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Finding a decent, affordable place to live is a common problem facing young people in many places. But in Nigeria’s booming commercial hub, Lagos, it is almost impossible as landlords demand a year’s rent in advance.
For two-bedroom apartments with electricity, close to the city’s main business district on Victoria Island, I was asked for between $11,000 (£8,600) and $22,000 upfront.
In general, middle-to-high-income housing can cost anywhere between $5,000 and $40,000 a year.
These are amounts of money that few people have available.
One explanation for the expensive rent is that the cost of both land and construction is high in Lagos.
Also, there is a shortage of the type of small properties that people starting off in the rental market tend to prefer.
The system of upfront payments suits landlords, but some innovations could start to help renters.
Bankole Oluwafemi, a young technology entrepreneur, has managed to secure a loft-style apartment on a serene residential street in Lekki – a fairly affluent neighbourhood. It is a step up from a house he shared with other young professionals.
Some people use informal lending networks to get the money – from parents, or saving while staying with relatives, and some firms offer their employees loans.
But Mr Oluwafemi managed to afford the place with the help of a digital rental site called Fibre.
The online platform allows users to rent properties with just a few clicks.
Tenants are given the option of paying monthly or quarterly, which may not seem extraordinary in many parts of the world, but is a potential market-changer here.
Landlords have the authority to dictate what they want from tenants”
After Mr Oluwafemi finished his university degree, he moved to Lagos in 2011, but he was unable to come up with the two years’ rent in advance that landlords at that time were allowed to demand.
Unable to find an affordable apartment in a habitable condition, he slept on the floor of a room with 10 other people.
When he later co-founded a technology company, he decided to sleep in his office to avoid renting a home and the associated costs.
“Living in Lagos requires you to not just be a tenant, but in many respects you’re your own local government providing your own infrastructure,” Mr Oluwafemi explains, laughing.
He is referring to the fact that in addition to the cost of rent, many tenants are also expected to pay for their water and electricity, which can be difficult to organise and costly because of the fuel needed for generators.
“Fibre didn’t just come with the ability to pay monthly and the flexibility, these apartments come with a minimum standard of quality.
“People take these things for granted anywhere else in the world, but we live in Nigeria.”
Although the Nigerian government introduced legislation in 2011 limiting landlords’ rights to demand or receive more than one year’s rent from prospective tenants, it has proven difficult to enforce.
According to real estate analyst Dolapo Omidire, Lagos is largely a landlord’s market.
“They have the authority to dictate what they want from tenants,” he says.
“They can say: ‘These are my terms. If you don’t like it go somewhere else.'”
Demi Ademuson and Obinna Okwodu co-founded Fibre three years ago and partner with landlords and developers to offer good-quality housing.
Driven by the desire to introduce some ease and flexibility to renting for tenants, the platform challenges a system they say that is inhospitable to young people.
It doesn’t make sense that for something so fundamental you have to jump through so many hoops”
“It provides a really high barrier for people just to access housing,” Mr Okwodu says.
“If you think about how fundamental housing is, it doesn’t make sense that for something so fundamental you have to jump through so many hoops.”
With 200 clients renting properties and 5,000 people on its waiting list, Fibre’s work represents a tiny fraction of the market, but it does offer an alternative way forward.
They also recognise that they started off at the high end of the market, but are beginning to broaden their prospective customer base.
The concept is working, but Mr Okwodu says it was initially a challenge to persuade landlords to accept monthly payments.
The company takes full financial responsibility if tenants default on payments – a vital element of the service that has helped to win clients’ trust.
However, many landlords have no interest in receiving payments in monthly instalments.
Deborah Nicol-Omeruah, a real estate developer in Lagos, can see how receiving monthly payments could work for property owners with mortgages, but she prefers the current system.
“A lump sum allows you to use the money for major expenses. For example, if you have school fees to pay or you have a big holiday that you want to pay for.”
Importantly, Ms Nicol-Omeruah says, 12 months’ rent in advance reduces the risk of default.
“When you have a client paying each month, there’s the hassle of chasing them for payments. If they’re a tenant with a high risk of default you might be chasing them monthly.
“With the current system there’s only one point each year that you have to chase your tenant for payment.”
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Fibre’s success has inspired other entrepreneurs to launch similar platforms, but they are still too small to make a major impact on the rental market.
Many people have no option but to share a room, or stay with relatives.
Television presenter Uche Okoronkwo stayed with an uncle in a suburb on the mainland when she first moved to Lagos.
However, her eight-hour daily commute from home to and from her job on the island – where many companies are based – was punishing.
