From slide rule to calculator app to…ChatGPT?

On a shelf in the Badger’s home office is a pristine British Thornton slide rule in its original case. It hasn’t been used in years. In fact, it’s hardly been used since the Badger bought it during his first week as a university student because it was a recommended tool for his subject. Various friends have poked fun at it over the years, jauntily calling it – and the Badger – a relic rendered obsolete by first electronic calculators, and latterly apps on smartphones. Nevertheless, a friend recently gifted the Badger a vintage slide rule instruction pamphlet to ‘complement this Museum piece’! The gift was accepted graciously. It heightened awareness not only that anyone born since the 1970s will never have used a slide rule, but also that the student Badger had actually hastened this tool’s demise by buying a pocket electronic calculator as soon as they became widely available and affordable.

The slide rule’s 300-year reign as a personal calculating tool ended abruptly in the mid-1970s. By the time the Badger had completed his degree, every student on his course had bought a Sinclair Cambridge, Sinclair Scientific, or Texas Instruments electronic calculator. When youngsters josh about the slide rule on his shelf, the Badger reminds them that Buzz Aldrin used one during the Apollo 11 moon mission, and scientists and engineers used them when designing, building, and manufacturing the first computers. They are often amazed, but always respond by highlighting the virtues of the calculator app on their smartphone.

Reading the vintage slide rule pamphlet reminded the Badger that his purchase of an electronic calculator as an undergraduate was an early part of the microelectronics revolution that’s changed every aspect of life since. Reflecting today, it seems amazing that personal calculating devices have morphed from a tactile, non-electronic slide rule into a calculator app on a smartphone reliant on microelectronics to function. Of course, what’s happened to personal calculation devices is merely a specific example of the massive impact that rapid technological advance has on our lives.

Today the Badger’s slide rule is a decorative bygone. His most recent electronic pocket calculator is also infrequently used and languishes in the desk draw because the calculator app on his smartphone has become his default pocket calculator. But even use of this app is waning! Why? Because just speaking to Google or Alexa does straightforward maths. The days of needing a calculator app thus seem numbered, especially if AI like ChatGPT ultimately has the impact that Microsoft anticipates. So, here’s a thought to end with. While the Badger’s slide rule will always be an antique talking point sitting on someone’s shelf, an obsolete calculator app will just disappear into the ether and have no decorative value whatsoever. Hmm, perhaps the Badger needs to stop reading the instruction pamphlet and drink less coffee…

Software updates and a ‘Smart’ washing machine…

A visit to a nearby UK home appliances retailer to browse washing machines proved unexpectedly fun. The Badger’s 10-year-old washing machine still works well, but groans, knocks, and squeals are becoming more prominent, and so it seemed prudent to do some succession planning. Having searched what’s available online, it seemed sensible to survey appliances in person, especially as there’s an out-of-town home appliances superstore nearby.

After arriving at the store and browsing the computers, peripherals, phones, and digital gadgets close to the entrance, the Badger navigated to the washing machines at the back of the store. It was quickly apparent that there were more costly ‘Smart’ models with network/internet connectivity/apps on display than traditional ones. A salesperson sidled up and drew attention to a ‘Smart’ model on special offer, extolling the conveniences that its ‘Smart’ capabilities provided. The Badger listened politely and asked, ‘How long does the manufacturer support the software?’. This flummoxed the salesperson who said ‘Never had that question before. Give me a moment and I’ll find out’. They disappeared and soon returned with a colleague, who simply said ‘a few years’.  The Badger, who wants a new washing machine to last around 10 years, was rather amused that they obviously didn’t know the answer to his question.

The Badger thanked them for the information and moved on to the TV section where nearly all the models on display were ‘Smart TVs’.  While marvelling at the picture quality of a high-end model, another salesperson asked if he had any questions. The Badger asked, ‘How long does the manufacturer support the software?’ Guess what, the salesperson went to find out and came back with the answer ‘a few years’.  The Badger chuckled and mentioned that an Amazon Firestick was therefore probably much better value! The salesperson swiftly moved to a customer showing real interest in making a purchase.

