Notable events, Weather & Sport – News

The Badger spent most of last week hospitalised in a (non-covid) ward bay with five others from various backgrounds and with a range of ailments. With everyone laid up without family visits, a ‘Band of Brothers’ spirit and strong camaraderie quickly developed. There was lots of time for personal observation, contemplation, and collective discussion on a myriad of topics. One of the key things we all quickly realised, however, was not only the huge benefit that having a smartphone or tablet provided, but also the corrosive effect of the perpetual information that’s a feature of the modern world.

Everyone had a smartphone or a tablet computer with them on admission. The devices, connected to free NHS Wi-Fi, were our personal critical infrastructure for regular voice and video contact with family, browsing the internet, streaming music, and listening to podcasts, radio, and TV. They were our sole conduit to the outside world. However, while everyone in the bay had different interests, internet browsing patterns, and different affinities with social media, it was quickly evident that every one of our ‘Band of Brothers’ distrusted anything they saw or heard via their devices that purported to be news-related!

As one of our illustrious band pointed out, we’re bombarded today by stuff  that  purports to be news, but which is really just a stream of mania, ignorance, babble, bile, character assassination, vendetta, and envy, all of which just spreads confusion, fear and anxiety throughout society. It’s hard to disagree! The reporting of a  truly ‘notable event’ in news is no longer crisp, clear and factual because it’s intertwined with misinformation, speculation, and distorted gossip polluted by social media, celebrity,  and hidden agendas. The internet and the smart devices in our hands have rendered traditional purveyors of news old hat. Even institutions like the BBC struggle to separate fact from fiction and to be impartial. The BBC TV News Channel has been in decline since 2012, and in 2019 Facebook was the third most used news source in England.  OFCOM’s 2020-21 annual report on the BBC also shows that audiences continue to question the BBC’s impartiality.  

The Badger’s hospital stay starkly brought home that news has become a mishmash of skewed information, sound bites, dubious analysis, gossip, celebrity, and organisational agenda rather than fact. Harsh, perhaps, but that’s what all in our ‘Band of Brothers’  felt! The ‘Band of Brothers’ are now all at home and looking forward to Christmas, thankful for the benefit their personal tech provided in hospital, but defiantly against  the babble and unproductive mania that confronts us every day. We made a pact! If  Santa Clause comes under threat, then we’ll start a revolution! And on that note, the Badger thanks you for reading his musings in 2021 and wishes you and your families a happy Christmas and a productive 2022.

5G, Satellites, Synthetic fuel, and Thomas the Tank Engine…

There are mornings when your head is so full of things that it takes a few moments to converge on your priorities. Yesterday was one such morning for the Badger, although it wasn’t long before the fog cleared to reveal the main priority was simply to prepare for looking after his toddler grandson for the day. This meant ensuring that our collection of well-used, hand-me-down Thomas the Tank Engine books was to hand because the stories are key to getting the little whirlwind to occasionally sit still. The Badger reads the stories regularly because his grandson laps them up and loves the various characters, especially Thomas himself, the engines Gordon, James, Percy, Emily, Toby and Whiff, Harold the Helicopter, Bertie the Bus, and The Fat Controller who runs the railway on the island of SODOR.

It was while preparing for the toddler’s arrival that the Badger saw a couple of news items about the Satellites for Digitalisation of Railways SODOR project, see here and here. Put simply, this project will demonstrate the integrated use of 5G and satellite constellations to improve train monitoring and mobile connectivity for passengers. It took the Badger enormous self-discipline, however, not to map the various SODOR consortium members onto Thomas the Tank Engine characters! After stifling a giggle, the Badger decided it’s an interesting project, but just one of many that illustrate how technological progress is relentlessly changing our lives.

The Badger then wondered what Wilbert Awdry, who created the Thomas stories decades ago, would make of the modern world. Awdry died in 1997 and since then puritans, the entertainment industry, and social media’s corrosive indoctrinators have insisted on changes to his stories and characters for the sake of today’s world of political correctness. The Fat Controller, for example, is today deemed problematic language, which is just plain daft when its contemporaneous of its time and the author was a vicar. It won’t be long, no doubt, before someone demands that all Thomas and his friends must convert from coal-fired steam to electric, the passengers must have smartphones, and the island of SODOR is completely automated. Awdry would rightly think the world’s out to destroy the originality and charm of his stories and characters.

