Sunday, January 3, 2016

A Year in Review: 2015


2015 will have been a tough year for many – where although the economic crisis was supposed to be over and figures showed unemployment declining in many first world countries – millions of people still struggled to live from week to week.
 
In the UK, according to the Payments Council, 2015 was the year cashless payments overtook the use of notes and coins for the first time. Cash accounted for only 48% of all transactions, as we used our credit cards, contactless cards and electronic transfers for the majority of our spending.
 
In 2015 69 journalists lost their lives in the line of duty, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Some 28 of those - 40% - were killed by Islamic extremists, said the CPJ. The death toll, which includes journalists killed between 1 January and 23 December 2015, is higher than the 61 journalists killed in 2014.
 
And 2015 was a very busy year indeed for the tech industry. Its highlights have included a series of mega-launches, including the well-received Windows 10, the curved Galaxy S6 smartphone, the Apple Watch and a Tesla car with doors that opened upwards.
 
Meanwhile, amongst the lowlights were hack attacks of the Ashley Madison infidelity service, the toymaker Vtech and the US government's Office of Personnel Management. The Kickstarter-funded Zano mini-drone project also collapsed, Lenovo infected its laptops with spyware, and a security researcher was banned from flights after he tweeted he might be able to hack them.
 
The online giants were also busy: Jack Dorsey took back control of Twitter; Google faced anti-competition allegations from the EU; and Facebook was threatened with having its data transfers blocked between the EU and the US.
 
On 7 January, two gunmen, Said and Cherif Kouachi, attack the Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, wounding 11 and killing 12. The gunmen attack Charlie Hebdo in order to punish the magazine for the publication of cartoons that mocked the Prophet Mohammad. Later on January 9, the Kouachi brothers are shot and killed in a standoff with police in Dammartin-en-Goele, France.
 
In February Samsung raised more than a few eyebrows when documentation for its smart TVs warned owners that they might transmit ‘personal or other sensitive information’ spoken in front of them to an unnamed ‘third party’. Unsurprisingly, many found the idea of the TVs spying on their private conversations more than a little unnerving.
 
On 24 March Germanwings Flight 9525 crashes into the French Alps after taking off from Barcelona, Spain, en route to Dusseldorf, Germany. All 150 people on board are killed. On March 26, 2015, officials say that 27-year-old co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed the plane after locking the pilot out of the cockpit. A later investigation reveals that he had suffered from depression in the past.
 
In April, American Airlines efforts to make its cockpits ‘paperless’, briefly backfired when the app providing its pilots with maps and other flight information refused to work. Dozens of the firm's jets were grounded until the developers of FliteDeck came up with a fix.
 
On 2 May the Duchess of Cambridge gave birth to her second child with Prince William. Their daughter, weighing 8lbs 3oz, will be known as Her Royal Highness Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana.
 
In June, Facebook was criticised by a UK-based child protection charity after its moderators refused to remove a video showing a crying baby being repeatedly dunked in a bucket of water. There were suggestions that the footage showed a form of ‘baby yoga’. But the charity said the child was terrified and sobbing, and that the actions amounted to child abuse. The case highlighted a clash of cultures between the social network, which wants to allow its users to post and comment about potentially distressing content, and those who think it has a responsibility to censor extreme examples.
 
On 14 July a deal was reached to substantially limit Iran's nuclear weapons program. In exchange, various international sanctions on Iran will be loosened and on 20 July Cuba and the United States officially re-establish diplomatic relations after 54 years.
 
In August, Ashley Madison was fighting for its very existence after a data dump exposed details of more than 33 million of its users' accounts. The hack caused the firm's founder to resign, but also had ramifications that reached far beyond the Canadian firm's offices. News that police believed the leak had resulted in at least two suicides was the most read story on the UK BBC's Tech section and highlighted the devastation the security breach had had on people's lives. Blackmailers continue to try to exploit the hack - whose perpetrator has never been caught - with a recent report of letters being posted to Ashley Madison users threatening to expose their identities.
 
On 18 September U.S. regulators said that Volkswagen has programmed some 500,000 vehicles to emit lower levels of harmful emissions in official tests than on the roads. Volkswagen later reveals that internal investigations had found significant discrepancies in 11 million vehicles worldwide.
 
