Who's Dream?


Future airports could become hi-tech pleasure domes


Flight delays, lost luggage, gate change confusion - airports can be stressful to say the least.

But what if technology could make the whole business of air travel more efficient and even pleasurable?

With this in mind, airport operators invested almost $7bn (£4.6bn) on IT services last year, experimenting with automated check-in, navigational apps and new ways of promoting retail opportunities, to name but a few innovations.

And in future we can expect laser-powered security scanners, virtual shopping walls, biometric gates and holographic helpers enhancing our journey experiences and driving up profits for operators.

Welcome to Aeroville!

Airports may even become destinations in their own right - tech-heavy terminals that charm and amaze us.

Take the Jewel expansion at Singapore's Changi Airport, for example.

When it opens in 2018 its majestic steel and glass design will incorporate five storeys above ground and five below, a huge indoor park with native flora and walking trails, and the world's tallest indoor waterfall - the 40m "Rain Vortex" with its own night-time sound and light displays.

And the recently renovated Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles Airport gives us another glimpse of the future.

It features the largest immersive multimedia system of any airport in the Americas. Seven huge screens show Southern California scenes and quirky videos, the centrepiece being a 22.5m "time tower" whose striking images constantly change.

These installations also react to passenger movement and real-time flight data.

"When we think of technology enhancing experiences, we often think of how it can speed things up, or make things more profitable or convenient," says Peter Firth of the Future Laboratory.

"But the best example of improving an airport that we have seen is less about efficiency and more about poetry."

Don't wait, automate

Tedious airport processes like check-in will increasingly be automated.

London Heathrow and Amsterdam's Schiphol are already trialling self-service biometric passport gates that use facial recognition technology, for instance. And Japan's All Nippon Airways provides travellers with "smart tablets" enabling them to check in quickly, navigate the airport, and receive real-time messages about their flights.

London's Gatwick Airport, meanwhile, is building the world's largest automated bag drop zone that will allow you to check in luggage as early as 12 hours before a flight, simply by dropping it onto a conveyor belt.

Greg Fordham, managing director of consultancy Airbiz, believes technology will empower travellers.

"In five years' time… an entirely automated airport journey will see the passenger take complete control," he said in a recent report by travel search engine, Skyscanner.

Multilingual, multi-skilled airport staff would only be on hand to help passengers in need of assistance, he believes.

Facial recognition

The trend is filtering through to security, too. Gatwick, for instance, uses facial recognition technology to make sure queue time in security is always below five minutes.

"We track your face at four points on the journey through security, to get real-time feedback on how long it is taking," explains Michael Ibbitson, the airport's chief information officer.

"Then we combine that data with expected traffic patterns and can proactively open and close security lanes by sending emails to the smartphones of our employees."

Facial recognition technology could extend to discerning expressions or body movements that suggest somebody may be carrying contraband or likely to be a security risk, experts believe, although such technology could fall foul of privacy campaigners.

The laborious X-ray process could be in for a makeover, too.

US firm Genia Photonics has created a "laser molecular scanner" that penetrates clothing and other organic materials to expose traces of explosives or drugs.

The tech, which some speculate will eventually be rolled out at airports, scans multiple people at once and works from a distance of 50m (164ft).

'Transtailing' therapy

It would be nice to think all this technological innovation is for our benefit alone, but in truth it is closely linked to airport profits.

"Faster check-in also means more time to spend at the airport, which creates retail opportunities," says Emre Serpen of IT company Wipro.

"And at some airports non-aeronautical revenues are higher than aeronautical ones."

Perhaps not surprisingly, operators are trialling a host of new technologies designed to make us spend.

Copenhagen, Shanghai Hongqiao and Miami are experimenting with beacon transmitters that send Bluetooth signals to smartphones alerting passengers to discounts or special offers.

And looking ahead we could see the spread of "virtual shopping walls", where shoppers scan QR codes on their smartphones to buy luxury goods or groceries.

These are already present at Gatwick, New Delhi and Frankfurt, but in the future shopping walls could reach a whole new level, believes Skycanner, with interactive software allowing passengers "to order food or goods with a wave of [their] hand or by a simple verbal command".

Policing the skies

Making airports more efficient and pleasurable is one thing, coping with the expected increase in air traffic is another.

Passenger numbers are expected to reach 7.3 billion by 2034, more than double the 3.3 billion in 2014, the International Air Transport Association predicts.