As the Badger read Harold the Helicopter to the attentive toddler soon after he arrived,  he realised that that Harold might escape a conversion to electric due to recent news of a RAF flight using a climate-friendly synthetic fuel. His grandson, of course, is too young to care about such matters, but the world that he’ll grow into has freedom of speech and freedom of expression tempered by an intolerance of the past, and a head-spinning list of do’s and don’ts about what’s acceptable. Society needs a return to rationality and common-sense for the sake of all toddlers, and Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends…

Technology has redefined normal life…

A century ago, the world started emerging from the Spanish Flu pandemic that followed World War 1. After years of turmoil people wanted change, and the 1920s certainly provided it.  A century later we’re emerging from another pandemic, and the 2020s looks destined to be transformational too. History might repeat itself!  For most people, of course, life today is very different to that in the 1920s. Scientific and engineering advances, and especially the internet and information revolution of recent decades, have put technology at our fingertips and redefined what constitutes normal life for most of us.  

Just how much normal life in the UK has changed since the 1920s can be illustrated, for example, by reflecting on the motor car. In the early 1920s when the UK population was ~40 million, there were only 383,525 cars .  By 1930 the number of cars had risen to 1 million with ~ 7,300 annual road deaths. Today the UK population is ~67 million, and there are 33 million registered cars and around 1800 annual road deaths.  The first traffic light on a road appeared in the mid-1920s, and driving tests became law in the mid-1930s. Cars of the 1920s were ostensibly fuelled mechanical devices owned by a tiny minority of households, whereas today they are essentially fuelled electronic devices with mechanical components which are owned by nearly every household.  Roads are also vastly different, and its amusing to think that any concept of a ‘Smart Motorway’ suggested in the 1920s would have been considered as the ramblings of a lunatic.   

The car and it’s embedded technology has become an essential in the average UK person’s life in less than a century. It’s not only changed the landscape and infrastructure of our country, but also become a fundamental part of our personal freedoms. The 2020s will see cars become powered by electricity, filled with ever more technology to control our driving habits, and become taxed differently to compensate for the reduction in the £28 billion annual revenues currently generated fuel duty on petrol and diesel.  The car as a metaphor for technology has redefined what constitutes normal life over the last 100 years, and that redefinition will continue throughout the 2020s.   

However, there’s something that hasn’t changed since the 1920s, namely primeval human behaviour.  Today’s global connectivity and social media platforms readily bring the most unattractive aspects of this to the fore for all to see. That’s a worry, because the end of the 1920s saw the Great Depression, and if history repeats itself then we could see some similar crisis at the end of this decade, triggered perhaps by a serious failure in the world’s technology infrastructure. If this were to happen, then primeval human instincts will take over and the ensuing anarchy might highlight that life without cars and modern technology is actually survivable, just as it was in the 1920s a century ago

Welcome to the metaverse…

As the Badger walked to the local High Street to meet friends, the heavens opened dumping lots of rain on anyone without a coat or an umbrella. Luckily, the local train station was just along the road and a quick sprint for its shelter meant a complete soaking was avoided. Sheltering with others in the station’s ticket hall, the Badger messaged his friends to say he’d be late, and then browsed his smartphone’s news feeds until the rain stopped. Everyone in the ticket hall was doing something similar. In fact, the bedraggled crowd looked like something from a zombie apocalypse, but without any blood.  

A news item entitled ‘PC, internet, smartphone: what’s the next big technological epoch?’ caught the Badger’s eye. Its content answered the question by building on a core 2014 suggestion that the tech/IT industry has evolved through three ‘epochs’, each defined by a core technology and a killer app. The three epochs, in time order, were the advent of the PC, the internet, and mobile computing now epitomised by today’s smartphone. If this last epoch is now peaking, then what’s the next epoch technology for the industry? One possibility suggested is metaverses, a term covering a range of virtual realities covering the workplace, entertainment, and community platforms.  Facebook, apparently, wants to become an online metaverse, but that, in itself, is enough to be wary about a metaverse future.   