“Commuting between the mainland and island is hell. I woke up at four in the morning to get on an okada [motorbike taxi] to line up for a bus by 04:30 to arrive at work at eight.
“Then I would get home at 10 or 11 at night because if you don’t leave the island before four you’re stuck in traffic. It made no sense to continue doing that. There was no quality of life.”
Ms Okoronkwo decided to move to the island, but because of a lack of affordable property she rented a space known as a “boys’ quarters” or “BQ” – a small building within a compound containing a room and bathroom, which is traditionally used as a place for domestic staff.
“It was small and terrible,” she says. “The plumbing wasn’t good. There was no source of water. I had to buy a [water] tank and have it filled every month and then you relied on a generator for electricity.”
The real estate sector lacks quality control, according to industry analyst Mr Omidire, who has noted only a few developers are willing to invest the amount required to ensure a high standard of construction is met.
Despite this, he is excited to see a growing number of developers constructing one and two-bedroom apartments for young professionals.
He says this will address the imbalance between what consumers are demanding and the supply on the market.
Moreover, as more companies similar to Fibre launch in Nigeria, they are gradually breaking down the barriers to rent.
These online platforms are currently operating on a small scale, but as they grow they have the potential to disrupt the rental market, providing a smoother path to accessing property.
Amy says it all started when her husband seemed to know intimate details about her friends.
“He would drop snippets into conversations, such as knowing about Sarah’s baby. Really private things that he shouldn’t have known about. If I asked how he knew these things, he’d say I’d told him and accuse me of losing it,” she says.
Amy – not her real name – also began to wonder how he seemed to know where she was all the time.
“Sometimes he would say he saw me at a cafe where I was meeting my friends and say he was just passing by chance. I started to question everything and trust no-one, even my friends,” she says.
For months, these incidents built up, turning an abusive marriage into a nightmare that came to a chilling conclusion after a Halloween family trip.
“We’d been to visit a pumpkin patch and were having a rare good weekend, which basically means my husband hadn’t taken anything out on me. Our six-year-old son was playing on the floor and was so happy,” Amy says.
“My husband passed me his phone to show me a picture he’d taken at the farm and in that split-second I saw an alert pop up on his screen. It read, ‘Daily report on Amy’s Mac is ready to view.’
“I felt this chill go through me and I stopped breathing for a minute. I had to excuse myself and pretended I needed the bathroom. I had to be there for my son and pretend that I hadn’t seen anything.
“The first moment I could, I went to the library to use the computer and look up the spyware he’d used. That’s when everything made sense after months of thinking I was going crazy.”
Stalkerware – also known as spouseware – are powerful surveillance software programs typically sold openly online.
On a device, all messages can be read, screen activity recorded, GPS locations tracked and cameras used to spy on what an individual is doing.
Tips to avoid being victimised:
Don’t leavedevice unattended – most software requires physical access
Ditch fingerprintlock – a partner can use your print while you sleep
Add security app– antivirus software can also detect spyware and remove it
According to cyber-security company Kaspersky, the number of people who have discovered such software on their devices has risen by at least 35% in the past year.
Kaspersky researchers say their protection technologies have detected stalkerware on 37,532 devices so far this year.
And principal security researcher David Emm says this is the “tip of a very large iceberg”.
“Most people will routinely protect a laptop or desktop, not that many people actually protect a mobile device,” he says.
“This information is coming back from installations of our product on [smartphones]… so this figure doesn’t even go close to what the total would be.”
Kaspersky’s findings indicate Russia is the country with the highest levels of stalkerware activity. India, Brazil, the United States and Germany complete the top five, with the UK in eighth place with 730 detections.
Another security company says there are practical steps people can take if they suspect they are already being spied on.
“It’s always advisable to check which apps are on your phone and conduct a virus scan where necessary and if there are any apps on your device that you do not recognise it is worth searching online for reviews and deleting them,” says Jake Moore, from Eset.
“As a general rule, if you aren’t using an app, delete it.”
Once Amy realised her computer had been compromised, she developed a severe mistrust of technology, which she is only just overcoming.
Charities say this is a common psychological response to such a trauma.
Jessica was another victim of stalkerware. Her ex-husband routinely spied on her through her phone’s microphone and would play mind games by repeating specific phrases she and her friends had used in private conversations.
It’s been years since she escaped the relationship but she still leaves her phone locked in the car when seeing friends.
Gemma Toynton, from domestic abuse charity Safer Places, says she see this long-term effect a lot in her cases.
