Tech regulation; learn the lessons of the past…

The Badger has just arranged for a headstone to be erected at the grave of a relative who passed-away some years ago. The process started with using Google to research the different types of  headstone, suppliers, pricing, and graveyard regulations. Having done the research, the Badger engaged a provider and arrangements were made using to the providers preferred business methods, namely good old fashioned telephone calls, letters and forms by post, and cheques for payments. Everything went smoothly and the headstone is now in place.

There was only one thing that was an irritant in the whole process – the flood of content, adverts, and unsolicited marketing that appeared in the Badger’s news, email, and social media feeds following the Google search queries!  Receiving unsolicited and unwanted suggestions about funeral plans, care homes, equity release, life insurance, will writing, and donating to charity via a will was just tiresome and a reminder that the big  tech giants track and use our behavioural data. If there was a single, simple, ‘Big Red Button’ that turned all that stuff off, then the Badger would have pushed it!  

Recent news that a Digital Markets Unit is being formed under the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) (see here, here and here) to start limiting the power of big tech firms in the UK seemed like welcome news and a sign that politicians are starting to wake up.  In the USA, of course, Google is already in the cross-hairs of the US government for alleged anticompetitive abuses. At long last, governments around the world seem to be very slowly addressing regulation of the big tech giants which, let’s face it, are enormously powerful as well as being at the heart of the functioning of today’s modern society.

Sceptical about the need for regulation? Read the Financial Times article here. It points out that the 2008 banking crisis showed that careful oversight is needed when the public interest depends on businesses that exist to meet the needs of private capital providers. Before 2008, the approach of regulators to the way banks behaved was ‘principles based’, i.e. deliberately light touch. This relied too much on the banks’ abilities to govern themselves, and it failed. Similarities with the current approach with big tech are striking.  We should learn the lessons from the past! After all, isn’t that what the leaders of all corporations and governmental institutions are forever telling their employees and everyone else to do?

When speaking to the headstone provider, the Badger asked why – apart from a basic website – they hadn’t fully embraced the digital world. Simple, they answered. ‘We’ve stayed in business for over a century because we learn our lessons, one of which has been to always steer a cautious path through periods of innovation and change’. How very refreshing!     

Dark comedy and driverless cars…

What do you do if you if you’re just a neutral onlooker in another country and want some light relief from the dark comedy of the USA’s Presidential Election? Explore the current world of driverless cars!  At least that’s what the Badger did when the unrelenting media and social media coverage just emphasised the sadness of seeing a superpower having a nervous breakdown over two old men while struggling to come to terms with the threat to it’s world dominance from the powerhouse that’s modern day China.   As Richard Holway put it in a recent TechMarketView post, if these two men are the best candidates to lead the Western world then there is something seriously wrong!  

The dark comedy is not over yet and there will inevitably be a Netflix film in due course, so the Badger’s attention was easily redirected into the realm of driverless vehicles where technology evangelists have been promising for years that completely driverless cars will take over the roads. You’ll find a neat summary of the different levels of autonomous vehicle here. It’s Level 5 vehicles that are fully autonomous and can go anywhere with the presence of a driver completely optional and various companies and organisations are progressing vehicular technology along the path towards this holy grail. Progress is slowly being made and each year more automated assistance aids are finding their way into new vehicles, but that doesn’t mean Level 5 vehicles will be in widespread general use by us, the general public, on our roads in the foreseeable future.  

Why not? Because a) they aren’t in widespread military use yet, b) as this AutoExpress item points out, drivers haven’t been asked if they actually want completely autonomous cars, c) idealists are having to become more realistic, and d) legislation, liability apportionment, and insuring autonomous cars are still work in progress. It’s pretty safe to think that we’ll be driving vehicles ourselves for some decades yet.  The technology will continue to advance but history shows it’s the transition and transformation from a long established way of doing something to something new and different that presents the greatest challenge. People don’t change behaviour quickly, especially if they feel something is being imposed. So far there’s little information available on how driverless vehicles will be introduced for us to use in a way that preserves our freedoms, builds trust, and changes attitudes and behaviours. That’s why the Badger agrees with the AutoExpress item’s conclusion that the driverless car is a vehicle that 99% of us would happily live without!

The rollout of Level 5 driverless vehicles to the public is decades away and it’s likely to be another dark comedy if the Smart Meter and Smart Motorway programmes are anything to go by. Oh dear.  The phrase ‘dark comedy’ is emerging as a common theme in the modern world. Let’s hope things don’t morph from this into ‘horror’…

The bathtub and smartphone reliability…

If you’ve ever worked on a project that involves building a completely integrated system, or indeed a specific product involving the marriage of hardware and software,  then the chances are you’ve come across reliability engineering and the long-established bathtub curve.  If you aren’t familiar with the bathtub curve then this blog post gives a description of it in a ‘real world’ kind of way.  

What’s tweaked the Badger’s interest in reliability? Simple. Anger with a brand of smartphone. Just over 2 years ago the Badger purchased a new smartphone. Just before its warranty expired it gave up the ghost and wouldn’t charge. It was checked out under warranty and, as is often the norm these days, a brand new ‘n.1’ version of the device arrived as its replacement. This one, now slightly out of warranty, has recently decided that everyone the Badger calls, and everyone who calls the Badger, is a whisperer with a barely audible voice. Its grossly inconvenient, and there doesn’t seem to be a fix other than to return it to the factory who will probably just send out a new handset, again.