As the rain eased, the Badger decided it’s unlikely that metaverses, a word that sounds like marketing technobabble, are the next epoch technology. If they are, then we will have to let companies use even more of our data and also accept a further erosion of personal privacy. Many of us will be reticent about doing this given experiences with social media over the last decade. It also seems unlikely that most of us would want to live our personal and professional lives in virtual worlds when, as the pandemic has shown, we crave the touch, smells, textures, physical interactions with friends and colleagues, and the normal rhythms of the real world that we inhabit.   

The rain stopped, and the Badger resumed his journey, walking briskly and dodging the puddles. Just as the destination came into sight, the heavens opened again.  With mother nature exercising its power with another climate change cloudburst, wondering about the next big epoch in the tech industry felt like an irrelevance. A damp Badger finally arrived and chatted with his friends over coffee. None of them are in the least bit interested in metaverses. One, who’s proud of being ‘a digital native and a digital dinosaur’, pointed out that real life is about much, much, more than bits and bytes manipulated by clever hardware and software. They are so right. It’s very hard to see how metaverses can be an epoch technology that will make real life much better.  

Drones, dinosaurs, and a private life…

The impressive choreographed light display that employed more than 1800 drones at the Tokyo Olympics’ opening ceremony is becoming a common sight at high profile events.  A friend’s daughter, who starts university in September, asked what many will have wondered while watching, ‘How did they do that?’  The Badger chuckled when she glibly answered her own question by saying ‘Someone’s probably doing it all from an app on their iPhone’.

Drones have all shapes and sizes, work in different ways, and perform many functions in today’s civilian and military life. Indeed, drone swarms will play an important role in military conflicts in the years ahead.  Watching the Olympics’ drone display, however, provided a visual reminder of just how far computing, software, and communications technology has advanced since the New York 9/11 atrocity 20 years ago. Most internet connections were clunky and slow at that time, and the internet itself didn’t dominate our lives. Broadband was in its infancy, flash drives (USB sticks) were uncommon, and Sharp, Samsung and Nokia had barely released their first camera-phones. Skype, YouTube, Google Maps and Streetview, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon Kindle, iPhones, and iPads didn’t exist, and most people visited real shops to do their shopping! It’s a very different world today, but not necessarily a better or safer one. 

The friend’s daughter cannot imagine life 20 years ago because all kinds of digital technology has been available at her fingertips throughout her childhood, teenage, and now her adult years. She’s a complete digital native who has become, perhaps, more reliant on technology’s conveniences than is healthy. She routinely calls the Badger and her parents ‘dinosaurs’ but she always listens respectfully when her parents point out that privacy at the time of 9/11 was very different to the concept of privacy that exists today. An individual was less technologically ‘monitored’ 20 years ago, had a true private life, and chose what to share with others, when to share it, what medium to use, how to share it, and with whom. Sharing was a conscious, physical, act. Technology has since changed the concepts of personal privacy, freedom, and independence, and has made those born this century the most ‘monitored’ generation ever.

The friend’s daughter knows that powerful forces in the online world know more about her life, habits, and location than for any previous younger generation, but she still wants most aspects of a private life that her parents enjoyed 20 years ago. Her parents rubbed salt into the topic of what constitutes a private life today by observing that ‘We’ll soon be able to tell Alexa to send out a swarm of drones to find out what you’re up to anywhere in the world’.  This didn’t go down well with their daughter responding vociferously that she’s entitled to a private life! Indeed, she is. But it won’t be the type of private life that was once enjoyed by ‘the dinosaurs’.  

All-lane running motorways and electric car breakdowns…

The Badger often flicks through the television channels before retiring for the night. It’s a habit, and it’s rare that something grabs the attention sufficiently to delay bedtime. One night recently, however, the ‘Smart Motorway Committee’ on the BBC Parliament channel proved an exception. A yawn was stifled as the channel was sampled, but the Badger was suddenly hooked when one of the politicians on the committee asked senior representatives from the Police, motoring, and haulage organisations, a clever question. It was this: ‘If your loved ones were driving on the motorway, or you were driving with your loved ones as passengers, which would you prefer it to be a) a controlled motorway with a permanent hard-shoulder lane, or b) an all-lane running motorway with refuge areas that could be more than 800 metres apart’.  

