Smart Meters; a continuing tale of woe…

The cost of electricity and gas is a hot topic and, unsurprisingly, it came up in recent conversations with a busy millennial with a well-paid job, a 82-year-old widow living in social housing, and a 96-year-old widower still living independently in his own property. Apart from energy prices, a common theme ran through all these conversations, namely a bad experience with their energy provider and smart meters.

The millennial is rarely at home and uses a small amount of energy. Their smart meter stopped functioning a year ago when their supplier moved their account to a new IT system and messed up the transfer. The disgruntled millennial has thus reverted to entering manual meter readings online as regular contact with their provider to resolve the meter problem has proved fruitless. Last week the provider emailed an energy forecast which is 3x the current level and recommended tripling the millennial’s monthly direct debit immediately. With a very healthy credit balance, and checking their historic usage, the believe the provider’s forecast is wide of the mark. Accordingly, they’ve refused to accept the recommended direct debit increase and are once again trying to get the provider to return their smart meter to normal function.

The two pensioners were apparently persuaded by their energy provider to ‘trial’ a smart meter many years ago. About three years ago, however, their meters stopped working and estimated bills have been issued and paid ever since. For a couple of years both pensioners have regularly received letters from their provider threatening legal action because they haven’t submitted a real meter reading. Both regularly telephone their supplier to explain that they cannot submit readings because the LCD displays on their meters no longer work! After every call, the provider has sent someone to read the meter, only for that person to find they cannot take a reading because the LCD isn’t working! The meter readers say an engineer is needed, and when the pensioners have diligently reported this back to their providers, another meter reader turns up to read the meter! The two elders now hate their supplier, hate smart meters, and feel trapped in a Groundhog Day! The 96-year-old has, however, now sought assistance from Citizen’s Advice.

Long before current energy price issues, these individuals have developed a deep distrust of energy providers and smart meters, compounded by media reports like this, this, and this.  They think smart meters are over-hyped, irrelevant to consumers, and already obsolete. The 96-year-old wryly tells anyone who will listen when they hear smart meters mentioned that they are a ‘tale of woe’! A look at  the most recent UK smart meter rollout metrics, suggests they are hardly a success after 11 years and billions in expenditure. The Badger senses that more rollout delay and cost to the consumer on the horizon, and if that’s the case then the 96-year-old has called it right – the whole thing really is ‘a tale of woe’.

Listening, selective hearing…and hidden motives

Decent leaders and managers know that listening is important to keeping their team engaged, spotting problems, picking up on trends, and gaining the insights and information needed for success. Listening skills featured in many of the training courses the Badger attended throughout his IT career, and the maxim ‘you have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that ratio because you learn more when you listen than when you talk’ has served him well over the years. The best bosses have listening as a core capability, but it cannot be assumed that every boss or person in a position of influence or power hears the key points in what they are told. Why? Because they’re human and often have ‘selective hearing’ and hidden motives.

Early in his career, the Badger’s boss asked him to covertly assess a dysfunctional, over-running project. Whatever the Badger reported back would, apparently, help the boss make difficult decisions on what next steps were in the company’s best overall interest. In the subsequent one-to-one meeting to convey the findings, the Badger summarised  the project’s status and articulated three key recommendations. The boss listened closely, seemed appreciative, and said the input would be considered overnight and factored into their decision making. They asked to meet with the Badger again the following afternoon.

This follow-up meeting proved memorable. The boss seemed to have a completely different recollection of the previous day’s meeting! They gave the Badger a hard time, and the atmosphere became very tense when the boss claimed the Badger hadn’t made any recommendations the previous day! Horrified, the Badger briefly wondered if his boss was right,  but quickly decided otherwise. The boss took a telephone call which ended the meeting prematurely. On returning to his desk, the Badger concluded that his boss either hadn’t really been listening in the first meeting or was prone to ‘selective hearing’.

Travelling home that evening, the Badger thought – uncharitably  – that his boss had lost his marbles, was not quite the full shilling, or had become one sandwich short of a picnic. The next day, however, provided an answer – the Badger’s boss announced they were leaving the company! The boss knew they were departing all along, which made the problematic project someone else’s problem. Their hidden motive in dealings with the Badger was to simply to go through the motions of  quasi-business as usual dynamics in order to heighten the surprise and impact of their imminent departure announcement.

The Badger learned an important lesson. In one-on-one meetings, the person you are talking to may have good listening skills, but always assume they will have some ‘selective hearing’ and a hidden motive. Appreciating this helps you to prepare and manage a discussion to get the outcome you want.