“It reduces someone’s trust,” she says. “It makes them see a phone or laptop as a weapon, because that’s what it’s been used for.
“Technology has become, in their minds like a net around them and a lot of people do withdraw from using the internet.
“It really does impact your whole life. The fact that this stalkerware is on the rise is a real concern.”
Amy, who is from the US, is now divorced and lives many miles away from her ex-husband.
She has a restraining order preventing him from direct contact with her and he is legally allowed to communicate logistics about their son’s care via written letter only.
I tested out one of the most popular consumer products, which costs £140 for three months of surveillance.
I bought it online and installed it on to my work phone. It took me about an hour and I used the 24-hour live support offered by the company when I encountered any problems.
Spyware companies advertise their services as “employee monitoring” or “parental control” products.
In many countries, including the UK, using the spyware on a spouse without their permission is illegal, so many of the companies’ websites are littered with disclaimers advising against this.
However, some of the same websites link to articles, seemingly written by associates, recommending the software as a spy tool for “cheatings wives and husbands”.
In a live chat with the company whose product I was testing, I directly told them: “I want to install this on my wife’s phone, will it be secret?”
The customer service-representative responded: “The application will start to work in stealth mode right after installation. I’ll be happy to help.”
I also downloaded five of the top cyber-security products on to the infected mobile and carried out a free scan.
All of them gave alerts for “potentially harmful software”.
The Crown Prosecution Service says there aren’t specific laws related to the use of stalkerware but any criminal activity like this can be prosecuted by a number of means including the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
Amy says more should be done to legislate against the use of these technologies.
“They need to stop hiding behind plausible deniability,” she says.
“There is a wink that’s given when they send this little disclaimer that says, ‘We don’t approve of you spying on wives.’ They know what their customers are doing though. This software causes real harm.”
Millions of Spanish mobile phone users are being tracked this week as part of the government’s census, in a move that critics fear is a step closer towards spying on the population.
Statistics agency INE insists the eight-day project is anonymous and aimed at getting a better idea of where Spaniards go during the day and night.
The three biggest mobile companies are taking part in the scheme.
They say that by handing over the data they are not breaking any laws.
The statistics agency wants to track the movement of Spaniards over eight days, first to their places of work or study from 18-21 November and later on days off and holidays. The second part of the experiment will be done on Sunday 24 November, Christmas Day and two days next summer.
The three companies – Movistar, Vodafone and Orange – cover 78.7% of Spain’s mobile phone users and are to be paid a total of €500,000 (£430,000; $550,000) for taking part in the study.
The country will be divided up into 3,200 cells with more than 5,000 residents, and the operators will work out how many phones are within each cell at various times of day. They will analyse phones between midnight and 06:00 to find out where people live and then later between 09:00 and 18:00.
“We will know for example how many mobiles there are at 17:00 on a particular street in any city of more than 15,000 people, but no more than that,” INE told the El Confidencial website.
Once all the data is analysed, the agency hopes to have a clearer idea of when and where Spaniards travel and then use the information to improve transport and public services. INE wants to use the details in the next census in 2021.
The mobile operators insist there is no way users can be identified as no personal data is being transferred.
On social media especially, Spaniards have raised privacy concerns. One technology lawyer, David Maeztu, said phone operators were not supposed to use data from customers for statistical purposes.
Some users suggested turning their phones off or switching to airplane mode while the study was taking place. Others pointed out that many Orange and Vodafone users could set their preferences or email their provider to prevent their data being passed on to third parties.
Spanish consumers’ organisation OCU warned ahead of the experiment that using a mobile phone’s location was itself personal data, and that keeping the details of the phone numbers anonymous was insufficient. It said the data had to be grouped together in “aggregate form” to ensure the study was lawful.
Cybersecurity expert José Rosell said he was baffled that people were concerned that the data was out there but was not being used.
Others were surprised at the outcry, when no-one batted an eyelid at using a variety of apps such as Google Maps, Facebook and Amazon as part of their daily lives.
“These days any mobile has between 10 to 20 movement trackers. As well as geolocation, there are cameras and microphones. People don’t think what that means,” Mr Rosell told El Mundo newspaper.
Several governments have raised concerns that mobile communications could be used to spy or disrupt telecoms in the future.
The US and some other countries have cited security concerns to block the use of equipment made by Chinese mobile phone maker Huawei in next-generation 5G mobile networks.
Cash seized from criminals is being diverted to protect birds of prey threatened with persecution.
The money is being used to monitor nest sites and put GPS trackers on birds in poisoning and shooting hotspots.
The equipment was bought with money taken from gangs under proceeds of crime laws.
