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Science, Maths & Technology

OpenLearn Live: 3rd August 2016

Updated Wednesday 3rd August 2016

Buy British? Maybe next time, says the government in 1966. Today's government embraces blockchains. And why the Alzheimer's drug isn't. Free learning from across the day.

OpenLearn Live brings learning and research into the heart of your world. This page will be updated during the day.

Yesterday, we looked at writing-in-and-as-art, and discovered the link between Phoebe from Friends and the Dalai Lama

On this day last year: Thomas Dolby, celebrating the NHS and explored the strata of the United Kingdom

See the complete collection of OpenLearn Live


Today's posts


The goverment picks a blockchain supplier

We took another step into the digital world yesterday, with the UK government officially choosing a supplier of blockchains to public services.

The government has already been experimenting with blockchain technology - for example, as a way of streamlining benefit payments - but this is a leap forward which means all the services provided by government have access to an approved blockchain supplier:

Every single public sector organisation across the UK will be able to use blockchain technology for the first time after the government rubber-stamped fintech startup Credits as one of its approved suppliers in a major step forward for the potentially revolutionary technology.

It's the first time a company working with blockchain's distributed ledger technology (DLT) has been given the thumbs up, and means any public sector body - from the NHS to the department for work and pensions - could in theory begin creating digital services built on blockchain from today.

Read the full article at City AM: The UK government now has its first official blockchain provider for public services

Blockchains are at the heart of Bitcoin - Mike Richards explains how they keep your virtual stash secure


The Alzheimer's drug that (probably) isn't

Some papers this morning are announcing that there's been a major medical breakthrough - a drug which will stop Alzheimer's. The Sun reports:

A DRUG has stopped brain decline in Alzheimer’s patients for the first time, scientists say.

The human trial of LMTX showed no reduction in reasoning and memory of 15 per cent of 891 patients over 18 months.

Read at The Sun: 'GLIMMERS OF HOPE' Scientists discover first drug to halt brain decline in Alzheimer’s sufferers

That would be great news. Except, as Tom Chivers at Buzzfeed records, that 15% is significant - it's an example of "outcome switching", or basically shaking your data through a sieve until you spot something that could be interesting. It's a more effective way of generating headlines than developing medicines:

Chris Chambers, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Cardiff University, told BuzzFeed News that it’s possible the result is “a false discovery resulting from cherry-picking data”.

“Registered primary outcome measures should form the basis of any conclusion,” he said. “Any subgroup analyses should be strongly caveated, if reported at all.

“This is a perfect storm of public relations hype combined with journalistic hype, resulting in headlines that ultimately mislead patients. This really quite egregious.

“What is the primary mission of medical reporting if not to report the outcomes of these trials as accurately as possible? There is only one actual truth in this case and that is that the study returned a negative result.”

Read the full article at Buzzfeed (Buzzkill more like): Why That “Drug That Halts Alzheimer’s” Story Is Probably Not True

What does Alzheimer's Disease do to your brain?


Super stations

If you're kicking your heels waiting for the next episode of Full Steam Ahead - or perhaps you're waiting at a station for a train - you might want to spend some time with CityMetric's guide to seven of the best stations in the world:

In the middle of the Nullabor Plain in the desert of South Australia, there’s a ghost town with nowt more than a railway station, an empty airstrip, and the remains of an abandoned town. The only trains that run through here are of the Indian Pacific service, a mostly tourist and novelty affair that chugs all the way across Australia from Perth to Sydney.

The nearest major city is Port Augusta, a mere 826km away, and Cook station sits in the middle of the longest straight section of railway in the entire world.

Read the full article at CityMetric: Here are seven of the world’s best stations

See more about Full Steam Ahead

Small data: 21st century station openings


50 years on: Buying British (or not)

This week, we're exploring some of the things happening in the world the week England won the World Cup. Yesterday, we explored the influence of the shootings on the University of Texas Campus. Today, we're back in Britain, where a decision about aircraft purchases were being made.

BOAC 707 at London Airport, 1964 Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Adrian Pingstone / Public Domain A BOAC 707 refuels at what is now Heathrow Airport

In 1966, there were two major airlines operating out of Britain, and both were state-owned. There was BOAC, the British Overseas Airways Corporation; and there was BEA, British European Airways. Both at this time were nationalised industries, and so major purchasing decisions had to be signed off by the government.

