To recycle an old radio-cassette player…or not

Forthcoming building work means the Badger’s garage has to be cleared of everything that’s accumulated there over the years. It hasn’t housed a motor vehicle for a long time and, as is the case for many families, it has become a storage area of equipment and old household items that are no longer used but are perceived to be too good to throw away. Last weekend the Badger started the clearance, an activity which proved satisfying and thought provoking in equal measure.

Clearing a garage always leads to unexpected surprises! One for the Badger was finding an early-1990s portable radio-cassette player, complete with its power cable and a couple of tapes. It was hidden, caked in dust, on a shelf where it had lain forgotten for many years. Finding it triggered a surge of memories and an instant urge to see if it still worked. Ignoring pleas to be careful, the Badger wiped the dust off, plugged it in, and turned on the FM radio. It burst into life producing surprisingly good quality sound. The cassette player, which functioned as if it was last used the previous day, played the music tapes without destroying them! This might be ‘old’ technology but fiddling with real knobs, switches, and knowing that it didn’t need the internet or software updates to function, was strangely satisfying.

Starting to clear the garage and finding the radio-cassette player proved to be a refreshing distraction from the woes of our current world and a reminder of three things. Firstly, that we all have unused electrical and electronic items squirrelled away in our homes. Secondly, that entertainment capabilities that predate the internet, social media, smartphones, tablets, and laptops, can still entertain and don’t require you to surrender your personal information. And thirdly, rather than hoard them, our electronics-dependent world needs us to promptly recycle unused, obsolete, gadgets, computers and phones if the technological, environment friendly future that is envisaged is to materialise.  

So far, political, social, environmental, and economic turbulence, and geopolitical belligerence, are the hallmarks of this decade. As the Head of the UK’s GCHQ, recently said in an objective and informative speech about the evolving technological environment in the context of national security and geopolitics, statecraft, technology, security, and economics are ‘entangled and mutually dependent’. It thus seems quite reasonable to think that the specialist metals and minerals recycled from our electrical and electronic equipment are essential to feed military and cyber capabilities like those in use in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. That is, perhaps, a rather obtuse thought, but it might explain why, much to his wife’s annoyance, the Badger has moved the radio-cassette player from the garage to a shelf in his home office and next to a box of old mobile phones. Will these items be ultimately recycled? Hmm, time will tell…

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.

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.

Smart meters update – eat more salads…

The UK Q3 2020 Smart Meter Statistics Report is sobering reading. The data therein implies that the programme to rollout domestic ‘smart’ gas and electricity meters will be even later and more expensive!   Reading the report reminded the Badger that he had mentioned a couple of months ago his intention to install ‘smart’ meters as part of updating his home’s infrastructure.  Well, the meters have been in and operational for about 8 weeks now so it’s time to share some of the experience.   

Because the Badger sources gas and electricity from different suppliers, separate installation bookings were needed. These  were arranged on-line with just a few days between them, and emails arrived confirming the bookings and advising  that the installations could take up to two hours. The installers turned up on schedule.  The gas meter installation happened first. Energy supply was off for 10 minutes to physically fit the hardware and then the installer spent 50 minutes in their van ‘connecting to the centre’ to get the meter and In-Home Display working.  The electric meter installation was similar, but this time the supply was off for just 5 minutes. The installer then spent 2 hours in their van getting the meter and In-Home Display working! Both installers were great but obviously frustrated by how long it ‘connecting to the centre’, as they described it. 

So, how’s it been since? Well, the novelty of watching dials on In-Home Displays move when household devices turn on and off quickly wore off.  Watching the dials for a few days only confirmed what the Badger already knew, namely that boiling the kettle,  using the washing machine, cooking, and household hot water/heating consume the most energy by far. Lighting, media devices like the television and radio, and your home computing devices use much, much less.  Seeing what your energy is costing on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis, however, is much more useful and a good reminder that loyalty to any energy supplier is never rewarded! In the last week, the In-Home Display began displaying ‘Connection Lost – move the device closer to the meter’ intermittently!  Powering it off and on fixes the problem.

So, from the Badger’s perspective, installing smart meters has been a largely benign experience. Does that mean he’s a convert? No. Why not? Well, the Badger’s wife put it rather neatly yesterday. She observed that our smart meters have really only shown that to use less energy, save money, and help the green agenda, we must drink less tea and coffee, eat more salads than hot meals, wear more clothes to keep warm, wash them less frequently, and take fewer hot baths and showers!  It was her way of pointing out that it’s disciplined human behaviour that brings about beneficial change, not expensive technology whose benefits are over-sold and under-delivered. She has a point.

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…