Priorities: Space commercialisation or mankind living in equilibrium with our planet?

The Badger’s always been open-minded, but on the back of the rah-rah about billionaire’s travelling to the edge of space, G.K Chesterton’s comment ‘Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out’ sprang to mind. It may be a step forwards for commercial space activities but with so many problems to solve here on earth, what’s the real benefit to mankind of billionaires puffing out their chests on becoming a space tourist? In fact, what’s the benefit to mankind of space tourism and the commercialisation of space, period?  If you have the luxury of unconstrained independent philosophical thought, then you get to the answer ‘not a lot’ quite quickly. After decades open-mindedly supporting space technology that helps us understand the universe and our home planet, the Badger finds himself questioning the wisdom of the modern ‘space race’ and space commercialisation.     

The modern space race is driven, in one form or another, by entities desiring ‘control and dominance’. There are dreams of harvesting valuable resources from other planets and of humans as a multi-planetary species, but it’s beginning to feel like mankind will have seriously declined on our home planet long before such dreams are realised in a way that brings benefit to the masses. It’s okay to have a vision and dreams, but when it was 1972 that the last person stood on the moon, and presence on the International Space Station since confirms that humans are biologically unsuited to being away from the home planet for lengthy periods, then there’s an obvious case to be made for focusing more on getting better equilibrium between mankind and our own planet than on space endeavours. Future astronauts might, apparently, be ‘gene-edited’ to overcome these biological issues, but that’s no benefit to mankind or our planet today when it really matters. (It could also mean that humans ultimately morph into being the intergalactic ‘plague of locust’ baddies that are often depicted in sci-fi series and movies. That’s not an attractive legacy for future generations).

Hats off to Messrs. Branson and Bezos for achieving their few minutes of weightlessness at the edge of space before returning safely to earth, but their money would be better spent helping mankind live in better equilibrium with the planet they briefly left.  After all, if your home starts to fall apart around you, most rational people will spend their money fixing it rather than buying an expensive luxury that does nothing to address the immediate problem.

With space debris already a growing problem, commercial satellite mega-constellations like Starlink already being considered as ‘pollutants’ of the night sky and disrupters of  astronomy, then perhaps it’s time to reprioritise away from space back to achieving  sustainable, equilibrium between mankind and it’s home planet. Perhaps the time has come not to be so open-minded about the vested interests of space commercialisation that our brains fall out.

Presentations; Long live making an impact presenting to physical audiences…

The Badger yawned while furtively browsing emails and newsfeeds on his smartphone. As he sat in the large audience at the annual company senior management conference, little attention was being paid to the speaker’s presentation. A playful dig in the ribs from an adjacent colleague prompted the Badger to pay more attention, even though many others were disengaged and using their digital devices too.  Anyone who’ve attended many gatherings of this type then you’ll recognise this dynamic. If there’s nothing in the speaker’s delivery or their sides that’s interesting or memorable then large tracts of the audience will disengage and take away little that leaves a lasting impression.   

A chance discussion with a young graduate recently made the Badger appreciate more not only his own diverse experience of giving presentations, but also just how much this diversity had instilled a natural awareness that engaging the audience is essential when presenting. It doesn’t matter if the subject matter is dry corporate messaging, scientific or technological, or business or project related, if the presenter doesn’t make an impression with the audience, then the presentation’s impact will be minimal.  This doesn’t mean that everyone has to be a showman! It just means understanding your audience, playing to the strengths of your personality when you speak, telling a story, using methods and techniques that keep your audience interested and engaged, and ‘reading the room’ and adapting in real-time when you speak.

The Badger’s first presentations, many years ago, were of scientific research papers to audiences that contained academics, experimentalists, and specialist business professionals, at national and international symposia. Over the years since then the Badger’s given many presentations in both intimate and massive venues to university students, IT sector project and programme teams, business unit gatherings, clients, industry conferences, and, yes, company senior leadership conferences.  There were some training courses along the way but learning the ways of holding an audience’s attention came mostly from being on his feet in front of the physical crowd. That’s why the Badger often uses humour, props, pauses, gestures, and demonstrations whenever he can because they not only grab the audience’s attention, but also create memorable talking points long after the presentation has ended.

When the Badger said this during the discussion with the youngster mentioned above, anxiety quickly spread across their face. Why? Because later in the summer they are presenting in a large auditorium to a sizeable physical audience. This fills them with dread, because they’ve only given presentations to virtual audiences using tools like Zoom since graduating. They’ll be fine with a physical audience if they focus on keeping them engaged. The adrenaline and buzz from ‘live performance’ in front of a physical crowd will get them through, whet their appetite for more, and provide personal development beyond that gained from their virtual world experience to date.    