Smart Warfare…

The Badger recently saw an elderly pensioner clash with an Extinction Rebellion (XR) activist at a demonstration in London. The clash triggered the Badger to think about ‘smart warfare’ and reminded him that anything prefixed with ‘smart’ might mean ‘clever’, but it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’.

‘Can you zealots stop blocking my way please’, the pensioner asked politely. ‘I’m not a zealot; I’m a climate activist engaged in smart warfare’, the activist replied with a sneering arrogance. The pensioner responded indignantly with ‘I’ve been climate and environment conscious for years, so you should be ashamed about being at war with me when it’s the big countries in other parts of the world that have the biggest impact on the planet’s climate’. With that the pensioner pushed past the activist blocking their way. With a derogatory hand gesture, the activist turned their attention to someone else. The activist believed they were engaged in ‘smart warfare’, but to the Badger they seemed to be illustrating the polarising, fixated, tribal behaviour that is prevalent in today’s world.

The phrase ‘smart warfare’ tends to trigger thoughts of ever-evolving advanced military weaponry and a future of cyber warfare, swarms of drones, and robots. The activist’s use of the phrase, however, illustrates that ‘smart warfare’  is really modern-day terminology for the centuries-old execution of power over people using whatever clever tools and techniques are available. Tools range from extreme physical violence to the most subtle psychological techniques that enable one mind to influence and control another. Yes, clever advances in technology broadens the tools available and changes how wars are contested, but truly ‘smart warfare’ requires more than just technology, it requires clever, effective, and inspirational leaders, and committed and united people. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows that subjugating a population takes more than advanced ballistic, information, cyber, economic, and propaganda weaponry. It’s people that conduct ‘smart warfare’ not technology, and people will always find ways to resist against the odds regardless of the clever technology in use.

As the XR activist’s use of the phrase illustrates, ‘smart warfare’ has broadened beyond the military domain into the routines of normal life in our globally connected, online world full of misinformation, disinformation, processing of personal data, and location and preference tracking. When you buy a traditional newspaper from a shop, there’s no record of the articles and adverts you look at or share with other people, your opinions, other people you associate with, or whether something in the paper prompted you to make a purchase or change your behaviour. The opposite is true when we use the phones, tablets, and laptops that dominate life today. ‘Smart warfare’ is thus a routine aspect of life today because organisations are using clever tools to analyse this information to wield power over us! With this in mind, always use the apps on your phone, tablet, or laptop wisely…

Return to Space…

Idling on the sofa at home after a meeting, the Badger wanted to do nothing more energetic than watching a Netflix film. Whatever he watched, the Badger knew it would probably have something in common with the meeting he attended, namely that it would be much longer than it needed to be! With low expectations that it would keep his attention for the duration, the Badger  selected the documentary film ‘Return to Space’ about SpaceX’s activities to deliver astronauts from American soil to the International Space Station (ISS).  The film proved more engaging than expected. Why? Not because it features Elon Musk, but because the Badger, as an IT professional and delivery leader with strong roots in science and engineering, could relate from his own career experiences to the SpaceX team’s dedication and hard work, and their relief and exhilaration when their goals were met.

After the documentary ended, the Badger’s lasting impressions centred on four things. The first was that this endeavour would not have been possible without a multidisciplinary team of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. This should inspire youngsters to study STEM subjects and develop their careers accordingly. The second was that the whole leadership and management were disciplined and entirely focused on important milestones, solving problems, and the ultimate goal. No team will deliver without focused, disciplined, objective, and committed leadership and management. The third was the excellent teamwork, testing, risk mitigation, and fact-based rigour in decision making on display. Those involved were motivated, clear on their roles and responsibilities, and stood by the decisions and judgement calls made. The fourth thing was that Information Technology and integrated computer systems were at the heart of absolutely everything.

Anyone who has worked on major programmes and been there when the ultimate goal is achieved can relate to the palpable relief, job satisfaction, and euphoric pride shown by everyone on the SpaceX team when they delivered the two astronauts to the ISS and returned them safely to Earth. There’s nothing like the feeling of personal and professional satisfaction and elation that every team member, not just those in leadership positions, feels when a programme or project delivers. It’s a great feeling!

As he rose from the sofa, the Badger’s smartphone announced the arrival of an email  from British Gas. They had emailed the previous day saying that the Badger’s energy account had been migrated to a new system. The new email simply notified that an  energy statement was available online. With a sense of foreboding, the Badger logged into his energy account and found all was not well. SpaceX and British Gas may not be in comparable industries, but in ‘Return to Space’ the former cared that they got things right and delivered progress. Sadly, the opposite seems true for British Gas. Perhaps they need a dose of Elon Musk…

Information Technology Year was 1982…

This year is the 40th anniversary of ‘Information Technology Year’.  Yes, 1982 was designated ‘Information Technology Year’, a joint government/industry campaign to raise national awareness on the use, application, opportunities, and benefits of information technology. In 1982, less than 20% of the UK population knew of IT, most UK businesses had not embraced it in anyway, and telephones all had curly wires. How things have changed!

