What goes up will come down…

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

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

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

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

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

ITER – Another step forward to the world’s new normal

The announcement that the assembly of ITER, the world’s first device aiming to produce net energy from nuclear fusion, has started put a spring in the Badger’s step. Why? Because it’s an international joint experiment that will ultimately benefit everyone on the planet, and also because it has the support and cooperation of world powers who, in the wider sphere of global politics, often spend more time antagonising each other.  Perhaps naively, the Badger feels ITER provides a twinkle of light in the current sea of sour relationships amongst the world’s largest powers.

ITER will move us closer to the ultimate goal of large-scale carbon-free energy. It also represents a ‘moment’ for the Badger who has had a long-standing interest in the science, engineering, materials, and information technology aspects of workable fusion reactors. It’s a massive ‘Build & Systems Integration’ project and the software system that makes it function is just as critical as everything else in its construction. But ITER is also something else; it’s yet another illustration that 2020 is heralding a decade of enormous real change in what constitutes ‘normal’ in life across the world.  The ‘normal’ of six months ago has disappeared and a new ‘normal’ is evolving fast.   Change is very much in the air. Just ask those you bump into in the local supermarket and you’ll find they feel it too.

SpaceX’s recent success, missions to Mars, satellite networks,  health and wearable technologies, video technology for consultations with health professionals, battery and hydrogen powered vehicles, 5G, robotics and artificial intelligence are all examples of an enormous wave of technological advancement that is rippling throughout the world with extra momentum in 2020.  Reliance on fossil fuel is declining. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that life goes on and the environment benefits with less planes in the sky and vehicles on the roads, that high street retail has changed for ever, and that working remotely from the office is effective and productive for many people.

Bosses and workers alike are now questioning the need for expensive offices in city centres and the daily commute. Cities and their transportation infrastructure are accordingly likely to change over the next decade.  The world order is changing too, with the USA and China jockeying for position as top dog and the EU in decline. The election of the oldest president in US history in the next few months doesn’t look as if it will change anything. The world order is increasingly distrustful of each other and the United Nations is largely toothless.

Everything above shows transition to a new ‘normal’ is fully underway. ITER is just one of many indicators of this and the speed with which world change is happening. No one can predict the future, but the Badger is certain of one thing. The first fusion plasma in ITER, scheduled for December 2025, will happen before fully autonomous vehicles are in widespread use on UK roads!

Your privacy? Look before you leap…

The Badger was paying little attention to a dialogue between two experts on the radio until one said, ‘What the lockdowns have made us appreciate is that the world before the pandemic was not what it ought to be’.  The Badger’s ears pricked up. Why? Because this chimed with a recent debate the Badger participated in. It centred on whether people take enough personal responsibility for their privacy in today’s world and the Badger had stirred the pot with the following.

Pandemic or no pandemic, today’s world is dominated by the conduct of business, personal, and official affairs online.  Recent lockdowns just reinforce how over the last 20 to 25 years, since personal internet banking started to gain real traction, ‘online’ has become critical infrastructure for daily life. Most of us use online services to operate and administer bank accounts, investments, pensions, utilities, to search and apply for jobs, to interact with government departments (e.g. for vehicle licencing, benefit claims, taxation, health, passports, etc), to search for information, to buy things from Amazon, eBay, Uber, Deliveroo, supermarkets and retailers, for maps and directions on journeys, and – of course – to use various types of social media platforms.

Compare this with how we functioned 20 to 25 years ago and you’ll realise just how much of our personal data, likes, and life habits are now held somewhere in cyber space.  But ask yourself the following. Do you really know how the organisations or platforms you interact with use what they hold about you and your habits? Do you really know how they share your information with others and for what purposes? Do you really know if they sell your information, and if so to whom?

