‘Smart’ motorways help to decide on a car purchase!

The Badger’s made a decision about whether to replace his car. Three seemingly unrelated events ultimately underpinned the decision. The first was reading ‘Road Traffic Estimates: Great Britain 2017’ published by the UK Department of Transport in 2018. The second was a knock on the door by a man with a large white van. He was delivering a package ordered online 18 hours earlier. The third was being captive in horrendous motorway traffic on the way to and from an exhibition. Progress on the ‘Smart’ motorway was stop-start, maddening, and the lane speeds indicated on the gantries were laughable. It certainly didn’t feel like ‘Smart’ had made any difference to the journey experience whatsoever!

These three events influenced the Badger’s thinking along the following lines. Roads are more and more congested, so there’s little real benefit sitting in a traffic queue in a newer car, and although more UK motorways are being converted to ‘Smart’ – see short articles on the types of ‘Smart’ here and here – there are growing safety concerns as illustrated here, here, and here, for example. In the last 70 years traffic on UK roads has grown ~10-fold and vehicle ownership has grown ~6-fold, driven largely by economic growth and population growth. The upward trend is likely to continue and so there’s little reason to think congestion will ever reduce, even with the deployment of ever more sophisticated technology which, after all, has a habit of producing a peak of inflated expectation followed by a trough of disillusionment. Technology is not a panacea, and the nirvana of a driverless car society seems a long way off.

The environment featured in the Badger’s thinking, but a simple analysis quickly showed that the whole-life carbon footprint of a vehicle owned by the Badger – current or future – is tiny compared to that of one van in the growing army of vans that deliver our internet purchases to our homes. Since 1997 there’s been a 75% increase in the number of vans on the road, and a 67% increase in the miles they travel, with internet shopping and home delivery underpinning much of this rise. This trend will continue for the foreseeable future, and so the environmental incentive for the Badger to replace his personal vehicle is not high.

Replace or not to replace. You’ve surely guessed the decision by now. It’s the latter. The ‘business case’ for changing the vehicle doesn’t stack up! It’s just cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and healthier to keep the current car and change behaviour to reduce its usage. That doesn’t mean taking a backward step in personal independence or convenience, it just means being disciplined, thinking ahead with a moral compass, and taking different decisions on a day by day basis. Like many things in life, just simply adjusting our core behaviour costs little but can lead to a wide spectrum of benefits…

Education – A powerful force wielded by a Jedi knight…

Professor Brian Cox is currently embarked on his ‘Universal: Adventures in Space & Time’ World Tour. The Badger, and 4000 others from all walks of life, saw him when his tour came to Bournemouth recently. This preview gives a flavour of his show’s coverage, and the opening minutes of an actual show are here.

Brian spoke for over two hours, which might seem daunting if you think you’ll struggle with the underlying concepts of space, time, the big bang, general relativity, black holes and cosmology! But don’t be put off. The Professor is an excellent educator and communicator, and his show explains things simply and leaves you in awe of the Universe and our position in it. His tour moves to the Nordic countries next. If you get chance, go see it.

The show provides insight to the scale of our Galaxy and the whole Universe, and a reminder of just how insignificant our planet and humans are in the scale of things. It leaves you realising how important it is that our planet is sustainable because it’s delusional to think we have somewhere else to go! The Badger and friends chatted after the show. One made the point that while the Hubble telescope (for example) helps us to understand the Universe, the technology to put a human on Mars is not even a pin prick of the technology needed for ‘Star Trek’ space travel, so why bother? We concluded that technology development must always centre on the need for our planet to support sustainable life, rather than on consumerism, corporate power, convenience and commercial advantage. Idealistic? Perhaps. But there’s nothing wrong with that!

A few days later, Greta Thunberg spoke at the UN Climate Action Summit and the media was awash with pictures and comment. Her transcribed words are here. The Badger found himself not only wondering who’s behind this young lady, but also disagreeing with assertions about the betrayal of young people. (See also here and here). Perhaps Greta and the likes of Extinction Rebellion are approaching climate matters in the wrong way?

The Badger feels we need better, earlier, education that our planet and our species are but a speck of tiny dust in the scale of the Universe. When this is reinforced it becomes obvious that we create our own extinction if we don’t focus on our planet and technological developments dominated by planet sustainability. Education is a powerful force, and Professor Brian Cox wields that force like a Jedi knight. Put some of his tour show content into the school curriculum at an early age to influence the thinking of future generations and society and the planet will benefit…

Recycle your hoarded personal tech…

The Badger recently helped move someone to a new house. Moving not only forces the emptying of cupboards to reveal what’s stored away and forgotten about, but also decisions on what to keep, dispose of, recycle or give to charity. The move went smoothly, and emptying cupboards filled a number of boxes with old hoarded tech, cables, mobile phones, and so on.