The year 1982 saw the arrival of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and Spielberg’s film ‘E.T.’, Sony selling the first CD audio players, the advent of the Commodore C64 8-bit computer, a 15-year-old schoolboy creating the first computer virus, and the founding of computer games company Electronic Arts.   Not only did the Sinclair ZX Spectrum arrive with 16KB or 48Kb RAM, but Margaret Thatcher demonstrated and gave one as a present to Japan’s Prime Minister during a visit to Japan! The UK Post Office also issued a set of postage stamps to celebrate ‘Information Technology Year’

Millennials and subsequent generations often not only find it difficult to relate to the computing environment of ‘Information Technology Year’, but also to appreciate that ithelped them on the road to being engaged with computers during their education. It makes the Badger chuckle observing millennials and children visiting the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley. They are amazed that even a modest smartphone in their pocket vastly surpasses the computers of 1982 when processors were the size of wardrobes, disk storage cabinets were the size of a chest of draws, and card punch machines for programming still existed! This 1982 film from Australia  neatly illustrates the world of information technology at the time.

Sometimes politicians deserve a little credit. Kenneth (now Lord) Baker MP was a small shareholder in the small but growing software company Logica in the 1970s. This helped him realise the huge potential impact of IT and the need to raise awareness of this nationally. He pressed for government agreement to goals like the introduction of computing in schools, fibre optic technology, and the paperless office. He persuaded the Prime Minister (Margaret Thatcher) to visit Logica in 1981 and became the first Minister for Information Technology. His appointment led to the 1982 ‘Information Technology Year’ and started the ball rolling to get computers into schools, homes, and many businesses. It effectively seeded millennials’ access to computers throughout their education and made many of them realise that computers were interesting, useful, and fun.

Forty years after ‘Information Technology Year’, everyone’s daily life depends on  computers, communication networks, and information technology. It must be time, therefore, for some kind of new ‘Technology Year’ with the profile and long-term impact of the one in 1982. If there is one, then who’s the modern Kenneth Baker figure, and why doesn’t it appear in the Royal Mail’s list of new postage stamps for 2022?

School kids’ imagination and driverless vehicles…

A recent IET item about what school kids expect from driverless cars provides an interesting insight to how our digital-native school children imagine and think about the future. Their internet-dominated world provides lots of content about a future full of driverless cars, robots, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and renewables replacing fossil fuels. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that driverless cars grab their imagination, especially as they have the vehicles operated by their parents as a tangible, modern-day reference point.

It has always been the case that when school kids are asked how they imagine life to be a few decades in the future, their answers are influenced by their awareness of technology advances, hot societal issues, their interests, and factors like their family and schooling environment. When the Badger was a schoolboy, the Apollo Space Programme putting men on the moon was in full swing, nuclear reactors were proliferating to generate electricity, satellites were blossoming to broadcast television pictures around the world, and semiconductors were rapidly changing the size, capability, and quality of radios, televisions, gadgets, and mainframe computers used by major corporations. If the Badger and his school friends had been asked what life would be like some decades later, then living on the moon, human interplanetary space travel, abundant cheap electricity, and less work and more leisure time due to automation would have featured in the answers. Such answers are, in fact, similar to those in this interesting BBC Archive footage of 1960’s kids talking about the year 2000 .

Comparing what the Badger and his friends would have imagined with how things turned out just confirms what mature adults know, namely that the future is always different to what kids think it will be! After all, humans are not living on the moon or engaging in interplanetary space travel, nuclear reactors haven’t given everyone abundant cheap electricity, automation hasn’t really produced less work and more leisure time, and no one imagined the internet. It’s a certainty, therefore, that what today’s school kids are imagining the future to be will not happen as they envisage. There’s a quite simple reason for this and it’s this; kids’ imagination is unencumbered by the hard realities of politics, finance, economics, bureaucracy, legalities, and liabilities. It’s these realities that explain why the future is never quite what they imagine.

Today’s school kids should always be encouraged to imagine the future, but will what they imagine for driverless cars journeys on public roads become a reality in a few decades time? Unlikely, because delivering what technology can do into real use is always constrained by non-technological factors. Where the non-technological barriers are lower, however, things happen faster. For example, the school kids of farmers who imagined driverless tractors many years ago are seeing this come to fruition. Truly driverless tractors for use in fields will be coming off the John Deere factory line later this year.  

