Safety on ‘Smart’ Motorways is no laughing matter…

The Badger has laughed a lot recently; not due to being stir crazy because of the pandemic, but because nearly everything he read online has shown that the world is fast becoming just a comic book! One item that caused a guffaw, and which illustrates just how ridiculous things are becoming, was a complaint to the BBC about the use of the phrase nitty-gritty’ by their political commentator Laura Kuenssberg. Surely no one’s cause is ever going to be furthered by complaining about the inoffensive use of phrases which our forefathers contributed to any language decades ago?  The complaint was rejected by the BBC.  Hip, hip, hurray! Someone has pushed back in a small way on the stupidities that are pervading society. Err, no offence intended, but the Badger also laughed when he saw that common phrases like ‘blacklist’, ‘master-slave’, ‘uppity’, ‘black mark’, ‘sold down the river’, ‘long time no see’, ‘no can do’ and ‘Hip, hip, hurray’ may also in the sights of the hand-wringing brigade.     

Another thing that made the Badger laugh was the kerfuffle around the language used in the 1971 ‘Dad’s Army’ film, some of its TV series episodes, and even old TV favourites of ‘Little Britain’ and John Cleese’s ‘Fawlty Towers’. The biggest laugh, however, happened on seeing that eBay banned the sale of an old Dad’s Army board game for inciting racial hatred.  The world has gone truly mad! The Badger also laughed at Google threatening to withdraw its search engine from Australia. For all Google’s bombast about liberty and freedom, this fracas shows that the company has no respect for the democratic processes and interests of nations.  Good on you Australia, give them both barrels!

There was one topic, however, that stopped the Badger’s laughter in its tracks, namely that of safety on Smart Motorways. A coroner’s finding that Smart Motorways pose an ongoing risk of future deaths  and a Police Chief’s view that Smart Motorways are inherently unsafe mean that drivers should be worried. The UK’s first motorways opened between 1958 and the early 1960s when there were ~5 million cars on UK roads. They were built with a hard-shoulder lane to act as a refuge for broken-down vehicles and to assist emergency vehicles in getting to the scene of an accident. Today there are ~33 million cars on UK roads, which begs just one obvious question.  If a hard shoulder lane was required for safety reasons with 5 million cars,  why isn’t it required for safety reasons with today’s 33 million?

Road deaths have progressively declined since the 1960s primarily due to things like better education, speed limits, car design (better reliability, seat belts, ABS, and air bags etc), improved barrier technology, and so on. Smart Motorways have not contributed to the lowering death rate, so without a hard shoulder lane they must be considered unsafe and addressing the issue with even more ‘smart’ technology is not the answer.   This is most definitely not a laughing matter.

Five years…

David Bowie passed away five years ago on the 10th January 2016. His legacy is a portfolio of great music and it was while listening to some of his songs that the Badger mused on some of the things that have happened  since his demise.

The UK Brexit referendum on 23rd June 2016 upended British politics, changed Europe for ever, and caused widespread public frustration with the shenanigans of politicians in handling the exit process. The whole process exposed the dysfunctionality of politics and politicians across the UK and across the EU, more so than ever before.   

In 2016 Donald Trump – a businessman rather than a career politician – was elected the President of the USA. His term in office, including his impending departure, has been a tsunami of controversy. Mr Trump’s election was founded on a ticket that gave voice to millions of voters frustrated with their career politicians. His enemies would, and did, throw everything at him during his term in office. The pendulum has now swung against him, and the USA seems, to an outsider at least, to be exhibiting the polarisation and in-fighting typical of a failing empire, which does not augur well for the future.