Software updates have been part of the IT/tech industry since its inception. Over recent decades, however, mobile and internet connected technology has not only put enormous functionality at our fingertips, but also progressively increased the need to keep the security  of connected devices up to date.  The need for, and frequency of, software updates has thus generally risen. But here’s the rub. Manufacturers often stop supporting their software  years before an equipment you’ve purchased is truly end of life.  The recently enacted UK Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure (PSTI) Act, however, is thus welcome progress towards making brands be more upfront about their software support

Smart’ everything, at a premium price, is becoming the norm, and so if you’re buying devices and appliances in a physical store then always ask about software support and compliance with the PSTI Act. Consider the response you get carefully, and remember, buy something that meets your real need, with your head not your heart.

‘Read Aloud’ is no match for the natural intelligence of the human brain…

Somewhere on your tablet, laptop, or desktop you may have created a folder or sub-folder to store general items that you think are interesting and might be of use at some stage in the future. The content may, for example, include information and pictures accumulated over time from websites, items from social media or streaming services, and interesting facts, figures, and slides from presentations given by others. If, like the Badger, you have such a folder then the content probably languishes there rarely used. That’s certainly true for Badger who this week came across a subfolder of old ‘that might come in handy’ items while doing some overdue hard-drive housekeeping.

Most of the subfolder’s old content was moved to the Recycle Bin, but one 15-year-old item from the internet was a reminder of the marvel that is the human brain. That item was simply the following paragraph of misspelt words. See if you can read it.

Fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too. Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny smoe plepoe can. I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheeachr at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, mneas taht it dseno’t mataetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproarmtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig, ins’t it? And you awlyas tghuhot slpelnig was ipmorantt!

The majority of people can read and understand this jumble, and the reason why is in the jumble itself. The human brain is magnificent.

On finding this item, and with Artificial Intelligence seemingly everywhere these days, the Badger wondered if the ‘Read Aloud’  function in Microsoft Word embodied ‘intelligence’ that matched his brain’s ability to read and speak the jumbled words coherently and correctly. After turning auto correct off to type the jumbled words into Word, hitting ‘Read Aloud’ on the toolbar resulted in the words being spoken exactly as written, that is in a babble as if they were an obscure foreign language! Clearly any artificial intelligence in ‘Read Aloud’ doesn’t match the natural intelligence of the human brain.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is, of course, a broad field. It’s also a field in which marketeers liberally associate their products with AI when actually it’s an algorithm rather than ‘intelligence’ at the heart of their product. So, what does the Badger conclude from his simple test? Simply that even though AI seems to be a dominant theme at this year’s CES event in the USA, the human brain remains streets ahead when it comes to true intelligence. And long may that be the case…

Obsolescence; from ink cartridges to Smart Meters

Bah, humbug! Having to buy new ink cartridges for the Badger’s printer always rankles. New ones are expensive, cheaper repurposed ones often prove to be of variable quality and using ink refilling kits has rarely been successful. It rankles that a set of black and colour cartridges now cost 60% of the price for the printer in the first place! Ink cartridge pricing is, of course, part of how printer companies maximise their revenues from selling their printers, but that’s no comfort for the consumer who feels fleeced when the ink runs out.  

This grumpiness was caused by printing an article on obsolescence in the tech industry for a friend. The ink ran out halfway through with no replacement cartridges to hand. Given the advances in technology since ink cartridges became commonplace in the 1980s, surely, the Badger mused, ink cartridges should now be obsolete? Surely printers can be designed and built with ink reservoirs that users can fill cleanly from ink bottles? Surely that would be a cheaper, user-friendly, and environment-friendly approach? The printer companies, of course, prefer to preserve the current ‘obsolete’ status quo because it provides a predictable and profitable long term revenue stream.

Anyway, this little incident made the Badger read the part-printed document which highlighted that obsolescence, planned or otherwise, pervades our daily lives. The tech advances of the last forty years have shortened the lifespan of the gadgets, equipment,  and systems we use daily with many companies making huge amounts of money from this fact. Just look at the evolution of the smartphone over the last fifteen or so years. Whenever you bought one, a better one came along within months of your purchase, and the solution to accidental damage or dodgy battery life was a new, better, device rather than repair. Obsolescence was essentially built in.

Technology continues to advance rapidly and so there’s an inevitability that major programmes with tech at their heart will be obsolescent by the time they deliver. The UK’s slothful Smart Meter rollout programme neatly illustrates the point.  As the Data Communications Company (DCC),  the organisation responsible for ensuring the smart metering infrastructure remains fit-for-purpose, highlights in its plan, assimilating earlier and the latest meters into an infrastructure based on 2G/3G communication is an ongoing challenge when the comms network needs to be upgraded. The programme, initiated over a decade ago, has yet to deliver as originally conceived.