The move coincided with media coverage of a Royal Society of Chemistry study that revealed consumers have millions of old gadgets stockpiled in drawers at home which, apparently, isn’t helping the growing shortage of some of the elements used in today’s smartphones and tech. The Badger’s interest was piqued, and – with the owner’s permission – a rummage through the boxes of discarded devices crystallized three thoughts.

First, if these boxes are typical, then to think that consumers have ~10 unused devices and cables stockpiled in their homes is an underestimate! The boxes contained many old cables, mobile phones, chargers, keyboards, mice, digital cameras, pocket PCs and PDAs, MP3 & CD/DVD players, handheld electronic games, console handsets, old eBook readers and much more. Anyone of the Badger’s generation or younger will have similar things hoarded in the dusty corners of their homes!

Second, most of the hoarded devices still work! For example, a Compaq IPAQ Pocket PC from 2001 running Microsoft Pocket PC fired into life like new when connected to its mains charger, and its 18-year-old software provides email, contacts, diary, internet browsing, Word, Excel, etc, much like today’s devices. Technology has, of course, improved since 2001 seeing these old devices still working makes you realise that clever marketing makes us adopt ‘the next piece of tech wizardry’ way before its necessary. These old devices still have some functional as well as recycled precious metal value.

Third, if discarded personal devices still work then they are useful to someone else. Yes, parents sometimes pass old phones to their kids, but why do we ultimately hoard devices rather than pass them onto other relatives, friends or charities? In the world of personal tech we need to be more aware of the RSC study’s findings and their Reduce, Reuse, Recycle message.

A few days after the move, the Badger watched a TV programme about environment activists. One of the interviewees said very preachy things that grated because they too will have discarded cables, tech and phones at home! The Badger has concluded that we consumers – and environment activists – need more awareness of the shortage of the precious elements in our tech and smartphones. Some elements could be exhausted within decades, and if we don’t promptly recycle our discarded personal tech the number of forthcoming robots we can build might be constrained. Hmm. On second thoughts, perhaps the Badger will put his old Blackberries at the back of a dusty cupboard after all…

A Tidy-up leads to ‘Privacy Rebellion’…

The Badger’s performed a much overdue tidy-up of his home office and more mementoes, defunct gadgets, old books, reports, and papers were found than anticipated. It started as a quick tidy-up but morphed into an archeological dig that triggered fond memories and wonderment. It’s amazing what accumulates in nooks and crannies!

Three things of note found were a 1999 Company Annual Report, an associated 1999 slide set from the company Leadership Conference, and a Palm Pilot from the same era. Tidy-up progress slowed while the Badger read the Report and the slides because in 1999 the company was a market leader in SMS and data transmission to mobile phones, and part of the slide set covered the future of mobile phones. Today, 20 years later, the company doesn’t exist, and the Badger’s smartphone hugely exceeds the vision painted in the slides. It reminded the Badger that company’s come and go and just how much information and mobile technology has changed our lives. And the Palm Pilot? Well the dust was wiped off…and it still works! The Badger’s wife wants these items to be recycled, but they’ve just been moved from the office to a nook and cranny in the garage. She doesn’t know this yet!

During a short break in the tidy-up, the Badger’s wife sighed philosophically and commented that ‘Technology has driven lots of good in the last 100 years, but the negatives have always been down-played until they’re blindingly obvious and cause everyone to run around demanding change. In the next 20 years it’ll be the same in the digital world.’ She elaborated a little with ‘Oil, nuclear, cars, planes, antibiotics, plastic, and palm oil have advanced our lives, but it’s only recently that everyone’s realised their impacts are unsustainable. People are fickle, it’ll be no different with AI.’

A fair point perhaps? The Badger nodded playfully and added that ‘data’ was the future critical commodity, and that there could be a ‘privacy rebellion’ when the general public fully appreciate that the conveniences provided by the Internet of Things and AI could mean the current concept of a private life disappears. Impish speculation, of course, but items about voice recordings (here, here and here) and facial recognition (here and here) just illustrate the need to be wary of what goes on behind the tech in our homes or on the street.