You will probably not answer with a crisp Yes. Why? Because you are unlikely to have really read the Terms & Conditions and Privacy statements presented to you, and if you have, then it’s doubtful you really absorbed what they said. Your privacy is not what it was 20 years ago, and we all bear some responsibility for that! Your information is a valuable commodity.  Others will use it to generate profits or influence the way you think and behave  and so we all need to be aware of good guidance and take more personal responsibility for preserving our privacy.

From the sheepish looks of others, the Badger had struck a chord.  The debate ultimately agreed that ‘technology has eroded personal privacy and governments must act to counter this’, and that ‘everyone must accept they have a personal responsibility for how they use online services’. The latter is crucial, even though it’s a challenge in a world where blaming someone else for our own failings is commonplace. However, one thing is certain, there’s truth in the saying ‘look before you leap’. If you value your privacy, always read and understand the Terms & Conditions and Privacy statements presented to you when you do anything ‘online’.

 

With every generation comes change…

With every generation comes change! Society evolves. Every new generation grows up in different conditions to those when their parents  were young.  Every new generation rails against the actions and decisions of older generations. Every new generation thinks they know best and wants to change the world, and every older generation thinks younger generations are feckless, frustrating, and irritating – just look here, for example. These may be sweeping generalisations, but they convey a truth and an uncomfortable reality.

Every new generation grows up in a society whose norms are challenged or changed by new technologies of one kind or another. It’s been the same for centuries. Anyone born in the last 40 years, however, has grown up in one of the most disruptive periods for society ever.  Just in the last 20 or so years our global population has exploded, increasing by around 30%, the population of urban centres has risen by ~60%,  the internet has changed the way everything is done, mobile phones have become a necessity and nearly everyone has one, and social media has taken over.  Every generation thinks it’s making society better, so is society better for those born since the 1980s who have been riding the Information and Digital wave?

The Badger’s found that when people are asked this question, No is the dominant answer!  Ostensibly because of a perception that two vital commodities in society – trust and privacy – have declined, with broadcast and online news media, and the social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter being mentioned as to blame. News organisations with a reputation for unbiased reporting are seen as being thin on the ground, and social media platforms are seen as an uncontrollable digital wild-west.

One person bravely claimed that the behaviour of those born since the 1980s and social media had already put society into a downward spiral. Their justification? Simply that anyone whose first reaction to anything was to reach for their smartphone, create a video, and immediately upload it to social media had lost the plot. A brave view indeed in these turbulent days.  The person is, of course, from the older generation and perhaps resonates with the first paragraph above.

The Badger’s view is simple. Change driven by disruptive technologies is painful and produces downsides as well as benefits. There’s little doubt that distrust is rife in society today, that privacy is fast becoming an alien concept even with GDPR, and that a finger must point to the media, the internet, and social media for some of this.  Just as in life, however, there are no magic bullets and no one has a monopoly on being right. One thing, however, is certain. The attitude, behaviour, and use of digital tools and platforms by our younger generations is creating the society that their kids will definitely rail against!

An 88 year-old’s take on tech during pandemic lockdown…

It’s been tough for the elderly during the pandemic, especially if they live alone in their own homes and relatives live a long way away. Good neighbours, community volunteers, and some of the tech that younger people take for granted have been a big help, provided, of course, the elder in question wants to embrace the support.

A local acquaintance is 88 years old and has lived in the same house since the 1960s. They have lived there alone since their partner died 25 years ago. They suffer from arthritis which is progressively limiting what they can do. They are proudly independent, stoic, and keep their old house spotless. Before the pandemic, they frequently used public transport, did their own shopping, met friends for coffee at a local daycentre, and regularly attended their church. None of this now happens but they don’t complain about how difficult it is for elders who are not in care homes, don’t get visits from carers, and who have families that live too far away to provide anything other than telephone contact. Television is their primary source of company. They do not have a mobile phone, broadband, or social media. Their landline telephone – with a 30-year-old handset – is their lifeline to the outside world.