On 23 October, Hurricane Patricia, the most powerful hurricane ever recorded, made landfall as a Category 5 storm over southwestern Mexico.
 
In November, an Estonian start-up announced that it had been able to use LED light bulbs to transmit data at speeds of one gigabits per second. What made this significant was that the tech firm had got it working in a normal office, where it provided both light and internet access to staff. In time, engineers believe they can boost speeds up to 224Gbps.
 
On 12 December a landmark climate change agreement is approved in Paris at the 21st Conference of Parties, or COP21.
 
Finally the rise of Donald Trump is the most obvious shocking political story of the year. After speculating multiple times that he would run for president in previous cycles, few people thought he would jump in the race and that he was only trying promote his television show ‘The Apprentice’. When he actually announced from the Trump Towers in New York, most thought he would drop out before he had to disclose reams of details about his wealth in required financial disclosure statements for presidential candidates. Instead, Trump continues to lead the GOP field in most national and state polls heading into what promises to be a 2016 campaign year filled with even more surprises – a sad reflection on what the world’s has become.
 
Finally in remembrance to some of those who passed away during 2015;
 
27 February: Leonard Nimoy. After revealing last year that he had been suffering from a chronic lung disease, he signed off with a final tweet that ended ‘LLAP’, Mr Spock’s famous catchphrase, ‘live long and prosper’. He died at the age of 83.
 
12 March: Terry Pratchett, was one of Britain’s most successful authors of all time, adored by fans of his fantasy and comic writing – most notably his Discworld series. A prolific writer – the Discworld series alone consisted of 41 books –Pratchett sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. In 2007, Pratchett revealed that he had been diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s – which he called ‘the Embuggerance’. He funded and wrote about dementia research in the following years, before his death aged 66.
 
13 April: G√ľnter Grass, a writer, artist and public intellectual; and was Germany’s best-known post-war novelist and won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1999. Grass was an outspoken social critic whose books encouraged Germany to examine its collective conscience following World War Two. In 2006, Grass revealed – to much controversy – that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS as a young man. He died at the age of 87.
 
2 May: Ruth Rendell was one of Britain’s most successful crime writers. She introduced the much-loved character of Inspector Wexford in her 1964 debut and went on to write over 50 crime novels in her own name; she later wrote darker, psychological fiction as Barbara Vine. She was called – along with her friend PD James, a ‘British queen of crime’ – a moniker she hated. She died aged 85.
 
14 May: BB King; known as the ‘King of the Blues’ was born in Mississippi and began performing in the 1940s. King was a great influence on later generations of guitar players: Rolling Stone magazine rated him third in their 100 greatest guitarists of all time. He carried on performing around 100 concerts a year until shortly before his death aged 89.
 
7 June: Christopher Lee was born in 1922 in Belgravia, London. At the outbreak of World War Two he volunteered for the Finnish army, then joined the RAF. In his first film, The Curse of Frankenstein, he starred with Peter Cushing; the pair became friends and starred together in 20 films. Lee became synonymous with Hammer, and especially Dracula, who he played for the first time in 1958. Roles in The Wicker Man, as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, several Tim Burton collaborations and as Count Dooku in Star Wars episodes II and III introduced him to later generations. He died aged 93.
 
10 July: Omar Sharif, born in Egypt, became a star in his home country before achieving international recognition for the part of Sherif Ali in David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia, a role for which he won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. He went on to star in Lean’s Doctor Zhivago alongside Julie Christie and in Funny Girl opposite Barbra Streisand. Off-screen, he became a world-renowned bridge player and remained a loyal – if surprising – supporter of Hull City Football Club. Sharif had been suffering from Alzheimer’s and died of a heart attack aged of 83.
 
15 November: Saeed Jaffrey was born in the Punjab in 1929. He began his career in the theatre, being the first Indian actor to tour Shakespeare in the US. He broke into the Indian film industry in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players) in 1977, and went on to star in more than 100 Bollywood films. He became well-known in Britain after appearing in several acclaimed films, including The Man Who Would be King, My Beautiful Launderette, Gandhi and A Passage to India. He died aged 86.
 
Finally, it was a last woof for Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier, who appeared in the Oscar-winning silent movie "The Artist" and was the first canine to have his paw prints cemented outside of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.