This is likely to mean our skies become more congested, leading to more flight delays and more damaging carbon dioxide emissions.

But the advent of next-generation air traffic management systems could help relieve the pressure.

For example, iTEC, a system developed by Spanish firm Indra, can predict where an aeroplane will be at any point on its journey based on a series of inputs such as radar, flight plan and weather.

This means the air traffic controller can create a "conflict free" plan for each aircraft which requires fewer changes of altitude and thrust, making flights smoother, faster and less polluting.

Indra says iTEC shaves 30-40 nautical miles off a flight from Frankfurt to North America crossing Scottish airspace, potentially equating to £122m in fuel savings annually.

The system will eventually cover German, Spanish, Dutch and UK airspace.

In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is rolling out its own system, Next Gen, between 2012 and 2025, in an attempt to reduce the annual $31bn cost of delays.

GPS technology will enable planes to fly closer together, take more direct routes and avoid delays caused by airport "stacking" as planes wait for an open runway.

But the programme has been subject to delays, and in July 2013 the inspector general of the US Department of Transportation claimed that implementing Next Gen could cost significantly more than the initial $40bn estimate and take as much as 10 years longer than planned - a claim the FAA denied.

Tomorrow's Transport is a series exploring innovation in all forms of mobility against a backdrop of global warming and rising population.


Australia grapples with its growing fleet of drones


It was a hot and humid day when a shark alarm rang out across Australia's most famous beach, scaring swimmers out of the water at Bondi, Sydney.

The shark sightings came three days after a police helicopter spotted a bull shark in the Bondi surf in early January.

Helicopters are regularly used by surf life-saving associations to spot sharks at popular swimming beaches.

And the Bondi shark alerts - sounded when the beach was crowded with locals and tourists - have added impetus to the local council's decision to trial drones to help spot sharks.

Waverley Council has already conducted a test flight of one of these multi-rotor copters with an attached Go-Pro camera. It is now considering the legal and safety implications of the so-called spy-in-the-sky technology.

This is just one of a growing number of applications for the new technology.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as they are formally known, are frequently used for surveillance in war zones and by emergency services but also increasingly by the media, in land surveys, and in real estate and agriculture.

Governments around the world are turning their attention to how to regulate their use.

Australia was one of the first countries to introduce licences for commercial drone operators and regulations for both recreational and commercial use, in 2002.

Proposed changes to those regulations could soon make them among the world's toughest.

Close calls

According to Australia's Civil Aviation and Safety Authority (Casa), the number of businesses applying for a drone licence has risen sharply in recent years, from about 14 in 2012 to 180 licences today.

But it is impossible to gauge how many drones are being used recreationally, according to Casa's Corporate Communication Manager Peter Gibson, because "they can be flown straight out of the box without a licence".

Their popularity has also increased as prices have fallen from thousands of dollars to about A$500 ($404, £267).

Europe and the US have been slow to regulate drone technology and debate has stalled over how to protect people's privacy without stifling commercial uses. Other countries, such as Spain, have banned commercial drones altogether.

Drones can be dangerous in the hands of amateurs, as a YouTube sub-genre devoted to drone crashes attests. Ensuring hobbyists abide by Casa rules is vital, says Mr Gibson.

The authority's pre-Christmas publicity campaign highlighted rules stipulating drones must be flown below 121m (400ft) and only in daylight, with the craft in sight at all times. Drones should not go within 5.5km (3.4 miles) of airports and must be no closer than 30m (98ft 5in) to people, vehicles and buildings.

But breaches inevitably occur. Last December, during a police siege at a house in Melbourne, a local man used a drone to film the siege. It crashed into a power line, narrowly missing a police officer. The owner was subsequently prosecuted and fined A$850.

More alarming is the number of times drones have been reported flying uncomfortably close to commercial jets. Over the past year in Australia, pilots reported seeing a drone close to their aircraft on 14 occasions.

In the US, there were 25 near-misses between drones and larger aircraft over a six-month period last year, according to the Washington Post.

It is vital that regulations be updated and that authorities try to anticipate new uses for drones, says Mr Gibson from Casa.

Risk to privacy

Media organisations are among the groups that have adopted the technology. Casa's rule changes are expected to make it easier for the media to use small drones.

Mark Corcoran, a seasoned international correspondent at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), heads a project examining the pros and cons of using drones for newsgathering.