The Badger’s been keeping a watchful eye and doing their shopping, just like many citizens everywhere during the pandemic. Once a week we have a long, face to face, socially distanced chat that clearly lifts their spirits. This week they asked the Badger about video calls because they had heard about them on television, and their distant family wants them to accept having an easy to use video facility for the elderly put in their home. The Badger promptly used his smartphone and WhatsApp to show them  how easy video are to make in practice.

They marvelled at what’s possible, but immediately said they didn’t want ‘that kind of technology’ in the house or in their life! Asked why not, they gave two reasons. The first was ‘it’s too complicated to learn at my age’, but the second really took the Badger by surprise. From watching television and listening to the radio, they have decided that the internet, social media, and smart tech are responsible for most of the strife in the world. They don’t want anything that causes strife in their life!

They elaborated by saying that every generation has a nemesis, and that the impact of rampant smart tech will be the younger generation’s nemesis in times to come. The Badger was quietly impressed! How many of us will be able to formulate and articulate such an insightful view on reaching the ripe old age of 88? Will tech have overtaken our capacity for independent thought by then? Hmm…

From OneWeb to Hydrogen Fuel Cells…

When OneWeb, a company aiming to bring connectivity to everyone everywhere using an enormous constellation of Low-Earth Orbiting satellites, announced it was filing for bankruptcy the Badger was unsurprised. Why? Because it always felt that the business case was somewhat dubious. Investors now seem to have decided likewise and have ‘drawn stumps’ – to use a cricket metaphor. Others closer to the space industry than the Badger also seem unsurprised by what’s happened – see here for example. It’s sad, of course for everyone working for OneWeb, but in the end this a simple reminder that viable technology isn’t a guarantee of business success. Business is about the juxtaposition of risk and commercial gain, and stakeholders rarely flinch from hard business decisions when the two are out of kilter.

OneWeb cited market and financial turbulence related to the COVID-19 as a factor in failing to attract further funding. With this in his mind, the Badger found himself musing on the combination of technology and business in the post-pandemic world while he walked down the middle of an empty road getting exercise in line with the UK pandemic guidance. The complete absence of traffic on the normally hectic road plus a news item about an advance in materials significant for hydrogen fuel cells, triggered thoughts about whether we will see changes in investment priorities when it comes to vehicular technology after the pandemic is over.

Why would there be, you may ask? Because if you holistically look at, for example, the Royal Society’s briefing on options for producing low-carbon hydrogen at scale, real world experience of using electric and hydrogen fuelled vehicles (e.g. see here), and the relatively slow take up of electric vehicles powered by batteries, then you realise this kind of ‘material’ breakthrough should create an even more enticing investment and business opportunity for vehicle manufacturers and fossil fuel companies (who produce hydrogen) alike. The Badger, whose early roots were in materials technology, senses that the real scientific and engineering advances that could flow from the news item will significantly boost the business case for adopting hydrogen fuel cells for transportation and, accordingly, we will see business investment in this arena rise significantly in the coming years.

By the time the Badger had finished walking down the middle of the road, he had decided that everyone is more likely to be driving cars powered by a hydrogen fuel cell by the end of the decade than to have embraced driverless cars on public roads. (Tomorrow’s exercise might, of course, modify this conclusion!) As OneWeb shows, technology doesn’t mean business success, but any company that has bet the farm on the dominance of battery-powered vehicles should watch out, because hydrogen fuel cells are definitely coming along to eat your lunch…

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?

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.

Software defects…a fact of life.

The Badger recently used a bank’s online processes to establish formalised ‘power of attorney’ control over someone else’s accounts. Formalising the ‘power of attorney’ and setting up the associated internet banking facilities was pleasingly easy. Everything went smoothly. This week, however, the Badger encountered a problem. Not a major one, more an inconvenience. The Badger, as ‘power of attorney’, set up a new payee in order to pay a small invoice the same day. However, a ‘technical failure’ error message appeared every time the Badger tried to send the payment. Grr! The Badger called the bank, who were very helpful. It was a known problem – a software defect. If you are a ‘power of attorney’ and click the ‘send payment immediately’ box, the software won’t let you send a payment! The solution? Click the ‘send at a future date’ box – i.e. tomorrow – instead. The solution worked perfectly.

