What’s colourless, odourless, beneficial and toxic, and runs the world?

The Badger has a small, framed, vintage print of the Periodic Table of Elements from his school days on his desk. It’s been a constant reminder over the years that everything in our physical world is made up of elements in this table. While at his desk listening to a rather frustrating podcast featuring a climate emissions evangelist and a business leader arguing about fossil fuels, the Badger’s eye was drawn to this trusty print. Something said in the exchange between the protagonists in the podcast made the Badger mentally tune out and recall how his school chemistry teacher used to describe elements in the Periodic Table and common chemical compounds. The trigger for this was the business leader saying that ‘fossil fuels run the world economy and hence our lives and will do so for some time yet’.

It made the Badger look at the framed print on his desk, think of his school chemistry teacher, and decide that it’s not fossil fuels but something colourless, odourless, beneficial and toxic, that cannot be touched or felt and that can be produced by any country, that really runs the world and its economy today, namely software! Fossil fuels and industries that heavily use them bear the brunt for most activism on reducing global carbon emissions, whereas software, which constantly proliferates at the heart of our ever-expanding digital and ICT world, seems to have a lower profile on the ‘green’ activism scale. Notwithstanding Microsoft’s drive to be carbon negative by 2030 and the existence of the Green Software Foundation, it feels like the design, development, testing, release and use of software in every facet of life deserves much more quantitative ‘green’ attention if global digitalisation and the processing and storage of huge amounts of data isn’t to become the next generation’s emissions and resource sustainability crisis.  

Some argue that software and global digitalisation can help to cut our overall global emissions by 15% or more.  However, researchers at Lancaster University suggest not only that this might not be so, but also that while ICT has driven efficiency and productivity improvements over the years, the historical evidence shows that global  emissions have still risen relentlessly.  The devil’s always in the detail, of course, and spin and greenwashing are everywhere, but surely there’s a need for much clearer, quantitative, transparent data and public awareness about emissions  relating specifically to the design, production, and use of software – that colourless, odourless, invisible, cross-border item that runs the world?

The Badger’s school chemistry teacher knew nothing about software, but they were inspiring, articulate, a creative describer of matters of importance, and a stickler for quantitative assessment. They would have applied the same approach for assessing the production and use emissions of software as if it was an element in the Periodic Table…and, perhaps, so should we.

Describe the dynamics of today’s digital world in one word…

Would you find it easy or hard to describe the dynamics of our modern digital world in one word? Would one word immediately come to mind, or would you need time to think before deciding? Rather than decide yourself, would you prefer to converge on a word via a group discussion? What would your word be? An ex senior civil servant, in their eighties with a razor-sharp mind, asked these questions in a recent conversation. The Badger took the easy option, answered ‘don’t know’, and we moved on to other things. The questions, however, have bugged the Badger ever since, and so as Storm Eunice buffeted the windows, he settled in his study listening to a playlist of favourite music to decide his answers.

The answer for the first question was ‘it’s hard’. In fact, it took much longer than expected to decide on one word to answer the last question. The answers to the second and third questions came quick and were straightforward. They were, respectively, time to think rather than spontaneity, and deciding for himself rather than potentially succumbing to  groupthink’. The word the Badger ultimately converged on as the answer to the last question was ‘Creep’.

The word has enormous breadth. In materials technology, ‘creep’ is the movement and permanent deformation of a solid under persistent load ultimately leading to failure. Glaciers and lead on church roofs are simple illustrations of the phenomenon. ‘Scope creep’, when requirements drift away from agreed baselines due to client pressure and poor controls, is well-known to those running businesses, projects, programmes, or service delivery. This kind of ‘creep’ often leads to financial problems, commercial disputes, and serious delays. And then, of course, ‘creep’ is sometimes used to describe people who are unpleasant, untrustworthy, insincere, or are just plain odd in their habits, interests, and behaviours.

