Safety on ‘Smart’ Motorways is no laughing matter…

The Badger has laughed a lot recently; not due to being stir crazy because of the pandemic, but because nearly everything he read online has shown that the world is fast becoming just a comic book! One item that caused a guffaw, and which illustrates just how ridiculous things are becoming, was a complaint to the BBC about the use of the phrase nitty-gritty’ by their political commentator Laura Kuenssberg. Surely no one’s cause is ever going to be furthered by complaining about the inoffensive use of phrases which our forefathers contributed to any language decades ago?  The complaint was rejected by the BBC.  Hip, hip, hurray! Someone has pushed back in a small way on the stupidities that are pervading society. Err, no offence intended, but the Badger also laughed when he saw that common phrases like ‘blacklist’, ‘master-slave’, ‘uppity’, ‘black mark’, ‘sold down the river’, ‘long time no see’, ‘no can do’ and ‘Hip, hip, hurray’ may also in the sights of the hand-wringing brigade.     

Another thing that made the Badger laugh was the kerfuffle around the language used in the 1971 ‘Dad’s Army’ film, some of its TV series episodes, and even old TV favourites of ‘Little Britain’ and John Cleese’s ‘Fawlty Towers’. The biggest laugh, however, happened on seeing that eBay banned the sale of an old Dad’s Army board game for inciting racial hatred.  The world has gone truly mad! The Badger also laughed at Google threatening to withdraw its search engine from Australia. For all Google’s bombast about liberty and freedom, this fracas shows that the company has no respect for the democratic processes and interests of nations.  Good on you Australia, give them both barrels!

There was one topic, however, that stopped the Badger’s laughter in its tracks, namely that of safety on Smart Motorways. A coroner’s finding that Smart Motorways pose an ongoing risk of future deaths  and a Police Chief’s view that Smart Motorways are inherently unsafe mean that drivers should be worried. The UK’s first motorways opened between 1958 and the early 1960s when there were ~5 million cars on UK roads. They were built with a hard-shoulder lane to act as a refuge for broken-down vehicles and to assist emergency vehicles in getting to the scene of an accident. Today there are ~33 million cars on UK roads, which begs just one obvious question.  If a hard shoulder lane was required for safety reasons with 5 million cars,  why isn’t it required for safety reasons with today’s 33 million?

Road deaths have progressively declined since the 1960s primarily due to things like better education, speed limits, car design (better reliability, seat belts, ABS, and air bags etc), improved barrier technology, and so on. Smart Motorways have not contributed to the lowering death rate, so without a hard shoulder lane they must be considered unsafe and addressing the issue with even more ‘smart’ technology is not the answer.   This is most definitely not a laughing matter.

‘Finger trouble’…

Some days, no matter how hard you try, your fingers just don’t seem to do the right thing when interacting with a computer. Other days they accurately do the right thing every time. Most days for normal people, however, your fingers do a mixture of the two.  The Badger experiences the same phenomenon when playing his electric guitar, although in this case you can hear the finger trouble!   

When news broke last week, see here for example, that records in the UK Police National Computer (PNC) database had been wrongly deleted, the Badger, conditioned by decades in the IT industry, immediately suspected that ‘finger trouble’ would have played a part. It nearly always does somewhere along the line when operational services have issues. It was, therefore, no surprise that the UK policing minister said ‘…down to human error, some defective code was introduced as part of that routine maintenance earlier this week and that’s resulted in a deletion of some records …’.

The minister’s words trigger many questions about what happened and why, and why recovering deleted records is more difficult than one might anticipate.  The Badger was  immediately drawn to three things – possible complacency in routine maintenance, testing, and mechanisms for backup and recovery.  The media has concentrated on political points and ‘woe is me’ about the impact on arrests and prosecutions, but the uncomfortable truth is that events like the PNC will occasionally happen. The IT that is behind every facet of daily life is complex, handles huge amounts of data, and has been built and it is maintained by highly skilled and professional people, but there is no such thing as a guarantee of perfection. There is no immunity to finger trouble, and neither is there a crystal ball to predict ‘defective code’. The Badger therefore feels some sympathy for whoever pushed the button that deleted the PNC records.  

We’ve all had finger trouble and accidentally deleted things from our computers.  When it happens, it often provides a reminder that you should have backups!  In today’s world the amount of data created every day is staggering and the whole concept of backup and recovery for major IT systems, and the legal rules for retaining data, is very different to that of the Badger’s formative years in IT. It’s not a surprise, therefore, that deleted PNC records cannot simply be restored from a good old-fashioned, off-site, backup tape!