The tracking technology means police can quickly get to a bird that has stopped moving to see whether it has been targeted.
Statistics show birds like buzzards, red kites, peregrine falcons and sparrowhawks continue to be killed.
A 10-year report published today records that since 2009, 66 birds have been killed, though officials believe the incidence could be higher.
Buzzards and kites are the most common victims, normally with poisoned bait.
As scavengers they may not be the intended target.
The poison is more likely to have been laid for foxes, which is itself illegal.
But birds like sparrowhawks and peregrines, which only take live prey, are being deliberately targeted.
In one case in 2018, police believe a live racing pigeon smothered with poison was tethered to a rock as bait in County Tyrone for peregrine falcons nesting nearby.
It is an offence under wildlife legislation to kill birds of prey.
Sanctions include imprisonment and hefty fines.
But in reality cases can be difficult to investigate.
The birds can cover large remote areas and may not be found for some time after they have eaten the poison or been shot, making testing difficult.
The police hope the GPS trackers will mean that if the birds are targeted, they can be reached quickly, improving the investigative opportunities.
The equipment is lightweight and does not impede flight.
PSNI Wildlife Officer Emma Meredith said wildlife crimes were taken seriously by police who were all trained to investigate them.
And she called on the public to report anything suspicious they find.
Dr Eimear Rooney of the Raptor Study Group said it was the first time GPS trackers had been used in this way.
It means that if the bird stops moving, they can get to it quickly to see whether it has been poisoned or shot.
“What may have happened in the past is that that bird might not have been found for two or three weeks, if at all,” Ms Rooney said.
“Now we’ll have those eyes in the skies and we’ll know exactly where the birds are at all times.”
Carbofuran is one of the most commonly used poisons.
It is a highly toxic insecticide and has been banned in the EU for years, but residual stocks remain.
Popular Tanzanian comedian Idris Sultan is being held by police after sharing face-swap photos of himself and President John Magufuli, his lawyer says.
His lawyer said he was being held under the controversial Cybercrimes Act, which forbids using a computer system to “impersonate” someone else.
If charged and convicted, he could face up to seven years in prison.
Sultan was called into a police station on Wednesday, according to a relative.
Police and Mr Magufuli’s office have yet to comment.
Sultan, the one-time winner of Big Brother Africa, shared two photos on his social media accounts which have more than five million followers.
One of the pictures shows Sultan posing on a presidential chair with the national seal, while the other shows Mr Magufuli’s face on the comedian’s body.
The caption was in Swahili, and read: “We swapped roles for a day so that he could enjoy his birthday in peace.”
Shortly after the photos were posted, an Instagram comment, thought to be from Paul Makonda, the Regional Commissioner for Dar es Salaam, told Sultan to report to any police station in the city for further instructions, adding that he “doesn’t know the boundaries of his work.”
A relative told the BBC that Sultan had turned himself in on Wednesday evening, and had not yet returned. Sultan is being held under the 2015 Cybercrimes Act, which forbids using “computer technology” to impersonate someone else, his lawyer Eliya Rioba told the BBC.
If convicted he could face up to seven years in prison, or a fine of up to five million Tanzanian shillings ($2,170; £1,678).
The 2015 Cybercrimes Act has been criticised by human rights activists, who say it infringes on freedom of expression.
Sultan is the second high profile celebrity to run into trouble with the government.
Top African performer Diamond Platnumz was barred from performing in Tanzania last year for “behaving indecently.”
Mr Magufuli came to power three years ago. Some of his decisions have been welcomed, such as limiting foreign trips for civil servants, which were seen to many as a waste of taxpayer money.
But other directives aimed at restricting journalists and opposition groups have raised international concerns.
High-profile arrests include Eric Kabendera, a top investigative journalist who is now facing charges of money laundering and tax evasion.
Another journalist, Azory Gwanda, disappeared in 2017 while investigating a series of killings in the coastal district of Kibiti.
There is a “shrinking space for freedom of expression” in Tanzania, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
“President Magufuli… must carefully reflect on his government’s record of ruthlessly disembowelling the country’s human rights framework,” said Roland Ebole, a researcher for Amnesty International, earlier this week.
“His government must repeal all oppressive laws being used to clamp down on dissent, and urgently end human rights violations and abuses.”
It’s never good when a giant of the technology business describes your product as “a fool’s errand”.
But that’s how Tesla’s chief executive Elon Musk branded the laser scanning system Lidar, which is being touted as the best way for autonomous cars to sense their environment.
