Where have all the STEM-educated news correspondents gone?

The BBC’s Director-General recently said ‘People have turned to the BBC in their droves in recent weeks’, especially the young. Hardly surprising when people are locked down at home and the corporation, funded by mandatory TV Licence fee, broadcasts diverse radio and television programmes that are also accessible on-demand via iPlayer or Sounds.

The Badger’s consumption of BBC material throughout this pandemic has actually reduced, seemingly going against the tide. Yesterday the Badger and his wife debated why this was the case and concluded that the reduction boils down to consuming much fewer BBC News and current affairs programmes. Rather than consume an entire BBC News programme, the Badger now absorbs just the opening headlines and that’s it! Part of the reason, as the Badger’s wife wryly pointed out, is that hearing someone interviewed on Radio 4’s Today radio programme at 7:00am, and then hearing the exact same item repeated with video on the lunchtime, early and late evening TV news programmes is not news by midday, just time filler! Another part of the reason is that it’s become quite entertaining to sample many different sources of ‘impartial’ news to decide which you believe is balanced, fake, misinformation, or political or commercial propaganda!

The Badger’s found BBC News coverage throughout this pandemic frustrating, and the approach of well-known journalists – from the BBC and elsewhere – at the televised daily No 10 pandemic briefings predictable and an amusing illustration of well-known human behaviour. Their fixation on berating scientific advisors and politicians for any perceived difficulty in an unprecedented national crisis and reluctance to properly acknowledge and encourage the many magnificent things that everyone has achieved is a wonderful example of the psychological phenomenon of negativity bias! Over the Summer, Times Radio is arriving on the scene to compete with Radio 4’s Today programme using a different style and feel. It will be interesting to see if this manages to avoid the same trap.

But something else has also contributed to the Badger’s reduced consumption of BBC News. It came to the fore when the wife asked, ‘What is a PPE degree?’ PPE is Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and most news journalists – including Health, Science, and Technology correspondents – have this, History, Journalism, Medieval Language, or English degrees rather than degrees in STEM subjects. STEM not only underpins our lives, but also our salvation from pandemic apocalypse, and yet mainstream news journalism is devoid of visible STEM talent, instinct, or psyche. The Badger sees this lack of educational diversity as a problem and a factor in his reducing news consumption.

So ‘Where have all the STEM-educated news correspondents gone?’ Nowhere. They weren’t there in the first place. But they should be. STEM educated people are under-represented and just as capable as those with other backgrounds. Indeed, in today’s world when every politician, leader, and commentator can interact directly with the public using readily available digital tools it can’t be long before the younger generation force this imbalance to change.

The 6 Cs – Control, Care, Commerce, Community, Consumption & Communications

Long days of pandemic-related lockdown do strange things to your thoughts. We obviously think about our personal circumstances and fears, but simple things can trigger thoughts that can take you to unexpected conclusions. The Badger, for example, has noticed that simple observations trigger thoughts that meander to a conclusion that barely relates to the observation itself, as illustrated below.

The Badger recently noticed his wife’s growing irritation with mainstream TV News. She increasingly asserts ‘TV News has more dinner party chat dressed as analysis, complainers and people with an axe to grind, spin, and scaremongering speculation than straightforward factual news.’ Hmm. ‘A Story’ is what drives journalists, which in today’s instant communication era suggests that no TV broadcasters, print or social media/internet platforms can really provide reliable, factual, spin-free news.

Anyway, that’s a digression, because observing the wife’s rising irritation triggered the Badger to think about what he would do if he were leader of a country when the current crisis has abated! The Badger cogitated under a fruit tree in full blossom over a couple of cups of coffee. The answer – to initiate an independent ‘lessons learned’ review to identify improvements and inform the country’s future policies and direction – soon emerged.