Nevertheless, the PNC issue should be a reminder for each of us to take regular backups of information that you never want to lose. These days it’s cheap to do and one day you might be relieved that you did. After all, the heavenly alignment of finger trouble, defective software, and/or defective hardware can align to cause a problem at any time.  

Five years…

David Bowie passed away five years ago on the 10th January 2016. His legacy is a portfolio of great music and it was while listening to some of his songs that the Badger mused on some of the things that have happened  since his demise.

The UK Brexit referendum on 23rd June 2016 upended British politics, changed Europe for ever, and caused widespread public frustration with the shenanigans of politicians in handling the exit process. The whole process exposed the dysfunctionality of politics and politicians across the UK and across the EU, more so than ever before.   

In 2016 Donald Trump – a businessman rather than a career politician – was elected the President of the USA. His term in office, including his impending departure, has been a tsunami of controversy. Mr Trump’s election was founded on a ticket that gave voice to millions of voters frustrated with their career politicians. His enemies would, and did, throw everything at him during his term in office. The pendulum has now swung against him, and the USA seems, to an outsider at least, to be exhibiting the polarisation and in-fighting typical of a failing empire, which does not augur well for the future.

During the last five years, the EU struggled with a humanitarian and political crisis caused by the influx of more than a million refugees, Greta Thunberg brought global focus on climate issues, the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements made a mark, and the Cambridge Analytica affair exposed some truth about social media platforms and their use of your data. And then, of course, there is the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Badger, however, thinks the biggest happening over the last five years pervaded all of the above, namely the fact that the social media platforms have an uncontrollable influence on our lives and democracy. These platforms claim to be a bastion of free speech but they give voice to extremes, fake news, disinformation, the darker side of the human psyche, attention seekers and faceless disrupters of all kinds. So much so that Western democracy is threatened. The tech giants have resisted regulation by politicians for years, but – regardless of your views on Mr Trump – they now appear to be regulating elected politicians!  It appears from the happenings of the last five years that social media giants wield more unaccountable power than is sensible for the preservation of Western democracy, and that our elected leaders need to take these tigers by the tail and regulate them.   Alternative views, of course, exist.   

There is a great Bowie song that is as pertinent today as it was when released in 1972. That song is Five years, a great version of which was recently released by Duran Duran.   The Badger thinks its line ‘Five years, that’s all we’ve got’  sums up how long elected leaders have to sort themselves and the giant tech companies out if  Western democracy is to thrive through the rest of this century.

Fully autonomous cars – time for realism

Evangelists, visionaries, ‘blue sky’ thinkers, idealists, innovators; it doesn’t matter what you call them, they are needed for progress. For real progress that ‘sticks’ to happen, however, then we need realists too. The Badger, whose career centred on delivering difficult IT-intensive programmes, is a realist even though he did his fair share of ‘blue sky’ thinking in his time!  It’s this realism that’s behind why the Badger always maintains a healthy scepticism about predicted timelines for when the next wave of technology will be rolled out to the public.  This timeline scepticism has always stood the Badger in good stead.

Predictions by excited, future-gazing, tech evangelists may attract lots of media attention but their timelines often grossly under-estimate what’s really involved in getting something rolled out to consumers or end users at serious scale. Things in the real world are often more difficult than anticipated – that’s just life!  So, it wasn’t a shock to the Badger that Uber has sold its autonomous vehicle division to a start-up and that some are wondering whether driverless cars have stalled.  Trials on public roads, of course, continue, there are companies investing in the technology and jockeying to gain commercial advantage, the technology is still coming to terms with the hard to quantify human variable that pedestrians do unexpected things, and there are still many  legal and ethical issues to resolve. And so it seems a pretty safe bet from a realist’s perspective that fully autonomous cars will not be in the majority navigating the UK’s roundabouts for many years yet.

Anyone who has run a major IT-intensive delivery programme knows that Transition and Transformation phases when moving from the old to the new are fraught with risk, challenge, and delay due to the unexpected. The scale of the Transition and Transformation challenge in moving to a fully autonomous car system can be seen simply by a quick look at published UK government figures. There were over 38 million cars on British roads in 2019 and only 1.6% of them were fully or partially electric. It will take at least another decade just for electric rather than fossil-fuel powered cars to be in the majority, so if you are grounded in reality then it’s difficult to believe that fully autonomous cars will be the general public’s ‘go to’ method of transportation anytime soon. It looks like 2021 will see lots more autonomous vehicle related tech, but the Badger feels little of it will shorten the overall timeline for getting complex fully autonomous vehicles operating safely at scale with conventional people-driven vehicles on the country’s roads.