In April he said Lidar was “expensive” and “unnecessary”. He believes that cameras combined with artificial intelligence will be enough to allow cars to roam the streets without a human driver.
Lidar emits laser beams and measures how long they take to bounce back from objects, and this provides so-called point-clouds to draw 3D maps of the surroundings.
These can be analysed by computers to recognise objects as small as a football or as big as a football field and can measure distances very accurately.
Despite Mr Musk, some argue these $10,000 (£7,750) pieces of kit are going to be essential. “For a car to reach anything close to full autonomy it will need Lidar,” says Spardha Taneja of Ptolemus Consulting Group, a mobility consultancy.
But why are experts so divided, and how should investors judge this potential gold mine?
Lidar (light detection and ranging) technology is not new – the Apollo 15 mission used it in 1971 to map the Moon. But its breakthrough came in the mid-2000s when Darpa, the research division of the US military, started its annual Grand Challenge, a race for autonomous vehicles.
David Hall who took part in the first race in 2004, soon realised Lidar’s potential. He used the manufacturing capacity of his company Velodyne to build them for other participants.
By 2007 five of the six teams to finish the race employed Velodyne’s system. These rotating lasers, so-called spinners, were mounted on car-roofs to provide 360-degree vision.
Autonomous vehicles have other ways of sensing what’s around them, but they all have weaknesses.
“The drawback of Velodyne’s original Lidar was that it was bulky, its spinning parts were fragile and it cost more than $100,000,” explains Rudy Burger, managing director of Woodside Capital Partners, an investment bank which specialises in technology.
Since then the challenge has been to make Lidar units that are smaller, sturdier and cheaper.
Today Mr Burger counts around 100 Lidar firms. These include car manufacturers like GM and Ford, the GoogleX spin-off Waymo and numerous start-ups, 11 of which have raised more than $100m by his account. There is also the Chinese tech giant Alibaba that has developed a Lidar-based delivery bot.
Mr Burger says the big question now is which system will be put into mass-produced cars.
Manufacturers have to decide whether they want Lidar with more expensive fibre lasers which pump out more energy and have range even in wet weather.
They also have to choose between Lidar units with moving parts and others which don’t – so-called solid-state systems.
“Car manufacturers increasingly prefer those for their durability, lower prize and smaller size which allows smoother aesthetics,” says Ms Taneja. She says a solid-state, long range Lidar costs from $4,000-25,000, but that this price will drop by some 40% by 2022.
However, because solid-state devices have a narrow field of vision, cars will need several each. Given these costs, car manufacturers are still testing different technologies and other than Velodyne no manufacturer has so far sold Lidars in big numbers, she says.
One of the start-ups hoping to do just that is Blickfeld launched in Munich in 2017. “We entered the market late, but the advantage was that we could assess it,” says co-founder Florian Petit.
“So we opted against the revolutionary approaches of many Silicon Valley firms,” and instead wondered “how low can we push the price for a mass-produced system?” he says.
Blickfeld uses off-the-shelf lasers and sensors. Its main improvement has been to design an unusually large mirror, directing more light onto the photo-detector and thus increasing the range of Lidar to 250m (800ft) even with a relatively cheap laser.
Its Lidar is small enough to fit into the rear mirror of a car and Blickfeld’s new assembly line will produce a few thousand units a year. It claims this could be scaled up to an annual capacity of 200,000 – with a possible price tag of just $275 (£210).
Blickfeld already sells Lidars to various firms. They are used to survey cars for parking facilities and traffic control, to run so-called sense-and-avoid systems preventing drone collisions and to monitor fences at labs, banks or airports.
“Lidars produce 3D maps that are easier for computers to analyse and are thus less prone to triggering false alarms than cameras,” says Mr Petit. Still, his main target remains the car industry.
How large this market will become for Lidar is controversial. Tesla’s Elon Musk hopes the cheaper option of improved cameras linked to higher definition radars will suffice.
Others such as Rudy Burger expect the market to temporarily split into two: First, robo-taxis will drive autonomously in crowded cities. In that case even expensive Lidars would still be cheaper than the cost for a driver.
However, for private cars where cost is often the dominant factor the Lidar market is likely to take longer to evolve and may ultimately be replaced by a combination of cameras and radar, he says.
Despite such delays Ms Taneja expects Lidar will become necessary for any car with high levels of autonomy. That means any up-market vehicle now in development for sale in the next few years that will allow drivers to temporarily turn their attention elsewhere. “You just need this extra level of perception for safety reasons.”
How appealing that market is to Lidar producers becomes apparent from Ms Taneja’s breakdown: of the overall price for an advanced self-driving system, 60% goes to Lidar, 30% to the processing unit and 10% to high definition maps, AI software and satellite navigation.
