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.

Take the smartphone challenge…

The Badger’s concentration often lapsed during dry presentations at corporate conferences. He was not alone judging by the extent to which those in audiences were always furtively using their smartphones rather than concentrating on the speakers. It’s still the same today. Indeed, our smartphone makes it difficult to maintain an optimal state of concentration on anything for a prolonged period. When it comes to concentration, the smartphone is not your friend. It’s a source of distraction that not only affects your mental productivity, but also encourages brain habits that are not in your overall interest.

This point arose in a conversation with an old friend who is a psychologist. Over a beer reminiscing about our careers, the Badger’s friend asked him to distil a frequent frustration during his career into just one word. The Badger scratched his head and eventually answered ‘procrastination’ because it always frustrated initiative, creativity, and productive progress. His friend grinned, said procrastination was a natural human reaction to things that seem difficult or challenging, and emphasised that it’s as common in general life as it is in business. Apparently, it happens when our inner energy to prepare, decide, and act, simply fails to overcome our inner resistance. The resulting inaction can frustrate and cause conflict with others.

Pointing to their smartphone, the psychologist said the device neither helped in reducing procrastination, nor helped to promote good life habits or personal productivity, because it disrupts our ability to concentrate. Frequent checking for emails, text messages, news items, and social media posts, during a task apparently disrupts our brain’s focus and hence our productivity. The Badger was sceptical, so his friend challenged him to ‘take the smartphone challenge’ . It would show that his brain could not only be retrained to be less dependent on the device, but also that his concentration and productivity would improve. The challenge was simple. Just turn your smartphone off for one hour, once or twice a week, and use that hour to do a specific task or a hobby. Continue for some weeks and you will notice that your concentration improves, your productivity in each timeslot improves, and that this regime becomes a new habit. It becomes embedded behaviour, and your brain benefits in doing tasks without the distraction of the virtual world. The Badger procrastinated in accepting the challenge, until his friend simply raised their eyebrows!

Now, some months after turning off his devices for an hour twice a week to write creatively using pen and paper, the initially sceptical Badger can report that the challenge works! It’s now embedded behaviour, and the concentration, productivity, and quality of output improvements have been obvious. So, don’t procrastinate, take the smartphone challenge yourself. If you give up or it doesn’t work for you, then this in itself tells you something about your willpower and the extent to which your brain has been affected by your own fear of missing out (FOMO) if disconnected from the virtual world.

Driverless trains; a necessary transformation…

Train travellers in the UK are being inconvenienced by frequent industrial action by rail sector Trade Unions. Finger pointing, ideological differences, and slow progress in dispute negotiations are clear to see. Attempts by the employers to modernise working practices, improve efficiency, and move towards driverless trains, seem to be a red rag to a bull for the Unions, as the following two sentences from an RMT press release neatly illustrate:  

“Driverless trains are a Tory fantasy that should be consigned to the science fiction shelf. They are dangerous nonsense and just another dead cat lobbed on the table to distract from what’s going on in the real world.”

These words bring a wry smile to the Badger’s face, because they capture a holistic general truth, namely that technology is always available to enable change, but it’s the mindset of people and the motives of their leaders that determine whether and when – or not – the technology will be embraced.

The pandemic has seismically changed railway passenger numbers, people’s travel patterns, and reduced train revenues in the UK. It thus seems unrealistic to think that the way things were pre-pandemic is a good model for the rest of this decade, especially when technology like that here can contribute so much for the greater good.  This decade is transformational for society, whether we like it or not, as a result of global health, energy, and economic crises, geo-political redefinition, and rapidly advancing, technological capabilities. No person or organisation is immune to these changes, which need politicians, employers, and Trade Union leaders to cooperate with shared objectives if they are to be navigated effectively for the country’s benefit. Currently this doesn’t look to be the case when it comes to the railways.

Why is that? Well, successful transformations require stakeholder alignment with common, apolitical, objectives. The press release sentences above suggest this clearly isn’t the case with the UK railways. Deep rooted antagonism is obvious. The Badger feels that one reason for this lies with the fact that rail unions are themselves struggling to transform in today’s world. Government statistics show that unions have many membership, demographic, and societal change challenges, a fact fully recognised by the TUC itself.   Rail union belligerence towards driverless trains might thus be just an act of petulant resistance that does not benefit their members, the travelling public, or the country, in the years to come.

Progress towards introducing driverless trains should be more advanced than for driverless cars on the road network, but it isn’t, and it looks unlikely that they will be common on the UK rail network this decade. There are always pros and cons with automation, but the two press release sentences above help to illustrate why UK productivity is 15% below that in the US and France.  Things need to change…and driverless train technology needs to be embraced rather than demonised.

Autonomous ships…

Smart meters, smart phones, smart televisions, smart home security cameras, smart central heating, smart lighting, and smart white goods are commonplace in today’s world. We also regularly encounter smart motorways and ever-smarter vehicles as we go about our daily lives. All of this just illustrates that no aspect of our lives is immune to the relentless advance of digital technologies. However, while most public interest and mainstream media attention tends to focus on things that either do or will have a direct personal impact on the majority of us, there are many advances underway that get much less airtime. Autonomous ships seems to be one such area.

Some months ago, while examining the forecast timeline for the mass adoption of truly autonomous (driverless) cars on public highways, the Badger came across something that triggered more personal interest in progress towards autonomous ships. It was the online dashboard of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), a 15-metre-long research trimaran recreating the historic Mayflower voyage of 1620 from Plymouth in the UK to the USA , but with no humans on board! MAS, built by Promare and IBM, and packed with sensors, AI, and autonomous technology, has not been without problems, as you can see here. Nevertheless, it has now reached North America, all be it Halifax in Canada rather than the USA, and it’s been possible to monitor its vital signs and footage from its cameras via the online dashboard throughout the journey across the Atlantic.  

