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…

With every generation comes change…

With every generation comes change! Society evolves. Every new generation grows up in different conditions to those when their parents  were young.  Every new generation rails against the actions and decisions of older generations. Every new generation thinks they know best and wants to change the world, and every older generation thinks younger generations are feckless, frustrating, and irritating – just look here, for example. These may be sweeping generalisations, but they convey a truth and an uncomfortable reality.

Every new generation grows up in a society whose norms are challenged or changed by new technologies of one kind or another. It’s been the same for centuries. Anyone born in the last 40 years, however, has grown up in one of the most disruptive periods for society ever.  Just in the last 20 or so years our global population has exploded, increasing by around 30%, the population of urban centres has risen by ~60%,  the internet has changed the way everything is done, mobile phones have become a necessity and nearly everyone has one, and social media has taken over.  Every generation thinks it’s making society better, so is society better for those born since the 1980s who have been riding the Information and Digital wave?

The Badger’s found that when people are asked this question, No is the dominant answer!  Ostensibly because of a perception that two vital commodities in society – trust and privacy – have declined, with broadcast and online news media, and the social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter being mentioned as to blame. News organisations with a reputation for unbiased reporting are seen as being thin on the ground, and social media platforms are seen as an uncontrollable digital wild-west.

One person bravely claimed that the behaviour of those born since the 1980s and social media had already put society into a downward spiral. Their justification? Simply that anyone whose first reaction to anything was to reach for their smartphone, create a video, and immediately upload it to social media had lost the plot. A brave view indeed in these turbulent days.  The person is, of course, from the older generation and perhaps resonates with the first paragraph above.

The Badger’s view is simple. Change driven by disruptive technologies is painful and produces downsides as well as benefits. There’s little doubt that distrust is rife in society today, that privacy is fast becoming an alien concept even with GDPR, and that a finger must point to the media, the internet, and social media for some of this.  Just as in life, however, there are no magic bullets and no one has a monopoly on being right. One thing, however, is certain. The attitude, behaviour, and use of digital tools and platforms by our younger generations is creating the society that their kids will definitely rail against!

From OneWeb to Hydrogen Fuel Cells…

When OneWeb, a company aiming to bring connectivity to everyone everywhere using an enormous constellation of Low-Earth Orbiting satellites, announced it was filing for bankruptcy the Badger was unsurprised. Why? Because it always felt that the business case was somewhat dubious. Investors now seem to have decided likewise and have ‘drawn stumps’ – to use a cricket metaphor. Others closer to the space industry than the Badger also seem unsurprised by what’s happened – see here for example. It’s sad, of course for everyone working for OneWeb, but in the end this a simple reminder that viable technology isn’t a guarantee of business success. Business is about the juxtaposition of risk and commercial gain, and stakeholders rarely flinch from hard business decisions when the two are out of kilter.

OneWeb cited market and financial turbulence related to the COVID-19 as a factor in failing to attract further funding. With this in his mind, the Badger found himself musing on the combination of technology and business in the post-pandemic world while he walked down the middle of an empty road getting exercise in line with the UK pandemic guidance. The complete absence of traffic on the normally hectic road plus a news item about an advance in materials significant for hydrogen fuel cells, triggered thoughts about whether we will see changes in investment priorities when it comes to vehicular technology after the pandemic is over.

Why would there be, you may ask? Because if you holistically look at, for example, the Royal Society’s briefing on options for producing low-carbon hydrogen at scale, real world experience of using electric and hydrogen fuelled vehicles (e.g. see here), and the relatively slow take up of electric vehicles powered by batteries, then you realise this kind of ‘material’ breakthrough should create an even more enticing investment and business opportunity for vehicle manufacturers and fossil fuel companies (who produce hydrogen) alike. The Badger, whose early roots were in materials technology, senses that the real scientific and engineering advances that could flow from the news item will significantly boost the business case for adopting hydrogen fuel cells for transportation and, accordingly, we will see business investment in this arena rise significantly in the coming years.

By the time the Badger had finished walking down the middle of the road, he had decided that everyone is more likely to be driving cars powered by a hydrogen fuel cell by the end of the decade than to have embraced driverless cars on public roads. (Tomorrow’s exercise might, of course, modify this conclusion!) As OneWeb shows, technology doesn’t mean business success, but any company that has bet the farm on the dominance of battery-powered vehicles should watch out, because hydrogen fuel cells are definitely coming along to eat your lunch…

There’s no ‘Smart Living’ without ‘Smart Working’…

‘Smart working’ has existed in the tech and IT industries for years. With pandemic coronavirus, many companies in many sectors will be severely disadvantage if they don’t have the capability! ‘Smart Working’ has pros and cons, but the pros dominate by far in today’s world of work. A software engineer neighbour, for example, sees nothing but benefit from ‘Smart Working’. He works permanently from home and travels just one day each week to his employer’s office or that of a client. His deadlines are the same as being in the office, but he feels much more productive, less stressed, and has a better work-life balance compared with the grind of a daily commute. He feels strongly that ‘Smart Working’ helps his carbon footprint, his employer’s carbon footprint, reduce costs for everyone, and makes handling crises like coronavirus easier. His employer trusts him not to abuse working this way – a trust he repays with unwavering loyalty. He says he’ll never go back to working permanently in an employer’s office!

