Better Days…

As a New Year beckons, our thoughts naturally turn to what the future holds. Normally there’s a modicum of optimism that things will be better in the year ahead. The Badger’s found, however, that peering into the future is more challenging than usual given the prevailing uncertain and difficult times.  While he listened to a favourite music playlist and scratched his head as he read various online commentaries about tech trends for 2023 (here, here, and here, for example), the Badger found himself deciding that what most people wanted in the year ahead could be summed up in just three words, namely:

  • Trust that online information and news is trustworthy, that social media giants are held to account, and that our digital world is safe, secure, and lawful.
  • Stability in a day-to-day life that is sensibly protected against the downsides of globalisation, global supply chains, fractious geopolitics, and the weaponization of commodities and information. 
  • Confidence that public and commercial entities are not playing fast and loose with our personal data, and that they respect, value, and preserve individual privacy while using digital technology to make life better.  

Sadly, the Badger found that he’s not optimistic there’ll be much progress on these ‘wants’ in the year ahead. This created a dilemma! How could he write something at the end of the year that captured hope and a tinge of optimism? The eureka moment was provided by the playing music and the opening lyrics of the next song from the playlist:  

And you ask me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days
‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings
And desire and love and empty things
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

So take these words
And sing out loud
‘Cause everyone is forgiven now
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again

The Goo Goo Dolls melodic song ‘Better Days’  captures what the Badger feels that he and many others hope for in the year ahead, simply better days. So, if you make new year resolutions – and this applies regardless of whether you’re an ordinary citizen, a politician, an entrepreneur, a business executive, a scientist or engineer, self-employed, or economically inactive – then please shape them to make tomorrow a better day than today. Finally, just remember this; go forward with optimism – because the world can be a better place than it is today!

Exploding batteries…

A note in a Christmas card this week was not only a reminder that the imminent festive and New Year holidays aren’t always jolly occasions for some people, but also that our modern lives depend on rechargeable batteries. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, household devices, DIY tools, gardening equipment, and electric cars all have a battery at their heart, but do we fully appreciate the risks of having battery powered devices in our households? Probably not. We tend to take their safety for granted because they are certified to comply with requisite safety standards.

The Christmas card and the note therein was from a cousin. It conveyed Christmas greetings, and also information that the battery in their mobility scooter had recently exploded causing a fire and attendance by the fire brigade. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but smoke damage has rendered their home uninhabitable for the next six months.  The Badger phoned his cousin, who has poor mobility due to advanced cancer, and was impressed by their insistence on looking forward with positivity rather than dwelling on events and their new circumstances. The first thing they said was a line from the movie Forrest Gump, namely ‘My mama always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’’  Their objectivity and optimism was remarkable given their health and the stress of having their life turned upside down before Christmas.

A security video shows the mobility scooter, unplugged, not being charged, unused for a number of days, and covered by its standard weather-proof cover, simply burst into flames when the battery exploded! The fire brigade are now using this as part of their campaign to raise awareness of the potential fire hazards associated with rechargeable batteries in, for example, e-bikes, e-scooters, and …mobility scooters used by the infirm.

As we approach Christmas, the Badger’s intent here is not be alarmist,  but simply to make three points. The first is to not only encourage you to be aware of the risk that comes with the use and storage of equipment with rechargeable batteries, but also to raise the profile of related fire brigade safety campaigns. The second is to reinforce a point the cousin made in our conversation, namely that Christmas is not really about material things, it’s about people, community, and looking forward rather than dwelling too much on past tribulations. The third is simply to wish all readers a happy and safe Christmas and New Year, and to encourage optimistic thoughts whatever your personal circumstances. Oh, and there’s one final thing. After the Badger finished talking to his cousin, he felt overwhelmingly relieved that Santa’s sleigh for delivering Christmas presents to children across the world is powered by magical forces, and not by batteries that could explode!!!

There’s more to getting a smart education than ever-smarter technology…

With a bleak Winter on the horizon, Pink Floyd’s ‘We don’t need no education…’ grumbling from the radio, and Remembrance Day a few days away, thoughts about the grip that tech has on our lives have been a trifle melancholic. Remembrance Day is always poignant for the Badger. His grandfathers, who he never knew, served in the Army during WW1, and his father rarely spoke of his childhood, his life during WW2, or his post-war Army service. The poignancy is heightened this year because the horrors and hardships they endured are evident today in a Ukrainian family currently being hosted by a family member. Sadly, the tech-dominated ‘progress’ of the 21st century has done little to change the propensity for humans to inflict harm on other humans.  