During the last five years, the EU struggled with a humanitarian and political crisis caused by the influx of more than a million refugees, Greta Thunberg brought global focus on climate issues, the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements made a mark, and the Cambridge Analytica affair exposed some truth about social media platforms and their use of your data. And then, of course, there is the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Badger, however, thinks the biggest happening over the last five years pervaded all of the above, namely the fact that the social media platforms have an uncontrollable influence on our lives and democracy. These platforms claim to be a bastion of free speech but they give voice to extremes, fake news, disinformation, the darker side of the human psyche, attention seekers and faceless disrupters of all kinds. So much so that Western democracy is threatened. The tech giants have resisted regulation by politicians for years, but – regardless of your views on Mr Trump – they now appear to be regulating elected politicians!  It appears from the happenings of the last five years that social media giants wield more unaccountable power than is sensible for the preservation of Western democracy, and that our elected leaders need to take these tigers by the tail and regulate them.   Alternative views, of course, exist.   

There is a great Bowie song that is as pertinent today as it was when released in 1972. That song is Five years, a great version of which was recently released by Duran Duran.   The Badger thinks its line ‘Five years, that’s all we’ve got’  sums up how long elected leaders have to sort themselves and the giant tech companies out if  Western democracy is to thrive through the rest of this century.

Dubious data or dubious analysis leads to dubious decisions and distrust…

Data makes the modern world function. It’s at the heart of decision making by companies, governments, politicians, advisers, and experts of all kinds – and if it isn’t, then it should be!  Data, a valuable global resource, attracts a swarm of interest from those wishing to use it for purposes ranging from commercial gain to disinformation and propaganda. Whenever it’s presented to us, therefore, we should always wonder if the data itself is dubious, if the analysis of it is dubious, and if decisions based on these items are themselves dubious. Why? Because if we feel decisions are dubious, then disillusionment and distrust sets in and this is a really difficult trend to turn around.

A friend with a knack for uncovering ‘dodgy data’,  ‘dodgy analysis’, and hence ‘dodgy decisions’  on IT projects emailed recently lamenting how politicians and the scientists at their side could present some erroneous data in explaining the decision for England to enter a 2nd COVID lockdown.  They questioned whether the data, and the analysis of its consequences, ever got independently challenged or verified before being presented to the public? One would hope so, but it doesn’t feel like it, so we can hardly blame the media for making hay on the topic, or the public for becoming increasingly sceptical and distrustful.    

Dubious data, dubious analysis and dubious decisions are manifest everywhere in our modern, globally connected world.  The item here about a COVID-relevant study regarding Hydroxychloroquine just emphasises that ‘verification and assurance’ isn’t as strong as it should be with a last sentence saying ‘Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of it all is that the WHO and two entire countries halted trials of a potentially life-saving drug following the results of a single study that they failed to independently verify’.

Of course, honest mistakes happen, but the Badger senses that ‘verification and assurance’ is getting ever weaker, which is worrisome when every institution or corporation is becoming more creative in using data to push their own agenda, ideology, or bias.  Whenever information is presented to the general public making the case for an important decision, therefore, it has to be right that we can trust its efficacy and that it has been subjected to challenge using robust independent processes before being presented. 

In a world where misunderstanding, despondency, disillusionment, and distrust develops in seconds, we deserve to know that decisions conveyed by leaders are underpinned by sound data and analysis.  If excellent ‘verification and assurance’ functions are not embedded or truly effective in our institutions and corporations then distrust, disillusionment, and cynicism will become the baseline for our day to day lives. Surely we don’t want that? Perhaps it’s time that ‘verification and assurance functions’ got more attention from the media before, rather than after, key announcements?  Oh dear, perhaps bias has crept in here, after all the Badger turned from being an expert poacher into an expert ‘verification and assurance’ gamekeeper a number of times in his career…

Dark comedy and driverless cars…

What do you do if you if you’re just a neutral onlooker in another country and want some light relief from the dark comedy of the USA’s Presidential Election? Explore the current world of driverless cars!  At least that’s what the Badger did when the unrelenting media and social media coverage just emphasised the sadness of seeing a superpower having a nervous breakdown over two old men while struggling to come to terms with the threat to it’s world dominance from the powerhouse that’s modern day China.   As Richard Holway put it in a recent TechMarketView post, if these two men are the best candidates to lead the Western world then there is something seriously wrong!  