His interest in "drone journalism" began in 2006 when he was covering the conflict in Beirut and saw an Israeli military drone with a camera flying overhead.

"This technology is a wonderful tool for seeing what's around the corner or over the hill when there may be a threat to your safety," says Mr Corcoran.

But drones can easily invade privacy and breach security. Last year, a Victorian real estate agent who was using a drone legitimately - to take aerial shots of a property - published photos revealing the neighbour sunbathing topless.

In France, drones have filmed nuclear power plants.

There have been calls for privacy protection governing drones to be enshrined in Australian law.

However, Mr Corcoran says governments may not want to over-regulate an emerging technology that has many positive, peaceful uses.

The public's attitude to drones will ultimately depend on what they can do and how they are used, he says.

"If a drone is used to save a surfer or swimmer, then it's all good," he says. "If an out-of-control drone is sucked into the engine of an airliner, it may well result in drone-control becoming highly contentious."


Is it extreme to make universities combat extremists?


Europe is reeling from the Charlie Hebdo killings - something that Home Secretary Theresa May described as an attack on freedom and democracy.

Yet the coming fortnight will see a Parliamentary battle over how the principles of freedom apply to universities in an age of global terrorism threats.

That battle comes down to the extent to which universities should be expected to root out extremism from their campuses - and how much power the government should have to intervene.

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which is in its final Parliamentary stages, creates that power for ministers to step in.

I have blogged before about how its primary purpose is to "disrupt" rather than to prosecute - and this is where the universities come in.

It will place a legal duty on public bodies including universities to have "due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism'. That's legalese for taking steps to boot extremism off campus.

But while all the attention has been on separate plans in the bill to exclude some British nationals from returning home, opposition is mounting - against the clock - to a measure that critics say is an assault on academic freedom.

The core aim of these proposals is to keep terrorist recruiters off campus, echoing long-standing concerns of some academics and security analysts, such as Professor Anthony Glees.

He has spent years warning that institutions can unwittingly become the breeding ground for extremism.

Ministers would be able to issue guidance to universities - and if an institution fails to act, the Home Secretary could order them to do so.

If they ignore that direction, they could end up before the High Court.

Critics say that the power being given to the Home Secretary is so wide that it would turn lecturers into spies.

Academics could, warn some, be required to create schedules of their students' political or religious activity, vet their research, limit the topics they want to teach and debate.

Lecturers could even find themselves under investigation thanks to their chosen topic of academic investigation - which is what happened to Dr Rizwaan Sabir at the University of Nottingham six years ago.

The government says the legislation is focused on combating extremism that leads to terrorism.

Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill's "Prevent" duty

  • Creates a new duty on public bodies to "have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism"
  • Allows the Secretary of State to issue guidance to those bodies about how they should do it
  • Gives the Secretary of State power to order a public body to take specific actions
  • That decision taken on recommendation from officials on the cross-government Prevent Oversight Board
  • Failure to comply could lead to court action

Is there a terror problem in some universities? A former security minister and academic chief debate on BBC Radio Four's Today programme.

It wants "active engagement" from academic institutions, including formal risk assessments on where and how their students may be drawn into terrorism, violent extremism and "non-violent extremism which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism".

Speaking during last week's Lords debate, Home Office minister Lord Bates said: "Nothing being brought forward today says that the government is going to tell any university who it should invite to speak.

"Nothing is going to tell any university who it should have on its faculty or in its student body. That is for the university to decide."

The draft guidance suggests universities should have a policy of 14 days advance notice for events or speakers so that they their intentions can be assessed.

It is at this point that critics predict ministers could intervene even if there is a legitimate academic reason for hearing from a speaker, no matter how unpalatable their views.

In a letter to The Times last month, 25 university chiefs said said the legislation is wrongheaded because institutions already adhere to national codes on combating extremism, including managing invited speakers.

"Universities are at their most effective in preventing radicalisation by ensuring that academics and students are free to question and test received wisdom within the law," said the letter.

And despite government attempts to reassure universities, opposition to the measure appears to be growing and is cross-party.

Among its most prominent critics are a former director of public prosecutions, a cabinet secretary and, perhaps most significantly, MI5's former chief, Eliza Manningham-Buller.

Now chairman of Imperial College London, the baroness sits in the House of Lords as a cross-bench peer - and she attacked the legislation in last week's debate.