The global Lidar market is forecast to reach $731m in 2025 – little wonder, investors and inventors are getting excited.
Making spacecraft is not a job in which you can afford to be slapdash.
At Lockheed Martin, for example, it used to take a technician two painstaking days to measure 309 locations for certain fasteners on a particular curved panel.
But according to Shelley Peterson, the aerospace company’s head of emerging technologies, the same job now takes little more than two hours.
What changed? The technician started wearing glasses. But not just any old glasses: specifically, the Microsoft Hololens.
It looks like a bulky set of safety goggles. And it layers digital information over the real world. In this case, it scans the curved panel, makes its calculations, and shows the technician exactly where each fastener should go.
Productivity experts are gushing about the potential benefits of augmented-reality devices such as the Hololens and Google Glass.
When Google first demonstrated its smart glasses in 2012, their prospects seemed quite different. They were seen as a consumer device, something that would let us check Instagram and take videos without the hassle of reaching for our phones.
They did not catch on. The few people who ventured out in public wearing Google Glass attracted the dismissive soubriquet “glassholes”.
Google soon realised it had misidentified its target market, so reinvented the glasses for the workplace. Many jobs, after all, involve frequent pauses to consult a screen that tells us what to do next.
With smart specs, we can see those instructions while we keep working. It saves a vital few seconds in getting information from internet to brain.
50 Things That Made the Modern Economy highlights the inventions, ideas and innovations that helped create the economic world.
A thousand years ago, information travelled rather more slowly.
In Cairo, in the 1010s, the Basra-born polymath Hasan Ibn al-Haytham wrote his masterwork, the Book of Optics, but it took two centuries for his insights to be translated beyond Arabic.
Haytham understood vision better than anyone before him.
Some earlier scholars, for example, had said the act of seeing must involve some kind of rays being emitted from the eye. By careful experiment, Haytham proved them wrong: light comes into the eyes.
Before Haytham, optical devices had been cumbersome: the Roman writer Seneca magnified text using a clear glass bowl of water. But the gradual spread of knowledge inspired new ideas. Some time in the late 1200s came the world’s first pair of reading glasses.
Who made them is lost to history but they probably lived in northern Italy. Venice, in particular, was a hub of glassmaking at the time – problematically so, as buildings in Venice were made of wood and the glassmakers’ furnaces kept starting fires.
In 1291, the city’s authorities banished the entire trade to the neighbouring island of Murano. By 1301, “eyeglasses for reading” were popular enough to feature in the rulebook of the Guild of Venetian Crystal Workers.
But historians’ biggest clue to the origin of eyeglasses comes from a sermon in 1306 by one Friar Giordano da Pisa. The invention was now 20 years old, he told his congregation in Florence. As Alberto Manguel notes in A History of Reading, the friar declared glasses to be “one of the most useful devices in the world”.
He was right. Reading strained the eyes at the best of times: medieval buildings weren’t famed for their big windows and artificial light was dim and expensive.
As we age, it becomes harder to focus on close-up objects; middle-aged monks, scholars, notaries and merchants were simply out of luck. Friar Giordino was 50. One can imagine why he appreciated his spectacles so much.
But they were useful only to the small minority who could read. When the printing press came along, glasses reached a bigger market. The first specialist spectacle shop opened in Strasbourg in 1466.
Manufacturers branched out from convex lenses, which help people see close-up. They learned how to grind concave lenses as well, which help people focus on things far away.
Put concave and convex lenses together and you have the basic ingredients for a microscope or a telescope. Both inventions emerged from the spectacle shops of the Netherlands around the year 1600, opening whole new worlds to scientific study.
Nowadays we take glasses for granted – in the developed world, at least. A survey by the College of Optometrists suggests about three-quarters of people in the UK wear glasses or contact lenses or have had surgery to correct their vision. It’s a similar story in America and Japan.
In less developed countries, however, the picture is very different – and only recently did we get a clearer view of it.
Historically, the World Health Organization has collected data on people who have really serious problems with their vision only.
Many more can see well enough to muddle through daily life but would still benefit from spectacles. But how many? The world’s leading lens-maker, Essilor, decided to find out, one assumes not for entirely selfless reasons.
In 2012 came the answer: around the world, some two and a half billion people need glasses and don’t have them. That’s an eye-popping figure but serious people think it’s credible.
And many of those people may have no idea glasses could help them.
