From Ziggy Stardust to autonomous trains…

The Badger’s currently reading ‘How we lived then’ by Norman Longmate, a book about everyday life in Great Britain during the Second World War. It cost £1 from a charity shop and it’s a fascinating read. Written in 1971, it describes what life was really like for ordinary members of the public between 1939 and 1945. If you thought things were difficult during COVID, then think again! The Badger was attracted to the book because his parents rarely spoke about their young adult lives in the war years, and because it was written in 1971 at the start of decade of turmoil, transformation, and rich personal memories.

By the 1970s, life for young adults had changed dramatically to that in the 1940s when, for example, military or civilian war service, rationing, and music from the likes of Glen Miller or Bing Crosby provided its drumbeat. In the 1970s, life for young adults was unrestrained, independent, and full of transformations and diverse music like David Bowie’s 1972 album ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ and many other classics of the same year. You might be wondering, at this point, how you get from 1970s books and music to autonomous trains? Well, easily as it happens, because the 1970s was also a decade of transformation for our railways and today, some 50 years later, they are undergoing transformation again driven by government infrastructure investment, huge advances in digital technology, and changing passenger dynamics following the pandemic.

In the 1970s, diesel and electric locomotives had replaced steam, electronic signalling was in its infancy, electrification was limited, ticketing meant visiting a manned ticket office at a railway station and strikes and cancelled trains were commonplace. This short 1972 film provides a simple insight to the railways and its technology of the time. As it ends, it makes a crucial point, namely that railway people were in an industry that is ‘both old and new’.

Today the railways are providing a service to passengers with powerful smartphones in their pockets, with better quality rolling stock, with self-service ticketing using machines and online facilities, and with real-time passenger information at the same time as progressing a Digital Programme deploying high-tech signalling, train control, and safety systems to increase capacity, reduce delays, and drive down costs. As this signalling piece highlights, this is a complex, difficult and slow task because the railway industry is always going to be ‘both old and new’ making transformation a perpetual process akin to re-engineering a Jumbo Jet while in flight! Nevertheless, progress towards a digital future and autonomous trains is being made.

Transformations are often constrained by workforce factors rather than technology. With train strikes imminent, it’s depressing that workforce factors still get in the way of the railway industry speedily embracing the modern, digital, increasingly autonomous, world we all inhabit. Sadly, some things don’t seem to have changed much since the 1970s.

Return to Space…

Idling on the sofa at home after a meeting, the Badger wanted to do nothing more energetic than watching a Netflix film. Whatever he watched, the Badger knew it would probably have something in common with the meeting he attended, namely that it would be much longer than it needed to be! With low expectations that it would keep his attention for the duration, the Badger  selected the documentary film ‘Return to Space’ about SpaceX’s activities to deliver astronauts from American soil to the International Space Station (ISS).  The film proved more engaging than expected. Why? Not because it features Elon Musk, but because the Badger, as an IT professional and delivery leader with strong roots in science and engineering, could relate from his own career experiences to the SpaceX team’s dedication and hard work, and their relief and exhilaration when their goals were met.

After the documentary ended, the Badger’s lasting impressions centred on four things. The first was that this endeavour would not have been possible without a multidisciplinary team of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. This should inspire youngsters to study STEM subjects and develop their careers accordingly. The second was that the whole leadership and management were disciplined and entirely focused on important milestones, solving problems, and the ultimate goal. No team will deliver without focused, disciplined, objective, and committed leadership and management. The third was the excellent teamwork, testing, risk mitigation, and fact-based rigour in decision making on display. Those involved were motivated, clear on their roles and responsibilities, and stood by the decisions and judgement calls made. The fourth thing was that Information Technology and integrated computer systems were at the heart of absolutely everything.

Anyone who has worked on major programmes and been there when the ultimate goal is achieved can relate to the palpable relief, job satisfaction, and euphoric pride shown by everyone on the SpaceX team when they delivered the two astronauts to the ISS and returned them safely to Earth. There’s nothing like the feeling of personal and professional satisfaction and elation that every team member, not just those in leadership positions, feels when a programme or project delivers. It’s a great feeling!