The Badger embraced ‘Smart Working’ anytime, anyplace, anywhere years ago. Since leaving the corporate hamster wheel, however, the Badger’s feeling that ‘Smart Working’ will soon be the permanent way of working has strengthened. Coronavirus will surely reinforce that the days white-collar-workers must travel to and work in offices of their employer or a client are coming to an end. We’ll always work in offices, you might say! After all, Aristotle pointed out that we are social animals that need workplace interactions. The Badger’s seen some truth in this over the years, but for today’s younger tech natives the social interactions aspects of the workplace are gravitating faster and faster to the virtual world as technology advances.

It seems likely that pandemic coronavirus, environment/climate change, and heightened public awareness of the delicacy of global supply chains will drive faster change in the way we live our lives. Society could be at a turning point with ‘Smart Living’ becoming a much more dominant part of our psyche and behaviour. This will happen faster if employers henceforth adopt ‘Smart Working’ from home as the norm. When the current economic turmoil triggered by oil and coronavirus abates, political and business leaders will realise attitudes on how people should work in order to mitigate risk in the modern global world must change. ‘Smart Working’ and ‘Smart Living’ should go hand in hand. Without the former there can be no latter.

So, now’s the time to press the case for ‘Smart Working’ if your employer doesn’t currently have it. Remember that ‘Smart Living’ is more about the way you think, behave and take action than it is about the Internet of Things and the interconnectivity of gadgets. As Mr Spock would say, ‘It’s only logical that ‘Smart Working’ has to be a core component of ‘Smart Living’ and we need both to address our problems’.

Anything ‘Smart’ or New Technology always has a downside…

A one-liner that’s obviously true. All things ‘smart’ and new technology have pros and cons for both individuals and for society. History shows, however, that we only really pay attention to the cons when they bite us. When they do, attitudes change and what was a norm can quickly become a pariah. Plastic illustrates the point. Although first invented around 1860, mass adoption took off in the 1950s and today plastic is everywhere in our life. Recently, however, we’ve realised the danger from the ~8.3bn tonnes is in landfill or polluting the world’s oceans and so the world is now quickly moving away from this non-degradable material. Big UK supermarkets, for example, are now significantly reducing its use in packaging.

So, what triggered the Badger to focus on this one-liner truism? The trigger was a ‘permanently connected’ teenager’s tantrum which happened when the Badger was reading about the cons of ‘Smart Motorways’ (see here and here, for example). The tantrum arose from the perfect storm of their smartphone battery expiring just as a power cut knocked out internet access at home. Much teenage wailing about the end of the world ensued. The Badger unsympathetically pointed out that the teenager hadn’t actually died has a result of becoming ‘disconnected’. Thereafter a sensible conversation took place about how the world has changed since the Badger was a youngster, and the importance of thinking about the cons of using today’s online technology.

Badger described how he was raised on eggs, bread, butter, bacon, cabbage, sprouts and spuds, and how he played outside in the dirt, climbed trees, gathered tadpoles from ponds in jam jars, and watched a TV with only two channels and no remote control. There was no phone, no electronic calculator, no tablet or laptop, and music came from a radio or vinyl records. The Badger did a paper round, walked to school, did jobs at the weekend, and played football with mates on a local green whenever he could. Fish and Chips was the only takeaway food, shops closed for a half-day mid-week and all day on  Sunday. The Police were respected and so was independence and privacy. None of this stopped the Badger having a rewarding career in IT, or being a balanced, law abiding citizen!

The Badger told the teenager he was pro ‘smart’ and new technology when it respects an individual’s privacy and fulfils a true need in a person’s life, and he suggested the teenager think about a) the tech they use, why, and its cons, b) their privacy, and c) how they would live without a smartphone, tablet or laptop because they would indeed continue to live without them!

