Regtech Start Up Doubles Staff, Opens London And New York Offices

Hang on, I thought, when I came across this headline earlier this week, hasn’t rail travel been available on a ‘pay as you go’ basis pretty much since the first steam services were established? Which makes it a good headline, I suppose, because I was sufficiently intrigued to click through to what turned out to be an interesting story, detailing Tory proposals for contactless ticketing systems similar to London’s Oyster card to be rolled out across the South-East rail network.

No problem with that, as long as one-off paper tickets are still available, as the Conservative manifesto, which includes this pledge, also promises. If I was travelling into London on a daily basis from the E&T offices in Stevenage, I’d definitely be investing in a card that I could top up from the comfort of home, or from my phone, and easing my way past the lines waiting at the ticket machines every morning.

This kind of technology is just a stepping stone on the way to more sophisticated systems that will read your card as you walk onto the platform and off again at the other end, meaning you don’t even have to stop to negotiate one of the barriers that can sometimes be temperamental.

I guess what comes into play here as far as the rail companies are concerned (and our story does cover other parties’ intentions, including Labour’s rather more radical plans for renationalisation) is the ability to upsell customers in a ‘Would you like fries with that?’ kind of way. Once you’re topping up your ticket regularly and having money taken away from your credit after you travel, an intelligent system ought to be able to spot where you could have made savings by paying up front for a season ticket, or offer an upgrade to first class if you regularly use a busy route where seats are at a premium.

The environment’s proving to be a big issue in this election, even if all parties are superficially speaking with one voice about it being a good thing that we need to take care of. It would be nice to see some more joined-up thinking in policies like this about how investment in smarter and more reliable public transport could help to reduce the amount of traffic on UK roads, not to mention the increasing number of aircraft in our skies.

Disney+ besieged by hackers, crooks and eager VPN users

I haven’t descended far enough down my TV’s channel guide in recent years to know whether The Disney Channel is still a thing, but I can remember it being a popular choice when my children were the target age group. Never as popular, though, as repeated viewings on video, then DVD, of classic movies and I reckon – looking at secondhand prices on eBay – that you could build up a respectable collection of physical media which will keep the young ones engrossed for hours for a similar one-off acquisition cost to the price of a couple of months' subscription to the new Disney+ streaming service.

I won’t be doing either (and don’t get me started on these ‘live action’ remakes of animated Disney movies from the past), but I would recommend one recent Disney animation to anyone looking for something to please the whole family over Christmas. ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’ is genuinely one of the most on-the-mark takes on the concept of the worldwide web, social media, hacking and the like that the movie industry has managed. It works even if you haven’t caught the original ‘Wreck-it Ralph’, to which this is a sequel, and has the usual gang of Disney princesses familiar from backpacks and lunchboxes teaming up to fight a computer virus. Definitely one to suggest to the family the next time an umpteenth viewing of 'Frozen' looks to be in the offing.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Space travel can cause ‘leaky’ gut in astronauts

This could be just the tip of the iceberg. The fact remains that we don’t know how our physiology will withstand the rigours of space and this will become a deal-breaking issue if we ever decide to go long-haul or decide to make it our home.

There are many issues, but the biggest two are radiation and zero-gravity. Radiation levels on Mars, for example, make its surface uninhabitable for life as we know it, while Jupiter’s moons, such as Io and Europa (both sci-fi faves as a possible human destination), have surface radiation levels high enough to fry a frying pan, let alone its contents.

Radiation is something that we can put barriers up against and you feel that with the right clothing and built environment in place it's something we can be protected from. Adapting to a life in zero-gravity is more complex. We’ve seen the pictures of astronauts returning to Earth and having to be carried as a consequence of the muscle wastage during their extra-terrestrial travels. They recover, but there’s a suspicion that bones may lose some integrity in the process that isn’t regained with time. It’s very difficult to tell, though, as the sample we can study is so small.

Gennady Padalka, 61, is a retired Russian cosmonaut who has spent a total of 878 days in space, spread across five missions, which makes him the spaceman with the most space time under his belt. Valeri Polyakov, 77, also a Russian former cosmonaut, is the holder of the record for the longest single stay in space, at 437 days. Both, as far as I can find out, remain in good health. They are two of only 37 astronauts who have spent a year or more of cumulative time in space – the vast majority of them Russian. Most visitors to the International Space Station currently do a six-month shift.

