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New exhibition to marry art with science through storytelling

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Backed by SFI and UCD, STEP Through the Looking Glass will give the public ‘a unique glimpse’ into the lives of the people behind research.

A unique Irish exhibition is aiming to bring scientists and artists together through storytelling.

STEP Through the Looking Glass: Stories Told of Experimental Processes will use personal and scientific objects belonging to different people to spark conversations.

It is the result of work done by artist and tapestry weaver Lorna Donlon, scientists from University College Dublin (UCD) and patient advocates who work with them.

The launch of the exhibition will take place at the Grennan Mill Craft School in Kilkenny tomorrow (6 August) as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival. It can be seen at other locations after that.

Donlon was a student at the craft school in 1984 and later taught weaving there for 12 years.

During the pandemic, she undertook an artistic residency at the UCD Conway Institute, having recently graduated from the university with a degree in cell and molecular biology.

In the initial phase of Donlon’s residency, she mounted an installation at the entrance of the UCD Conway Institute called Cabinets of Everyday Curiosities.

It displayed ordinary, everyday objects that spoke of the lives of people in Donlon’s life, placed without label or explanation. These objects acted as storytelling devices.

The STEP exhibition stems from this project. Donlon invited scientists at the biomedical research institute to view the cabinets, and then install their own everyday object in exchange for one that was on display – until all objects belonged to the researchers and represented their daily lives.

“It has been fascinating to work with Lorna on this project,” said Prof Helen Roche, director of the UCD Conway Institute and one of the 12 scientists involved in the project.

“Scientists and artists are inherently curious by nature but in very different ways. I started looking at objects lying around my office and lab in a whole new light.”

Audiences at the exhibition will be able to view large-format photographs of the 12 scientists and two patient advocates who took part. They will also be able to listen to conversations between Donlon, the scientists and patient advocates involved with the Patient Voice in Cancer Research initiative.

“The exhibition will give the public a unique glimpse into the lives of people behind the research as well as the research itself,” said Dr Ruth Freeman, director of science for society at Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

“Projects such as this help us to provide important platforms and spaces for researchers and artists to come together, learn from each other and create new insights that can benefit society as a whole.”

The exhibition was funded by SFI through its Discover programme and by the UCD Wellcome Institutional Strategic Support Fund.

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‘A sweatshop in the UK’: how the cost of living crisis triggered walkouts at Amazon | Industrial action

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Amazon workers say they are working in a “sweatshop” as safety concerns and worries about the cost of living crisis have triggered walkouts at warehouses around the country.

The Observer has spoken to four staff involved in the walkouts, who work at three Amazon warehouses, including Tilbury in Essex, where protests began on 4 August. All say they will struggle to survive this winter with pay rise offers between 35p and 50p an hour – far less than the rate of inflation, which is currently at 9.4%.

The workers, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals from Amazon, said they were speaking out to highlight how the firm’s ultra-cheap, ultra-convenient, super-fast delivery model works.

Amazon employs more than 70,000 people in the UK, adding 25,000 staff in 2021 alone. Many work at the company’s 21 fulfilment centres, where some workers say they are asked to carry out long, physical shifts, with difficult targets, for low pay.

Starting pay in Amazon warehouses will shortly be increasing to between £10.50 and £11.45 per hour, depending on location. An Amazon spokesperson said this was a 29% increase in the minimum hourly wage paid to staff since 2018. They said it is also augmented by a comprehensive benefits package worth thousands of pounds a year, and a company pension plan.

But staff say it is too low for the type of work being done and given the current economic crisis, especially at a company that just posted $121bn (£100bn) in revenues in the second quarter of 2022 alone.

“When we heard the news, it was shocking,” said one worker at Amazon’s warehouse in Tilbury. “It’s ridiculous. Inflation is [forecast to reach] 13%, and our salary increases barely 3%.” The worker rents a house with her husband for £1,350 a month without bills. “My salary is £1,600. … I’m lucky I’m married, otherwise I’d be homeless.”

Some staff are seeking a pay rise of £2 an hour from the tech giant.

Hundreds of Amazon employees stop working over disputed pay rise – video

Another worker at Amazon’s warehouse in Tilbury said they were “petrified” about how they would survive this winter. “We had a scenario recently where someone was living in [an] Amazon [warehouse],” he said. “If I’m honest, I can probably see that happening again.