The review would cover six pillars:

  •  Control – What improvements in command, control and logistics mechanisms are needed to be better prepared for this type of future crisis?
  • Care – What are the lessons for the country health and social care system and how can weaknesses be addressed in an economically viable way?
  • Commerce – What are the economic and operational lessons for Public Services and Business? What do these mean for future workforce planning, productivity, business activities, financial prudence, and supply chain policy?
  • Community – How has the crisis changed social attitudes, behaviours and the priorities and demands of the general public? How has the public mood changed regarding nationalism versus internationalism and globalisation? How does this compare between demographics and with other countries?
  • Consumption – What have consumers and businesses learned about what their demand for goods, commodities, and services has on life, the climate, the environment, and sustainability? What impact will greater consumer enlightenment have on country priorities and wealth?
  • Communications – What lessons emerge from crisis communication direct from government to the general public? What can change to reduce misinformation in printed, broadcast, and internet-based media, and on social media platforms? How have public attitudes to regulation and privacy changed due to the pandemic?

Tech crosses all 6 pillars. It has mostly been a saviour in this crisis, especially when you realise that if this pandemic had happened 10 to 15 years ago when tech was less mature, the impact on our lives would have been orders of magnitude worse.

So, there you have it. A simple observation can trigger an unexpected train of thought. Fortunately, the Badger’s not a country leader. One thing’s certain, however. The world has changed and things really can’t be same as they were. Our leaders must know that?

Crisis! A time that always exposes ‘True Colours’…

A week ago, on a sunny UK Spring day, the Badger sat in his conservatory reflecting on how COVID-19 has emptied the streets and impacted lives and livelihoods. The birds and creamy yellow clumps of self-seeded polyanthus in the garden provided a reminder of nature’s glory as the Badger thought about the pressures on those leading the response to the pandemic. The Badger knows from coordinating his employer’s business continuity responses to events like the 7th July 2005 London terror attacks and the 2010 volcanic ash clouds from Iceland, that decisions must be taken and a course of action set even if the information available is conflicting or fuzzy. Some will always challenge the decisions and course of action, but the Badger learned that it’s important not to become distracted or defensive. Proper lessons to be learned come from a proper post-crisis review in calmer times.

As the Badger cogitated, Cyndi Lauper’s song ‘True Colours’ came on the radio. The ‘true colours’ idiom comes from the 18th century when ships showed their country flag (‘colours’) when going into battle. Many showed a flag of a different country to make opponents think they were friendly, only to show their real flag (‘true colours’) as they attacked. The song reminded the Badger that, in his experience, the ‘true colours’ of leaders, business executives, suppliers, clients, and staff quickly move into plain sight during a business continuity crisis, sometimes producing unexpected surprises. As leaders tackle COVID-19, the Badger thinks ‘true colours’ are being exposed everywhere and the picture they paint of the modern world isn’t pretty.

The Badger decided that a few points captured his opinion on what the pandemic has exposed about the world so far, namely:

  • Modern tech is both a help and a hinderance, but without it and the resilient IT supporting institutions, businesses, individuals and economic activity, things would be apocalyptic.
  • When government, businesses, and people come together to ‘do the right thing’ awesome things of complexity and scale can be achieved in a short time.
    • In the digital age people are more profligate, selfish, impatient and prone to panic than they were 20 years ago.
  • Doctors, nurses, health care and emergency service workers do what we have always known they do – selflessly put patients first.
  • Governmental chief scientific and medical advisers are excellent, clear, and credible (at least in the UK). It is scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians who are at the heart of finding solutions to our problems.
  • Which news sources do you trust? Social media and broadcast news appears to dwell on negatives, spin, and those who want to complain about something. Journalists need stories not necessarily facts, but at times like this balance and trustworthiness rather than bias is crucial.
  • Life will be different when the pandemic is over. Public tolerance of globalisation, over-reliance on global supply chains, inaction on climate change, executive excess, businesses that operate with little prudence, and any resistance to ‘working from home’ for sections of society is at a low ebb and will force the hand of politicians over the coming years.