An independent review and temporary traffic lights…

Driving home after a meeting with the leader of a modest-sized business, the Badger joined a slow-moving traffic queue on a semi-rural road. In the distance, he could see that temporary traffic lights letting through just two or three cars at a time were the reason for the queue. As vehicles inched forward, the Badger’s thoughts wandered back to the meeting that he’d just left. The business leader, an unusual character, was struggling with delays and spiralling costs on a long running project, and with getting his project staff to change their long-standing, comfortable, ‘it’s too difficult’ ways of working. The leader wanted to find a way of overcoming this challenge without completely destroying their good personal relationship with their staff.

At the start of the meeting the leader’s demeanour was initially one of quiet desperation, but this changed to one of relief and enthusiasm as the discussion progressed. The Badger suggested getting an experienced, independent outsider to review the project and produce a report that recommended actions to be taken. This provoked some fruity language signalling that there was no desire to pay someone who’d swallowed an MBA handbook to author a report that told them what they already knew! Undeterred, the Badger persevered and pointed out that a review and report by the right independent person would provide the objective, dispassionate, and tangible ammunition in black and white to force the changes needed to reduce cost. After all, this is a common method in major businesses, public sector organisations, and government departments. The leader had a ‘light-bulb moment’. They realised that a written report would be a useful vehicle for deflecting the ‘blame’ for changes more towards the independent reviewer than themselves!

As the car reached the front of queue at the traffic lights, the Badger wondered why this supposed leader hadn’t thought about the merits of an independent review and report themselves. The Badger’s attention, however, quickly moved to the highway work being performed, namely the clearance of compacted leaves and vegetation from a 20-metre stretch of the paved footpath running alongside the carriageway. There were three panel vans, a trailer, one worker chatting on his phone in a van’s cab, one worker using a mini-bulldozer to scrape leaves from the footpath and put them further back on the verge,  and one worker using a portable petrol-powered leaf-blower to blow looser debris from the footpath onto the verge. It must be cheaper, the Badger mused, and healthier for the workers, more fossil-fuel efficient, and less impactful on the climate if this work was done by two men with one van, a wheelbarrow, a shovel, a rake, and a broom. The Badger smiled; an independent review of working practices is surely needed!

Young people regard scientists as trusted voices in society…

According to new research conducted for British Science Week which runs to 20th March, most young people feel that scientists need to do more to engage them with science. The research, involving surveys of 2000 14-to18 year olds and 2000 adults about their perspectives of science, scientists, and trust in different societal groups, provides some interesting but not unexpected insights. The comment ‘From this research, it’s clear that young people regard scientists as trusted voices in society, more so than politicians, journalists, or influencers’ made by Katherine Mathieson, the Chief Executive of the British Science Association (BSA), resonated strongly with the Badger.  

Young people’s regard for scientists as trusted voices in society has been reinforced by the work, raised media profile, and clear, honest, and articulate  communications of Professor’s Chris Whitty, Jonathan van Tam, Sarah Gilbert, and many other scientists from public and commercial organisations, during the COVID pandemic. Young people have also heard one of their own generation, Greta Thunberg, frequently tell politicians and journalists ’Don’t listen to me, listen to the scientists’. They regularly see the stark contrast between ‘facts’ from scientists and ‘spin’ from politicians and the media. It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that youngsters trust scientists more than politicians when, for example, only 16% (103 out of 650) of elected UK Members of Parliament (MP) have any science, engineering, or mathematics background or interest, and the other 84% have an education dominated by politics, law, economics, history, and philosophy.   

Regarding scientists as a trusted voice in society is a good thing. If politicians, journalists, and social media influencers want to improve their reputations and be trusted on a par with scientists then they probably need more scientists and engineers in their ranks. After all, everything we use in society wouldn’t be there without the work, knowledge, and ingenuity of scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

Last year saw an unprecedented growth in young people wanting to take science subjects at university. This upswing looks likely to continue. Indeed, the Badger’s nephew is considering going to university in 2023 to study a science subject because, as he puts it, his ambition is to ultimately ‘be a leading expert in something important that impacts society’. Currently, however, his thoughts are wavering a little because science subjects are ‘hard’ and many of his friends are preferring ‘easier’ subjects. The Badger, however, is confident that his nephew will decide on a ‘hard’ subject. Why? Because this highly principled lad wants to be a scientist and be seen by others to be part of a community that is seen by his peers as a bastion of trust in future society. British Science Week will hopefully inspire other young people along similar lines, because the never-ending chaos of our world needs trustworthy voices more than ever before.    