The dark comedy is not over yet and there will inevitably be a Netflix film in due course, so the Badger’s attention was easily redirected into the realm of driverless vehicles where technology evangelists have been promising for years that completely driverless cars will take over the roads. You’ll find a neat summary of the different levels of autonomous vehicle here. It’s Level 5 vehicles that are fully autonomous and can go anywhere with the presence of a driver completely optional and various companies and organisations are progressing vehicular technology along the path towards this holy grail. Progress is slowly being made and each year more automated assistance aids are finding their way into new vehicles, but that doesn’t mean Level 5 vehicles will be in widespread general use by us, the general public, on our roads in the foreseeable future.  

Why not? Because a) they aren’t in widespread military use yet, b) as this AutoExpress item points out, drivers haven’t been asked if they actually want completely autonomous cars, c) idealists are having to become more realistic, and d) legislation, liability apportionment, and insuring autonomous cars are still work in progress. It’s pretty safe to think that we’ll be driving vehicles ourselves for some decades yet.  The technology will continue to advance but history shows it’s the transition and transformation from a long established way of doing something to something new and different that presents the greatest challenge. People don’t change behaviour quickly, especially if they feel something is being imposed. So far there’s little information available on how driverless vehicles will be introduced for us to use in a way that preserves our freedoms, builds trust, and changes attitudes and behaviours. That’s why the Badger agrees with the AutoExpress item’s conclusion that the driverless car is a vehicle that 99% of us would happily live without!

The rollout of Level 5 driverless vehicles to the public is decades away and it’s likely to be another dark comedy if the Smart Meter and Smart Motorway programmes are anything to go by. Oh dear.  The phrase ‘dark comedy’ is emerging as a common theme in the modern world. Let’s hope things don’t morph from this into ‘horror’…

The truth is always elusive…

Any company that provides IT services has some contracts that have difficulties of one kind or another.  No organisation is perfect. The Badger’s lost track of how many times over the years he’s been asked by an irate CEO to independently ‘get to the truth’ of why a contract difficulty had exploded out of nowhere. Having lifted the lid on many such situations, the Badger has learned that the truth is always elusive.  Why is that? Because the way people behave, what they assert as fact, who they blame, poor record keeping, and internal politics normally make it impossible to get to a definitive and irrefutable truth, especially when time and money is a constraint.   

Last week the Badger received an unexpected call from a CEO. They wanted the Badger to independently establish the ‘absolute truth’ behind the conflicting messages they were getting from line management about difficulties on a sizeable project. The Badger politely declined the invitation. The CEO, not unexpectedly, was interested in why. The Badger merely told the CEO that ‘the truth is always elusive’ and if they didn’t have someone trusted to be independent and objective in their own organisation then they had bigger problems than just this project!  The CEO chuckled, took the point on board, and emailed later to say that someone from their inner team was investigating ‘to establish in what direction the pendulum of truth was pointing’.   

Shortly afterwards, the Badger – who has been keeping abreast of the US Presidential campaign via the media and the web – watched the Biden/Trump debate.  The Badger was both amused and horrified! The whole debacle seemed to personify the shrill, modern, antagonistic virtual world played out on the web in real-time, every hour or every day!  It was a depressing spectacle with getting to the truth definitely elusive, at least that’s how the Badger felt as just a normal citizen in a different nation with no axe to grind on how the USA appoints its leaders.

Afterwards, perhaps influence by despair, the Badger decided two things. First, that the internet/social media revolution of the last twenty years has made getting to the truth even more elusive than it always was. There is no truth on the internet. We must teach our children to think more deeply for themselves about everything they see or hear in their daily lives.  Second, the vitriolic debate provided enough evidence for the masses around the globe to wonder if the USA’s ‘leadership of the free world’ is still credible.