That was a week ago. Would the Badger change anything after another week of lockdown? No. Why? Because the ‘true colours’ of the pre-COVID-19 world are even more evident on a daily basis. Things must change…

Quick to blame or complain, slow to praise…

If you’ve ever been asked to take on the responsibility for fixing a failing project, programme, or service delivery that’s causing serious relationship, financial, reputation or business difficulties, then you’ll know that when you take the reins lots of people will tell you about the bad things, who’s to blame, and what should have happened but didn’t. You’ll also know that far fewer people will tell you about the good things, the good people, and their good ideas to improve matters. There are always good things! They are, however, swamped by a fog of grumbles, complaints, politics and blame narratives! An experienced leader knows about this imbalance and ensures that ‘balance is restored’ by putting the right people with the right attitude in the right place to turn failure into success. After all, it’s a fully committed, positive and aligned team that really turns things around, not the person at the top!

Have you ever wondered why people tend to complain, blame, and exude negativity more than praise and positivity? The answer lies in the physiological wiring of the brain. Put simply, the emotional part of the brain processes ‘bad events’ whereas the rational part processes ‘good events. The former works much faster than the latter, which means we assign fault and blame quickly and frequently but think long and hard before giving praise. Fascinating stuff!

What triggered the Badger to think about this? Two recent events that made the Badger feel that today’s tech-dependent society has lost all sense of balance, objectivity, and community. Both events related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first was a conversation with friends that concluded that ‘Quick to blame or complain, slow to praise’ and negativity has pervaded every facet of journalism, the broadcast media, and social media, and that ‘blame and complain’ has more noticeably become the norm in society as digital tech has boomed over the last twenty years.

The second was in the local supermarket whose shelves and frozen food cabinets were largely empty due to panic buying. Behind the Badger at the checkout, two people proudly crowed about how they had each bought two extra freezers online ‘just in case’, They then bitterly complained to a store worker about the empty shelves and blamed the supermarket chain for incompetence. They then blamed a different local supermarket chain for not having what they wanted either, and the UK and Chinese governments for letting all this happen!

The checkout operator winked. ’I think it’s just the way their brains work. One has a cough so you might not want to serve them’, the Badger said in response. The checkout queue fell silent! The Badger left the store certain that it’s time for our tech-centric society to concentrate more on praise and positivity than blame and complain. That would, however, require a rewiring of our brains.

Being educated and aware of ‘Fake News’ leads to intellectual stimulation and entertainment…

Lots of things the Badger reads online and in social media feeds appear to be true but often aren’t. That’s not really a great surprise because misinformation, propaganda, hoaxes, and stories created deliberately to deceive or manipulate have been around since ancient times. In modern day parlance, ‘Fake News’ has reached epidemic proportions because modern technology and social media have made it so easy to create and disseminate without the controls that normally apply to traditional print and broadcast media. Today, neither traditional print or broadcast media or ‘always on’ online social media is free from claims of ‘Fake News’. Historically we have tended to believe information provided by organisations or people we trusted, but when reading items on his smartphone the other day the Badger found himself wondering if you can actually trust anything anymore!

The Badger ended up asking himself two questions, namely ‘Do you really know what Fake News is?’, and ‘What’s the best way of dealing with Fake News?’. The answer to the first question was an emphatic Yes. There’s many explanations of ‘Fake News’, but one the Badger likes for its laudable simplicity is ‘What is Fake News’ from WEBWISE. Answering the second question was more difficult. Governments have explored the subject and a UK Parliamentary Select Committee report on ‘Disinformation and fake news’ published in February 2019, for example, provides a fascinating read. The Summary – page 5 and 6 of the report – and especially the last two paragraphs, signals that more regulation and regulatory oversight of the digital world is inevitable with the big tech companies very much in the cross-wires. Change will happen but the wheels of governments turn very slowly! However, the question the Badger really asked was what’s the best way for himself to deal with ‘Fake News’ today? Well, the Badger thought for a moment and decided the answer’s very simple. There isn’t a best way!

One of the sentences in the Summary of the report noted above struck a particular chord:

‘In a democracy, we need to experience a plurality of voices and, critically, to have the skills, experience and knowledge to gauge the veracity of those voices.’