My point is that it is not enough to really determine how we will react to long times in space. At the recent Asgardia (the self-styled space nation) scientific conference, several issues around this were raised, but it emerged that much research had been in hiatus as the space race, in exploration terms, had fallen out of favour with leading nations. Now that has changed and the importance of understanding how humans could survive (and prosper and even breed) in zero-gravity has come back into focus.

Maybe as a species we would evolve if we lived in zero-gravity to a point where our muscles could be incredibly flimsy and still be fit for purpose. Or maybe we couldn’t survive long-term and the goal becomes development of artificial gravity?

With the knowledge we have now, leaky guts may just be the start of it. What happens when we start accelerating into space to warp-factor speeds – will we ever be able to retrieve our internal organs from our space boots?!

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Book reviews Christmas special: gift ideas with technology in mind

I thought it would only be fair to add to my recommended Christmas reads a couple of books that are currently on my own bedside table. I normally read up to a dozen books at a time, but will mention here just a couple that may be of interest to E&T readers.

The first is a rather slim paperback with a very lengthy title, ‘Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now’ (almost a mini-book in itself), which E&T reviewed in detail when it first came out earlier this year.

I had always been of an opinion that a book’s title must be short, snappy and intriguing, rather than long and self-explanatory. Yet, in this case, the title works very well, for the reader is bound to be impatient to find out what the ten reasons actually are. Why? Simply because the book’s author, Jaron Lanier, is a Silicon Valley scientist-pioneer who should know a couple of things about social media and should, theoretically, be an ardent supporter, not an outspoken opponent or even enemy.

There’s a controversy in the book’s very concept and, being a convinced social media refusenik, I couldn’t resist picking up the paperback edition from a Waterstone’s display the other day. Lanier didn’t disappoint: it’s a terrific read, which leaves the reader in little doubt that Facebook, Twitter and such like not only “fuel idiocy” (in the words of John Humphries) but are capable of ruining their users’ lives. Moreover, ruined lives are the only guaranteed results of addiction to social media, designed to sap joy and meaning out of our existence, having turned it into an easily manipulated social commodity, with a price tag attached.

Had I not already rejected social media years ago (for a number of serious reasons), I would have definitely deleted all my accounts right after reading this book, just like the writer Franklin Foer, who wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “In the face of Lanier’s earnest argument, I felt a piercing shame about my own presence on Facebook. I heeded his plea and deleted my account.”

The second book I’m currently reading is in Russian (I still read a lot in my mother tongue). ‘The Lokotskaya Republic Phenomenon’ is the first serious publication (a collection of articles by different authors and historians) on a subject that until now has been extremely sensitive and thoroughly silenced in Russia – life in the Soviet Union under the Nazi occupation between 1941 and 1944. It turns out that it wasn’t all the heroic resistance and partisans of the official Soviet version, but also a willing and at times enthusiastic collaboration in which schools, hospitals, local councils, factories, newspapers and police (all staffed exclusively by the locals) functioned unhindered in the occupied territories, where – in most cases – the population was quite happy to get a respite (even if temporarily) from Stalin’s tyranny.

In some areas, the Germans trusted the Russians so much that they allowed the latter a kind of self-rule, with minimal interference from the Nazis themselves. One such example, all but unknown inside and outside Russia until recently, was 'Lokotskaya Republic', formed on the territory of the occupied Briansk, Oriol and Kursk regions, with the 'capital' in the town of Lokot (which means ‘elbow’ in Russian).

That peculiar formation, with the population of half a million and the territory larger than Belgium, lasted for nearly two years and was doing very well in the fields of industry and agriculture. It had a loyal (to the Nazis) Russian police force and an army – the RONA – of... wait for it... 10,000 men who successfully fought the partisans in the thick Briansk forests with the latest Nazi arms and equipment. Its courts enjoyed independence to the degree that once allowed them to sentence to death (for looting and violence to the locals) two German Vermacht soldiers, with the Nazi authorities supporting the verdict.

E&T readers would probably be interested to know that the Nazi-appointed head of that 'republic', the Burgomaster of Lokot and the RONA’s ‘commander-in-chief’, was a certain Bronislaw Kaminsky – a rather dubious figure with a criminal record and, it turns out, an engineer by education and profession. His last place of employment before the occupation was the local spirits factory where he was a chief engineer.