Creep’ seems a more realistic descriptor for the dynamics of our modern digital world than the word ‘change’. For example, our insatiable demand for resources and fossil fuels is producing creep deformation of aspects of our planet to the point of crisis and questions about our sustainability on it. Additionally, digital innovation and fast technological advancement represents a persistent stress on businesses, governments, and the public producing the erosive creep of personal privacy to the point where societal rupture is a risk. Similarly, the need for social media platforms to keep people engaged and active is causing the creep of fact, news, and sensible debate into just disinformation, misinformation, abuse, and entertainment fuelling growing distrust and antipathy. ‘Creep’, of course, can still be used to describe some people, and it seems particularly apt today for politicians and so-called elites!

Oh, and ‘Creep’, by the way, is a great song by Radiohead! What would your one word to describe the dynamics of today’s world be?

Spike Milligan, Nuclear Fusion and Smart Meters…

Two recent announcements, seemingly unrelated, reminded the Badger of Spike Milligan’s quip ‘And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light, but the Electricity Board said he would have to wait until Thursday to be connected’.

The first was that UK Smart Meters will, by default rather than consumer opt-in, automatically send usage data to suppliers every 30 minutes by 2025  so that ‘time of use’ tariffs charging more at peak times can be offered to all consumers. According to OFGEM, the Regulator, ‘It will enable a more efficient, flexible and greener energy system which will save billions of pounds per year on all consumers’ energy bills’. Hmm, that seems doubtful. Smart Meters have hardly been a success for consumers who haven’t seen any savings in their bills to date from their introduction over the last decade. Will people really change their habits and routines after 2025 for consumer bills to go down? It’s doubtful. Apparently, the fire brigade was not consulted about this announcement, and so we can expect a public outcry when there’s a fire tragedy caused by household appliances running late at night or in the early morning.   

The second announcement was the achievement of a fusion record at JET. There’s a long way to go before commercial fusion power becomes a reality, but this record shows that scientists and engineers are rapidly building the knowledge and technology needed to deliver the  low-carbon, sustainable, baseload energy that future generations need. The Badger doesn’t know if the Electricity Board had a say in when the JET experiment was  conducted, but ‘Let there be light (and heat)’ was certainly achieved!

Which brings us back to Spike Milligan, a man with severe bipolar disorder and famous for surreal humour who died 20 years ago. He was an enthusiastic environmental campaigner and the issues of life on our planet would be a rich source for his dark, surreal, humour if he were alive today. It’s entirely possible that Spike might draw on the electricity, greener energy system, and consumer points that emerge from the announcements above to make quips like ‘The Smart thing with a Smart Meter is not to have one’, ‘I want my energy a different colour to go with the décor’, ‘My Bill needs to go on a diet’. Spike would, however, produce better quips than the Badger’s!

Of the announcements above, it’s the fusion record that should give most cause for optimism about our energy future. While commercial fusion power may still be ’30 years away’, the JET record highlights not only the importance of career scientists and engineers working together to build knowledge, understanding, and to solve world problems, but also that seemingly intractable problems can be overcome to provide energy benefit to us all. The Badger’s always been pro-fusion because, as Spike Milligan observed, One day the “Don’t Knows” will get in and then where will we be?

Digital pollution

The High Street, closed to traffic, was crowded with people for the  annual Christmas Street Market. The numerous stalls selling craft items, festive decorations, food, and drink were doing good business. A group of ladies from Rock Choir sang songs and the smell of mulled wine hung enticingly in the air. Turnout was impressive. Everyone was enjoying themselves, especially after covid forced the market’s cancellation last year. Amongst the stalls there some booths where charities and campaign groups were drumming up support for their cause. One of these was manned by a millennial climate change campaigner who radiated enthusiasm. The  crowd moved unexpectedly, and before he could take evasive action the campaigner engaged the Badger in conversation!

Their spiel was well-practiced. Fossil fuels are bad, the oil, plastics, and chemical industries are all irresponsible polluters driven by corporate greed, and people who travel by plane or car are killing the planet. The Badger had no appetite for a prolonged debate, so he pointed to the campaigner’s iPad and to heir colleague listening to music on a smartphone and politely said, ‘You should be looking at your own digital pollution’. Movement of the crowd enabled the Badger to move on before the campaigner, slightly taken aback, could respond.