The Badger thinks being educated and aware is the most powerful weapon to counter the foibles of today’s digital world. We should all learn to be suspicious of anything we see, hear or read on our connected devices. So how does the Badger deal with ‘Fake News’ today? Easy. By having that education and awareness, by thinking, not taking things at face value, and by being objective and not following the crowd. So, strive to be more educated and aware of ‘Fake News’. You will quickly realise that it provides more intellectual stimulation and entertainment than most of the comedy shows and soap operas available on your digital TV!

‘Stench’ – a virtual fragrance for the festive season?

If you work for an organisation that takes the development of its people seriously then you’ll have attended courses with elements that sensitise you to the importance of body language when engaging with others. The Badger was first sensitised to this when attending two short courses in quick succession many years ago. The first course covered interviewing and recruiting new graduates, and the second covered leading software and system development teams. Both featured personal interaction sessions that were videoed and critiqued by the trainers and other attendees – a very effective way of learning about the powerful signals our body language conveys. Since then, and with many other courses under the belt, the Badger has been in many situations where controlling one’s body language and watching that of others has helped to convert difficult circumstances into acceptable outcomes.

People have been communicating with each other for millennia. We are conditioned by our heritage to know that the best communication happens when we are physically face to face so that we can hear what’s said and simultaneously see the physical nuances of those in the same room. Modern technology, however, encourages instant communication that is devoid of a contextual body language component. Email’s a good example. How many times have you sent an email that’s been misinterpreted when read by recipients? More times than we all care to admit. The body language component is missing from the words.

Another example is the recent Elon Musk v Vernon Unsworth court case relating to comments made on Twitter. A jury found in favour of Mr Musk. His offending Tweets were judged to be essentially ‘playground insults’ rather than real defamatory insults. The Badger has no opinion on the right or wrong of this finding, that’s a matter for the courts, but isn’t it somewhat sad that the finding seems to legitimise trading hurtful insults using modern social media platforms like Twitter? Surely this isn’t good for society? ‘Playground insults’ normally take place in a real playground where words are said with body language visible. Surely if it’s okay to trade ‘playground insults’ using Twitter, then that’s clear evidence that civilisation is crumbling into an anarchistic morass?

After the Musk ruling, one of the Badger’s friends commented – admittedly after more mulled wine than prudent – that Twitter should invent a virtual fragrance called ‘Stench’ for anyone who wants to make playground insults using its platform over the forthcoming festive season. The Badger laughed, because the amusing and playful intent was clear in their words and body language. We laughed again when we decided that ‘playground insults’ should stay in a real playground and not be traded in the virtual world. Why? Because ‘playground fisticuffs’ are a much cheaper and more effective way of resolving playground disputes than resorting to lawyers. Oh, and finally, in case you’re wondering, for the avoidance of doubt and all that, none of this is intended to insult anyone or any organisation!

Have you been asked to ‘drain the swamp’ to fix a project?

Having a meal with Jack and his wife Jill recently raised the possibility that ‘draining the swamp’ has become a popular mantra within companies when they need to fix project delivery problems. Jack and Jill, by the way, are not their real names. Jack is an old friend and works as a project manager for a large defence contractor. He has just been asked by his line manager and a company executive to fix a seriously underperforming project by ‘draining the swamp’. The project is haemorrhaging money, seriously missing milestones, and has a demoralised and unproductive team. The client no longer believes the project team, or the company, can deliver. Jack ’s the fourth Project Manager appointed to fix things in the last nine months. Sound familiar?

The Badger asked why Jack could fix things when three others couldn’t. Jack said he was confident that he had the full support of line and executive leadership. They wanted him to ‘drain the swamp’ in order to avoid expensive litigation being threatened by the client. Jack wondered if the Badger had any thoughts. After a mouthful of mellow Merlot, the Badger offered three thoughts. Firstly, executives and line managers are just as much part of ‘the swamp’ as you, me, or any project team. Secondly, executives and line managers will support you 100%…until it suits them not to! Thirdly, to ‘drain the swamp’ you need to understand the swamp’s nature, which means understanding people and their behaviours.

