From slide rule to calculator app to…ChatGPT?

On a shelf in the Badger’s home office is a pristine British Thornton slide rule in its original case. It hasn’t been used in years. In fact, it’s hardly been used since the Badger bought it during his first week as a university student because it was a recommended tool for his subject. Various friends have poked fun at it over the years, jauntily calling it – and the Badger – a relic rendered obsolete by first electronic calculators, and latterly apps on smartphones. Nevertheless, a friend recently gifted the Badger a vintage slide rule instruction pamphlet to ‘complement this Museum piece’! The gift was accepted graciously. It heightened awareness not only that anyone born since the 1970s will never have used a slide rule, but also that the student Badger had actually hastened this tool’s demise by buying a pocket electronic calculator as soon as they became widely available and affordable.

The slide rule’s 300-year reign as a personal calculating tool ended abruptly in the mid-1970s. By the time the Badger had completed his degree, every student on his course had bought a Sinclair Cambridge, Sinclair Scientific, or Texas Instruments electronic calculator. When youngsters josh about the slide rule on his shelf, the Badger reminds them that Buzz Aldrin used one during the Apollo 11 moon mission, and scientists and engineers used them when designing, building, and manufacturing the first computers. They are often amazed, but always respond by highlighting the virtues of the calculator app on their smartphone.

Reading the vintage slide rule pamphlet reminded the Badger that his purchase of an electronic calculator as an undergraduate was an early part of the microelectronics revolution that’s changed every aspect of life since. Reflecting today, it seems amazing that personal calculating devices have morphed from a tactile, non-electronic slide rule into a calculator app on a smartphone reliant on microelectronics to function. Of course, what’s happened to personal calculation devices is merely a specific example of the massive impact that rapid technological advance has on our lives.

Today the Badger’s slide rule is a decorative bygone. His most recent electronic pocket calculator is also infrequently used and languishes in the desk draw because the calculator app on his smartphone has become his default pocket calculator. But even use of this app is waning! Why? Because just speaking to Google or Alexa does straightforward maths. The days of needing a calculator app thus seem numbered, especially if AI like ChatGPT ultimately has the impact that Microsoft anticipates. So, here’s a thought to end with. While the Badger’s slide rule will always be an antique talking point sitting on someone’s shelf, an obsolete calculator app will just disappear into the ether and have no decorative value whatsoever. Hmm, perhaps the Badger needs to stop reading the instruction pamphlet and drink less coffee…

Software updates and a ‘Smart’ washing machine…

A visit to a nearby UK home appliances retailer to browse washing machines proved unexpectedly fun. The Badger’s 10-year-old washing machine still works well, but groans, knocks, and squeals are becoming more prominent, and so it seemed prudent to do some succession planning. Having searched what’s available online, it seemed sensible to survey appliances in person, especially as there’s an out-of-town home appliances superstore nearby.

After arriving at the store and browsing the computers, peripherals, phones, and digital gadgets close to the entrance, the Badger navigated to the washing machines at the back of the store. It was quickly apparent that there were more costly ‘Smart’ models with network/internet connectivity/apps on display than traditional ones. A salesperson sidled up and drew attention to a ‘Smart’ model on special offer, extolling the conveniences that its ‘Smart’ capabilities provided. The Badger listened politely and asked, ‘How long does the manufacturer support the software?’. This flummoxed the salesperson who said ‘Never had that question before. Give me a moment and I’ll find out’. They disappeared and soon returned with a colleague, who simply said ‘a few years’.  The Badger, who wants a new washing machine to last around 10 years, was rather amused that they obviously didn’t know the answer to his question.

The Badger thanked them for the information and moved on to the TV section where nearly all the models on display were ‘Smart TVs’.  While marvelling at the picture quality of a high-end model, another salesperson asked if he had any questions. The Badger asked, ‘How long does the manufacturer support the software?’ Guess what, the salesperson went to find out and came back with the answer ‘a few years’.  The Badger chuckled and mentioned that an Amazon Firestick was therefore probably much better value! The salesperson swiftly moved to a customer showing real interest in making a purchase.

Software updates have been part of the IT/tech industry since its inception. Over recent decades, however, mobile and internet connected technology has not only put enormous functionality at our fingertips, but also progressively increased the need to keep the security  of connected devices up to date.  The need for, and frequency of, software updates has thus generally risen. But here’s the rub. Manufacturers often stop supporting their software  years before an equipment you’ve purchased is truly end of life.  The recently enacted UK Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure (PSTI) Act, however, is thus welcome progress towards making brands be more upfront about their software support

Smart’ everything, at a premium price, is becoming the norm, and so if you’re buying devices and appliances in a physical store then always ask about software support and compliance with the PSTI Act. Consider the response you get carefully, and remember, buy something that meets your real need, with your head not your heart.

What’s colourless, odourless, beneficial and toxic, and runs the world?

The Badger has a small, framed, vintage print of the Periodic Table of Elements from his school days on his desk. It’s been a constant reminder over the years that everything in our physical world is made up of elements in this table. While at his desk listening to a rather frustrating podcast featuring a climate emissions evangelist and a business leader arguing about fossil fuels, the Badger’s eye was drawn to this trusty print. Something said in the exchange between the protagonists in the podcast made the Badger mentally tune out and recall how his school chemistry teacher used to describe elements in the Periodic Table and common chemical compounds. The trigger for this was the business leader saying that ‘fossil fuels run the world economy and hence our lives and will do so for some time yet’.

It made the Badger look at the framed print on his desk, think of his school chemistry teacher, and decide that it’s not fossil fuels but something colourless, odourless, beneficial and toxic, that cannot be touched or felt and that can be produced by any country, that really runs the world and its economy today, namely software! Fossil fuels and industries that heavily use them bear the brunt for most activism on reducing global carbon emissions, whereas software, which constantly proliferates at the heart of our ever-expanding digital and ICT world, seems to have a lower profile on the ‘green’ activism scale. Notwithstanding Microsoft’s drive to be carbon negative by 2030 and the existence of the Green Software Foundation, it feels like the design, development, testing, release and use of software in every facet of life deserves much more quantitative ‘green’ attention if global digitalisation and the processing and storage of huge amounts of data isn’t to become the next generation’s emissions and resource sustainability crisis.  

Some argue that software and global digitalisation can help to cut our overall global emissions by 15% or more.  However, researchers at Lancaster University suggest not only that this might not be so, but also that while ICT has driven efficiency and productivity improvements over the years, the historical evidence shows that global  emissions have still risen relentlessly.  The devil’s always in the detail, of course, and spin and greenwashing are everywhere, but surely there’s a need for much clearer, quantitative, transparent data and public awareness about emissions  relating specifically to the design, production, and use of software – that colourless, odourless, invisible, cross-border item that runs the world?

The Badger’s school chemistry teacher knew nothing about software, but they were inspiring, articulate, a creative describer of matters of importance, and a stickler for quantitative assessment. They would have applied the same approach for assessing the production and use emissions of software as if it was an element in the Periodic Table…and, perhaps, so should we.