"I am afraid that it is a profound irony that we are seeking to protect our values against this pernicious ideology by trying to bar views that are described, too vaguely, as "non-violent" extremist - but which fall short of incitement to violence or to racial or ethnic hatred—which is already forbidden by law.

"The voicing of these opinions, some of which have been mentioned, such as those against the rule of law, democracy, civil society, women's rights and so on is, of course, often offensive and insulting to people.

"But we have been reminded only recently that we have a right to insult and we should avoid double standards."


Greece Finance Minister Varoufakis: 'Europe comes first'


The economist-turned-finance minister seeking to renegotiate Greece's huge debt obligations says his priority is the well-being of all Europeans and has ruled out accepting more bailout cash.

After talks with his French counterpart, Yanis Varoufakis said a new debt deal was needed within months.

Michel Sapin said France was ready to help Greece settle with its creditors.

Mr Varoufakis is in London on Monday for similar talks with the UK Chancellor George Osborne.

Ahead of the meeting, Mr Osborne said that he welcomed the opportunity to "discuss face to face with Yanis Varoufakis the stability of the European economy and how to boost its growth".

Mr Varoufakis is to travel to Rome next on his trip around Europe's capitals and financial hubs.

His comments follow remarks on Saturday by new Greek PM Alexis Tsipras, who said he was confident Greece could reach a deal with creditors.

'Ending the addiction'

Greece's leftist anti-austerity Syriza party won last Sunday's election with a pledge to write off half the country's debt.

Greeece still has a debt of €315bn - about 175% of gross domestic product - despite some creditors writing down debts in a renegotiation in 2012.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has ruled out debt cancellation, saying creditors had already made concessions.

At a news conference in which Mr Sapin reiterated that "there is no question of cancelling the Greek debt", Mr Varoufakis said Greece and its partners had to proceed "with one objective in mind - the prosperity of the average European citizen".

He added that he wanted a new plan for fiscal stimulus in place by the end of May, with repayment of existing debt tied to Greece's ability to restore growth.

He ruled out Greece receiving a new tranche of the bailout package.

"It's not that we don't need the money, we're desperate because of certain commitments and liabilities that we have," he said.

"We have resembled drug addicts craving the next dose. What this government is all about is ending the addiction."

Greek economy in numbers
      • Average wage is €600 (£450: $690) a month
      • Unemployment is at 25%, with youth unemployment almost 50%
      • Economy has shrunk by 25% since the start of the eurozone crisis
      • Country's debt is 175% of GDP
      • Borrowed €240bn (£188bn) from the EU, the ECB and the IMF

Mr Varoufakis said he would visit several European capitals, including Berlin, as he sought agreement on Greece's debts.

He added he would negotiate separately with the European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank but not with officials representing all three - the so-called "troika", which he described as a "committee of technocrats".

The troika agreed a €240bn (£179bn; $270bn) bailout with the previous Greek government.

Austerity measures imposed in an effort to manage the debt have prompted outrage in Greece and led voters to reject the previous government.

Instead Greeks convincingly voted Syriza into power after an election campaign dominated by the party's message of change.

In interviews in the German media published on Saturday, Mrs Merkel said she still wanted Greece to stay in the eurozone but did not "envisage fresh debt cancellation".

Greece's current programme of loans ends on 28 February. A final bailout tranche of €7.2bn was still to be negotiated but the new government has already begun to roll back austerity measures.


Viewpoint: South Sudan has not lived up to the hype


As South Sudan prepares to celebrate the first anniversary of its independence, blogger PaanLuel Wel discusses whether the world's newest country has lived up to the hopes of a year ago.

There were great celebrations and high expectations when South Sudan finally seceded from the Sudan on 9 July, 2011.

Yet barely a year into South Sudan's much-hyped independence, the country has failed miserably to live up to expectations.

It has been gripped by both external and internal problems that are threatening to tear it apart in its infancy.

Nevertheless, there is hardly any regret among South Sudanese citizens for the overwhelming 98% vote they gave for South Sudan's independence from Khartoum.

South Sudan's independence was greatly welcomed because it not only heralded the end of more than 50 years of bitter conflict between the two Sudans, but also the beginning of political reconciliation among South Sudanese.

It was also expected to offer South Sudanese an opportunity to embark on the path of much-needed economic development and political democratization.