Bank branches, the decline of the High Street, and risk with online-dependence…

Living in a town of 14,000 people, it’s painful to watch the decline of its ancient, characterful, High Street due to the impact of the modern online world. This week it was announced that the town’s last bank branch will close later in 2021. There were 6 major banks on the town’s High Street in 2015, all of which had occupied historic buildings for decades. In a few months there’ll be none and all the old buildings that housed them will be empty. The nearest bank branch will be 10 miles away, the town will have just 2 ATMs, and the local Post Office will be the only place providing basic banking services.  Apart from its empty premises, the High Street is already dominated by more coffee shops, eateries, hairdressers, and estate agents than appears sustainable. This is the same in many towns because the world has become online-first and our behaviour has changed.     

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of online-first for everything. The use of physical money – cash – for in-store purchases halved in 2020 and the downward trend is unlikely to change. As cash disappears, we’ll soon see people rattling charity tins for donations, tip jars on the counters of coffee shops, collection plates at church services, and funfair slot machines all disappear too.  Banks can’t be blamed for behaving like the businesses they are, or for adapting to the needs and expectations of their digital-native customers, especially those born since the 1980s, but the closure of physical branches does impact on society, as outlined by the parliamentary report here.  The High Street’s decline isn’t the fault of the banks, it’s a consequence of the internet, relentless progress in digital technology, and our own behaviour. The decline comes with a sting in the tail for completely digital-native generations as they get older, because the concept of local community is eroding and being replaced by the personal isolation that comes with total dependence on the online world.

A society that’s online dependent for everything isn’t free of risk. The pandemic illustrates just how disruptive a biological virus can be, so just think how troublesome a future global cyber equivalent – deliberate or accidental – could be if you can’t access your money or do anything online. It’ll never happen, you say.  Never say never, especially when 20 years ago people worried about a ‘millennium bug’, 10 years ago there was a global banking crisis, and recent cyber incidents have caused chaos with fuel pipelines and forced store closures. If a cyber-space catastrophe happened, there’ll be no point meeting anyone for coffee in the High Street, because the High Street won’t exist and there’ll be no means to pay for the coffee. It won’t be the fault of banks; it will just be the manifestation of one of the current risks in modern life that we don’t seem to think too much about.

Never take media content at face value…

The media industry is a powerful force in today’s world, ‘news’ is never quite what it seems, and youngsters should have better awareness of how it works by dipping into the BBC’s Bitesize on Media Studies, a free online resource that helps children in secondary education study for a GCSE in the subject. A key point this resource makes is that ‘organisations in the media industry produce content with the aim of making money from our consumption’.  It also makes the point that media producers are always seeking to grab our attention and to influence the way we think, our opinions, and the way we live our lives. Content, which we now tend to consume individually using computers, tablets, and smartphones, includes news which often triggers instantaneous, ill-considered, social media outcries.   

There’s always been a love-hate relationship between the media and businesses, governments, and politicians.  This latter group use the media when it suits them, and the media often challenges this group when it’s commercially attractive to do so. During his career, the Badger had some training and subsequent experience interfacing with the media, and he learned that there’s always a hunt for an angle and a story in every interaction.  The Badger often giggles when consuming today’s news because it’s easy to see what he was taught in media training played out by others. 

ITV’s  recent report about Amazon destroying unsold stock in one of its UK warehouses and sending things to landfill generated a giggle.  Their report was quickly repeated in, for example, the USA and Australia.  The Badger’s giggle was because Amazon’s response to ITV’s report, which rather predictably involved undercover filming and an ex-Amazon employee, was robust and played with a straight bat. It’s doing nothing illegal.  Its policy and priority is to resell, donate, recycle, or send items to energy recovery, and it says it’s untrue that unused stock is sent to landfill. Who do you believe? ITV, after all, is a commercial organisation with commercial motives, and the instant global spread of their story is likely to have generated income.

The Badger found himself wondering whether ITV – just another commercial organisation seeking profits for shareholders – is a valid scrutineer. He then giggled at the thought of the situation being reversed with Amazon doing undercover filming and investigations within ITV.  It would be fun to see not only social media predictably explode with ill-considered outrage, but also Amazon use the result to produce content distributable to consumers through its own services.  More seriously, however, given the pervasiveness of the media in every facet of life in our digital world, perhaps it’s time to make how the media industry really works a mandatory part of the educational curriculum. Our youngsters might then learn never to take the media content they consume at face value.  