The Badger’s interest in digital pollution was heightened recently by both reading some articles (e.g. here, here, and here) and getting frustrated at a recent surge in irrelevant emails and ‘you might like’ social media content all of which just got ignored and deleted.  Every email, every interaction with the cloud, every search of the internet, every stream of a song or film, every social media post, every piece of online commentary, argument, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda, and every piece of digital advertising and marketing, not only comes with an emissions price, but also pollutes our well-being – as neatly articulated here.  Digital pollution is real; it has an emissions footprint and an insidious effect on our psychological well-being by affecting our emotional and intellectual capacity. On both counts this is worrying because emissions from building, delivering, and using digital technology already make up 4% of global emissions  and some are predicting an eight-fold rise in data traffic by 2030.

Our digital world has many benefits, but it comes with a form of pollution that’s much less obvious than the oil slicks and plastic flotsam we can readily see. Every interaction with data and online content comes with an emissions price and an insidious impact on how we think, feel, and behave. Just keep this in mind every time you use email, search the internet, and use online services and social media. Young campaigners at Christmas Markets should have digital pollution higher on their agenda. If it’s ignored, then in years to come their children and grandchildren will inevitably blame them for inaction on all of its polluting effects.

Welcome to the metaverse…

As the Badger walked to the local High Street to meet friends, the heavens opened dumping lots of rain on anyone without a coat or an umbrella. Luckily, the local train station was just along the road and a quick sprint for its shelter meant a complete soaking was avoided. Sheltering with others in the station’s ticket hall, the Badger messaged his friends to say he’d be late, and then browsed his smartphone’s news feeds until the rain stopped. Everyone in the ticket hall was doing something similar. In fact, the bedraggled crowd looked like something from a zombie apocalypse, but without any blood.  

A news item entitled ‘PC, internet, smartphone: what’s the next big technological epoch?’ caught the Badger’s eye. Its content answered the question by building on a core 2014 suggestion that the tech/IT industry has evolved through three ‘epochs’, each defined by a core technology and a killer app. The three epochs, in time order, were the advent of the PC, the internet, and mobile computing now epitomised by today’s smartphone. If this last epoch is now peaking, then what’s the next epoch technology for the industry? One possibility suggested is metaverses, a term covering a range of virtual realities covering the workplace, entertainment, and community platforms.  Facebook, apparently, wants to become an online metaverse, but that, in itself, is enough to be wary about a metaverse future.   

As the rain eased, the Badger decided it’s unlikely that metaverses, a word that sounds like marketing technobabble, are the next epoch technology. If they are, then we will have to let companies use even more of our data and also accept a further erosion of personal privacy. Many of us will be reticent about doing this given experiences with social media over the last decade. It also seems unlikely that most of us would want to live our personal and professional lives in virtual worlds when, as the pandemic has shown, we crave the touch, smells, textures, physical interactions with friends and colleagues, and the normal rhythms of the real world that we inhabit.   

The rain stopped, and the Badger resumed his journey, walking briskly and dodging the puddles. Just as the destination came into sight, the heavens opened again.  With mother nature exercising its power with another climate change cloudburst, wondering about the next big epoch in the tech industry felt like an irrelevance. A damp Badger finally arrived and chatted with his friends over coffee. None of them are in the least bit interested in metaverses. One, who’s proud of being ‘a digital native and a digital dinosaur’, pointed out that real life is about much, much, more than bits and bytes manipulated by clever hardware and software. They are so right. It’s very hard to see how metaverses can be an epoch technology that will make real life much better.  

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.

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…

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.

Less Twits, better education about what matters in life…

Halfway through a long walk on a hot day with a cloudless blue sky at the Devil’s Punchbowl, a break for a sandwich and a drink at The Gibbet provided some welcome respite. The view was glorious. The air was clear, and the edge of London, some 40 miles away, was visible on the horizon without the need for binoculars. The atmospheric benefits of much-reduced road traffic and air traffic for Heathrow and Gatwick were plain to see!

