on spending a lovely day on the beach with you and friends. What do you do? Worry about your PhD or postpone it to tomorrow, next week or next month, because you have a whole year left?

There are two ways to keep yourself focused. First, think about the impact your decision will have on your day out. The more irritating emails you receive from your supervisor on the beach, the more you might think twice next time. The more your student loans hurt you – preventing you from buying an ice-cream or a drink – the more you may consider finishing in time.

The same is true for the climate. The more we suffer from heat waves and heavy downpours, the more we will get to grips with it. But there’s a problem. In this analogy, the aggravating emails from your supervisor will likely arrive five minutes before deadline, too late for you to write another 150 pages. And there are no re-takes, either.

There is another alternative that might keep you/us focused. Instead of setting goals for 2050, you get a weekly goal to finish five pages. Let’s call it budget. There will be no cheating, no micro-exchanges and swaps. You have to hand in your five pages by Friday or you risk expulsion.

Now to the climate. Let’s say you used all your emission budget for this week; you better have something lined up, a clean no-emission solution, otherwise you pay dearly. One thing essential to mention is that the government needs to step in and prepare an effective framework. Another important thought is that this is not about money and who can pay best; richer individuals should have no advantage.

A significant proportion of emission reduction can come from behavioural change, and one stunning instance is that of Cape Town. There, I think, the city discovered something that not only saved it from running out of water, but perhaps taught the rest of the world something useful in the greater context of climate change.

As the prospect emerged that the city could run short of water supply, its government swiftly announced ‘Day Zero’, which meant that if water level dropped to the lowest point, all taps would be turned off. But that was not it. Fifty litres of water per person per day was all anyone got. If water dropped below Day Zero level, people could only get their water from communal points. The fear and worry was so feasible, it changed something in the minds of the city’s residents and Day Zero was never hit. Good for Cape Town. If we can manage to break it down to municipality level, to companies, to area codes, even to households and eventually to each individual, we may just be able to create that feeling of real urgency that we need avert a global Day Zero.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

AI mood detection in cars could de-stress driving

Yeah. Not too sure on this one.

If the AI could eradicate all the morons on the road, then it may work for me. Not everyone is an awful driver, and sometimes we think we’re in the right if an error occurs while driving. But, as a friend of mine once said: “You know there are awful people? [He didn’t say awful. I’m sure you can guess one of the many expletives] Well, they also drive cars.”

So British car manufacturer Jaguar Land Rover is developing an AI-based system capable of detecting a driver’s mood and adjusting the car’s environment to reduce stress. Yeah, all right. Will the air con puff out Xanax fumes or something?

The mood-detection system uses a driver-facing camera and biometric sensing. This system changes cabin features like heating and ventilation in response to facial expressions. Like I said, Xanax fumes? Ambient lighting and media will also adapt to calm you down if you’re raging, like if a doofus cuts you off, or you’re caught in traffic.

If it works for someone like me, then we have a miracle on our hands, people.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Amazon seeks to quell data privacy fears over NHS partnership

Amazon has updated its Alexa smart speakers to search the NHS website for information if asked a question related to healthcare. While Amazon has said that it wouldn’t share information with third parties, I can’t help but agree with Big Brother Watch’s Silko Carlo when she said encouraging the public to share their private health details with Amazon is “astonishingly misguided”. Especially now it’s common knowledge that our Alexa recordings are often listened to by Amazon employees and contractors to help with natural language processing.

However, it’s already the case that we inadvertently share our private health information with data-guzzling tech giants. While I make all reasonable attempts to block tracking, advertising and ad targeting, I notice that Google directs ads at me relating to bunions at every opportunity (after a health panic several years ago in which I searched for information about them) and also continues to push YouTube videos about my psychiatric diagnosis (after having watched a single video about it).

Amazon collecting our private health data may be more ‘boring dystopia’ news, but at least for me, it was a reminder to be mindful that everything you do online is tracked, stored and (usually) processed for profit. When using sensitive search terms, it may be best to stick with privacy-focused services like Brave, Tor and DuckDuckGo.

Lovebirds’ aerial antics could inform flying bot design

Lovebirds are not just lovely; they’re also useful to engineers too.

Facial recognition tech could be trumped by juggalo makeup

I’m not sure if I’d rather be tracked in public places or walk round in juggalo makeup all the time, but it’s good to know I have the option.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

‘Those words of Armstrong will be with us forever’: David Whitehouse, ‘Apollo 11: The Inside Story’

If you start to get a sensation of Moon fatigue over the next couple of weeks as you’re inundated by a slew of documentaries, magazine articles and books retelling the amazing story of Apollo 11, spare a thought for the young people for whom this is probably all new. David Whitehouse, who we interviewed for this month’s E&T about his new book on the mission, took a slightly different tack, going for an oral history in which he interviewed as many of the people involved as he could to get their first-hand accounts. It looks fascinating, and is the sort of thing that I’ll probably hunt out once my interest has been pricked by the succession of TV and radio shows littering the schedules.

What about the under-ten who catches one of these programmes and develops a sudden enthusiasm for space exploration but isn’t that keen on reading? Good news for those with children who want to emulate the Apollo 11 crew is that toymaker Mattel has added a new astronaut Barbie to the range of tech-related dolls like robotics engineer Barbie that have been available for a while.

In fact, as I was surprised to learn when researching an article on the many dolls and other action figures designed to spark children’s interest in STEM a couple of years ago, astronaut Barbie first hit the shelves in the mid-1960s, well before the Moon landings.

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