You may feel the Badger has started 2021 as anti-tech, anti-progress, and anti-autonomous vehicles. That’s not the case, he’s just pro-realism and a prudent sceptic – which is always a sensible position to take if you want to retain some objectivity in today’s, instant, globally, connected, digital world.  

Change…

What a year it’s been! There can’t be many people across the globe who haven’t been touched in some way by personal, social, or economic impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic.  It would be very easy, as a New Year approaches, to not only indulge in hand-wringing sadness, regret, and despondency about the events of 2020, but also to speculate – with or without optimism – about the future. But there’s enough of that in the traditional media, on the internet, and on social media platforms, so the Badger set himself a challenge over the Christmas holiday to sum up both the last year and the future using just one word!

That word didn’t take long to emerge. It was streaks ahead of the alternatives. The word was ‘change’.   

This year has seen ‘change’ in nearly everything – how we shop, the structure and the nature of industry sectors, the profile of scientists, technologists and health and care professionals, the way we work, travel, and interact with other people, the shape of the economy and our cities, and our awareness of how the world really works. We now all know that rather than bombs and guns, things you cannot see which don’t respect geographic boundaries can wreak real havoc to our lives and threaten our species. We have also all seen just how dependent we are on global supply chains, digital technology, the well-being of the planet, and – indeed – on each other.

Change doesn’t stop, so the word ‘change’ is more than apt to describe the future. The First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 100 years ago were triggers for major personal, societal, and economic change, and so its highly likely we’ll see the same once the Covid-19 pandemic abates but this time much, much faster.  Why? Because the pandemic has made us face the reality that the old ways really were truly unsustainable.

The Badger thinks we have all been reminded of one thing this year, that you can never be certain in life of what’s around the next corner.  Predicting the future is fraught with risk and disappointment, especially with the world continuing to be in a very difficult place. But with ‘change’ inevitable in 2021, the Badger thinks there’s only one New Year resolution for sensible people to make and that’s to  ‘embrace rather than resist the changes ahead’.   Whether we like it or not, change is a perpetual aspect of our lives. History shows that resisting it leads to disadvantage, avoidable anxiety, and ultimately personal, societal, and economic collateral damage that serves no one well. And on that point of philosophical reflection, the Badger wishes you well and that you have a better 2021 than 2020.

‘Blue Christmas’ and Alvin and the Chipmunks…

A senior client at a large engineering firm asked the Badger to be an observer at a  meeting about a major programme that was off the rails. It was a whole day affair involving the client, the programme manager, and the key people from the IT, engineering maintenance, engineering operations, finance, resourcing, and stores and logistics departments. Throughout the day, individuals and departments blamed each other for  difficulties, belittled the programme manager and their decisions, and even questioned the company’s  strategic decision to embark on the programme. The Badger realised that everyone had lost sight of the big picture, were dwelling on the past, and engaging in internal politics and point scoring. At the heart of the  programme’s predicament was the wrong attitude, approach and behaviour of every one of those present.

At the end of the meeting, the client asked the Badger if he had an observation to share. The Badger just said ‘Today everyone has blamed someone else, dwelt on the negatives, and engaged in factionalised points scoring.  This programme is failing and so each of you is already tarred with failure. If you want to be associated with success then each of you needs to stop bickering and blaming others, unite around strategic objectives, and take personal responsibility for doing the right thing’.  There was silence. The client grinned and closed the meeting.  

The Badger was reminded of this last night while sitting by the Christmas tree cogitating on television, online and social media coverage of new restrictions to curb the virus that impact everyone’s Christmas plans. The interminable hand-wringing, hysteria, political point scoring, shrill cries of unfairness and woe,  and blaming others for disrupting Christmas is very similar but unfortunate reality of today’s instant attention-grabbing world. The reality is that every one of us, without exception, has a responsibility involving uncomfortable choices and decisions if this devious virus is to be beaten. Just like for the wayward programme noted above, our individual attitude, common sense,  behaviour, and collaboration is what will determine success. Yes, recent restrictions make Christmas even more difficult for everyone, including the Badger, but we are a highly adaptable species and so we’ll cope.  

This year Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’ from 1957 will be apt for many of us. This  Christmas will be difficult but also a rich source of memories and stories to be passed down the generations for years to come and so it deserves something to put a smile on your face.   Let’s make Christmas ‘glass half full’ rather than ‘glass half empty’  and listen to Alvin and the Chipmunks as we focus on absent family and friends! It might help to alleviate the gloom and put a smile on your face for a couple of minutes. And on that note, the Badger wishes you all a safe Christmas with as much happiness as it’s possible to muster in these turbulent times…

Information pollution…

After months of abstinence, the Badger treated himself to fish and chips  while visiting Crawley, a town which has seen sizeable unemployment during the Covid-19 pandemic due to its proximity to Gatwick Airport. The chip shop was open, all the appropriate virus protection measures were in place, and a rumbling stomach made it impossible to resist! 