The Badger thought that China, in particular, would be having a giggle. Perhaps the song ‘Go West’ should be reissued as ‘Go East’? Hmm. That’s perhaps taking the rise of China too far, but even though the truth is always elusive there seems little doubt that things are rising in the East and setting in the West…

What goes up will come down…

‘Won’t get fooled again’ by The Who, one of the best political songs there’s been, played on the radio as the Badger cogitated in wonderment at Apple’s $US2 trillion market valuation at his laptop. How in the world is Apple worth that much? Well, a simple insight can be found here.  Of course, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet (Google) are not far behind with valuations of $US1 trillion or more.

The Badger’s been around long enough to know that markets are fickle, and that today’s mega corporations will normally disappoint at some stage in the future with the man in the street bearing the brunt when they do.  Yes, the big tech companies are at the heart of today’s world of instant digital mass communication and consumption, but have their valuations and the view of their future prospects become absurd? Hmm. Probably, at least that’s what the Badger – who’s no expert in these matters – senses.  

The valuation of Apple alone is greater than the UK FTSE 100 as a whole, greater than the GDP of countries like the Netherlands, Canada and Italy, and about two/thirds of the GDP of India!  Isn’t that just bizarre when the company hasn’t really come up with anything new recently? By the way, this isn’t an anti-Apple rant, just an articulation that the valuations of tech giants may have become too detached from the real global economy experienced by the average man on the street.  The Dot.com boom and bust of some 20 years ago comes to mind, although – to be fair – the situation today is somewhat different.  Nevertheless, the Badger senses there’s not only a bubble of some kind, but also a strengthening sentiment that the tech giants are way too greedy, powerful, and uncontrollable.  You may, of course, disagree.

As the Badger cogitated, his wife observed, playfully, that if Apple and the other tech giants got together they would rule the planet making governments irrelevant!  The point was tongue in cheek, but nevertheless well made in today’s strange world.  She also asked how it was possible – apart from in the world of spreadsheets and speculation – for Apple to be valued at $US1 trillion two years ago and to have doubled in value in just 24 months.  The Badger, trying to avoid  any explanation of corporations and markets, just smiled and said, ‘What goes up will come down’  pointing to the bit of  correction the tech giants experienced last week as illustration.  

And then Barry McGuire’s ‘Eve of Destruction’ came on the radio. Cogitation ended with just the easy conclusion that while we live in strange times, they are probably no stranger than 50 years ago when The Who and Barry McGuire wrote their songs. The Badger put the laptop away, turned up the volume on the radio, and sang along proving that you can still have lots of fun without being a captive of the big tech giants and their $US trillion valuations.

An Epic battle…

An acquaintance who is just a few years away from becoming a pensioner has just started work in an old-fashioned, small town hardware store, after 18 months being unemployed due to physical injury.  They were surprised to get the job given their age, until, that is, the boss explained that he was ‘fed up with employing youngsters who can barely tear themselves away from games on their smartphones whenever a customer comes into the shop’. Hmm. An interesting insight to life in the modern world for many!

Games on digital devices are a fact of life and readily available from the app stores in the Apple, Google, and Microsoft ecosystems. If you are younger than about 40 years old  then it’s likely that playing games on your smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop is part of how you get your fun, which means you should take an interest in the acrimonious legal dispute between Epic – makers of Fortnite and other popular games – and Apple.  Events have been unfolding fast – as you can see, for example, here,  here, here and here – and they provide an insight into the attitudes and dynamics of major corporations when they have a serious spat.

What appears to have triggered events is a Fortnite update that allowed players to buy in-game currency direct from Epic at a lower rate, bypassing Apple’s compulsory payment system which takes a 30% cut of every purchase.  The lawyers are now having a field day.  Apple have essentially removed Epic’s games from their app store, and the associated media coverage gives us all a ready insight into how a 2 trillion-dollar corporation (Apple) and 20 billion-dollar corporation (Epic) are locking horns in the dispute.  