“I can see people staying in the canteen all the time because they can’t afford to go home.”

The worker is protesting against the poor pay offer, as well as conditions that lock staff in cages for entire shifts at the warehouses, from where they pick items to be delivered to customers. (Amazon says the workstations are to protect workers from moving robotics.)

“It’s a Chinese sweatshop in the UK,” said the second worker at Tilbury. “It’s how they set up their model.”

The worker has struggled with his mental health while working for the company. “I’ve realised how bad Amazon is for my mental health,” he said. “The anxiety of going into work, knowing you’ve got to do the same stuff day in, day out, is horrible.”

That concern is echoed by a worker at an Amazon facility near Bristol, who has worked there with his wife for three years. “It was good initially,” the worker said. “There was a lot of safety consciousness, and the targets were pretty reasonable. But now they’re just pushing it higher and higher, and exploiting people.”

Around 100 Amazon staff at Bristol staged a sit-in at the company canteen on 10 August – action for which they say they were docked pay by management at the site. “The vast majority of people went back to work at that point, because at the end of the day, as much as they want to fight for it, they have to think about themselves financially.”

The Bristol warehouse worker says that managers used to stop employees from lifting heavy items from bins on high shelves in the warehouse without a ladder. “If you overstretched yourself for 10 hours, you’d end up with a bad neck and a bad back,” he said.

That has subsequently changed as staff said they felt pressured to meet ever-escalating demand. Staff pushing carts around the warehouse used to be limited to using one cart at a time for safety reasons; now it is claimed managers turn a blind eye to staff pulling two carts at once. “They don’t say nothing because all they care about is getting the work done as fast as possible,” he said. “Safety just goes out the window.”

He says he has personally lifted items weighing up to 25kg by himself, despite rules saying anything heavier than 15kg should be lifted by two people.

A worker at an Amazon facility in the north-west of England said that managers at his warehouse similarly ignored rules around not running on site and lifting down heavy items from high areas in an attempt to meet targets, which at his site require two items to be picked every minute.

Amazon declined to respond to specific claims.

Martha Dark, director at Foxglove, a non-profit organisation working to highlight issues within tech companies that supports Amazon workers, said: “None of the workers we’re supporting wanted to protest.

“They’re desperate and can’t survive on these wages. Meanwhile, Amazon threatens to dock pay and send workers to HR for revealing the truth about life in the warehouse.”

She added: “Amazon needs to respect workers’ rights to organise, stop penalising people who are fighting to survive and provide a real pay rise now.”

Two workers said they plan to leave the company because of the conditions and pay. However, some hope to stay put – to change things.

“If a lot of us who are experienced leave Amazon at this point they’ll get a new group of people in who they can mould into this depressing way of work,” said the Bristol worker. “That’s the problem.”

This article was amended on 14 August 2022. Inflation is at 9.4%, not 13% as stated in an earlier version; the latter is a forecast rate.

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AI could save future firefighters from deadly explosions • The Register

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AI could help save firefighters’ lives by predicting fire flashovers before they occur, according to new research published this week. 

Flashovers occur when combustible material in a room suddenly starts igniting all at once, leading to a huge surge of heat and flammable gases that can break walls and burst windows. Around 800 firefighters have been killed and more than 320,000 injured on the job in the US over a 10-year period, from 2008 to 2018, and it is estimated that 13 per cent of those accidents are the result of flashover events.

Firefighters have to rely on their experience to predict if a flashover is about to happen, such as judging from levels of smoke and heat, but it’s not easy considering how quickly they can creep up. Computer scientists have tried to develop methods capable of detecting flashovers in real time for the last two decades, but it’s a difficult task to model something so erratic.

Researchers from the US government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Google, as well as the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the China University of Petroleum, built a system using graph neural networks (GNN) to learn relationships between different sources of data, represented as nodes and edges, from simulated fires.

“GNNs are frequently used for estimated time of arrival, or ETA, in traffic where you can be analyzing 10 to 50 different roads.” Eugene Yujun Fu, the study’s co-first author and a research assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said in a statement.

“It’s very complicated to properly make use of that kind of information simultaneously, so that’s where we got the idea to use GNNs. Except for our application, we’re looking at rooms instead of roads and are predicting flashover events instead of ETA in traffic.”