What irks is that there has been two fundamental problems with this brand’s device in just over two years – rather intolerable for a product that cost a significant sum.  At first the Badger thought he’d just been unlucky, until he came across a graph from a survey undertaken across smartphone brands by Which?  It shows that, on average, only 56% of smartphones are fault free after 3 years and only 14% are fault free after 5 years.  The Badger wondered if smartphone designers and manufacturers pay enough attention to reliability when engineering their products.  Of course, they will say they do, but is it really enough? If consumers pay hundreds of pounds, if not more, for a smartphone then isn’t it right for them to expect the average percentage fault free after 3 years to be higher than 56%?

The Badger is fully aware that a) obsolescence is likely to kick in before a smartphone really reaches the ‘wears out’ part of the bathtub, b) that with continuous hardware and software innovation in the smartphone market means fast obsolescence is just a fact, and c) that failure rates in most brands have reduced over the years. But the 2020 statistics for the global scale, use and importance of these small computers that provide everything in your pocket’ must surely mean the devices need the reliability levels of ‘critical infrastructure’. An average of 56% having faults after 3 years suggests that’s a long way off and the bathtub curve currently feels like it’s a completely horizontal line high up the Y axis from the outset!

There’s one final thing. The Badger will not be buying another smartphone from the brand that triggered the anger above. Customer loyalty has to be earned, and that means the product has to be fundamentally reliable.    

Everyone seems offended by everything all of the time!

One of the things we all learn as we go through life is that everyone is different. Some people are brutal and selfish, some are supportive and caring, some are extrovert and some are not, some are hand wavers and some are into detail, some are structured and cautious and some are impulsive and carefree, and so on.  Finding our own way of dealing with people who are different to ourselves is one of life’s journeys.

Last week the Badger met a young graduate who has just started their first job since leaving University. They are finding the people they work with ‘difficult’, describing all their work colleagues as strong personalities who are focused solely on getting their work done on time and to budget. They admitted to finding it tough, not unusual for youngsters who leave University with an expectation of the work environment only to find the reality quite different. They also mentioned that they were offended by many of the attitudes, opinions, and behaviours of their work colleagues.  The Badger listened carefully, gave some general advice, and then told them something his father had said fifty years ago when the Badger came home from school one day offended by a teacher’s unflattering comments on an essay submitted as homework.   

His words, which have stayed with the Badger ever since, were:

‘Life is full of offence, but you can choose to be offended, or you can choose not to be offended. The better person will choose not to be offended because the alternative is to accept a path to permanent resentment and hatred’.

The youngster reacted by saying that unlike five decades ago ‘Everyone in the world today is offended by everything all of the time’. The Badger agreed that the evidence for this is tangible and suggested that it is one of the downsides of the dramatic evolution of the internet, social media, and mobile tech in the last twenty years. Playfully, the Badger also said that it wouldn’t be that way if people didn’t spend all their time glued to their smartphones and social media. Oh dear! That was a bad move.

The youngster thought, wrongly, that the Badger was having a dig at a generation that doesn’t know a time before the internet and social media. ‘I’m offended that you should say that’, they said. The Badger, slightly taken-aback, simply rolled his eyes and said, ‘Don’t be’.  The conversation ended and the youngster walked off in a huff tapping something into their smartphone.

That was last week. This morning, the Badger found out that they will be leaving their employer before their probationary period is up because ‘they don’t fit in and their performance is below expectation’.  Not surprised, the Badger thought. Perhaps now they will appreciate that the world is not your oyster if you are offended by everything all the time…   

The truth is always elusive…

Any company that provides IT services has some contracts that have difficulties of one kind or another.  No organisation is perfect. The Badger’s lost track of how many times over the years he’s been asked by an irate CEO to independently ‘get to the truth’ of why a contract difficulty had exploded out of nowhere. Having lifted the lid on many such situations, the Badger has learned that the truth is always elusive.  Why is that? Because the way people behave, what they assert as fact, who they blame, poor record keeping, and internal politics normally make it impossible to get to a definitive and irrefutable truth, especially when time and money is a constraint.   

Last week the Badger received an unexpected call from a CEO. They wanted the Badger to independently establish the ‘absolute truth’ behind the conflicting messages they were getting from line management about difficulties on a sizeable project. The Badger politely declined the invitation. The CEO, not unexpectedly, was interested in why. The Badger merely told the CEO that ‘the truth is always elusive’ and if they didn’t have someone trusted to be independent and objective in their own organisation then they had bigger problems than just this project!  The CEO chuckled, took the point on board, and emailed later to say that someone from their inner team was investigating ‘to establish in what direction the pendulum of truth was pointing’.   

Shortly afterwards, the Badger – who has been keeping abreast of the US Presidential campaign via the media and the web – watched the Biden/Trump debate.  The Badger was both amused and horrified! The whole debacle seemed to personify the shrill, modern, antagonistic virtual world played out on the web in real-time, every hour or every day!  It was a depressing spectacle with getting to the truth definitely elusive, at least that’s how the Badger felt as just a normal citizen in a different nation with no axe to grind on how the USA appoints its leaders.

Afterwards, perhaps influence by despair, the Badger decided two things. First, that the internet/social media revolution of the last twenty years has made getting to the truth even more elusive than it always was. There is no truth on the internet. We must teach our children to think more deeply for themselves about everything they see or hear in their daily lives.  Second, the vitriolic debate provided enough evidence for the masses around the globe to wonder if the USA’s ‘leadership of the free world’ is still credible.

The Badger thought that China, in particular, would be having a giggle. Perhaps the song ‘Go West’ should be reissued as ‘Go East’? Hmm. That’s perhaps taking the rise of China too far, but even though the truth is always elusive there seems little doubt that things are rising in the East and setting in the West…

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…