Every generation blames the one before…

Last Sunday was Father’s Day, an occasion for children to acknowledge the contribution of their father to their lives. On Sunday, the Badger spent a few moments in contemplation at his father’s graveside before having lunch with his children and grandson. There were no gifts, just the company of loved ones, lively chat, and an amusing moment when the Badger was described as a ‘Dinosaur Dadasaurous – which is like a normal Dad but more awesome!’

The song ‘The Living Years’ by Mike and the Mechanics sounded out from the playlist providing the background music for the meal. It’s opening line of ‘Every generation blames the one before…’, and the rest of the lyrics seemed not only apt for Father’s Day itself, but also for a world in which the younger generation seems eager to blame the older generation for all of its woes.  This latter point became central to light-hearted discussion over lunch. Everyone had the same view, all be it expressed in different ways, that what’s wrong with today’s world is indeed the fault of an older generation! Why? Because it’s a truism and it’s been that way for millennia! Everyone felt that the question of whether today’s older generation really deserves the blame it currently gets will only really be answered decades hence when it can be seen whether the youngsters have screwed up any less than their predecessors!

Solutions to today’s economic, environmental, technological, and cultural problems will never be found by blaming the past and chastising those who happened to live through those times.  There’s nothing to be gained from inter-generational conflict, especially when there are always winners and losers in the real world. At this point, the Badger emphasises that it really was a light-hearted discussion over the lunch rather than a deeply serious and philosophical debate. Nevertheless, there was, however, unity in  feeling that the mob dynamic so often evident throughout social media is divisive for inter-generational relationships and also one of the world’s current problems that the younger generation need to face up to.  

As lunch finished, the Badger wondered what his own father would have made of a generation born this century who know more about the World of Warcraft or Call of Duty than they do about World War 2 and the austere, non-digital life that his generation endured.  Having lived through the war and its aftermath, he wanted subsequent generations to be free, to have better education than he had, and to face life’s problems with resolve, fortitude, and action rather than complaint because, as he would often say, ‘that’s life’!  A shudder went up the Badger’s spine. The playlist had moved on playing Frank Sinatra singing ‘That’s Life’!  It appears that fathers wield a special power on Father’s Day that transcends today’s technology. If only it could be harnessed to stop inter-generational blame games so that we concentrate on the future and not the past…

Assume nothing, Believe no one, Challenge everything…

More years back than is sensible to think about, and while still in short trousers in the IT industry, metaphorically that is, the Badger was sent on the company’s in-house project management course.  In those days, project management courses for software and systems development were delivered by those from within the organisation whose day job was actually delivering systems.  The first hour of the course provided a nugget of wisdom that the Badger’s carried with him ever since. It came from the company’s Managing Director (MD) who gave a memorable opening address.   

As the course attendees settled down on the first day, the MD stood up, settled on the edge of a table, welcomed everyone, and then spoke eloquently without notes for forty minutes. Those present felt important when the MD told everyone they were humbled to be addressing people who not only delivered complex things for clients, but also made the real profits of the company and were the bedrock of the company’s ‘can deliver, will deliver, come what may’ reputation.  The MD went on to talk about their own experience as a project and then a business leader, emphasising that the best people in these roles had A, B, C, D, E built into their psyche. They explained this asAssume nothing, Believe no one, Challenge everything, Decide based on fact and data, Execute decisions to completion’. The MD urged his audience to remember this and to apply it in everything they did if they aspired to be the best project manager they could be.  

Assume nothing, believe no one, challenge everything…is at the heart of police, forensic, and any type of objective work requiring the analysis of information to make important decisions. The MD’s point was not that everyone should be a policeman and distrustful of everyone they meet, but that the best delivery and business leaders have these attributes built into their psyche even if they’re not conscious of it.

These attributes in the Badger’s own psyche were activated this week when an SMS message arrived purporting to be from IPSOS MORI, a well-known polling organisation.  It said it was following up a letter inviting the Badger to register his child for a COVID-19 test kit, and that this would help monitor infection rates for new variants. It also provided website details to register. The Badger quickly cycled through A to E and did the right thing – which did not entail complying with the instructions in the message! There had been no letter, there are no children in the Badger household, and IPSOS MORI has no reason to have the Badger’s contact details.  

The point of this tale is that in today’s online and instant communication world having A.B.C.D.E in your psyche isn’t just important in the professional world, project management, and business, it’s important to be in everyone’s psyche in order to stay safe and secure in daily life.   