Research has expanded the Badger’s knowledge of his forefathers’ lives, producing enormous pride, and admiration for their resilience in the face of adversity. One grandfather won two Military Medals for bravery in WW1. The other was invalided out of the Army after being gassed in the trenches, a primary factor in his death in early middle-age. The Badger’s father was a child evacuee from London when WW2 started in 1939. He was orphaned in 1942 and joined the Army in 1946 serving in a decimated post-war Germany, and then in Egypt. When pressed, he would only say that these experiences were ‘character-building’ and had influenced his three favourite sayings, namely ‘There’s no such thing as can’t, try’, ‘If you’ve got a problem, don’t bleat about it, deal with it’, and ‘Every day is a day for learning’. When the Badger was growing up, these were part of the parental soundtrack of life and became embedded attitudes. It was his father’s way of passing on lessons learned from difficult life experiences. 1

The Pink Floyd rendition here reminds the Badger that education has not only changed dramatically over the decades, but also that today’s Tech makes it easier, in some respects, to adopt an ‘Every day is a day for learning’ attitude. The days of blackboard and chalk, and throwing chalk at a pupil not paying attention, are gone! The smartest of educations, however, comes from complementing learning delivered by ever-smarter technology with face to face, non-virtual, cross-generational discussions with people sharing their experiences and life lessons. Part of the Badger’s melancholic tinge is due to a feeling that ever-smarter technology is progressively diluting this kind of learning. Another part is a feeling that whilst today’s world is different to that of his forefathers, it isn’t really any better. The melancholic tinge will no doubt fade in a few days. On Remembrance Day, the Badger will be paying tribute to his forefathers, and their values, with great pride. ‘Every day is a day for learning’ is very much part of their legacy. Make it part of yours too.

There’s no such thing as a grouchy old person…

The Badger has noted a rise recently in the ‘suggested for you’ items pushed to him on Facebook. Normally these items are simply ignored, but the other day when ‘Dumfries and Galloway! What’s going on?’ appeared as ‘suggested for you’ the Badger was intrigued. What had he been doing online recently that could make the algorithms behind the scenes conclude this might be of interest? After wracking his brain for a minute, the answer didn’t materialise. May be Facebook is desperately pushing anything to increase the time users stay on the platform? Perhaps, because user stickiness is, after all, core to social media business models, and Facebook will, no doubt, use whatever techniques it can to make money and counter waning user popularity.

The attention-grabber with the ‘Dumfries & Galloway’ item was simply the following headline text:   

‘There’s no such thing as a grouchy old person. The truth is, once you get old you stop being polite and start being honest.’

It made the Badger – who strives to be polite, honest, and never grouchy (although some may disagree) – chuckle, reflect, and realise that the sentiment conveyed by this text applies throughout our working lives and not just in our dotage.

Think back to when you left school, college, or university and entered the workforce. No matter how full of enthusiasm you were, you probably deferred to the views and decisions of colleagues ten or more years older than yourself because they were ‘old’ and more experienced. Now roll forward ten years to when you had married, acquired a large house mortgage, and perhaps a couple of young children. You were now part of the ranks at work that you once considered ‘old’, but you were still probably careful of openly disagreeing with ten-year older colleagues in senior positions to avoid putting your employment and salary income at risk.

Roll forward yet another ten years to when your mortgage is no longer a millstone, you have some financial security, and the children are finding their own way in life. You realise your career has plateaued, those ten-years older are retiring, that leaving the workforce is the next big personal milestone, and that you have nothing to fear from saying what you really think. Directness, impatience, and frustration come to the surface, and younger colleagues think you are just a grouchy ‘old’ person, which isn’t the case. You’ve just reached the part of the lifecycle where you realise that you can be completely true to yourself, and that politeness and saluting the corporate mast have their limits.

Always remember that throughout your career and whatever the role you have in your organisation, you are always ‘old’ to some. The ‘Dumfries and Galloway; What’s going?’ attention-grabber is a progressive truth, because there is no predefined age when you become ‘old’. It’s worth remembering that.

The ‘Decade of Great Correction’…

The Badger chuckled after chatting to an elderly lady going to the shops on a mobility scooter. They had commented on not only the state of the world and the impact it was having on them personally, but also on the puritanism and woke culture that’s made them cautious about talking to strangers in case they say something that causes offence. They also complained that people are too ready to accept what they read in the press and on social media, and that this meant we are all doomed before the decade is out! This prompted the Badger to cogitate on how historians might ultimately label our current decade.