As the Badger munched his sandwich, a bird of prey hovered in the distance ready to swoop on its prey. The idyll, however, was broken by the arrival of a group of youngsters.  They weren’t rowdy, unpleasant, or badly behaved. They just talked incessantly about Twitter being hacked as if it were the end of the world!  It isn’t, of course, but their conversation influenced the Badger’s thoughts for the rest of his walk.  By the time the Badger reached home, these had converted into the following points:

  • Anyone familiar with ‘security’ knows that the weakest link in any security regime is people. It’s as true in today’s digital world – as the Twitter incident shows – as it has always been.
  • Twitter has become, in just 10 years, one of the prime illustrations of today’s attention-deficit world. Organisations and individuals alike use it for many reasons, including FOMO (fear of missing out), vanity, attention seeking, recreation, influencing and self-promotion. Will you really miss anything that’s important to life if you don’t look at Twitter on your smart phone every few minutes? No.
  • More detailed primary and secondary school education on how the likes of Facebook and Twitter use what you do to make money is essential. A ‘think before you write, or upload photos or videos’ attitude needs to be deeply embedded in the psyche of youngsters.
  • Hundreds of years ago, the printing press ushered in the age of reason, science, and education. Over the centuries this ‘force for good’ has become slowly diluted by commercialism, politicism, propaganda, misinformation, and falsities of all kinds. The same has happened since the advent of TV and radio about a century ago, and also since the advent of the internet and computers a few decades ago. The same has also happened with social media platforms, which have gone from a ‘force for good’ to questionable, surveillance-based, money-making machines in just 15 years!

At the end of the walk, the Badger slumped into his favourite chair at home, hot, bothered, and tired. Perhaps it was this that triggered a final thought, namely that anyone or any organisation that puts great store in Twitter should be called Twits! The world needs less Twits and better education about what really matters in life. The Badger fell asleep in his chair…

Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium…

Did you know that the Periodic Table of Elements has existed since Mendeleev shaped it in the 1860’s?  The world has changed significantly since then, but the Periodic Table  is still a fundamental foundation for the world we live in. In the UK it is part of the national curriculum and so anyone who attends school should be aware of the Periodic Table’s existence. At least that is what the Badger thought…until this week.

The Badger was walking with a companion in the local park which has a beautiful lake. It’s a popular place with all age groups.  We stopped for a sandwich and a drink at a park bench overlooking the lovely lake with its many different species of ducks, geese, and waders. Nearby a group of about a dozen millennials, just about the age to be leaving College for University, were having a picnic, and discussing their aspirations, beliefs, and ambitions.  One was dominating conversation in the group and proclaiming they were going to be an environment and planet sustainability ‘activist’. They seemed to be very vocal and have strong views about what governments must do to fix the world’s problems.  What passion…and naivety…the Badger thought as he threw a few bits of crust to a friendly mallard. (I know. Bread is junk food for ducks, but this mallard was clearly hungry).

The youngster droned on and on, and even the Badger’s walking companion commented that they liked the sound of their own voice too much for their own good.  And then a young lad in the group piped up with a killer question. ‘Do you know what the Periodic Table is?’, he asked. ‘No, and I don’t need to’, was the swift response. The young lad just said ‘The Periodic Table captures all the elements that make up our world. How can you be an environment or planet activist if you don’t know its elements?’

The orator shut up. The Badger almost clapped. The young lad asking the question will go far!  But isn’t it a bit worrying that someone can go through an education system, aspiring to be a green activist, and not know something about the Periodic Table?  If you want to be a young ‘green’ activist – and there’s nothing wrong with that – then surely you cannot say ‘I don’t need to know’ about the Periodic Table of elements that are at the heart of  the gadgets we use and all life on the planet?

Anyone aspiring to be any kind of green activist should needs an awareness of the Periodic Table to be credible.  In fact, perhaps we should all remind ourselves of the elements (and their scarcity) that underpin everything on the planet by refreshing our knowledge of the Periodic Table. You can find it on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s site here.