In 2017, researchers tested the vision of hundreds of tea-pickers aged 40 or over on a plantation in Assam. They gave a simple $10 (£8.20) pair of reading glasses to half of those who needed them. Then, they compared how much tea was picked by those who wore the glasses and those who didn’t.
Those with the glasses averaged about 20% more tea. The older they were, the more their tea-picking improved. The tea-pickers are paid by how much tea they pick. Before the study, not one owned glasses. By the end, hardly any wanted to give them back.
How widely we can extrapolate from this study is hard to say: picking tea may reward visual acuity more than some other jobs.
Still, even conservative estimates put the economic losses from poor eyesight into the hundreds of billions of dollars – and that’s before you think about people’s quality of life or children struggling at school.
One randomised trial concluded giving children glasses could be equivalent to an extra half year of schooling.
And the need is growing. Presbyopia is a long-sightedness which comes with age; among children there’s now a global epidemic of myopia, or short-sightedness. Researchers aren’t sure why, though it may have to do with children spending less time outdoors.
What would it take to correct the world’s vision? Clearly, more eye doctors would help – the number varies widely from country to country. Greece, for example, has one ophthalmologist for roughly every 5,000 people; in India, it’s one per 70,000; in some African countries, it’s one per a million.
But while serious eye problems demand skilled professionals, people whose needs are more easily fixable could be reached by other workers.
In Rwanda, a charity trained nurses to do sight checks; researchers found they did them well over 90% of the time.
Could teachers identify students struggling to see? I’ve worn glasses since primary school, when my teacher saw me squinting at the blackboard and told my mother to take me to an optician.
It shouldn’t be rocket science to roll out 13th-Century technology.
One wonders what Friar Giordano would make of a world in which we build spacecraft in augmented reality but haven’t yet helped a couple of billion people fix their fuzzy views of actual reality. He’d probably tell us where to focus.
The author writes the Financial Times’s Undercover Economist column. 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the programme’s sources and listen to all the episodes online or subscribe to the programme podcast.
Donald Trump’s tweet picturing a dog that helped “capture and kill” the Islamic State group’s leader is inspiring dog owners to share pictures.
The Belgian malinois was injured when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed himself during a US military raid on his hideout in Syria.
The US president tweeted: “We have declassified a picture of the wonderful dog (name not declassified) that did such a great job in capturing and killing the leader of IS… Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”
And with more than 428,000 “likes” and 102,000 retweets, that tweet has inspired lots of people to “declassify” pictures of their own dogs.
Keith Sonia chose to “declassify” both his dog’s picture and his name, on Twitter, saying while George may not be “a war hero”, he does a “good job sleeping like a human sleeps”.
Elizabeth McLaughlin says her dog likes a gossip with the neighbours. Crows, the wind and the “nasty corgi around the corner” are all topics of conversation.
At a press conference on Monday at the Pentagon, Gen Mark A Milley, the highest ranking member of the US military, told reporters the dog’s name was not being released to protect its identity as it was “still in theatre”.
He went on to say the dog had performed a “tremendous service”.
There have been nearly 100,000 tweets containing the words “declassified” and “dog” since the president’s tweet.
Some are hoping when the name of the dog is declassified, it will be “awesome”.
And even BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones has joined in.
And for those who are wondering, here is the original declassified dog.
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A university professor is suing a wildlife park for enforcing facial recognition, in one of the first significant legal challenges to China’s rapidly growing use of the technology.
It is an issue that has become a matter of heated debate.
Prof Guo Bing says the Hangzhou Safari Park is “violating consumer protection law by compulsorily collecting visitors’ individual characteristics”, after it suddenly made facial recognition registration a mandatory requirement for visitor entrance.
The park has since compromised by offering visitors a choice between using the previous fingerprint system and high-tech facial recognition, China Daily reports.
The park is one of many institutions to introduce facial recognition at its entrances. China has been aggressively rolling out facial recognition in the past five years, originally as a means of boosting security but now as a means of bringing consumer convenience to people’s lives, particularly in e-payments.
However, since Prof Guo questioned the necessity of it, there have been bigger conversations about the extensive amount of data kept on citizens.
Prof Guo, a law professor at the Zhejiang Sci-Tech University in eastern China, is a season ticket holder at the Hangzhou Safari Park.
In previous years, he has used fingerprint recognition to enter. But on 17 October, he received a message telling him that the park’s system had been upgraded, and it had become mandatory for visitors to register their details using the facial recognition system.
“I clearly expressed my dissatisfaction with the collection of facial data,” he told popular news website The Paper. He said that he was willing to continue scanning with his fingerprints, but he was told that was not possible.