All-lane running motorways and electric car breakdowns…

The Badger often flicks through the television channels before retiring for the night. It’s a habit, and it’s rare that something grabs the attention sufficiently to delay bedtime. One night recently, however, the ‘Smart Motorway Committee’ on the BBC Parliament channel proved an exception. A yawn was stifled as the channel was sampled, but the Badger was suddenly hooked when one of the politicians on the committee asked senior representatives from the Police, motoring, and haulage organisations, a clever question. It was this: ‘If your loved ones were driving on the motorway, or you were driving with your loved ones as passengers, which would you prefer it to be a) a controlled motorway with a permanent hard-shoulder lane, or b) an all-lane running motorway with refuge areas that could be more than 800 metres apart’.  

The politician asked for their personal opinion, not that of the organisation they represented. The respondents each plumped for (a), explaining their choice in terms of the human reality and anxiety of breaking down surrounded by live traffic lanes when young children, the disabled, or elderly parents are on board and refuge is some distance away.  To ensure smart motorways are safe, Highways England, of course, are currently implementing the 2020 Stocktake and Action Plan, and their recent report continues to make the case for all-lane running, all be it with further technology-centred  safety improvements. However, as the respondent’s answers illustrate, it’s obvious that people remain unpersuaded that foregoing a permanent hard-shoulder lane is wise.

Although it was late, the Badger’s programme delivery, IT, systems, and risk management experience and instincts kicked into gear with the following point bubbling to the fore.  Smart motorways were conceived mainly to increase traffic capacity and reduce congestion. It feels like ‘safety’ is being bolted on to avoid facing up to a possible uncomfortable truth, namely that all-lane running motorways may not have been such a good idea in the first place. With this point on his mind, the Badger turned off the television and retired for the night.

The next morning a chance conversation, when the Badger was told about someone’s experience of a new electric car that stopped working on a railway crossing, seem to reinforce this point.  The Badger hadn’t really appreciated the difficulty, which can get a sense of here and here, in moving electric vehicles if they stop functioning for any reason. It appears that the days of getting people to help you push it to a safer place are gone!  What will happen when the mix of electric cars on all-lane running motorways is substantially higher than today and more of them breakdown?  Even more expensive technology seems to be the answer to everything these days, but it feels like it would have been better, safer, and cheaper never to have ditched permanent hard-shoulder lanes in the first place!  

To impress at an interview takes more than qualifications…

Well-established companies often cooperate with the careers or employment services functions of universities. Such liaisons can raise the company profile with students considering their career options at the end of their course, and also help with achieving annual graduate recruitment objectives. A comment by a friend’s daughter on a practice interview at the end of her degree course, reminded the Badger that he and his company’s Human Resources (HR) Director once participated in an ‘interview practice day’ for final year Information Technology students arranged through an established company/university liaison.  

The format was simple. The Badger and the HR Director jointly interviewed each student as if it were for a real job.  Each student had been told the week previously to approach the session as if they were really trying to get an offer of employment. A university staff member observed each interview and then met with the interviewers at the end of the day for an overall debrief.  Feedback to the students happened the following day.

It was an interesting day, and the diverse personalities, attitudes, and approaches of the students brought home that everyone is different! With a couple of exceptions, most did themselves proud. To the Badger’s surprise, most wore smart attire for their interviews. For a few, however, a smart appearance proved no protection against weaknesses exposed by the experienced and skilled interviewers.  

The most memorable interview was with a young man wearing combat trousers and a tee-shirt with ‘I’m the Boss’ emblazoned across the front. This young man was highly intelligent, academically gifted, articulate, domineering, and permanently in transmit-mode!   He evaded every question and spent the entire session telling the interviewers how successful he was academically and how incredibly successful he was going to be in the future. At the end of the session, he stared at his interviewers and pompously asked, ‘I’m going to be hugely successful, aren’t I?’   The HR Director winked at the Badger and simply replied with ‘Perhaps, but not with our company’. The university observer laughed out loud!  At the post-event debrief, it transpired that tutors were already worried that the young man’s personality would hold him back from achieving his full potential.  

The Badger looks back on that day fondly.  It was an example of mutually beneficial company/university cooperation. It was a reminder that students, just like people everywhere, are all different. Some were idealistic, some realistic, and some were just plain deluded, but that’s the way it’s always been through the generations. Finally, it was a reminder for students that to impress at an interview requires soft-skills, preparation, and not just academic qualifications. If you don’t prepare holistically for a real interview, then you’re wasting your time…and time is precious in today’s world.