So, there you have it – a tidy-up leads to the prospect of a ‘privacy rebellion’. Why not have an office or man-cave tidy-up of your own? It’s therapeutic, you’ll reminisce, you’ll find gadgets you didn’t know you had, and it could even spark a philosophical discussion with your partner about the future. But best of all…you might get brownie points from your partner for recycling, even if you’re really just moving things from one nook and cranny to another…

The Moon, Mars, and the next giant leap for mankind…

Apollo 11 lifted off for the Moon 50 years ago today. Some things in life make an impact that never fades from memory, and the Apollo 11 mission and Neil Armstrong stepping onto the Moon’s surface made an indelible impression on the Badger who, as a young boy, watched ‘as it happened’ on an old, black and white TV. It was gripping stuff from launch through to return, but two memories are particularly vivid: Armstrong stepping onto the moon, and the tension as mission control tried to re-establish communications after re-entry to Earth.

The moon landing was a magnificent science, engineering and management and leadership achievement, all of which is celebrated in many diverse 50th anniversary articles – one is here . For the Badger, the achievement is reinforced today by knowing it happened pre-internet, pre the existence of Microsoft and Apple, and pre any of the tech at our fingertips today. It was an unequivocal example of what humans can do when science, engineering, management and leadership are fully aligned to a common objective.

The Badger’s been wondering about the next ‘giant leap for mankind‘ and was intrigued by a view that we have no choice but to colonise Mars if human beings are to have a future. The Badger’s rather doubtful that man on Mars is really a priority or the next giant leap for mankind. Why? Because the scientific monitoring of astronauts shows that scary things happen to the human body in space (see here and here, for example). The Badger – who is admittedly not a biologist – thinks this ultimately implies that our species will never really be suited to interplanetary travel without serious biological re-engineering! If that’s right then the case for humans on Mars seems dubious, especially if the advance of robots with artificial intelligence that we hear so much about in the press means we could send them instead!

Apollo 11 inspired the Badger to become a scientist and engineer, and for many years one of the mission’s photos was the screensaver on the Badger’s laptop. Any scientist or engineer thrives on the type of challenges posed by putting a man on Mars, and there’s no doubt that stepping onto Mars would be a thrilling broadcasting event watched by billions. But is it the next giant leap for mankind? Hmm. The Badger thinks the next giant leap isn’t on another planet, it’s on this one. We know lots about our home planet and what we’re doing to it and so the Badger thinks the next giant leap for mankind is when all countries really unite to ensure our beautiful planet, and all life on it, is sustainable for future generations. This, unlike putting a man on Mars, does not come with an event that can command a TV audience of billions…

Electric and self-driving vehicles for the masses? One day, but perhaps not soon…

The Badger’s considered changing his trusty but aging car for something more current and greener. There’s plenty of choice in the market so it should be easy coming to a decision, shouldn’t it? Err, No.

Why not? Because if you want to spend your money wisely then you have to recognise that entropy in the transportation world is rising dramatically! Entropy, by the way, is a measure of disorder and it always increases with time (as per the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics). The Badger has certainly observed the world become increasingly disordered over his lifetime and this isn’t going to change in the future.

Disruption and disorder in the transport world are easy to see. For example, UK government policy is to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040. Electric vehicles (EVs) are deemed to be the future, even though their climate credentials aren’t quite as positive as you might think. Car manufactures are pushing ahead with EVs swiftly, but with a current market share of ~3% across Europe there’s much to do to overcome their limitations and convince the public. In addition, of course, technology marches forward and – if you believe it – self-driving cars will be common on UK roads from 2025 and might improve traffic flow by 35%. Hmm. These are all things to think about if you’re thinking of buying a car today and want to spend your money wisely.

The Badger cogitated and has concluded that the timelines for establishing EVs and self-driving vehicles for the masses on UK roads are very optimistic. Why? Firstly, progress on addressing EV range limitations, charging infrastructure, and take-up by the public is still slow (but improving). Secondly, there’s about 1 billion lines of software in a self-driving car which means there’ll be many bugs when operating and ‘integrating’ with other conventional and autonomous vehicles at scale in the real-world. Thirdly, while the UK government is to report on the autonomous vehicle regulatory framework in 2021, legislation moves slowly and political objectives are rarely met on time, especially at a time of political disorder. And finally, the ‘Introduction to Service’ phase of any programme that changes personal and societal behaviour always encounters difficulties and delay. It took decades for motor vehicles to replace horse and carts, and it will be a similar story for EVs and self-driving vehicles overtaking today’s conventional vehicles. It seems naïve to think otherwise.