When he said that he would like to cancel his card, he was told he would not receive a full refund.
So on 28 October, he took the park to court.
The official China Daily newspaper said his case, which has been accepted by the Fuyang District People’s Court, was “the first court case involving the use of facial recognition in China”.
The case is reported as still ongoing.
Dr Mimi Zou, a Fangda Career Development Fellow in Chinese Commercial Law at the University of Oxford, says the case is very likely to be dismissed if Prof Guo continues to pursue it.
She says that, at present, “there is not a legally binding instrument that deals directly” with his claim, which is that the park is making collection of his biometric data a condition of entry, and therefore rendering his consent meaningless.
However, she says that there has been “a growing yet fragmented regulatory landscape of privacy and data protection laws in recent years”, as well as “a national voluntary standard on data privacy known as the Personal Information Security Specifications”.
Dr Zou tells the BBC that, although it is currently voluntary, it “lays a normative foundation for a more binding legal framework”.
She says that several big tech companies like Tencent and Alipay have trialled the scheme based on its current standards.
“I believe the rapid development of these standards reflects the growing privacy concerns among the general public in relation to how non-state actors are collecting and using their personal data. We are seeing an increasing responsiveness of Chinese regulators in tackling these concerns,” she says.
But she notes that state surveillance is “the elephant in the room” in cases against commercial/business actors that involve the legal protection of Chinese people’s data or privacy rights.
“In this realm – and not just in China – there is no such thing as personal privacy.”
Now that questions about facial recognition have entered the courts, there are big discussions online in China about the technology.
Weibo users note that “many places are now forcibly collecting personal information”. One user’s comment that they fear “there will be risks in the future” related to it has received 2,000 likes.
“In China, people’s privacy is not protected,” another user adds, “and the illegal collection of facial recognition information is extremely scary.”
“Technology changes lives and brings convenience to people’s lives,” another user says. “But you should absolutely be cautious in the event of a security breach.”
“It’s too horrible,” another adds. “Everyone is collecting personal information from all over the place.”
Facial recognition has been in China for a number of years now.
In 2017, it was lauded for being extensively built into the country’s surveillance networks and helping the country identify and catch fugitives.
Last year, media noted that police were able to pick a fugitive out of a crowd of 60,000 at a concert due to facial recognition. In the same year, police equipped with the technology were able to identify suspected criminals in sunglasses.
But in recent months, it has seen a much more aggressive rollout in private institutes, such as gyms, office buildings and even schools.
Facial recognition for payment in shops and supermarkets has increasingly become the norm, replacing the earlier trend of scanning QR codes attached to mobile apps.
And it has even been popularised among young people as a tool for entertainment. In late August, a mobile app called Zao made headlines because it could sophisticatedly take a print of somebody’s face, and put it almost seamlessly on the body of a celebrity, making people appear as if they were a character in their favourite film or TV programme.
However, within a week of Zao being launched, it was removed from online stores, after users noted the app’s terms and conditions “gave the developers the global right to permanently use any image created on the app for free”.
It is unlikely that the momentum for facial recognition will slow down in China, particularly because of its success in netting wanted fugitives.
Much has been written by official media on the “successful use” of facial recognition to net hundreds of criminals in China’s “Operation Fox Hunt”.
What’s more, China has indicated that it will aggressively extend its surveillance operations by 2020 using a highly sophisticated “Skynet” surveillance network.
In 2017, China had approximately 170 million CCTV cameras. But an estimated 400 million new cameras, many fitted with artificial intelligence and facial recognition, are expected to be in place by the end of the year.
Researchers in the US say they have created an ultra-slippery toilet coating that could help save vast quantities of water around the world.
Scientists at Penn State University say the coating cuts the amount of water required to flush excrement by 90%.
They say it also prevents bacteria from building up in toilet bowls and reduces associated odours.
The spray, which is more slippery than Teflon, would be affected by urine and need reapplying after about 50 flushes.
Researchers hope that the discovery could help reduce water waste. Every day, more than 141 billion litres of water are used to flush toilets.
According to the researchers, who published their findings in the journal Nature Sustainability, the fresh water used to flush the world’s toilets each day is six times Africa’s total water consumption.
“Our team has developed a robust bio-inspired, liquid, sludge- and bacteria-repellent coating that can essentially make a toilet self-cleaning,” Tak-Sing Wong, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the university, told Penn State News.
“Poop sticking to the toilet is not only unpleasant to users, but it also presents serious health concerns,” he said. “Our goal is to bring impactful technology to the market so everyone can benefit,” he added.