Jack grinned and thanked the Badger for reminding him that those who appointed him are just as much part of ‘the swamp’ as his project team. He intended to keep that in mind when trying to ‘drain the swamp’. We chuckled at the thought that life came from a swamp, and while ‘the swamp’ today is different… it’s still a swamp!

Over dessert, Jill – who has dual UK & US nationality – moved our ‘draining the swamp’ conversation into the realms of President Trump, US politics and political turmoil in the UK. She expressed strong views about the abuse politicians get via the internet and social media, and lamented that ‘it wasn’t like this 25 years ago’! Jill wondered what had changed.

A lively debate ensued, but the answer was simple. Politicians are, and have always been, just one of the life forms in ‘the swamp’. Unlike 25 years ago, all life in ‘the swamp’ now has an instant and global voice via the internet and social media. Technology has changed the dynamics of ‘the swamp’, much to the distaste of some of the life forms that live in it!  We ended the meal with a final glass of wine, wishing Jack well with his challenge, and with just one final conclusion – there’s no going back…

‘Techlash’…’Backlash’…An inevitable part of the lifecycle of progress…

A copy of New Scientist from early 2018 caught the Badger’s eye while sitting in a waiting room recently. It looked out of place in the pile of well-thumbed healthy living, home, and gardening magazines, but it was much more interesting to read. As expected, it contained a plethora of interesting snippets on a variety of science and technology topics, but one short piece about ‘techlash’ – the growing disgruntlement with giant technology companies – struck a particular chord. The article may be 20 months old but it’s still relevant, as are similar Economist and Politico items of similar vintage.

Techlash’ continues. Today everyone has more awareness of the ugly side of tech from giants like Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google and Chinese equivalents, and even more snail-paced European and US politicians are demanding tougher regulation and controls. None of this should be a surprise. Why? Because most things that are initially lauded to be good for business, people, or society eventually suffer some kind of ‘backlash’. Fossil fuels, plastics, deforestation, privatisation, globalisation, outsourcing and offshoring are cases in point. All have at some stage over the years been viewed as ‘good for business/society/people’ and have made helped raise living standards, but they’re now all subject to question or a ‘backlash’ of one kind or another.

So, what’s at the heart of this lifecycle of ‘progress’ followed by ‘backlash’? Human psychology. In particular, our herd instinct and desire for social conformity, as this short video neatly illustrates. We tend to go with the herd to stay safe, and when the herd gets spooked and changes direction for whatever reason then we do too!

The Badger returned the New Scientist to the magazine pile and then read a news item about AI and robotics on his smartphone. It made the Badger not only think about the Terminator films and the recent ‘I am Mother’ film, but also conclude that some kind of ‘backlash’ against AI and robots is inevitable in the future!

‘Backlash’ and ‘techlash’ are words that describe antagonistic reactions to problematic trends, developments or events. Such reactions are a response to a problem, and where there’s a problem there must be a wrongdoer to blame! So, who creates the problems that spawn any ‘backlash’ or indeed the current ‘techlash’? Look in the mirror and you’ll see the culprit. If we as individuals took more time to think, resisted the herd by being truer to our own feelings, instincts and beliefs from the outset, then the world will be a better place for everyone. The chances of that happening? Slim – because we are human.

Has ‘Tech’ made life ‘better’ today than it was at the time of 9/11?

9/11 happened 18 years ago. Most people will always remember what they were doing when it happened. The Badger was at work dealing with a major IT programme when the phone rang. It was the Badger’s young son wanting reassurance that his father was safe and not working in a London skyscraper! Reassurance was given, and the Badger then visited the BBC’s news website and was horrified by what he saw.