So, what did the Badger decide about changing his car? Not to! Because if you do the analysis, currently that’s actually the cheapest, greenest and most future proof option as entropy rises further. Electric and self-driving vehicles for the masses will happen one day, but perhaps not as soon as the hype suggests…

Smart Meters; Hardly a success…

If you’ve worked extensively on major technology-intensive programmes then you’ll know to expect bumps in the road as new hardware, software, communication networks and processes are introduced to users in the real world. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the UK Smart Meter programme is in the press again!

The target for every UK home to have been offered a smart meter by the end of 2020 isn’t going to be met. Rollout is stalling. Just look at the Q1 2019 rollout numbers! It isn’t credible that the target can be met, but the relevant government department ‘remains committed to ensuring every home has been offered a smart meter by the end of 2020’. This has to be taken with a pinch of salt when even the CEO of Citizens Advice – a charity helping citizens resolve life difficulties with free, independent, confidential advice – thinks the target is unfeasible and must be delayed to ~2023!

Delay means more cost, and the published estimates of consumer bills reducing by £300m/year in 2020 and £1.2bn/year by 2030 will inevitably be revised down. Who pays? The consumer. Although many technology professionals have worked very hard on this programme to get the new software, hardware and communication networks in place, the overall programme has the whiff of white elephant territory and it’s a struggle to see it as a good advert for major ‘Smart’ government initiatives.

Who’s at fault? No doubt many entities will point fingers at each other, but – as the November 2018 National Audit Office’s report noted – the buck stops with the government department that currently still ‘remains committed to ensuring every home has been offered a smart meter by the end of 2020’. The Badger has a simple view. The numbers don’t fib. The costs are ever rising. The business case must be stressed. Fault is rarely with a single entity; it rests collectively. What’s needed now is less rhetoric, spin and defensiveness, and more honesty, realism and greater respect for the end consumer in the roll out.

The 2018 Smart Meter Progress Report ends with the statement ‘the Government has committed to update the cost-benefit analysis for the Programme and complete a stock take of consumer benefits in 2019’. The outcome from this – if it happens – may be the uncomfortable reading that produces a trigger ‘event’ for ‘revision’ of the programme. Time will tell. Meanwhile the Badger not only saves money and the climate without a smart meter, but also avoids the higher tariffs levied by suppliers when consumers exercise their right not to have a smart meter. These may be digital times but one thing’s clear. £11bn and counting, stalling rollout to ambivalent consumers, delay, questionable cost/benefit and the whiff of white elephant are hardly success indicators…

Consumers; key to helping the planet…

The doorbell rang. It was a group of political activists canvassing for this week’s EU elections. When the Badger opened the door, they immediately launched into a climate change pitch with phrases like ‘they haven’t done this’, and ‘they need to do that’. The frequent use of ‘they’ grated. They didn’t complete their pitch because the Badger terminated the conversation politely.

Surely dealing with climate issues starts with ourselves and not ‘they’ or someone else? After all, it’s us as consumers that are at the heart of many of the issues given the relentless acceleration of consumerism and technological advancement over the last 100 years. A good look at Oxford University’s ‘Our World In Data’ shows an obvious correlation between the accelerating consumerism, technological advancement and global temperature and rising CO2 emissions over the same period. So if each of us becomes just a bit less of a consumer then it helps address our planet’s challenges.

Technological progress over the Badger’s lifetime has been extraordinary, as neatly illustrated by the data available here and here. In the 1970s colour TVs were a luxury and had bulky cathode ray tubes, mainstream motor cars functioned without electronics, a fixed-line telephone did not exist in every home, and computers were the realm of big companies or public institutions. Today’s TVs are ‘smart’ and thin, cars don’t function without electronics, every person has a mobile telephone, and powerful personal computing devices are the norm. Such progress has been driven by Innovation (especially in the realm of electronics, communications, information storage and processing), Big Business, Consumers, and Oil.

The Badgers point is this. Consumers – you and me – are the most important of these drivers. Why? Because our habits and behaviour matters to the planet and ultimately influences the positions taken by business and governments. What you do matters. So next time you want a gadget of some kind, ask yourself if you really need it. If you don’t need it then don’t buy it. You’ll have helped the planet!

After the canvassers had gone the Badger went to the local supermarket and was astonished to see it as selling a plastic ring to keep an egg perfectly round when being fried. Why does such a product even exist? Does it serve a real need? Doubtful. Fortunately, it didn’t look as if any had been sold, which suggests us consumers are getting less fickle so there’s hope for the planet yet. We’re all consumers, but just because we can buy something doesn’t mean we should!

The Badger’s now looking forward to having this kind of discussion with the next group of political canvassers that come knocking on the door, if they’re brave enough of course.