For the many oppressed South Sudanese, it was to be a new era to finally enjoy those economic privileges, democratic rights and civil liberties that they had long been deprived of by Khartoum.

Sadly though, disillusionment, bitterness and uncertainty now reign large and wide across the young country.

Economic free-fall

Two kinds of problems confront the world's newest independent nation: Unresolved issues between Khartoum and Juba, and internal issues surround corruption, insecurity and the failure of leadership among South Sudan's ruling party, the SPLM.

The contested issues between Khartoum and Juba - border demarcations, the contested region of Abyei, the disputes over oil and the accusations of harbouring and supporting each other's rebel groups - have doggedly undermined the socio-economic and political development of South Sudan.

Disputes have led to deadly fighting in the border town of Jau and the disputed oil-rich town of Panthou/Heglig.

The government of South Sudan has done little since independence to diversify the economy and reduce South Sudan's dependency on oil revenues, currently at 98% of the national budget.

Although South Sudan took with it more than 75% of total oil reserves after separation, it still needs Khartoum's oil facilities and port in order to export it to international markets, yet the two countries have repeatedly failed to agree on transit fees.

South Sudan is now calling for international arbitrations over contested borders while Khartoum is demanding that the agreement must be based on the 2005 peace accord borderline, as opposed to the 1956 borders.

The stalemate over the negotiations, coupled with accusations of oil theft and arbitrary oil diversion by Khartoum, prompted South Sudan to shut down all oil productions, sending the economy into free-fall.

Inflation soared to more than 80% in May.

The government reneged on its promise of free university education as crippling austerity measures were introduced to save money.

Making matters worse, South Sudan failed to get any short-term loans from international partners to shore up its dwindling national reserves.

China, the main buyer of South Sudan's oil, has refused to fund the much-publicised alternative oil pipeline for South Sudan through Kenya.

While the government may not be entirely blamed for all the external problems bedevilling the country, it bears the blame for its internal woes.

Since independence, the SPLM has failed to restore law and order within the country.

Armed rebellions and inter-ethnic violence - fuelled by alleged political marginalization, vote rigging, cattle rustling and land disputes - is widespread across the new nation.

In December 2011, the fighting between the Nuer and the Murle tribes of Jonglei State reportedly killed more than 600 people.

Of the 10 states that make up South Sudan, seven of them are directly involved in either armed rebellions or inter-tribal disputes.

'Global problem child'

Moreover, South Sudan has not lived up to its expectations because of rampant corruption and wanton mismanagement within the government.

In the wake of the loss of oil revenue, the president was compelled to acknowledge that more than $4bn (£2.5bn) has been lost within the past seven years.

For example, about $200m (£128m) was lost in botched grain contracts and a ministry charged with purchasing government vehicles ended up paying an inflated price of $400,000 (£256,000) per vehicle.

There is a strong perception that top government positions and job promotions are determined by whom you know, not what you know.

The failure by the government of South Sudan to stem the cycles of violence and to eradicate corruption and tribalism has effectively stalled economic development and disrupts social lives.

There is hardly any substantial investment in agricultural productivity, social facilities, infrastructure, trade or development.

This failure has left more than half of the country's population at the mercy of abject poverty, chronic diseases and violent crimes.

The United Nations Population Fund reports that South Sudan has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.

This is mainly due to the inadequacy of health care and educational facilities in the new nation.

Nonetheless, it is possible for South Sudan to overcome its major problems.

The government should diversify the economy to reduce over-reliance on oil revenues, while striving to curb corruption and combat tribalism.

Tackling corruption and tribalism would enable the government to invest in sorely needed economic infrastructure and social amenities.

Although people's expectations were not met and despite the fact that South Sudan is being regarded as "a global problem child" in its infancy, the people of the republic of South Sudan are not regretting their overwhelming vote for independence.

South Sudanese citizens are grateful that they now have an independent state of their own.

PaanLuel Wël is the managing editor of PaanLuel Wël: South Sudanese Bloggers


Waste not, want not - making money from rubbish


Tom Szaky talks 10 to the dozen. It's as if he doesn't want to waste a single minute of the hour-long interview I have with him.

But then waste is a subject dear to his heart. He is the founder and chief executive of social enterprise TerraCycle, a company whose aim is eliminating waste.

"It's a lofty ideal I know," he says, but so far so good.

In 13 years, US-based TerraCycle has gone from the classic start-up run out of a basement to operating in 21 countries. Last year it had revenue worth $20m (£13m) and 115 employees.