The courts will, of course, rightly decide the legal rights and wrongs, probably in late September. However, on cogitating about the situation, and notwithstanding what the courts decide, the Badger felt that Apple comes over in what’s been written as just an arrogant, monopolistic, mega-corporate bully whose 30% take on in-app revenues smacks of profiteering. It’s sad that Apple, once an upstart and disrupter itself, has inevitably turned into the kind of corporation that it once challenged. Harsh? Perhaps, but when you’re next playing a game on your Apple device just remember that it’s you that’s paying the 30%.

The Badger has a feeling that the outcome of the EPIC v Apple spat in the courts – regardless of who ‘wins’ – will ultimately start the ball rolling to force changes to the likes of Apple and Google. Given Microsoft was accused of being a monopoly 20 years ago, it’s plausible that we’ll see the likes of Apple similarly challenged at some stage.

So, there you have it. There’s a David versus Goliath fight underway, and it’s a brave person that bets on either David being squashed, or Goliath coming out of the fray without injury… 

V-J Day, Animal Farm, and the digital world; a poignant moment…

The only light in the dark lounge was from the flickering images of a TV programme about V-J Day, the end of World War II in Japan 75 years ago. It was poignant not only because the Badger had relatives who served in the Far East, but also because the Badger’s baby grandson was cradled in his arms, fast asleep. It’s moments like this that make you think about what people endured in those times with how it is today, and the slumbering innocent in his arms, that’s just what the Badger found himself doing.  

Those who lived through World War II and its aftermath – regardless of their allegiance, age, colour, or creed – endured great hardship for years. Rationing, for example, only ended in the UK in 1954.  The Badger’s relatives rarely discussed their experiences which undoubtedly set the high values they held dear for the rest of their lives.  They lived without selfishness and took responsibility for dealing with whatever curve-balls life dealt them. They also had a strong sense of right and wrong, a great respect for law, order, and justice, and they put freedom and their families at the centre of their universe.

The world today is different, but is it better? Hmm.  As he watched the TV, the Badger found himself lamenting that the baby in his arms would grow up in a world in which ‘online’ has already hugely challenged the values and moral compass that his relatives held dear.  Today people seem less willing to take personal responsibility for anything; blame seems to be the first instinct and privacy and freedoms seem to have been willingly traded for convenience. Daily living is dominated by ‘online’ devices and social media whose negatives far outweigh its positives.  The news media is full of questionable content rather than fact, and respect for those who uphold law and order seems to be waning.  There’s something wrong with society when a first instinct is to video any interaction with upholders of the law and immediately upload it to Twitter or YouTube. It won’t be long before everyone videos their one to one meetings with their boss and immediately puts them on YouTube too!    

Looking at the peaceful innocent in his arms, the Badger felt that his relatives, now no longer alive, would be horrified by the erosion of values they held dear.  As it happens, George Orwell’s book Animal Farm was published two days after V-J Day in 1945. The book is as relevant today as it was then, and it will continue to be relevant when the Badger’s grandson reaches adulthood. As the little one gurgled and opened his eyes, the Badger vowed to ensure he knows not only of the values held dear by a generation who did what they had to do for the greater good and suffered personal hardships by just stoically getting on with life, but also that life itself is much more important than anything on the internet and social media.  

The ‘Smart’ prefix has had its day…

If something is prefixed with ‘Smart’ today, then the Badger tends to wince and immediately think of the need to tread carefully! Why? Because ‘Smart’ has become over-used in today’s digital world, although many may beg to differ.  The fact is that every new gadget in the last 100 years was thought to be ‘smart’ by those living at the time. The Badger’s parents, for instance, thought the introduction of a timer on their washing machine some 70 years ago was ‘smart’. They thought answering machines some 40 years ago were too.