As he rose from the sofa, the Badger’s smartphone announced the arrival of an email  from British Gas. They had emailed the previous day saying that the Badger’s energy account had been migrated to a new system. The new email simply notified that an  energy statement was available online. With a sense of foreboding, the Badger logged into his energy account and found all was not well. SpaceX and British Gas may not be in comparable industries, but in ‘Return to Space’ the former cared that they got things right and delivered progress. Sadly, the opposite seems true for British Gas. Perhaps they need a dose of Elon Musk…

Information Technology Year was 1982…

This year is the 40th anniversary of ‘Information Technology Year’.  Yes, 1982 was designated ‘Information Technology Year’, a joint government/industry campaign to raise national awareness on the use, application, opportunities, and benefits of information technology. In 1982, less than 20% of the UK population knew of IT, most UK businesses had not embraced it in anyway, and telephones all had curly wires. How things have changed!

The year 1982 saw the arrival of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and Spielberg’s film ‘E.T.’, Sony selling the first CD audio players, the advent of the Commodore C64 8-bit computer, a 15-year-old schoolboy creating the first computer virus, and the founding of computer games company Electronic Arts.   Not only did the Sinclair ZX Spectrum arrive with 16KB or 48Kb RAM, but Margaret Thatcher demonstrated and gave one as a present to Japan’s Prime Minister during a visit to Japan! The UK Post Office also issued a set of postage stamps to celebrate ‘Information Technology Year’

Millennials and subsequent generations often not only find it difficult to relate to the computing environment of ‘Information Technology Year’, but also to appreciate that ithelped them on the road to being engaged with computers during their education. It makes the Badger chuckle observing millennials and children visiting the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley. They are amazed that even a modest smartphone in their pocket vastly surpasses the computers of 1982 when processors were the size of wardrobes, disk storage cabinets were the size of a chest of draws, and card punch machines for programming still existed! This 1982 film from Australia  neatly illustrates the world of information technology at the time.

Sometimes politicians deserve a little credit. Kenneth (now Lord) Baker MP was a small shareholder in the small but growing software company Logica in the 1970s. This helped him realise the huge potential impact of IT and the need to raise awareness of this nationally. He pressed for government agreement to goals like the introduction of computing in schools, fibre optic technology, and the paperless office. He persuaded the Prime Minister (Margaret Thatcher) to visit Logica in 1981 and became the first Minister for Information Technology. His appointment led to the 1982 ‘Information Technology Year’ and started the ball rolling to get computers into schools, homes, and many businesses. It effectively seeded millennials’ access to computers throughout their education and made many of them realise that computers were interesting, useful, and fun.

Forty years after ‘Information Technology Year’, everyone’s daily life depends on  computers, communication networks, and information technology. It must be time, therefore, for some kind of new ‘Technology Year’ with the profile and long-term impact of the one in 1982. If there is one, then who’s the modern Kenneth Baker figure, and why doesn’t it appear in the Royal Mail’s list of new postage stamps for 2022?

School kids’ imagination and driverless vehicles…

A recent IET item about what school kids expect from driverless cars provides an interesting insight to how our digital-native school children imagine and think about the future. Their internet-dominated world provides lots of content about a future full of driverless cars, robots, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and renewables replacing fossil fuels. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that driverless cars grab their imagination, especially as they have the vehicles operated by their parents as a tangible, modern-day reference point.

It has always been the case that when school kids are asked how they imagine life to be a few decades in the future, their answers are influenced by their awareness of technology advances, hot societal issues, their interests, and factors like their family and schooling environment. When the Badger was a schoolboy, the Apollo Space Programme putting men on the moon was in full swing, nuclear reactors were proliferating to generate electricity, satellites were blossoming to broadcast television pictures around the world, and semiconductors were rapidly changing the size, capability, and quality of radios, televisions, gadgets, and mainframe computers used by major corporations. If the Badger and his school friends had been asked what life would be like some decades later, then living on the moon, human interplanetary space travel, abundant cheap electricity, and less work and more leisure time due to automation would have featured in the answers. Such answers are, in fact, similar to those in this interesting BBC Archive footage of 1960’s kids talking about the year 2000 .