The team simulated all sorts of data, from building layouts, surface materials, fire conditions, ventilation configurations, location of smoke detectors, and temperature profiles of rooms to model 41,000 fake fires in 17 different building types. A total of 25,000 fire cases were used to train the model, and the remaining 16,000 were used to finetune and test it.

The GNN’s performance was assessed by whether it was able to predict whether a flashover event would occur within the next 30 seconds. Initial results showed the model had an accuracy of 92.1 percent at best. 

The system, dubbed FlashNet, is more advanced than the team’s previous machine learning model P-Flash.

“Our previous model only had to consider four or five rooms in one layout, but when the layout switches and you have 13 or 14 rooms, it can be a nightmare for the model,” said Wai Cheong Tam, co-first author of paper and a mechanical engineer at NIST. “For real-world application, we believe the key is to move to a generalized model that works for many different buildings.”

FlashNet may seem promising, but it is yet to be tested with data from real fire rescues. That would require the model to analyze data from thermostats, carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, in smart homes, Tam explained to The Register. How firefighters could then be alerted to the model’s predictions is unclear.

“The focus of the research was to rely on building data that is or could easily be provided from available building sensors. One way to translate the research into reality is to integrate the model into a smart fire alarm control panel that would gather the temperature data from installed heat detectors and includes a computer module that can process the data and make the real-time predictions.”

“From the fire alarm control panel or other suitable piece of equipment, the prediction would be sent to the incident commander, or individual firefighters if deemed suitable. The exact mechanism of providing such predictive analytics is not decided and would require input from the fire service to develop a consensus,” Tam concluded. ®

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Enjoying the sun? So could our national grid with more solar power

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The Irish Solar Energy Association has called on EirGrid to not let sunny days go to waste and connect solar farms to the grid at scale.

Thousands will be flocking to beaches across the country this weekend as Ireland continues to experience what many are calling a heatwave for days in a row.

But a refreshing swim and a light tan (hopefully not a sunburn) are not the only benefits of the scorching sun so rarely seen on this island. With amber alerts issued for two days in a row this week, Ireland’s electricity market could do with a much needed solar power boost.

“As the country is enjoying a prolonged spell of sunny weather, it is worth remembering that the sunshine can be used for more than recreation,” said Conall Bolger, CEO of the Irish Solar Energy Association (ISEA).

“Ireland has huge potential to generate solar energy to support the national grid. This will be most important in periods of fine weather as, typically speaking, it is less windy.”

‘The sunlight falling on Ireland is a natural resource. Every day we are not making use of it, is a lost opportunity’
– CONALL BOLGER

Bolger is calling on EirGrid, which operates Ireland’s electricity grid, to develop the network necessary to connect solar farms at scale. The aim is to address the narrow gap between electricity supply and demand highlighted by the amber alerts, which are likely to get more frequent in coming years.

“There is no shortage of daylight and no shortage of ambition to utilise this to generate solar energy,” he went on.

“However, one of the most significant factors impacting solar’s delivery is the ability of the national grid to take that power. EirGrid needs to be developing the backbone of the network so that it can accept that green electricity.”

When the Government published the €125bn Climate Action Plan 2021 last November, Bolger welcomed the ambition of an up to 81pc reduction in emissions for the electricity sector, but was quick to warn that it must be backed by action. The success of this plan will depend on the pace of its delivery, he said.

“Achieving this target will require a strong contribution from solar,” he said at the time, adding that a target of 1.5 to 2.5GW for solar energy “underestimates” the potential of the sector. “ISEA estimate Ireland could deliver 6GW of solar this decade if the right conditions are provided.”

Last month, the Government announced a significant increase in its target for solar energy, now aiming for 5.5GW by the end of the decade. The move was welcomed by the ISEA.

Bolger said 2022 has been a major year for solar energy in Ireland so far. The first-ever solar farm was connected to the national grid in Millvale, Wicklow earlier this year, with several others in progress.

“The sunlight falling on Ireland is a natural resource. Every day we are not making use of it, is a lost opportunity,” said Bolger.

“In the context of the climate emergency and security of supply issues, this is no longer acceptable, and we need firm commitments on actual network delivery to avoid future problems.”

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