Thoughts were consolidated over an americano in a local coffee shop. The Badger concluded two things. Firstly, that the online world hasn’t changed the basic fact that fretting about the state of the real world and its personal impact is an inherent part of both life and the human psyche. Online facilities have merely expanded the universe of what we can worry about! Secondly, that historians will label the 2020’s as the ‘Decade of Great Correction’ because the enormous breadth of difficult circumstances is fundamentally changing behaviours.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered seismic waves of change across social, economic, and political fronts. Personal attitudes, values, behaviours, and habits are changing as a result, and the ramifications will reverberate through the rest of the decade. The tech sector is not immune to these changes. Peloton and Zoom, for example, are already encountering tougher times, streaming services are worried about subscriber levels, social media platforms are coming under increasing regulatory scrutiny and geo-political influence, and consumers are savvier about the online world.

The Russia/Ukraine conflict has caused multidimensional disruption contributing to a dramatic rise in inflation everywhere. Individuals and businesses alike are struggling to survive with soaring energy prices, something that’s likely to persist given superpower relationships do not seem conducive to stability in the world. Overlaid on this is an unfolding global recession, an unwinding of the quantitative easing that has damaged people’s prudency regarding personal savings since the 2009 financial crash, and rising interest rates that will stress those who borrowed heavily during the era of cheap money. And then there’s climate change…

A correction in most people’s lifestyles is afoot (see an unusual sign here, for example). Many will retrench from consumerism and materialism to the same core priorities as our ancestors, namely shelter, putting food on the table, and protecting loved ones. This will impact industrial, social, and political dynamics for years to come. The ‘Decade of Great Correction’ thus seems an apt descriptor for the 2020s!

The Badger finished his coffee. He left the shop wondering if it would still be there once their next utility bill arrived.

And when peace comes, remember it will be us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place

This was the penultimate sentence of the 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth’s radio address to children of the Commonwealth on the 13th October 1940.  Many of the children listening were, like the Badger’s father, evacuees living away from their home in challenging circumstances. Now Queen and celebrating her historic Platinum Jubilee, the Badger was reminded of the truth of these words while a spectator at the London Rugby Sevens at Twickenham last Sunday.

When the Princess spoke in 1940, radio was essentially the main technology in the vast majority of UK homes. Her words to children unexpectedly resonated with the Badger during an interval as the tournament progressed in the huge, noisy, atmospheric stadium. Why? Because for many spectators it was a family occasion with lots of children present, and everyone, young and old alike, had personal devices with them providing instant connectivity to the world beyond the stadium. Seeing nearly every child using smartphones and tablets to capture and share on-field action and off-field interactions with players was a huge reminder that technology has revolutionised the lives of children since 1940. Together with the harmony between spectators of different races, colours and creeds in the stadium, the tournament provided a very positive and happy experience for the children present. It must have made a lasting impression that will influence their shaping of the better and happier world of tomorrow!

On the train home afterwards, the Badger listened to a podcast about the future evolution of society. A group of teenagers, about the same age as the 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth in 1940, sat close by staring at their smartphones and chatting with each other without lifting their eyes from their devices. The chat exposed their interests and priorities, and their aspirations to be social media influencers, and it seemed at odds with the podcast discussion and content. This made the Badger wonder if the Princess’s ‘the children of the day will make the world a better and happier place’  is still true when it’s the voices of older generations that get most mainstream airtime today.

Of course, it’s still true. In fact, the words are even more true today because the internet, social media, and powerful personal computing devices have put instant communication, influence, and content in children’s hands in a manner that did not exist in 1940. Today children are using this capability to habitually influence the evolution of the society they want much more rapidly than was possible in the past. Technology has not undermined the Princess’s sentence; it has reinforced it.

The 14-year-old Princess became a Queen now celebrating a historic Platinum Jubilee. Well done, Your Majesty, and thank you for your true public service throughout an era of huge technological, social, national, and international change. Your words to children in 1940 are timeless. Let’s hope that today’s children strive to implement them with much vigour in the years to come.

Information Technology Year was 1982…

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

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

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

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

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

Young people regard scientists as trusted voices in society…

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

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

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

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

Serious internet failure – never say never

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

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

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

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

We must all now be warriors…

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

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

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

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