The Badger mentioned these points to his wife as he went out to buy some printer cartridges. She just grinned and said that everything in the world was obsolete; the car, the high street, cash, housing, the railways…and perhaps also her husband!  Apparently, the Badger is turning into a Victor Meldrew for 2023…

Better Days…

As a New Year beckons, our thoughts naturally turn to what the future holds. Normally there’s a modicum of optimism that things will be better in the year ahead. The Badger’s found, however, that peering into the future is more challenging than usual given the prevailing uncertain and difficult times.  While he listened to a favourite music playlist and scratched his head as he read various online commentaries about tech trends for 2023 (here, here, and here, for example), the Badger found himself deciding that what most people wanted in the year ahead could be summed up in just three words, namely:

  • Trust that online information and news is trustworthy, that social media giants are held to account, and that our digital world is safe, secure, and lawful.
  • Stability in a day-to-day life that is sensibly protected against the downsides of globalisation, global supply chains, fractious geopolitics, and the weaponization of commodities and information. 
  • Confidence that public and commercial entities are not playing fast and loose with our personal data, and that they respect, value, and preserve individual privacy while using digital technology to make life better.  

Sadly, the Badger found that he’s not optimistic there’ll be much progress on these ‘wants’ in the year ahead. This created a dilemma! How could he write something at the end of the year that captured hope and a tinge of optimism? The eureka moment was provided by the playing music and the opening lyrics of the next song from the playlist:  

And you ask me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days
‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings
And desire and love and empty things
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

So take these words
And sing out loud
‘Cause everyone is forgiven now
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again

The Goo Goo Dolls melodic song ‘Better Days’  captures what the Badger feels that he and many others hope for in the year ahead, simply better days. So, if you make new year resolutions – and this applies regardless of whether you’re an ordinary citizen, a politician, an entrepreneur, a business executive, a scientist or engineer, self-employed, or economically inactive – then please shape them to make tomorrow a better day than today. Finally, just remember this; go forward with optimism – because the world can be a better place than it is today!

Exploding batteries…

A note in a Christmas card this week was not only a reminder that the imminent festive and New Year holidays aren’t always jolly occasions for some people, but also that our modern lives depend on rechargeable batteries. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, household devices, DIY tools, gardening equipment, and electric cars all have a battery at their heart, but do we fully appreciate the risks of having battery powered devices in our households? Probably not. We tend to take their safety for granted because they are certified to comply with requisite safety standards.

The Christmas card and the note therein was from a cousin. It conveyed Christmas greetings, and also information that the battery in their mobility scooter had recently exploded causing a fire and attendance by the fire brigade. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but smoke damage has rendered their home uninhabitable for the next six months.  The Badger phoned his cousin, who has poor mobility due to advanced cancer, and was impressed by their insistence on looking forward with positivity rather than dwelling on events and their new circumstances. The first thing they said was a line from the movie Forrest Gump, namely ‘My mama always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’’  Their objectivity and optimism was remarkable given their health and the stress of having their life turned upside down before Christmas.

A security video shows the mobility scooter, unplugged, not being charged, unused for a number of days, and covered by its standard weather-proof cover, simply burst into flames when the battery exploded! The fire brigade are now using this as part of their campaign to raise awareness of the potential fire hazards associated with rechargeable batteries in, for example, e-bikes, e-scooters, and …mobility scooters used by the infirm.

As we approach Christmas, the Badger’s intent here is not be alarmist,  but simply to make three points. The first is to not only encourage you to be aware of the risk that comes with the use and storage of equipment with rechargeable batteries, but also to raise the profile of related fire brigade safety campaigns. The second is to reinforce a point the cousin made in our conversation, namely that Christmas is not really about material things, it’s about people, community, and looking forward rather than dwelling too much on past tribulations. The third is simply to wish all readers a happy and safe Christmas and New Year, and to encourage optimistic thoughts whatever your personal circumstances. Oh, and there’s one final thing. After the Badger finished talking to his cousin, he felt overwhelmingly relieved that Santa’s sleigh for delivering Christmas presents to children across the world is powered by magical forces, and not by batteries that could explode!!!