In today’s Information Age, the word ‘Smart’ is much overused by marketeers, media pundits and politicians alike. For many the word has become tainted and a signal for something whose benefits are oversold, whose downsides are understated (or ignored), and whose value for money and longevity is questionable. Many feel that ‘Smart’ implies they will be fleeced of their hard-earned cash (and maybe their personal data, privacy, and security) for something that might quickly become obsolete.

Using the word ‘Smart’ as a pre-fix to something is becoming a euphemism for high cost and questionable benefit, at least from the average consumer’s perspective.  For example, the UK government’s ‘Smart’ Meter programme has already cost consumers through their bills, its roll-out is grossly late, and it’s not really delivering the promised benefits for consumers. Expensive ‘Smart’ Motorways appear to lead to more not less death on the roads, and the expense  of these complex ‘enhancements’ seems somewhat  questionable and wasteful to the average consumer if safety on the road has got worse.   And then there’s Smart Homes full of interconnected lights, fridges, power sockets, and so on. Do we really want or need to live inside a machine?

And then there’s the ‘Smart’ phone in your hand.  Apparently, the device itself has an average life of 4 to 5 years and we keep them, on average, for between 2 and 3 years.   How much did you pay for it? The percentage depreciation is probably worse than your car over the same period.

So, what’s the Badger’s point?  Simply that the term ‘Smart’ is not a relevant label for digital technology anymore.  Consumers today are no fools, are distrustful of the big Tech companies, and are more vocal about government expenditure. The pandemic has changed the way we think, behave, live, and work. It has made us realise not only the importance of technology in today’s world, but also that it doesn’t need to be labelled ‘Smart’ to have a positive impact on our lives, the planet, the climate, and wildlife.  The ‘Smart’ prefix has had its day.  There’s only one thing that should attract this label, and that’s us – we human beings! And some of you may well argue with that…

The most powerful people in the world are not who you think…

With coffee in hand, laptop on the knee, thunder overhead, and ‘what is wrong with people’ news on the radio, the Badger sat in his conservatory watching rain pummel the garden flowers and had a thoughtful moment. As the petals of a large peony disintegrated in the rain, one thing came to the fore in the Badger’s mind – that the world is in the grip of non-biological pandemics, not just the biological COVID-19 one!

There’s a pandemic of misinformation, disinformation and distortion, an escalating pandemic of disrespect for law and order, and a pandemic of the ‘human stupidity’ virus – a virus which appears to spread much faster than even COVID-19! Rational evidence for all this is easy to find. For example, this week  UK House of Lords peers led by Lord Puttenham issued a report demanding legislation because misinformation, disinformation and distortion is threatening lives and democracy,  the press is full of examples of unnecessary thuggery,  and Bournemouth beach illustrated just how quickly the ‘human stupidity’ virus has taken hold.  It seems to be similar in other countries too! On a more positive note, however, there is also a pandemic of appreciation that if human behaviour doesn’t change then our planet will be unsustainable, and we will be responsible for our own extinction.

The Badger sipped his coffee, watched a Blackbird tug at a worm in the lawn, and pondered on whether the most powerful people in the world are capable of addressing our problems. But who are the most powerful people in the world? A quick scan down the list here – where power is about control over resources to drive the world in a particular direction – doesn’t inspire confidence. The Badger found himself thinking laterally and deciding that these aren’t the most powerful people in the world! So, who are? The answer is real scientists and engineers, most of whom are not and never will be household names.

Chris Packham’s stirring and inspiring speech on why Alan Turing is the Greatest Person of the 20th Century, makes the point that scientists, not high-profile politicians, corporate leaders, media stars, musicians, sportsmen, or celebrities of any kind, are the only hope for the future.  The Badger agrees.  With deference to the last section of Chris’s speech, just pick up your phone, stare at it, and know that it only exists because of scientists and engineers.  If you are a youngster considering education choices, marvel at the device in your hand and know that if you study STEM subjects then you will become one of the most powerful people in the world. You will also be our hope for the future.