The Badger placed his order and the counter assistant, a lady in late middle-age, made conversation while she waited for a fresh batch of chips to complete frying. ‘Will you have the new vaccine?’, she enquired. ‘Yes. What about you?’, the Badger replied. What followed was a torrent of reasons for why she would not have the vaccine.  The lady said the government could not be trusted, the vaccine had been rushed, short-cuts had been taken, pharmaceutical giants were only doing it to make big profits, and that everything she saw in newspapers, on television, on the internet and on social media had made her very wary. Looking at her smartphone as she spoke, the lady went on to say that she wasn’t going to take the risk of getting ill from the vaccine because her elderly mother and her children depended on her.  The Badger listened and inwardly sighed,  but at that point the fresh chips became available and the conversation went no further.

Mulling over the lady’s words while eating the food a few minutes later, the Badger decided  that her view provided an illustration of  how ‘information pollution’ influences many in the modern world. According to widely available statistics, we  look at our smartphones at least  every 10 minutes during waking hours, much of it to watch  attention grabbing, instantaneous social media feeds like Twitter and Facebook. As the thought provoking article here points out, speed of information availability eclipses accuracy, and so misinformation, distortion, selectivism, and falsities easily become the norm pushing fact into the background.

‘Information pollution’ is rife and it is one of the biggest ‘man-made’ challenges for digital-native generations to deal with if we want society to avoid descending into anarchy. Regulation and legislation are necessary and inevitable to ensure media and social media platforms genuinely tackle the issue rather than just pay lip service to it.  Pollution, after all,  comes in many forms. The chemical, oil, manufacturing, farming, and pharmaceutical industries have to comply with laws covering poisons and pollution, so why should  ‘information pollution’ be treated differently?

So, there you have it. A conversation in a fish and chip shop can make you think!  As the Badger finished the last chip, he resolved to maintain the healthy analysis of information to get at the facts that has stood him in good stead in his work and private life for years. Accordingly, even with ‘information pollution’ still rising, having the vaccine is clearly the rational  and common-sense thing to do. Life, after all, is full of dealing with risk of one form or another.

Smart meters update – eat more salads…

The UK Q3 2020 Smart Meter Statistics Report is sobering reading. The data therein implies that the programme to rollout domestic ‘smart’ gas and electricity meters will be even later and more expensive!   Reading the report reminded the Badger that he had mentioned a couple of months ago his intention to install ‘smart’ meters as part of updating his home’s infrastructure.  Well, the meters have been in and operational for about 8 weeks now so it’s time to share some of the experience.   

Because the Badger sources gas and electricity from different suppliers, separate installation bookings were needed. These  were arranged on-line with just a few days between them, and emails arrived confirming the bookings and advising  that the installations could take up to two hours. The installers turned up on schedule.  The gas meter installation happened first. Energy supply was off for 10 minutes to physically fit the hardware and then the installer spent 50 minutes in their van ‘connecting to the centre’ to get the meter and In-Home Display working.  The electric meter installation was similar, but this time the supply was off for just 5 minutes. The installer then spent 2 hours in their van getting the meter and In-Home Display working! Both installers were great but obviously frustrated by how long it ‘connecting to the centre’, as they described it. 

So, how’s it been since? Well, the novelty of watching dials on In-Home Displays move when household devices turn on and off quickly wore off.  Watching the dials for a few days only confirmed what the Badger already knew, namely that boiling the kettle,  using the washing machine, cooking, and household hot water/heating consume the most energy by far. Lighting, media devices like the television and radio, and your home computing devices use much, much less.  Seeing what your energy is costing on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis, however, is much more useful and a good reminder that loyalty to any energy supplier is never rewarded! In the last week, the In-Home Display began displaying ‘Connection Lost – move the device closer to the meter’ intermittently!  Powering it off and on fixes the problem.

So, from the Badger’s perspective, installing smart meters has been a largely benign experience. Does that mean he’s a convert? No. Why not? Well, the Badger’s wife put it rather neatly yesterday. She observed that our smart meters have really only shown that to use less energy, save money, and help the green agenda, we must drink less tea and coffee, eat more salads than hot meals, wear more clothes to keep warm, wash them less frequently, and take fewer hot baths and showers!  It was her way of pointing out that it’s disciplined human behaviour that brings about beneficial change, not expensive technology whose benefits are over-sold and under-delivered. She has a point.