Comparing what the Badger and his friends would have imagined with how things turned out just confirms what mature adults know, namely that the future is always different to what kids think it will be! After all, humans are not living on the moon or engaging in interplanetary space travel, nuclear reactors haven’t given everyone abundant cheap electricity, automation hasn’t really produced less work and more leisure time, and no one imagined the internet. It’s a certainty, therefore, that what today’s school kids are imagining the future to be will not happen as they envisage. There’s a quite simple reason for this and it’s this; kids’ imagination is unencumbered by the hard realities of politics, finance, economics, bureaucracy, legalities, and liabilities. It’s these realities that explain why the future is never quite what they imagine.

Today’s school kids should always be encouraged to imagine the future, but will what they imagine for driverless cars journeys on public roads become a reality in a few decades time? Unlikely, because delivering what technology can do into real use is always constrained by non-technological factors. Where the non-technological barriers are lower, however, things happen faster. For example, the school kids of farmers who imagined driverless tractors many years ago are seeing this come to fruition. Truly driverless tractors for use in fields will be coming off the John Deere factory line later this year.  

Serious internet failure – never say never

For the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone was together recently to celebrate the Badger’s grandson’s second birthday. It was a memorable occasion. All the adults, however, felt a little chastened by the suffering of Ukrainian  families with children at the moment. As the toddler opened presents, the Badger felt not only uneasy about the world he will grow up in, but also uneasy that his life will utterly depend on the internet. At just two-years old, the toddler is already powering-on the Badger’s tablet, swiping its screen, and watching the Teletubbies on YouTube! The little one will only know of life before the internet from stories told by his parents and grandparents, books, and content from the internet itself. Well, that’s just the way it is. Progress is progress, and those born this century are already full-blown digital and internet-reliant natives.  

The toddler went off for a pre-bedtime bath towards the end of the party, and the  Badger, resting on a comfy sofa, began to muse on how the little one’s generation would cope if there was a dramatic, prolonged, serious failure of the internet in the future.   Conventional wisdom has it that the internet has no single points of failure, and is too big, too decentralised, and has too much in-built redundancy to fail. The prevalent view is that a serious interruption that impacts our lives for a prolonged period will never happen. As the Badger began to doze, he remembered what he had learned during his IT industry career, namely to ‘never say never’, to expect the unexpected, and to remain cool, rational, objective, and focused when the unexpected happens. He concluded that it’s not a question of if, but when such an internet event might occur.   

Reflections on failure of the internet pop up regularly over the years – see here, here, and here, for example. All they really do, however, is reinforce the ‘never say never’ point. In complex computer systems and networks there’s always scope for unexpected human actions and technical events to have unforeseen and dramatic consequences. The Russian threat to vital undersea cables that carry internet traffic between Europe and North America (see here, here, and here) illustrates , for example, why ‘never say never’ is a sensible position. If Mr Putin has gone ‘full tonto’ and the Russian Navy performs a coordinated attack on these cables then the internet’s resilience and fault tolerance, and our life routines, will be tested like never before.  

The Badger’s grandson, about to go to bed, climbed on the Badger’s lap and shouted, ‘wake up, grandad’. Everyone laughed. The Badger opened his eyes and made a mental note to teach his grandson some of the self-sufficiency life skills needed to function without the internet…just in case he needs them in years to come.    

Describe the dynamics of today’s digital world in one word…

Would you find it easy or hard to describe the dynamics of our modern digital world in one word? Would one word immediately come to mind, or would you need time to think before deciding? Rather than decide yourself, would you prefer to converge on a word via a group discussion? What would your word be? An ex senior civil servant, in their eighties with a razor-sharp mind, asked these questions in a recent conversation. The Badger took the easy option, answered ‘don’t know’, and we moved on to other things. The questions, however, have bugged the Badger ever since, and so as Storm Eunice buffeted the windows, he settled in his study listening to a playlist of favourite music to decide his answers.

The answer for the first question was ‘it’s hard’. In fact, it took much longer than expected to decide on one word to answer the last question. The answers to the second and third questions came quick and were straightforward. They were, respectively, time to think rather than spontaneity, and deciding for himself rather than potentially succumbing to  groupthink’. The word the Badger ultimately converged on as the answer to the last question was ‘Creep’.