Four wheels and a motor…

The UK government announced in 2020 that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned from 2030. Electric cars, powered by batteries or fuel cells, are the future but there’s a very long way to achieve their mass adoption by the public. The marketing of current rechargeable, battery-powered, electric models trying to persuade us to buy one seems to rise weekly. So far, however, none of it seems to have triggered a truly massive step-change in mass demand from the public who, like the Badger, are still a long way from giving up their existing vehicles for an electric alternative.

New figures show that the average age of cars on UK roads is 8.4 years, that only 1.3% are plug-in hybrid or battery electric, and that more than 60% of cars are 7 or more years old.  Indeed, the Badger’s own trusty vehicle is 10 years old, and fossil fuelled. It’s comfortable, practical, reliable, economic, easy to maintain, 95% recyclable at end of life, and it’s used in a climate-friendly way. Electric car evangelists may think this is heresy, but there’s currently no hard-nosed economic case for the Badger to relinquish it for a used or new electric vehicle. Many people appear to have come to the same conclusion and a recent OFGEM announcement about putting ~1800 new ultra-rapid charging points across the UK motorway network’s service stations  is unlikely to persuade people otherwise.  

The transformation of society to electric cars is a marathon rather than a sprint. We may have started on this marathon but there’s an awfully long way to go with lots of opportunity for bumps on the way. Battery technology continues to advance rapidly and batteries with a 5-minute charge time could be in mass production by 2024. If that’s so, then it shouldn’t be a surprise if people decide against spending their money on new or used electric cars that use today’s battery technology. Range anxiety and effective and convenient charging infrastructure remain barriers to adoption. There are also strategic and geo-political issues associated with sourcing many of the materials necessary for battery manufacture. There are also significant recycling challenges  – see here and here – regarding the recovery of valuable elements from end of life batteries.  Whereas the recycling of fossil-fuelled vehicles, where ~70% is of ferrous metals, is well established and straightforward, electric vehicles contain a far greater variety of metals that are much more complex to recover.

There’s much more to the electric car picture than just zero tail-pipe emissions, and that’s why there’s a very long way to go in this marathon transformation yet. That’s also why the Badger’s own trusty vehicle, which still fulfils its primary function of taking occupants from A to B safely with maximum flexibility and minimum fuss, has some years left before it takes its final journey to the scrap heap to be, perhaps, reincarnated as the bodywork of an electric vehicle…

Noise…

The subsidiary’s numbers for the month didn’t look good. The decline over six months was continuing, and the CEO had convened a leadership team meeting to take some major decisions. Most attending believed that some market repositioning and restructuring needed to happen. The Human Resources (HR) Director, however, was resistant because staff wouldn’t like it. The CEO, unruffled and calm, simply asked, ‘What exactly is worrying staff at the moment?’ The HR Director said that in one region staff believed they should have a pay rise, in another there was upset that refreshment points often ran out of coffee in the afternoon, and that there was a general feeling that they should have better IT equipment.  The HR Director also said that the CEO was unpopular.  

The CEO smiled wryly and reminded the HR Director that whereas acting in the best interest of the whole company was in their job description, popularity was not. The CEO then reminded the HR Director to focus on the big picture and the company’s overall needs rather than pockets of noise which had little bearing on the major decisions that needed to be taken. The HR Director said little for the rest of the meeting. If you’ve had a leadership role then you might relate to this tale, because decisions are always taken against a background of noise containing a spectrum of comment, opinion, hearsay, and questionable information.

Noise, a word that first appeared in the 12th Century, has described the hum of daily life’s background information and tittle-tattle for a long time. In today’s world, social media produces much of this noise. The background level is the highest it has ever been because newspapers, online news sites, celebrities, politicians, and many others, feed off social media content to create the stories and content needed to fill airtime and their own objectives.  Today’s noise seems more important than it is, especially for recent generations who are not afraid to say what they think about anything using social media.

What’s the point of contributing your thoughts and feelings on social media platforms when it’s just adding to today’s background noise? Is anyone interested for more than a few seconds? Does adding to life’s noise make any difference when the best leaders make decisions in the interests of whatever entity they are leading, regardless of the background noise?  The Badger chatted to his teenage nephew about these questions, and it was soon clear that the answers depend on your age, your values, and your life experience.  However, the youngster noted that although many of their friends spent more time feeding social media than spending quality time with each other, they did wonder what their life really gained by contributing to the noise of the modern world. Perhaps teenagers have more wisdom than we give them credit for…