Upset your client and spoil your career…

What’s the saddest thing you’ve see happen o someone you’ve been working with? Bereavement is excluded; the answer must be something the person has inflicted on themselves. A youngster, chatting to the Badger socially, asked this very question the other day. Surprised, the Badger played for time and asked what had prompted the question. They shrugged their shoulders, and simply said that a couple of their project team lacked common sense and sadly seemed oblivious that this was spoiling their career prospects. The conversation was interrupted by someone else, and so the Badger didn’t get to answer their question, but if he had, it would have been along the following lines.

One instance of the saddest thing someone inflicted on themselves comes to mind because it illustrates what can happen when a personality with embedded behaviours gained at one company, proves to be mismatched at another company in a different sector.  The circumstances were as follows. A senior delivery leader was recruited by the Badger’s IT sector employer from a large international defence company to run a major, fixed-price, high-profile IT contract of strategic importance to the client. The printed contract documentation filled numerous lever arch files and the person recruited, who joined the company before contract signature to lead mobilisation and then delivery, insisted on having an A5-size printed copy for their briefcase.  

Grumblings soon emerged as delivery got underway and the individual became the focal point with the client. Tensions within the individual’s team, due to their self-important, patronising, ‘I know best’ personality and an approach to delivery ingrained at their previous employer, also quickly became evident. The team started disengaging from their leader because of their arrogance, failure to listen, and inept people skills. Ever louder grumblings from the client came because the individual reached into their briefcase at the start of every client meeting, theatrically put the A5 copy of the contract on the table, and then referenced or checked it as part of every conversation. Client requests, and those from company executives when the client escalated, not to do this were ignored. A contract is never an irrelevant document, of course, but there’s a time and place for waving it about and it’s not in every meeting! Eventually the client refused to have any dealing with the individual.

Seeing the individual damage their career by failing to recognise that their modus operandi was upsetting the client and damaging the effectiveness of their own team was very sad. They were moved, never ran a delivery again, and never accepted that the spoiling of their career was self-inflicted.  There are always exceptions, of course, but upsetting your client and your team by letting arrogance and self-importance dominate your modus operandi, is almost certainly going to spoil your career. Keep this in mind if you don’t want to spoil your career and be someone else’s saddest thing anecdote…

Wisdom for a first-time Project Manager…

A book called ‘There’s a New Sheriff in Town: The Project Manager’s proven guide to successfully taking over ongoing projects and getting the work done was published recently, and the Badger, whose career centred on the many aspects of delivery in the IT business, is currently reading it. The book’s lengthy title, as it happens, also reminds the Badger of his very first assignment as a project manager, many, many years ago!

After working as an analyst-programmer and design authority on a number of sizeable software development projects, the Badger’s line manager took him to one side to say that his next assignment was to take over as project manager on a software and systems development project that was completely off the rails. The young Badger had no project management experience and expressed his surprise!  The line manager cited two reasons for why they had no doubt that the Badger was the right person for the job. The first was that the Badger’s character, experience, and latent capabilities were highly suited to sorting out the poor engineering and technical matters at the heart of the project’s problems, and the second was that most aspects of project management were always best learned on the job! Being thrown in at the deep end, they added, was nothing to be fear.  

Somewhat daunted, the Badger chatted to an experienced and consistently successful manager of difficult software intensive projects who gave three pieces of advice.  The first was ‘ You will fail if you fall into the trap of believing project management is about administering the processes in a project management handbook. It’s really about leadership, and showing the character, resilience, vision, drive, and professionalism to get the job done’. The second was ‘Most project management books are not written by people with a software or IT, so most are a distraction and won’t help get the job done or make you real project manager’. Things have moved on significantly since the time when there was a paucity of books about managing projects in the IT world, but the inherent not being overly distracted reading books still has some validity. The third point was ‘If you are replacing a current project manager who has lost the confidence of line management then remember that if you do what they did, you’ll get what they got!’  This was their way of saying be different, be focused, and be aware that you can be replaced too!

So, if you find yourself being appointed as the new sheriff in town on an ailing IT project, and it’s your first role as a project manager, don’t be fazed. Be a leader not just an administrator of process, be motivated to listen and learn, be focused, and know that these days there are books like the one above that can help by providing many nuggets of wisdom gleaned from experience…  

The UK energy crisis has done more to change consumer energy behaviour than Smart Meters…

If you cut through the flim-flam about how to change the way people behave, then there’s an immutable truth, namely that the quickest way to change behaviour is to change the amount of money people have in their pocket!  It’s a hard-nosed reality that lifestyle for most people is determined by whether their money covers the overheads of living, or not. Governments, businesses, and even project managers all use the lever of money in our pockets to pursue their overall political, business, or delivery objectives. They use, for example, tax changes, bonuses, and overtime payments to powerfully incentivise the behavioural changes they need to meet their objectives in an expected timescale.