Serious internet failure – never say never

For the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone was together recently to celebrate the Badger’s grandson’s second birthday. It was a memorable occasion. All the adults, however, felt a little chastened by the suffering of Ukrainian  families with children at the moment. As the toddler opened presents, the Badger felt not only uneasy about the world he will grow up in, but also uneasy that his life will utterly depend on the internet. At just two-years old, the toddler is already powering-on the Badger’s tablet, swiping its screen, and watching the Teletubbies on YouTube! The little one will only know of life before the internet from stories told by his parents and grandparents, books, and content from the internet itself. Well, that’s just the way it is. Progress is progress, and those born this century are already full-blown digital and internet-reliant natives.  

The toddler went off for a pre-bedtime bath towards the end of the party, and the  Badger, resting on a comfy sofa, began to muse on how the little one’s generation would cope if there was a dramatic, prolonged, serious failure of the internet in the future.   Conventional wisdom has it that the internet has no single points of failure, and is too big, too decentralised, and has too much in-built redundancy to fail. The prevalent view is that a serious interruption that impacts our lives for a prolonged period will never happen. As the Badger began to doze, he remembered what he had learned during his IT industry career, namely to ‘never say never’, to expect the unexpected, and to remain cool, rational, objective, and focused when the unexpected happens. He concluded that it’s not a question of if, but when such an internet event might occur.   

Reflections on failure of the internet pop up regularly over the years – see here, here, and here, for example. All they really do, however, is reinforce the ‘never say never’ point. In complex computer systems and networks there’s always scope for unexpected human actions and technical events to have unforeseen and dramatic consequences. The Russian threat to vital undersea cables that carry internet traffic between Europe and North America (see here, here, and here) illustrates , for example, why ‘never say never’ is a sensible position. If Mr Putin has gone ‘full tonto’ and the Russian Navy performs a coordinated attack on these cables then the internet’s resilience and fault tolerance, and our life routines, will be tested like never before.  

The Badger’s grandson, about to go to bed, climbed on the Badger’s lap and shouted, ‘wake up, grandad’. Everyone laughed. The Badger opened his eyes and made a mental note to teach his grandson some of the self-sufficiency life skills needed to function without the internet…just in case he needs them in years to come.    

We must all now be warriors…

Working at senior levels in major organisations exposes you to decision makers with different personalities, motives, and different ways of interpreting a situation. You tend to calibrate decision makers, and hone instincts that alert you to circumstances where  their decisions take the organisation in a direction destined to fail. These instincts woke like never before while watching Mr Putin’s theatrics justifying the invasion of Ukraine. Mr Putin has put himself and his regime on the road to eventual demise, at least that’s what the Badger senses.

By invading Ukraine, Mr Putin has shaken democracies out of a comfortable complacency with Russia, galvanised democratic nations into unity of action, and forced the United Nations to question Russia’s membership of the Security Council. Mr Putin has ‘form’; he sent troops into Georgia and Crimea and his regime’s institutions are implicated in using a nerve agent against people in Salisbury in the UK and an opposition activist in Russia itself. The regular television pictures of him sitting at his long table distanced from others conveys an insecurity and the aura of an obsessed, irrational, barbaric, bully corrupted by power. A bully, however, can only be a bully if those being bullied allow themselves to be a victim. Standing up to a bully by not allowing them to have power over you is the best way to deal with any bully, and that’s just what the courageous people of Ukraine are doing. Western democracies are now doing this too and Mr Putin will be held responsible for his actions.

The fate of the Ukrainian people is in the balance, but their ‘fight to the end’ spirit reminds the Badger of his father’s stories from sheltering as a twelve-year old boy in London’s Underground during the Blitz in World War 2. He often said that ‘everyone believed they had right on their side, and everyone had a warrior spirit inside to fight if enemy troops arrived in London’. This inherent spirit is much in evidence in Ukraine today.

Today’s world is highly dependent on connected IT systems and computer devices, and nations across the globe have been ramping up their defensive and offensive cyber capabilities over the last decade to mitigate threats. However, although cyber incidents undoubtedly feature in this conflict, this war shows that conventional military forces with bombs and bullets are needed to take territory and supress a population. Although few people consider themselves to be any kind of warrior, the Ukrainians have shown not only that we have to fight for our freedoms, but also that in today’s world this means we must all now be warriors. The world today is different to that experienced by my father during the London Blitz. Mr Putin, however, has shown that while the world might be different, with people like himself in positions of enormous power, the world is no better than it was 80 years ago.