The conversation ended as soon as power returned restoring connectivity. The teenager then took a call from a friend. The friend was told that the teen wouldn’t be downloading a new app that ‘everyone else is using’ because they didn’t need it and they wanted to think about privacy and its cons. Result! The teenager had been listening after all…

Youngsters, gaming, ‘STEM’ and a 3D printer…

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The Badger’s long believed that a solid education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) arms you well for whatever you want to do in life, which, after all, often takes you in directions you never envisage. With a solid foundation in STEM subjects, you will be armed well for anything that unfold. Having a good STEM grounding doesn’t limit your horizons, it expands them! Brian May , guitarist in Queen, and Rowan Atkinson, ‘Mr Bean’, illustrate the point perfectly. The former studied Physics and Mathematics and has a PhD in Astrophysics, and the latter studied Electrical Engineering. A good STEM grounding never stops you from being an artist, a musician, an entrepreneur or businessperson, or a creative type!

So, what’s this got to do with 3D printing? Well, the Badger recently asked a group of youngsters between the ages of 11 and 16 what they did with their spare time. Unsurprisingly, playing games on their phones or games consoles dominated the response. It made the Badger wonder if introducing them to some alternative tech could reduce the dominance of gaming and yet be as much fun while having a stealthy ‘STEM’ educational element. The Badger’s not anti-gaming, just pro broadening the education of digital-native youngsters whenever possible, but feels that youngsters would benefit from something else in their digital mix. That something is a 3D printer!

The Badger has recently embraced 3D printing in the home environment. Indeed, the picture above is of a bespoke, 10cm tall, model produced on the Badger’s own 3D printer. The printer cost less than £250. There’s a wide range of available printers suitable for youngsters, as well as software (much of it cheap or free), and the Thingiverse provides a great source of customizable 3-D models to start with. It’s a great feeling to design your own thing, build a 3-D model of it, and watch it being manufactured in front of your eyes. It’s creative, fun, and inherently engages you with STEM by stealth in the home environment.

The impact of 3D printing on major industries and the potential of the technology as a teaching resource have long been recognised. The Badger thinks that youngsters can learn lots from having this fun technology at home to use in their spare time. For less than the price of the leading games consoles you should think about getting a 3D printer that will be covertly ‘STEM educational’ and yet provide hours of fun as a creative alternative to gaming. What’s not to like! A youngster could create ‘the next best thing’ using a 3D printer in their bedroom. It could diversify their entertainment and make them the next super-successful ‘tech’ business mogul. Hmm. Let’s not get too carried away for the moment, but you never know…

‘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…

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…

An inspiring day out with codebreakers and the first electronic computer…

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The Badger visited Bletchley Park and The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) last week. It was a fascinating, atmospheric and inspiring day out, and very rewarding to hear the many visiting international tourists, young families, and elders say their expectations, like the Badger’s, were exceeded!

Bletchley Park, the home of British codebreaking, is where Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code and a birthplace of modern electronic computing. The secret activities of this truly historic site profoundly influenced the outcome of World War 2. Seeing and hearing about the work of the codebreakers, the tools they used, and the highly atmospheric huts where they worked instils marvel at the brilliance and dedication of those involved. The place is a wonderful memorial to the exceptional patriotism, commitment, discipline and ingenuity of the codebreakers who, 75 years ago, were instrumental in the birth of electronic computing. Awesome!

Bletchley Park was involved in the design of Colossus – the world’s first programmable electronic computer. Colossus helped analyse enemy ciphers in the run up to D-Day and a functioning rebuild of this beast is on display at TNMOC. It’s full of thermionic valves not silicon chips, and for those of you who’ve never seen a thermionic valve the picture above is a small subset of those on Colossus.

Seeing Colossus and all the other computer hardware and software exhibits at TNMOC really brought home how far electronic computing has come in 75 years. It also makes you aware of just how the silicon chip has revolutionised electronics and fuelled digital tech’s exponential growth in the last 40 years. It was sobering to stand in a room full of late 1970s mainframes and realize that a smartphone has more instantaneous functionality, processing power and storage than the sum of everything in the room!

On the way home, while stationary in heavy traffic, there was ample time to reflect on a great day out. Both sites provide a reminder of how important scientists, engineers and mathematicians are to finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems. They also show and that experts 75 years ago were in no way inferior to their counterparts today. The impressive ‘there’s no such word as can’t, try’ attitude of the codebreakers provides a stark contrast to some of the ‘I can’t, it’s too hard and it’s not fair’ complaining that pervades some parts of today’s social media.

As the ‘Smart Motorway’ signs decided to stop being smart, the Badger’s co-visitor asked if any philosophical nuggets of wisdom came to mind from the visit. The Badger thought for a moment. Yes! Take every opportunity to get an education – preferably as a scientist, engineer or mathematician – and don’t be fazed by whatever problems are put in front of you. And remember, ‘there’s no such word as can’t, try’…. If Bletchley Park’s people hadn’t tried, we wouldn’t have the freedoms and computing technology we have today.

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…