After the territory was retaken by Soviet troops, the RONA, commanded by Kaminsky, left with the Germans to continue fighting the Red Army, becoming absorbed into one of the Third Reich’s SS divisions. Kaminsky was eventually captured and hanged by the Soviets. A rather disturbing, yet darkly fascinating and gruesomely instructive read.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

The Mootrix: Farmers give cows VR headsets to improve mood

According to Moscow’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food, farmers near Moscow have been using virtual-reality headsets in an effort to boost their cows’ moods and milk production. This is probably the strangest story I’ve heard all week – and we’re coming up to an election!

We’ve heard countless stories about VR improving the wellbeing and treatment of human beings with chronic pain and autism to name a few, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that the technology appears to be transferrable to other animals.

The statement by the Ministry makes it sound like these cows are living the dream. Not only are they apparently staying calmer with VR headsets showing a pleasant environment, they are also getting massages while classical music is played to them (classical music isn’t for everyone, of course, but perhaps cows love it). Furthermore, the statement says that farmers are planning a long-term study to determine whether the use of VR could also affect the volume and quality of their milk.

Although they seem to be living a lavish lifestyle, some animal rights campaigners may question the farmers’ strategies. It’s up to debate as to whether the adaptation and purchase of specialised VR headsets for dairy cows is cost effective and, most importantly, more humane than simply letting the cows roam freely in a field. Only time will tell, I guess.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Paris to expand underground network of cooling tunnels as air-con alternative

It sounds as if Paris has the right idea here. When the weather’s sweltering, we all like the luxury of working in an air-conditioned building, but there’s a snag. All the heat removed from the building ends up in the air outside, along with the energy used by the aircon system itself. It’s a vicious circle and one that’s exacerbated by all the measures we’re implementing to keep heat inside those same buildings in winter. If the complement to district heating is an energy-efficient, city-wide district cooling system, it must surely help – along with passive measures such as having blinds on the windows to keep out the sun and encouraging staff to dress for the weather, not for an artificially consistent year-round internal temperature.

Banks hit with five IT glitches a week prompting calls to protect cash

Maybe it’s an age thing, but I like to carry some cash with me. I use online banking and appreciate its benefits, but it’s not infallible. What’s more, I don’t really want to have to check an interminably long statement full of minor transactions for newspapers, milk and cups of tea – and I’m happy if my bank’s ability to track my life has a few gaps in it.

Transport for London has done a lot to make contactless cards the usual mode of payment on its own system, with knock-on effects across the capital, but metropolitan workers can easily forget that not everyone is like them. My 95-year-old father still likes to withdraw cash over the counter, not from a machine, and he makes payments by cheque. A small club I belong to takes weekly subs in cash. It’s simple and doesn’t cost us anything. Cash is not dead and long may that continue to be so.

Dickon Ross, editor-in-chief

Dear Evil Engineer: Could I build a freeze ray appropriate to my icy new persona?

Our latest Evil Engineer column looks at the possibilities of a deadly freeze ray to stop an evil engineer’s nemesis in their tracks. For those of you who haven’t dipped into this regular column before, Evil Engineer is a brilliantly simple yet original idea: very funny, but also informative at the same time. You don’t just have to take my word for it, because last week its author – our very own technology reporter, Hilary Lamb – won due recognition from an esteemed panel of magazine editor judges, taking home the award for 'B2B Columnist of the Year' at the annual ceremony of the British Society of Magazine Editors. Read her column and I’m sure you’ll agree it was well deserved. Today the BSMEs; tomorrow the WORLD! Mwahahahahaaaaaaa!

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Uber to lose London licence after 14,000 trips were made with dodgy drivers

So, Uber has been given yet another reprieve to continue operating in London while it launches its 34th appeal following the cessation of its latest temporary licence. If it was another operator employing the same unscrupulous tactics, they would have been shut down long ago, but Uber is effectively too big (and too popular) to fail.

The company has been operating in the capital long enough that many people now consider it to be another form of public transport. For some, getting rid of it would be almost as devastating as if TfL decided to scrap double-decker buses. The inevitable backlash from Londoners if it ever does get scrapped must be a concern to TfL, however legitimate, and even more so to Mayor Sadiq Khan, whose very job rests on their electoral whims. Whenever TfL starts threatening Uber with licence suspensions, Khan is keen to make it clear that while he supports their decision, it was in no way made on his behalf and is simply a regulatory concern.