The company's business model is to find waste and turn it into something useful, for a profit. It collects things that are generally considered difficult to recycle - such as cigarette stubs, coffee capsules, or biscuit wrappers - and finds a way to reuse them.

That is done mainly through processing them down into a material and selling them to a manufacturer, and to a lesser extent by turning them into products such as bags, benches or dustbins.

It relies on contracts with businesses - such as McVities, Johnson & Johnson, and Kenco - that pay TerraCycle to take away their waste, as well as individual consumers collecting and sending it in, in return for donations to a charity of their choice.

Hungarian experience

With messy hair, jeans and sweatshirt, Tom, 33, is typical of the new breed of young entrepreneur that shuns formality.

Yet he goes one stage further - he's worn the same pair of jeans every day for the past year (except for the weekend when they're washed) as part of his attempt to consume less.

Born in communist Hungary, Tom fled the country with his parents at the age of four, ending up in Canada, via Holland, aged 10. He says his whole business model is borne out of his experience of the two different economic systems.

"In Hungary back then, you needed a licence for a TV set," he explains.

You couldn't just go and buy one. Instead, after applying for a licence maybe a year later you'd get a black and white TV, and you'd get the one state channel.

Tom says: "Only a few years later we end up in Canada where every Friday my dad and I would drive round and see mountains of TVs thrown out of every apartment buildings.

"We'd pick a few up just for fun - because we thought 'who would throw out a TV?' and they all worked and they were colour!"

This, he adds, got him to thinking about the concept of waste. At the same time, he was impressed and inspired by the entrepreneurs he met in Canada (parents of friends of his), and decided he wanted to run a business.

Profit driven

TerraCycle was set up in 2002 after Tom, then 19, dropped out of Princeton University in New Jersey to develop an idea he had - much to the chagrin of his parents, who strongly believed in the importance of his education.

"Yeah, [it was] one of those moments where the child tells the parents this is my life, and I shall do as I wish. A breakthrough moment in that sense," he acknowledges.

The first product that TerraCycle made was an organic fertiliser created from "worm poop". Within five years, the firm had sales of around $3m to $4m, but was making a loss. It was then that Tom realised that the approach was wrong.

"We were trying to come up with a product and then find the best type of garbage to make it.

"Five years into the business we totally pivoted everything," he says. "Instead of starting the question with the product, we said let's start with the garbage… we need to solve crisp bags, cigarette butts and so on."

Without that realisation, he reckons TerraCycle could never have been profitable. And he's a firm believer in profit.

"Many young entrepreneurs think you can either do good for the world and earn nothing, or you can do something negative and earns loads of money.

"I don't choose either - I want to make a lot of money by doing good.

"People are also motivated by personal return. If I sell this company I'll make millions, and that's a human motivator.

"I really fundamentally want to live my life in this way, but the fact that I can walk away with tens of millions - that's a positive, I'm not going to say I feel bad about it. "

TerraCycle facts

    • Set up in the US in 2002
    • Launched in the UK in 2009
    • Has prevented 2.5 billion pieces of waste from going into landfill
    • Donated more than $6m to charities and schools
    • Makes money from recycling companies' waste, and selling it on to manufacturers
    • Also offers to make donations to charity when individual consumers send in recycled goods
    • The cigarette stubs it collects are turned into plastic pallets

Tom calls his social enterprise a meeting of communism and capitalism. As chief executive, he can only earn seven times the lowest paid employee. ("Seven X" as he refers to it.)

And everything about the business is fully transparent, he says, so every employee receives the same reports that he receives on the company's progress.

The offices are open-plan, and are usually based in cheaper parts of town - the US one is based in Trenton, New Jersey, and the UK one in Perivale, west London.

As part of the company's creative drive, it even has its own reality TV show - an excerpt of which shows the producer asking Tom if he could "stop talking in soundbites". He's nothing if not good at PR.

Of the challenges ahead for TerraCycle, he says a main one is keeping the large companies engaged.

"It's about organisations maintaining their desire around these [TerraCycle recycling] programmes, because everyone wants the next new thing," says Tom.

As for the individual consumers that send in stuff to recycle, he points out that they get nothing tangible in return for their service.

"You're buying a good feeling - so that's a harder product service to sell. There's a lack of physical payback. It's not like buying a coffee or knapsack. We're selling something esoteric."