The word has enormous breadth. In materials technology, ‘creep’ is the movement and permanent deformation of a solid under persistent load ultimately leading to failure. Glaciers and lead on church roofs are simple illustrations of the phenomenon. ‘Scope creep’, when requirements drift away from agreed baselines due to client pressure and poor controls, is well-known to those running businesses, projects, programmes, or service delivery. This kind of ‘creep’ often leads to financial problems, commercial disputes, and serious delays. And then, of course, ‘creep’ is sometimes used to describe people who are unpleasant, untrustworthy, insincere, or are just plain odd in their habits, interests, and behaviours.

Creep’ seems a more realistic descriptor for the dynamics of our modern digital world than the word ‘change’. For example, our insatiable demand for resources and fossil fuels is producing creep deformation of aspects of our planet to the point of crisis and questions about our sustainability on it. Additionally, digital innovation and fast technological advancement represents a persistent stress on businesses, governments, and the public producing the erosive creep of personal privacy to the point where societal rupture is a risk. Similarly, the need for social media platforms to keep people engaged and active is causing the creep of fact, news, and sensible debate into just disinformation, misinformation, abuse, and entertainment fuelling growing distrust and antipathy. ‘Creep’, of course, can still be used to describe some people, and it seems particularly apt today for politicians and so-called elites!

Oh, and ‘Creep’, by the way, is a great song by Radiohead! What would your one word to describe the dynamics of today’s world be?

Spike Milligan, Nuclear Fusion and Smart Meters…

Two recent announcements, seemingly unrelated, reminded the Badger of Spike Milligan’s quip ‘And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light, but the Electricity Board said he would have to wait until Thursday to be connected’.

The first was that UK Smart Meters will, by default rather than consumer opt-in, automatically send usage data to suppliers every 30 minutes by 2025  so that ‘time of use’ tariffs charging more at peak times can be offered to all consumers. According to OFGEM, the Regulator, ‘It will enable a more efficient, flexible and greener energy system which will save billions of pounds per year on all consumers’ energy bills’. Hmm, that seems doubtful. Smart Meters have hardly been a success for consumers who haven’t seen any savings in their bills to date from their introduction over the last decade. Will people really change their habits and routines after 2025 for consumer bills to go down? It’s doubtful. Apparently, the fire brigade was not consulted about this announcement, and so we can expect a public outcry when there’s a fire tragedy caused by household appliances running late at night or in the early morning.   

The second announcement was the achievement of a fusion record at JET. There’s a long way to go before commercial fusion power becomes a reality, but this record shows that scientists and engineers are rapidly building the knowledge and technology needed to deliver the  low-carbon, sustainable, baseload energy that future generations need. The Badger doesn’t know if the Electricity Board had a say in when the JET experiment was  conducted, but ‘Let there be light (and heat)’ was certainly achieved!

Which brings us back to Spike Milligan, a man with severe bipolar disorder and famous for surreal humour who died 20 years ago. He was an enthusiastic environmental campaigner and the issues of life on our planet would be a rich source for his dark, surreal, humour if he were alive today. It’s entirely possible that Spike might draw on the electricity, greener energy system, and consumer points that emerge from the announcements above to make quips like ‘The Smart thing with a Smart Meter is not to have one’, ‘I want my energy a different colour to go with the décor’, ‘My Bill needs to go on a diet’. Spike would, however, produce better quips than the Badger’s!

Of the announcements above, it’s the fusion record that should give most cause for optimism about our energy future. While commercial fusion power may still be ’30 years away’, the JET record highlights not only the importance of career scientists and engineers working together to build knowledge, understanding, and to solve world problems, but also that seemingly intractable problems can be overcome to provide energy benefit to us all. The Badger’s always been pro-fusion because, as Spike Milligan observed, One day the “Don’t Knows” will get in and then where will we be?

Observing the NHS…

Opening bleary eyes at 5:30am in a hospital ward bed to see the smiling face of a PPE-clad nurse wanting to thrust swabs into your nose and throat for a COVID test is an interesting start to the day! This test marked the start to each long, visitor-free, in-patient day that would eventually end around 10p.m. at night.