The politician asked for their personal opinion, not that of the organisation they represented. The respondents each plumped for (a), explaining their choice in terms of the human reality and anxiety of breaking down surrounded by live traffic lanes when young children, the disabled, or elderly parents are on board and refuge is some distance away.  To ensure smart motorways are safe, Highways England, of course, are currently implementing the 2020 Stocktake and Action Plan, and their recent report continues to make the case for all-lane running, all be it with further technology-centred  safety improvements. However, as the respondent’s answers illustrate, it’s obvious that people remain unpersuaded that foregoing a permanent hard-shoulder lane is wise.

Although it was late, the Badger’s programme delivery, IT, systems, and risk management experience and instincts kicked into gear with the following point bubbling to the fore.  Smart motorways were conceived mainly to increase traffic capacity and reduce congestion. It feels like ‘safety’ is being bolted on to avoid facing up to a possible uncomfortable truth, namely that all-lane running motorways may not have been such a good idea in the first place. With this point on his mind, the Badger turned off the television and retired for the night.

The next morning a chance conversation, when the Badger was told about someone’s experience of a new electric car that stopped working on a railway crossing, seem to reinforce this point.  The Badger hadn’t really appreciated the difficulty, which can get a sense of here and here, in moving electric vehicles if they stop functioning for any reason. It appears that the days of getting people to help you push it to a safer place are gone!  What will happen when the mix of electric cars on all-lane running motorways is substantially higher than today and more of them breakdown?  Even more expensive technology seems to be the answer to everything these days, but it feels like it would have been better, safer, and cheaper never to have ditched permanent hard-shoulder lanes in the first place!  

Connection lost, please move your display closer to the meter…

Domestic Smart Meters installed as part of the UK rollout programme come with a small monitor providing the consumer with information about their energy usage. This little device connects to the meter via a wireless network. It’s normally positioned in a place that is both convenient for the consumer and where there is a strong wireless signal with the meter. In the Badger’s home, the monitor has never been moved from where it was put last autumn when the smart meter was installed. It functions there happily for the vast majority of the time.

Occasionally at the weekend, however, it stops working and displays the message ‘Connection lost, please move your display closer to the meter’. This isn’t a big deal because powering the device off and then on re-establishes the connection and normal service. The message appeared again last weekend, but this time it took a number of off-on cycles for service to resume.  This, and seeing the Smart Energy programme’s Albert Einstein advert extolling the virtues of digitising the UK energy system, made the Badger cogitate on a couple of questions.   

Firstly, has a Smart Meter made much of a difference in the Badger household? Not really, ostensibly because we have always been disciplined and never profligate in our use of energy. While the little energy monitor provides useful information, it did not take long after it was installed to realise that it just confirmed what we already knew, namely that cooking, cleaning, and heating dominates consumption and thus the bill. Using a PC or watching TV have a much smaller impact in comparison. The novelty of regularly looking at the energy monitor thus quickly wore off. Indeed, the Badger knows many people who have eventually turned their monitor off completely and banished it to a cupboard with other unused devices!  

Secondly, is the ‘Connection lost…’ message a reminder of something important that we all take for granted? Yes, it is. It’s a reminder that wireless and wired networks are the plumbing on which the modern world relies. Today a device is, at best, limited in its use without some kind of network connection, and, at worst, it’s useless!  Networks are a rather hidden part of the tech landscape in the general public’s psyche, but given how life would be impacted if they were down for weeks, months, or even years, they deserve more public awareness of how life would change in their absence.   

Networks are critical infrastructure and not immune to a diverse range of threats. It is foolhardy to think that this infrastructure could suffer some kind of seriously disruptive event in the future. Whenever that happens, let’s just hope that it brings out the best in humanity, rather than the worst.  Gosh! Isn’t it surprising where a simple monitor losing connection with its Smart Meter can take your thoughts…

Fully autonomous cars – time for realism

Evangelists, visionaries, ‘blue sky’ thinkers, idealists, innovators; it doesn’t matter what you call them, they are needed for progress. For real progress that ‘sticks’ to happen, however, then we need realists too. The Badger, whose career centred on delivering difficult IT-intensive programmes, is a realist even though he did his fair share of ‘blue sky’ thinking in his time!  It’s this realism that’s behind why the Badger always maintains a healthy scepticism about predicted timelines for when the next wave of technology will be rolled out to the public.  This timeline scepticism has always stood the Badger in good stead.