The Badger wondered why this ‘software defect’ hadn’t been picked up in pre-release testing. The experience was also a reminder of how reliant we are on software and on it working correctly. It was also a reminder that software will always contain defects even when the best design, development and testing practices have been used. While the Badger cogitated on this, he saw last week’s reports from the US about the software for Boeing’s reusable spaceship, Starliner. The reports, here for example, highlight a review following the unsuccessful Starliner test flight to the International Space Station(ISS) in December 2019, which has exposed ‘process’ failings in the software design, development, testing and assurance oversight of the ~1 million lines of code. Oh dear. There are obviously many more defects in the software than the ones that impacted the mission in the first place. The Badger raised his eyebrows in surprise. After all, well-established engineering disciplines and processes for producing quality software have been around for a long time and are there for a reason.

Software runs the modern world. It’s everywhere. Its scale and complexity have risen dramatically in recent decades, and when software goes wrong it can have wide ranging, unwelcome, and sometimes disastrous impacts. You can get a sense of the scale of some codebases here and you’ll find some of the software failures that have wreaked havoc and disruption in recent years here. Without software, modern civilization would grind to a halt.

Years ago, the Badger was told ‘Never expect software to be perfect’. Wise words still relevant in today. AI, autonomous vehicles, robots – and so on – are not immune to having software defects, so when you go about your daily life just remember that a software defect is always lurking somewhere, and that it will manifest itself at the most inconvenient time. That’s just a fact of life in today’s world!

Youngsters, gaming, ‘STEM’ and a 3D printer…

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The Badger’s long believed that a solid education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) arms you well for whatever you want to do in life, which, after all, often takes you in directions you never envisage. With a solid foundation in STEM subjects, you will be armed well for anything that unfold. Having a good STEM grounding doesn’t limit your horizons, it expands them! Brian May , guitarist in Queen, and Rowan Atkinson, ‘Mr Bean’, illustrate the point perfectly. The former studied Physics and Mathematics and has a PhD in Astrophysics, and the latter studied Electrical Engineering. A good STEM grounding never stops you from being an artist, a musician, an entrepreneur or businessperson, or a creative type!

So, what’s this got to do with 3D printing? Well, the Badger recently asked a group of youngsters between the ages of 11 and 16 what they did with their spare time. Unsurprisingly, playing games on their phones or games consoles dominated the response. It made the Badger wonder if introducing them to some alternative tech could reduce the dominance of gaming and yet be as much fun while having a stealthy ‘STEM’ educational element. The Badger’s not anti-gaming, just pro broadening the education of digital-native youngsters whenever possible, but feels that youngsters would benefit from something else in their digital mix. That something is a 3D printer!

The Badger has recently embraced 3D printing in the home environment. Indeed, the picture above is of a bespoke, 10cm tall, model produced on the Badger’s own 3D printer. The printer cost less than £250. There’s a wide range of available printers suitable for youngsters, as well as software (much of it cheap or free), and the Thingiverse provides a great source of customizable 3-D models to start with. It’s a great feeling to design your own thing, build a 3-D model of it, and watch it being manufactured in front of your eyes. It’s creative, fun, and inherently engages you with STEM by stealth in the home environment.

The impact of 3D printing on major industries and the potential of the technology as a teaching resource have long been recognised. The Badger thinks that youngsters can learn lots from having this fun technology at home to use in their spare time. For less than the price of the leading games consoles you should think about getting a 3D printer that will be covertly ‘STEM educational’ and yet provide hours of fun as a creative alternative to gaming. What’s not to like! A youngster could create ‘the next best thing’ using a 3D printer in their bedroom. It could diversify their entertainment and make them the next super-successful ‘tech’ business mogul. Hmm. Let’s not get too carried away for the moment, but you never know…