The UK energy crisis neatly illustrates how our behaviour changes when our pockets take a financial hit. The huge rise in consumer electricity and gas prices has already cut consumption by much more than 10%.  If the Badger household is typical, then this cut in consumption may be much greater than reported. It seems that our behaviour of energy wastefulness is being replaced by a welcome return to a more disciplined ethos, and that’s a good thing! Clearly the dramatic rise in electricity and gas prices has hit everyone in the pocket and quickly changed our energy behaviour for the better. In fact, being a little mischievous, the rises have done more to permanently change consumer energy behaviour in a year, than the UK’s Smart Meter programme and its Einstein advertisements have achieved in a decade.

Which takes us to the UK Smart Meter statistics update published a few days ago on 24th November 2022. It shows that there are still less than 50% of domestic homes with a Smart Meter installed and operating in smart mode. The installation rate remains, at best, broadly flat. On the current trajectory, the rollout’s revised 2024/2025 deadlines will be missed yet again. The adoption of Smart Meters, which primarily benefit energy providers, thus still has a long way to go before it materially embeds any significant change to consumer behaviour. It’s easy, therefore, to conclude that the energy crisis hit to consumer pockets has changed behaviour more and faster, and for the long term, than the rollout of Smart Meters. It’s also a solid reminder that the quickest way to change the behaviour of an individual, a team, a workforce, a community, or a population, is to do something that puts money into, or takes money out of, their pockets.

Finally, the energy crisis has exposed many flaws in UK energy policy and UK energy markets that go back at least two decades. The installed level of Smart Meters coupled with the paucity of their impact in materially changing consumer energy behaviour, simply adds weight to the feeling that this programme is another one of these flaws.

Think differently about your performance appraisal with your boss…

The reactions of people who’ve just had a performance appraisal with their boss varies enormously and also highlights how different we are as individuals. Personal reactions, of course, cover a wide spectrum. The Badger’s experience, however, is that while a person’s demeanour and body language says a lot about their reaction, most people share little more than the odd comment about their appraisal with others. There are always, of course, people who think they’ve been treated poorly and say so to anyone who will listen. In the Badger’s experience, such individuals tend to be self-centred, averagely talented, poor listeners, and they normally have egotistic or narcistic personalities.  These individuals, and those at the other end of the spectrum who are just downright lazy, unproductive, and permanently negative,  tend to share their displeasure widely and keep HR functions busy with claims of unfair treatment.

A youngster in their first job since leaving University 15 months ago whined to the Badger this week that their appraisal had been a shock and unfair. The youngster, hungry for rapid career and salary progression, unfortunately failed to recognise that they haven’t adjusted to working life as well as their peers. The Badger explained this, and in the course of doing so remembered some wisdom from a training course he attended many years ago. On that course, a behaviour expert, building on the sport coaching work of Tim Gallway, emphasised that we should think about individual performance using the simple equation ‘Performance = Talent – Interferences’. If someone has 100% Talent, then their Performance is never 100% because there are always Interferences from personal and/or organisational factors. Personal interferences come, for example, from lifestyle, health, family and/or caring responsibilities. Organisational interferences come, for example, from skill set mismatches with work role, adequacy of role definition, relationships with leaders and work colleagues, organisational bureaucracy, and factors like organisational dynamism and workforce stagnation if business growth is poor.

The behaviour expert’s key message was that everyone has Interferences, so no one can ever perform at 100%! Interestingly, they used the same equation to describe the performance of a company. In this case, Talent represents a company’s portfolio of  products and services, and Interferences are largely the policies, processes, and  controls that influence the delivery of the portfolio to clients. Bigger companies tend to have more Interferences than smaller ones, and no company ever performs at 100%, although clever accounting and expectation management often masks this!

So, think about your performance appraisal in the terms above. Your Talent is constant, so your Performance dips when Interferences rise. Eventually Interferences will reach a level that makes you feel like doing something different with your life. It’s very empowering when this happens, because it definitively changes the way you approach your appraisal with your boss.