Patients were not allowed visitors until their stay surpassed five days. After that, one person could visit for one hour, but only once in every subsequent five-day period. No one grumbled. Instead, the Badger and fellow patients used video calls from personal smartphones or tablets to maintain contact with loved ones. The absence of visitors meant we experienced and observed ward operations performed without distractions, and we habitually shared our remarkably consistent primary observations during the quiet troughs that speckle an in-patient’s day.

Firstly, there was unanimous respect for doctors, nurses, and the ward staff who kept things shipshape (many of whom work 11 hour shifts with just a 30-minute unpaid break). Secondly, we observed that although the NHS is slowly transforming to the digital world, there’s still too much paper-based activity constraining efficiency. One nurse commented, ‘If someone borrows your drugs form before I get to you, it’ll take me half an hour to track it down’. Thirdly, we observed that nothing happens unless a busy doctor says so and signs a piece of paper, which they rarely do promptly. Telling a patient in the morning they’re being discharged, and then telling them in the evening that the doctor’s been busy and has gone home without signing the discharge paper is incredibly annoying and systemically inefficient!

There was also a consistent view that debates about NHS funding, a staple for media reporting, are red herrings because there’s much the NHS can improve itself that needs will rather than money. Its own Long Term Plan shows that it knows it must transform from a way of delivering health services that’s still locked into a model largely created when it was founded in 1948. It just needs to progress faster.

Finally, like most transformations, we observed that it’s the people and working practice issues of change rather than technology that is the biggest challenge. Transforming the NHS, the biggest employer in Europe and the world’s largest employer of highly skilled professionals with a headcount of 1.35 million, over half of which are professionally qualified clinical staff, is undoubtedly a massive task. It’s akin to reengineering a giant A380 plane full of passengers while it’s in flight, but it has to be done for the service to be sustainable. Even with its observable flaws, inefficiencies, and transformational strains, we all felt safe, in expert hands, and hugely proud that our country has the National Health Service as part of the bedrock of life across the population.

Smart meters – Time for a refund

Over the Christmas holidays the Badger and visiting family and friends reflected on 2022’s challenges. This has become something of an annual family ritual over the years because it normally proves cathartic, entertaining, and insightful. This year’s conversation proved particularly entertaining. To the Badger’s surprise, one cross-generational consensus emerged, namely that consumers have been over-sold the benefits of Smart Meters and are not getting value for money from the UK rollout programme or their energy suppliers. Everyone agreed, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, that one of the 2022 challenges was to get consumers a refund for the money they’ve paid via their bills for the Smart Meter programme.

Perhaps the Badger shouldn’t have been surprised given an update from the youngster whose experience was described two  months ago in the item Not another smart meter moan. In early November they emailed their supplier, EON, pointing out that the root cause of the metering problem lay with EON’s own systems. EON didn’t respond, and so in the week before Christmas the youngster phoned EON’s call centre whose only remedy was either to provide estimated bills going forwards or to arrange for an engineer to replace the Smart Meter which is actually working perfectly.  It emerged on the call that the meter problem started when EON unilaterally transferred the youngster’s account to EON Next, screwing up the data transfer in the process.  The call centre seemed at a loss on how to correct this, and so the youngster, who blames both the UK Smart Meter programme and EON, will leave EON at the end of their contract.   

Another friend, a long-standing SSE customer, also expressed annoyance with the recent transfer of their Smart Meter and SSE online account to OVO, who bought SSE’s retail energy arm in 2020. Their SSE online account provided useful year on year energy use comparison, but energy data prior to mid-November 2021 when it was transferred to OVO no longer appears in their online OVO account making year on year use comparison impossible. Being energy conscious and having lived in the same property for ten years, the Badger’s friend is frustrated and blames the UK rollout programme and OVO for not being consumer focused.      

It was numerous different experiences like these that seeded general agreement that getting consumers a refund for money spent on the UK Smart Meter was a 2022 challenge! After our discussion, we settled down to watch Netflix’s ‘Don’t look up’ which is a satirical take on our highly polarised, distorted, tech-dominated world. It made us all realise that there’s a next to zero chance of meeting this 2022 challenge,  and so we put another log in the wood-burner and thumbed our noses at all politicians and the energy industry. It felt like an apt gesture because we all expect to do more of the same as 2022 progresses…

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.