Hopefully, Londoners should have the sense that no matter how convenient or cheap a service might be, no one should be allowed to flout the necessary rules. The article quotes the head of a right-wing think tank who believes the decision is evidence of TfL’s “protectionist agenda”. Well, I would agree that they are only trying their best to protect Londoners from dodgy drivers, but somehow I’m not sure that’s what that person meant.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

MEPs declare a climate emergency as EU ramps up for ‘European Green Deal’

The EU, as the first continent to do so, declared a state of climate emergency last week. This is a positive sign. Sadly, progress to reduce the EU’s carbon emissions seems slow – too slow. Recent figures for 28 member states suggest that reductions in emissions stalled between 2014 and 2017. Between 2016 and 2017, emissions even rose by 0.7 per cent, according to the European Statistical Office.

This is concerning for two reasons. First, Western Europe is among the least climate change-affected regions in the world, next to North America. If Western Europe can’t realise its responsibility for the rest of the world, how can anyone else? It is richer and more prepared to tackle climate change from an institutional standpoint, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) wrote. If Western Europe fails to act on its promises and merely pays lip service to the cause, other poorer nations may find it harder to follow the example.

Second, with the lack of progress, other important developed countries may be dissuaded from taking urgent action. This can be seen in the reluctance of countries such as Australia, Brazil, Japan, Canada and the US to sign up to crucial emission-reduction commitments, in line with climate targets for the mid-century.

Today, the EU remains one of the largest emitters in the world. With nearly 4,500 million tonnes of CO2 in 2017, its emissions are vast. The US, meanwhile, accounted for more than 6,400 million tonnes in the same year.

What needs to happen to motivate change? More and more politicians and parties argue for economic co-benefits. For the UK, a recent briefing paper by Imperial College pointed out that benefits of climate change mitigation include improvements in public health; a reduction in NHS costs; greater energy security; growth in the low-carbon jobs market, and a reduction in poverty and inequality. Similarly, the EU has argued for some time that new green jobs; improved competitiveness; economic growth; cleaner air, and other goodies are on the horizon. Is this really enough of an incentive? The data says no, at this point. Perhaps it is better to rely on solid policies to reduce emissions than on mere incentives, which always leaves the door open to countries simply opting out.

More people appear to believe in the benefits of policies, both in economic and environmental terms. According to the US polling company PewResearch, about a third of all US respondents (33 per cent) said that policies aimed at reducing the effects of global climate change generally would help the US economy. In October, 54 per cent of respondents said that these policies do more good than harm to the environment – up from 49 per cent in March 2018. Now we just need to see the emissions data budge. It is more urgent than ever.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

University of Manchester unleashes Massive Attack on climate change

Musicians generally are a thoughtful bunch, as are artists and writers. It has often been the case throughout history that the more outspoken members of society are the creatives, who put social issues and concerns at the heart of their work. Picasso's 'Guernica' painting springs to mind, one individual's visceral response to the human horrors of war. Painted as an immediate reaction to Nazi bombings in the Basque Country region, as part of its intervention in the Spanish Civil War, this is the painter's equivalent of a journalist's newspaper report. As a work of art, its message continues to resonate and connect in the hearts and minds of successive generations, transmitting the same ferocious vibrations down the ages. You can trace similar artistic expression and political commentary as far back through history as you care to go, in every type of artistic endeavour.

While the logistics of a rock band world tour might not appear to be on the same cerebral level as Picasso's painting, the increasing engagement of musicians, of all styles, with the pressing issue of climate change and how their activities affect it – more negatively now, but with a committed view to ensuring a positive future – is a modern-day indication of the artistic mindset acknowledging a wider problem and seeking to effect change.

Scottish Gaelic lessons arrive online to mark St Andrew’s Day

I use the Duolingo app to try to maintain some degree of competence in a couple of standard European languages, before I completely forget everything I learned in school, and I find its gamification approach engaging and rewarding. If I'd had Duolingo available to me as a schoolboy, I believe I might have made much better progress and more quickly. The news that Scottish Gaelic has now been added to the app's list of esoteric tongues we can all learn (for free) – joining other minority languages such as Navajo and Hawaiian – is great news in terms of helping to keep these alive for future generations. Everything we can do to preserve the world's rich diversity and history, resisting the creeping homogenisation of global culture, should be encouraged.

Disney+ hacks, VR cows, Parisian cool and more: the week’s top tech news
Macquarie Bank’s field marshal takes charge