Predictions by excited, future-gazing, tech evangelists may attract lots of media attention but their timelines often grossly under-estimate what’s really involved in getting something rolled out to consumers or end users at serious scale. Things in the real world are often more difficult than anticipated – that’s just life!  So, it wasn’t a shock to the Badger that Uber has sold its autonomous vehicle division to a start-up and that some are wondering whether driverless cars have stalled.  Trials on public roads, of course, continue, there are companies investing in the technology and jockeying to gain commercial advantage, the technology is still coming to terms with the hard to quantify human variable that pedestrians do unexpected things, and there are still many  legal and ethical issues to resolve. And so it seems a pretty safe bet from a realist’s perspective that fully autonomous cars will not be in the majority navigating the UK’s roundabouts for many years yet.

Anyone who has run a major IT-intensive delivery programme knows that Transition and Transformation phases when moving from the old to the new are fraught with risk, challenge, and delay due to the unexpected. The scale of the Transition and Transformation challenge in moving to a fully autonomous car system can be seen simply by a quick look at published UK government figures. There were over 38 million cars on British roads in 2019 and only 1.6% of them were fully or partially electric. It will take at least another decade just for electric rather than fossil-fuel powered cars to be in the majority, so if you are grounded in reality then it’s difficult to believe that fully autonomous cars will be the general public’s ‘go to’ method of transportation anytime soon. It looks like 2021 will see lots more autonomous vehicle related tech, but the Badger feels little of it will shorten the overall timeline for getting complex fully autonomous vehicles operating safely at scale with conventional people-driven vehicles on the country’s roads.

You may feel the Badger has started 2021 as anti-tech, anti-progress, and anti-autonomous vehicles. That’s not the case, he’s just pro-realism and a prudent sceptic – which is always a sensible position to take if you want to retain some objectivity in today’s, instant, globally, connected, digital world.  

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’…

Millennials; 100 years ago and today…

When the Badger entered the graveyard of the pretty, 13th century, English village church to put flowers on his mother’s grave, he was intending to write about the financial results of the tech giants. By the time he left, however, this intention had been consigned to the bin. Why? Because of thoughts triggered by seeing 318 white headstones of WW1 Canadian soldiers amidst the graveyard’s maple trees and acers in autumn colour. Most of these soldiers had  survived the Great War but were victims of the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic while waiting in a local military camp to be repatriated back to Canada.  Reading their inscriptions is always poignant, especially as most were aged between 18 and 30 when they succumbed so far away from home.  Their graves in this quiet corner of England are wonderfully maintained. If you’re interested, you can find who from the Great War is buried in a graveyard near you here.

The spectacular autumn colours, the rows of white headstones, and the fact that the Badger’s grandfathers served in and survived the Great War and the flu pandemic, triggered thoughts about just how different life was a 100 years ago. There were no anti-viral drugs and no antibiotics. There was no National Health Service, no television, no radio, no telephones for the masses, no electricity in the vast majority of homes, and – in the UK – the vote for all men over the age of  21 had only just been granted through an Act of Parliament in 1918. Life was tough, much tougher than most today have endured, but people got through it even though > 200,000 people died in the UK alone during the 4 pandemic waves between 1918 and 1920.

Today we are in the midst of another global pandemic but with tools and capabilities at our disposal that would have been pure science fiction 100 years ago.  Yet Western democracies are struggling to cope, politicians are arguing and scoring points off each other rather than standing shoulder to shoulder, broadcast and social media is full of scaremongering, selectivism, and naysayers spreading gloom and confusion, and economies are crumbling. Behaviour underpinned by the modern digital capabilities available through our smartphones, tablets and laptops has contributed to polarisation and disruption!  Yes, today’s tech gives everyone a voice, but what use is that if rationality and common sense is in the minority and society can be seen to be progressively fraying?  The Badger’s in a strange mood. Perhaps he’s being unfair.

Staring at the grave of a 20 year old soldier from Ontario, a millennial of the last century, the Badger wondered what the soldier would think about his counterparts today and the world they live in. Hmm. However, as the Badger left, a small group of millennial cyclists stopped to look at the graves. They started chatting about this very thing. From what the Badger overheard, there’s hope for us all yet…