Esoteric it may be, but investors are interested - Tom is in talks to sell a 20% stake with an unnamed British company for around $20m.


Did this 100-year-old film make people racist?


When the first ever feature-length film premiered in LA 100 years ago, viewers were astonished by its cinematography, gripping battle scenes and three-hour running time. But it was also racist and helped revive the Ku Klux Klan. Did Birth of a Nation have a greater impact on real life than any other film?

D W Griffith's film tells the story of America during the Civil War and Reconstruction. It depicts black men (white actors in black face) as violent, stupid and obsessed with interracial marriage. In contrast, it paints the Ku Klux Klan as heroes on a mission to protect the country.

The film has an "evil, deeply racist side," says Melvyn Stokes, a film professor at University College London and the author of In the Shadow of 'The Birth of a Nation': A Centennial Assessment of Griffith's film. Despite this, the original audiences were "carried away with the drama of it," Stokes says. "It must have been a very emotional experience seeing it then."

Critics lavished the film with praise for its cinematic power, says Frank Beaver, a professor of screen arts at the University of Michigan - it completely defied their expectations of what a film could be.

It established techniques and tropes that would be used for years to come, which explains why it is listed as 44th on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Greatest Films.

But it also had a huge impact on race relations in America. At its first screening, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a fledgling organisation at the time, protested outside the theatre. Across the country, these demonstrations often flared into violence. They were particularly large in Boston, where local black leader William Monroe Trotter was briefly arrested.

In London, the film had a long run at the Drury Lane Theatre and was a critical success, though there were protests here too, mainly from the Anti-Slavery Society.

The Ku Klux Klan had largely died out in America in the 1870s, but when Birth of a Nation arrived in Georgia, a local white supremacist, William Simmons, used it as a tool to recruit new members. White-clad riders appeared on the streets.

While the Klan's resurgence may not have been a direct effect of the film, it certainly helped promote the KKK's message. "The word had been spread that this was a film that was a powerful attack on outsiders," Beaver says. And the KKK continued to use it as a recruiting film until 1970.

On the other hand, the newly-formed NAACP doubled its numbers in 1915, as it tried unsuccessfully to get the film banned. The outcry "helped build the NAACP's membership and some of its causes," Beaver says.

Perhaps the film had such an impact because of the way it was structured.

The first half "looks just like history in the making" says Beaver. "It led people to believe that this was accurate." It helped Griffith gain their trust before the deeply racist second half of the film.

"If you're going to show the film, you know there'll be a bunch of demonstrators outside your theatre," Stokes says.

So has it had a greater impact than any other film?

Yes, says Beaver. "There is no question. I can't think of another film that has had such a long political arm."

There are other films, though, that have had a non-political impact.

George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, was a graduate student when the film Jaws came out in 1975 - and while most of the audience gasped in fear, he and a few others spent their time at the back of the auditorium "laughing our heads off" at the mistakes.

Like Birth of a Nation, Jaws was a hugely successful film. Burgess hails it as an "excellent piece of cinematography" - as distinct from the later films of the Jaws franchise. It intensified the image many viewers already had of the shark as "the enemy", and even gave it human attributes, such as the desire for revenge.

The result was a "recreational onslaught" Burgess says, "a great spike in the number of fishers who decided to go out catch sharks", and this led to a significant decline of the shark population on the East Coast of the US post-1975, he says.

An increase in commercial shark fishing occurred at about the same time, resulting in a "double whammy" from which the East Coast sharks have yet to recover, Burgess adds. Though populations are now rising again, they are not predicted to return to their earlier levels for several decades.

The effect on the West Coast was not as marked because there is a less diverse shark population, and a greater proportion of Great White sharks - the kind depicted in Jaws - which are hard to catch without specialised equipment.

Another example of a film with a quantifiable impact is the Oscar-winning 2004 film, Sideways, about two friends on a trip through US wine country. Paul Giamatti's character refuses to drink Merlot and instead loves Pinot Noir. Soon after it came out, winemakers started noticing what they called "the Sideways Effect". Pinot Noir sales were up and Merlot sales were dropping.

Steven S Cuellar, a professor at Sonoma State University, researched whether this effect was actually real. He looked at sales of Merlot and Pinot Noir wines, and a control group of the red wines Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon from 1999 - 2008.