At the start of August, a decision had become due on replacements to the BOAC fleet of jets. There were calls for the British flag-carrier to buy planes built in the UK - mainly from British plane builders; while the airlines were pushing for Boeing planes, which they saw as better commercial options.

On August 2nd, the day a statement was due in Parliament, the Financial Times observed:

Sir Anthony Milward [chairperson of BEA] said that BEA, if it was to survive, had to have the best and most economic aircraft. BEA could either stand for Best Economic Aircraft or British Equipment Again.

Sir Anthony was to be disappointed. Later that day, the government made a statement in Parliament revealing the plan was to allow BOAC to deal with Boeing, but making BEA buy British. Fred Mulley, Minister of Aviation in Harold Wilson's government, said:

After a careful investigation, the Government have authorised B.O.A.C. to acquire six Boeing 747 aircraft for delivery in 1969 and 1970. These will be very large aircraft with about 400 seats suitable for the busiest long-haul routes, on which they will give very economical performance. B.O.A.C. needs them in order to be able to match its main competitors after 1969. No British aircraft will be available that could fulfil the role. These American aircraft will earn in foreign currency far more than they will cost.

"I have asked B.O.A.C. to ensure that, so far as is practicable, the aircraft it buys should have the maximum British content in equipment and that the contract contains guarantees about noise levels at landing and take-off.

"To meet B.O.A.C.'s needs in the expanding air freight market, I have also authorised B.O.A.C. to acquire one further Boeing 707/320C aircraft bringing its fleet of these aircraft to three. It will be delivered in late 1967.

"British European Airways needs to plan for the replacement of the propeller aircraft it is using on certain routes and also for increased capacity to meet expected growth over the next decade. It is a complex matter to settle just what aircraft should be bought and when. British European Airways will buy British aircraft. Discussions are in progress to settle the exact numbers and types of aircraft and the phasing of orders. Aircraft under consideration are developed versions of the VC 10, the Trident and the BAC 1–11. The Government are prepared to give launching aid for the types selected. I should add, however, that as part of our measures to reduce the volume of investment in the short term, I have told B.E.A. that it will have to hold over such part of its approved orders as will produce savings of £5 million in the investment planned for 1967–68.

"These British aircraft should provide seat mile costs broadly comparable with those of American alternatives on which duty would have been payable. But they will be larger and their profitability will depend on their attracting high load factors on these routes. For these reasons B.E.A. would have preferred on purely commercial grounds to buy American aircraft. The Government, however, have informed B.E.A. that they will take steps to ensure that B.E.A. is able to operate as a fully commercial undertaking with the fleet it acquires."

It wasn't merely a desire to see British engineering prosper that led to BEA being instructed to fly the flag - there was also a solid economic reason. The government didn't really fancy stumping up the dollars that would have been required for both airlines to get American planes. BEA was left struggling to find a British-built solution. The next morning FT's explained what choices it faced:

The government's "launching aid" will cover the all the additional cost of "stretching" the VC-10, Trident and One-Eleven to meet BEA's needs, with none of the burden falling on BEA.

Ultimately, the government agreed to move twenty-five million pounds of loans it held from BEA into non-interest bearing accounts to compensate the airline for being forced to buy British planes.

Time was already running out for BEA, though. The next year, the Wilson government published a report from the Edwards Committee, British Air Transport in the Seventies, which recommended the bringing together of BOAC and BEA under a single management structure, while simultaneously calling for the creation of a "second force" to break the duopoly of BOAC/BEA. In 1970, the Heath government created Caledonian/BUA as an independent rival to the nationalised carriers, handing the new company some of BEA's lucrative routes. By 1973, BEA had been merged into the new British Airways, and its name vanished from the skies.

But British plane building hadn't quite disappeared - even as the debate over where to buy planes from had been raging in 1966, a project to design a new plane, built by a French-British consortium, had been working towards its first flight. The Concorde project wasn't to be without its problems, though...

Read more on airplane design and engineering

More on engineering from OpenLearn

 

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