This year’s 9/11 anniversary and a recent BBC radio interview with Brad Smith from Microsoft triggered some musing on how far digital tech has changed life since that auspicious day in 2001when:

• There was no Facebook, Twitter, or Google News, Gmail, or Google Maps.
• The USA had only just made GPS signals available for civilian use.
• Microsoft XP and the first Apple iPod had just been released.
• There were no Apple iPhones or Android phones and digital cameras were rare.
• Satnavs didn’t exist and there were no Smart Meters or Smart Motorways.
• Drones were the domain of the military and were not available on the High Street for the general public.
• Music and films were purchased mainly as CDs or DVDs.
• The first commercial 3G mobile networks were only just becoming available.
• The dot.com bubble was bursting.
• Widespread IT outsourcing and offshoring was in it’s infancy.
• Our data was very much in our own hands.

How things have changed! Think for a few minutes and it’s apparent that tech and social media proliferation have provided ‘convenience’ for the average person but at the expense of privacy, disruption and perhaps freedom. Are we freer with a better quality of life today than in 2001? Life is certainly different, but it’s difficult to answer ‘yes’ when instant misinformation, manipulation and distortion abounds, and giant organisations know where you are, what you sound like, what you buy, your likes and dislikes, and sell your data for commercial gain. Ethics and regulation have not kept pace and so it’s heartening to now see Microsoft’s President saying sensible things about ‘tech firms stopping their ‘‘if it’s legal, it’s acceptable’ approach’ , AI ethics and weaponization. But will anything really change with such powerful vested interests involved? Let’s see.

It’s sobering to realise that those born at that time of 9/11 are now entering the workforce, or going to University, as fully-fledged digital natives whose life data is already extensively in the hands of others. That wasn’t the case for 18-year-olds in 2001. Tech and social media have made the lives of today’s youngsters ‘different’ to the 18-year-olds of 2001, but are their lives actually any ‘better’? Has tech really made the world a better place than it was in 2001? Try debating that at a dinner party if you want some fun. The most interesting views will emerge after copious amounts of wine…

Quiz night, ‘What 3 Words’, and is tech solving problems that aren’t really problems?

The following questions were asked during a quiz night at the Badger’s local Public House:

Who said ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions’?

What geolocation mechanism can locate you anywhere in the world to a 3mx3m square?

The Badger’s team got the answer to the first one right, Albert Einstein, but we got the second one wrong. Our answer was GPS, but the quiz master said the answer was ‘What 3 Words’ – which you can find out about here and here and a specific example of its use here. The Badger’s team complained loudly, but to no effect. Why? Because it transpired the quiz master is a fan of the ‘What 3 Words’ smartphone app. Although the Badger’s team were not quiz night winners, the Einstein and ‘What 3 Words’ answers triggered a subsequent lively debate over rather more post-quiz beverages than prudent!

The debate centred on ‘Is tech increasingly solving problems that aren’t really problems?’. One team member cited digital number plates on cars (see here and here) as an example of something motivated only by making money. They speculated the ‘solution’ had been invented in 5 minutes and that 55 minutes had then been spent trying to invent the problem it was trying to solve. A reversal of Einstein’s wise words! Another team member was adamant that ‘What 3 Words ‘ is unnecessary given GPS is routinely part of modern smartphones. The Badger’s contribution to the debate was simply this. Entrepreneurs will always have ideas for making money, marketeers will always try to persuade us we need their solution to solve a problem or inconvenience we didn’t know we had, and we should never take tech at face value and always understand what’s happening to our data if we want our private lives to be just that…private.

Oiled by the beverages, the debate boisterously descended into a game that invented amusing word combinations, aka ‘What 3 Words’, for the location of well-known landmarks. For example, orange.ballon.home and wooden.plank.palace were proposed for the entrances to the US White House and UK Houses of Parliament, respectively! Eventually seriousness returned, and we concluded that tech should focus on solving the real problems of life and the planet, and not things that make us lazy or mean we don’t need to learn for ourselves or take personal responsibility for our actions.

At the end of the night all the team got up to leave except for one individual who said they’d stay to be like Einstein and spend 55 minutes thinking about a problem – whether they could actually get up to leave – even though they’d already thought of a solution – to just stay at single.malt.whiskey and have another drink. Did we laugh…just a bit…