Tech regulation; learn the lessons of the past…

The Badger has just arranged for a headstone to be erected at the grave of a relative who passed-away some years ago. The process started with using Google to research the different types of  headstone, suppliers, pricing, and graveyard regulations. Having done the research, the Badger engaged a provider and arrangements were made using to the providers preferred business methods, namely good old fashioned telephone calls, letters and forms by post, and cheques for payments. Everything went smoothly and the headstone is now in place.

There was only one thing that was an irritant in the whole process – the flood of content, adverts, and unsolicited marketing that appeared in the Badger’s news, email, and social media feeds following the Google search queries!  Receiving unsolicited and unwanted suggestions about funeral plans, care homes, equity release, life insurance, will writing, and donating to charity via a will was just tiresome and a reminder that the big  tech giants track and use our behavioural data. If there was a single, simple, ‘Big Red Button’ that turned all that stuff off, then the Badger would have pushed it!  

Recent news that a Digital Markets Unit is being formed under the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) (see here, here and here) to start limiting the power of big tech firms in the UK seemed like welcome news and a sign that politicians are starting to wake up.  In the USA, of course, Google is already in the cross-hairs of the US government for alleged anticompetitive abuses. At long last, governments around the world seem to be very slowly addressing regulation of the big tech giants which, let’s face it, are enormously powerful as well as being at the heart of the functioning of today’s modern society.

Sceptical about the need for regulation? Read the Financial Times article here. It points out that the 2008 banking crisis showed that careful oversight is needed when the public interest depends on businesses that exist to meet the needs of private capital providers. Before 2008, the approach of regulators to the way banks behaved was ‘principles based’, i.e. deliberately light touch. This relied too much on the banks’ abilities to govern themselves, and it failed. Similarities with the current approach with big tech are striking.  We should learn the lessons from the past! After all, isn’t that what the leaders of all corporations and governmental institutions are forever telling their employees and everyone else to do?

When speaking to the headstone provider, the Badger asked why – apart from a basic website – they hadn’t fully embraced the digital world. Simple, they answered. ‘We’ve stayed in business for over a century because we learn our lessons, one of which has been to always steer a cautious path through periods of innovation and change’. How very refreshing!     

If you can’t stand the heat…

The young Badger’s first assignments in the IT industry involved technical work and software development. Much was learned, and this fuelled an appetite for advancement and greater challenges, one of which was becoming a ‘divisional coordinator’ helping a Divisional Manager run every aspect of their line of business. This role significantly enhanced the Badger’s understanding of human nature, and the motivations and behaviours of those who get things done in an organisation.

Every fortnight the Divisional Manager and the Badger attended fortnightly operational reviews with the former’s boss, the Group Manager responsible for multiple Divisions.  These were uncompromisingly direct meeting! As a youngster, the Badger found sitting next to his boss as they were verbally chastised and interrogated about every minor issue an uncomfortable experience, even though the Badger’s boss took it in their stride.  

After one particularly vociferous and harsh session that involved raised voices,  the Divisional Manager took the young Badger to a local tea-room for a debrief.  Over tea and cake, the Badger asked why his boss stayed so calm in the face of these verbal whippings. He smiled, said it was because he understood his boss, and went on to make the following points:

  1. Leaders and managers are paid to make things happen. They had to be demanding or nothing would happen. Running any enterprise requires tough and demanding people to achieve real outcomes. Remember, a business is not a democracy.  
  2. Humans are not exempt from ‘the survival of the fittest’ inDarwin’s theory of evolution. People have different personalities and temperaments, but everyone has a hurtful streak. Successful leaders learn about  human behaviour and how to handle those they interface with using techniques appropriate to their strengths, weaknesses, and temperament. Sometimes it’s necessary to be ruthlessly brutal because some people require that to get the message!
  3. Remember the ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me’ mantra from school days because if you let being called names hurt you then whoever is calling you the names wins! Leaders never dwell on this. Instead, they stay focused on their job.  

The Badger was reminded of the above while watching a popular UK television series that has the public voting for a member of a group of minor celebrities to undergo an ordeal. The public had consistently voted for the same frightened individual and in doing so neatly illustrated the innate human capacity to pick on the perceived weakest in any group. Interestingly, it also illustrated that if the picked-on individual faced up to their demons then they won out and public attention focused elsewhere!   

Human nature hasn’t really changed over the decades. It’s as true today as it’s ever been that you need to toughen up to succeed in any environment.  President Harry S. Truman’s words from 75 years ago are still apt…’If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’.