Sure enough, he saw that Pinot Noir sales climbed after the release of Sideways while Merlot sales flattened - the film had indeed impacted wine sales.

But sharks and wine are not quite as central to life as the politics of race.


Tell-tale signs of a genius child


Another young child with an exceptionally high IQ has been accepted by Mensa.

Four-year-old Heidi Hankins from Winchester is said to have an IQ of 159 - just one point below that of Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

But what are the tell-tale signs for a parent that their child is gifted?

Are the rows of sponge numbers they are setting out in actual fact a mathematical formula?

Are they showing signs of musical talent while bashing on their glockenspiel?

For some parents, experiencing unusual intelligence in their infant is a reality.

In the case of Heidi, her parents noticed she was a bright child extremely early.

Her father, Matthew Hankins, said: "She started to try and talk from the minute she was born but obviously she couldn't verbalise anything.

"She would look you in the eye and attempt to speak.

"When she could talk, before she was a year old, she was speaking in whole sentences."

She was also quick to pick up reading skills.

"We put her on the laptop to watch CBeebies because we didn't have TV at the time," Mr Hankins said. "When we came back to her we found she was navigating around the website.

"First of all she was just clicking on the pictures that she liked but very quickly we realised she had taught herself to read the text and follow instructions.

"By the time she was two she could read primary school books."

She also taught herself to add and subtract.

Charles Dickens

With clever children it appears you cannot stop them from fast-tracking their learning.

British Mensa's gifted child consultant Lyn Kendall said she discovered her son Chris, who is now 30, as an infant teaching himself how to write before the rest of the household awoke.

Aged four, he would prefer to read Charles Dickens at school instead of playing He-Man with the other children in the playground.

Gifted children "often prefer the company of older children or adults," she said.

When Chris was invited to his classmates' parties "you could guarantee he'd be in the kitchen with a cup of tea chatting with the adults - and not racing round with the other kids".

So what other tell-tale signs are there that your child could be a genius?

Mensa has a checklist on its website that includes:

• An unusual memory

• Reading early

• Unusual hobbies or interests or an in-depth knowledge of certain subjects

• An awareness of world events

• Asks questions all the time

• Developed sense of humour

• Musical

• Likes to be in control

• Makes up additional rules for games

Educational psychologist

Mensa itself does not assess children below the age of 10, but if parents feel the need to have their child's IQ tested then they have to go through an educational psychologist.

As many of these do not assess children under six, having your infant tested can be costly - between £250 and £750, according to Julie Taplin, the deputy chief executive of the National Association of Gifted Children (NAGC).

Mr Hankins said the family wanted to get Heidi tested out of curiosity. He said: "Her brother was a bright child but this was kind of a league above, you know, supernaturally bright so we were just interested to see."

Ms Taplin said an assessment was not always necessary.

"Some parents often think if they have a piece of paper that their child has a specific IQ that their school will therefore feel they must meet their child's needs and have the resources to do so," she said.

"But schools are not obliged to look at the educational psychologist's report."

If parents do feel an IQ test is necessary, then the Weschler test is the one usually carried out on young children and is the test Heidi completed.

"It is a battery of tests," said Mrs Kendall, "looking at non-verbal functioning - your ability to solve a problem with things like shapes, looking at a verbal IQ - the use and understanding of language, numerical skills, problem solving and practical tests such as block formation."

Mrs Taplin said it was important to offer a support network for the child that focuses as much on their social and emotional skills as their schooling.

"Academic potential has to be balanced by the child's overall well-being," she said.

Parents also need to be aware of the some of the negative aspects of being a gifted child, including becoming aware of the world too quickly and not being able to interact with children of their own age.

Mrs Kendall said: "I will never forget when I first joined NAGC, one of the first young people I met said, 'I just want to be like everyone else - I hate being clever'."

As for Heidi, Mr Hankins said she was interacting well at nursery. Next week the family will find out which primary school Heidi will be attending and she is extremely keen to join her friends who are already at school.

"We will need to sit down and talk to the school to see how we can keep her motivated because it will be extremely basic," said Mr Hankins. "They'll be teaching phonics and colouring in letters while she will be reading the Oxford Reading Tree books at level 6 and 7 for eight-year-olds.

"But we are fairly relaxed about it. She'll continue to do what she wants and she has done very well so far.

"We don't want to turn her off by pushing her."


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Trevor Batten
 <trevor at tebatt dot net>
 Baclayon 2013