MAS’s journey will undoubtedly have added to the learning and knowledge essential for scaling up to the much larger autonomous ships of the future. Smart technology on large ships already has a lot of traction and Hyundai, for example, announced just a few days ago that it was the first to pilot a ‘large autonomous ship across the ocean. The ship was fully crewed and while much of its journey was under the control of autonomous technology, much of it was not. Realistically, the days of truly autonomous civilian shipping with no crew aboard are still some way off. As might be expected,  however,  in the military domain the development of small and large autonomous vessels for naval forces has been progressing steadily. Indeed, the USA, for example, has this year created an unmanned vessel division within its Navy, and is recognising a need to build a fleet of autonomous platforms to counter threats from other superpowers.

It’s inevitable that autonomous civilian and military ships will be a feature of life for future generations. Unlike autonomous cars and aircraft, they don’t seem to attract the same level of interest in the mainstream media and general public, which the Badger finds a little surprising given the UK is an island nation and taking a cruise holiday could one day mean travelling and living on a ship that has no crew!

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.

Smart Warfare…

The Badger recently saw an elderly pensioner clash with an Extinction Rebellion (XR) activist at a demonstration in London. The clash triggered the Badger to think about ‘smart warfare’ and reminded him that anything prefixed with ‘smart’ might mean ‘clever’, but it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’.

‘Can you zealots stop blocking my way please’, the pensioner asked politely. ‘I’m not a zealot; I’m a climate activist engaged in smart warfare’, the activist replied with a sneering arrogance. The pensioner responded indignantly with ‘I’ve been climate and environment conscious for years, so you should be ashamed about being at war with me when it’s the big countries in other parts of the world that have the biggest impact on the planet’s climate’. With that the pensioner pushed past the activist blocking their way. With a derogatory hand gesture, the activist turned their attention to someone else. The activist believed they were engaged in ‘smart warfare’, but to the Badger they seemed to be illustrating the polarising, fixated, tribal behaviour that is prevalent in today’s world.

The phrase ‘smart warfare’ tends to trigger thoughts of ever-evolving advanced military weaponry and a future of cyber warfare, swarms of drones, and robots. The activist’s use of the phrase, however, illustrates that ‘smart warfare’  is really modern-day terminology for the centuries-old execution of power over people using whatever clever tools and techniques are available. Tools range from extreme physical violence to the most subtle psychological techniques that enable one mind to influence and control another. Yes, clever advances in technology broadens the tools available and changes how wars are contested, but truly ‘smart warfare’ requires more than just technology, it requires clever, effective, and inspirational leaders, and committed and united people. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows that subjugating a population takes more than advanced ballistic, information, cyber, economic, and propaganda weaponry. It’s people that conduct ‘smart warfare’ not technology, and people will always find ways to resist against the odds regardless of the clever technology in use.

As the XR activist’s use of the phrase illustrates, ‘smart warfare’ has broadened beyond the military domain into the routines of normal life in our globally connected, online world full of misinformation, disinformation, processing of personal data, and location and preference tracking. When you buy a traditional newspaper from a shop, there’s no record of the articles and adverts you look at or share with other people, your opinions, other people you associate with, or whether something in the paper prompted you to make a purchase or change your behaviour. The opposite is true when we use the phones, tablets, and laptops that dominate life today. ‘Smart warfare’ is thus a routine aspect of life today because organisations are using clever tools to analyse this information to wield power over us! With this in mind, always use the apps on your phone, tablet, or laptop wisely…

From Self-driving cars to the Thought Police and Big Brother…

As widely reported, for example here, here and here, a Law Commission of England and Wales report recommends a new system of legal accountability for vehicles with self-driving capabilities, anticipating the future when vehicles drive themselves for a part, or all, of a journey without a human driver paying attention to the road. When the vehicle’s driving itself, the Commission recommends that the ‘human driver’ is immune from prosecution if anything goes wrong. Instead, liability will rest with the company or body that produced and approved the vehicle and its technology for use.

The Badger read this while taking a break from entertaining his energetic grandson who’d tired himself out and was having a nap on the sofa. The mass use of completely driver-less cars at level 5, a nirvana for some, is still years away, but the report illustrates that there’s more than technology to be addressed if vehicles with higher levels of self-driving capability are to be introduced and used safely on busy public road networks.

Three thoughts came to the fore. The first was that at the higher levels of self-driving capability, cars are like aeroplanes for the roads, and so manufacturers and operators will need to adhere to airline industry-type standards in order to keep vehicle occupants safe. The second was that enormous amounts of data needs to be stored and available for use as evidence in insurance claims and legal disputes when there are, for example, accidents. Who stores it and where? Who has access to it and under what circumstances? How is privacy and personal freedom protected? The answers aren’t yet clear, at least to the Badger. The third was that insurance companies will progressively find ways of minimising their liabilities as the higher levels of self-driving cars become commonplace in the mix of traffic. The Badger has thus resolved to henceforth read his motor insurance policy terms with a laser-like legal focus on renewal every year! Overall, it seems clear that the requirement for a vehicle to have a human driver will be with us for a very long time yet.

The move towards driver-less cars is just another example of how the relentless march of technology means the toddler sleeping peacefully on the sofa will grow up in a world with similarities to that in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.   That’s an uncomfortable thought, but for all the conveniences and benefits, the internet and digital revolution of recent decades has eroded privacy and made surveillance in society easier. The Badger’s wife chided him for being gloomy before confidently saying that our grandson will grow up to be a scientist or engineer solving life’s real problems and won’t worry about such matters. The Badger chuckled. Regardless of his career choices, the toddler already has the rebellious independence and intelligence that means he will never succumb to the Thought Police and Big Brother!

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