Showbusiness for ugly people, Mr Blobby, and the credibility of elderly people with power…

Someone said recently that politics is ‘showbusiness for ugly people.’  It made the Badger laugh because the phrase resonates with recent news items like those, for example, covering China’s 20th Communist Party Congress, Putin declaring martial law, and turmoil in the UK government.  The latter, in particular, has provided comedic value on a par with old television programmes like Fawlty Towers and Yes, Prime Minister. Unlike the first broadcast of these programmes, however, the internet, social media, and 24-hour news mean we don’t have to wait for the next episode because the comedy unfolds continuously in real-time.

Having no allegiance to any political ideology is probably why ‘showbusiness for ugly people’ seemed to resonate so strongly with these news items. Being playful for a moment, the Badger thinks the phrase supports the thesis that in today’s world dominated by attention-grabbing content, Mr Blobby, Paddington Bear, and Winnie the Pooh would do a better job delivering what matters than anyone groomed by the machinery of political parties.

A television news bulletin showing Mr Putin in the Kremlin prompted a visiting relative to ask a great question, namely, ‘Mr Putin is 70 years old, Xi Jinping is almost 70, Joe Biden is almost 80 (and Nancy Pelosi is 82!), so why haven’t they retired?’. They added that they weren’t ageist but merely pointing out that, in their experience, the leaders of large public sector and commercial organisations never appoint anyone of this age to run major projects, programmes, and business units. Why, therefore, are these elderly individuals credible as superpower leaders when they are in the twilight years of mental and physical prowess?

Initially flummoxed, the Badger paused to think for a moment, and then simply said that while many believe the world is a rational place, the reality is that humans are inherently both rational and irrational, as internet and social media content frequently illustrates. The propensity for irrationality can be seen in all walks of life, and especially in those who are trying to hold onto power regardless of whether it’s good for themselves and those around them. Whether elderly superpower leaders are credible is thus questionable.

The visitor expected more, so the Badger pointed out that Biden, Xi Jinping, and Putin are not from a digital-native generation and that they are all past their country’s standard pension age.  Younger, impatient individuals from digital-native generations will be biting at their heels hungry for power and change. In this decade we might thus see events that trigger the replacement of old men as superpower leaders by dynamic individuals from the digital-native generation. Eventually, of course, leaders from the digital-native generation will be corrupted by power too, and the cycle will repeat itself. The visitor looked perplexed and suggested that the Badger needed mind-altering medication…

Nothing is forever…

The Badger’s first boss in the IT industry had their employment terminated  after the financial performance of their business unit disappointed for the third quarter in a row. They shrugged their shoulders sanguinely and told the Badger  ‘Nothing is forever. That applies to technology, organisations, and people. Always scan the horizon and prepare for possible changes as best you can’. These words came flooding back with the announcement that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s reign had come to an end. The Badger has found himself reflecting on these words given the huge technological changes that happened in the Queen’s 70-year reign.

At the time of her Coronation in 1952, television was black and white, in less than 20% of UK homes, and there was only one channel. Radio and paper newspapers dominated the flow of news to the general public, coal and wood were the primary fuels for heating homes, only 1 in 20 people had access to a motor car and the UK motorway network didn’t exist. The world’s first commercial airline service using jets had just started, steam engines pulled carriages on the railway network, and a landline telephone in the home was a luxury. Life was spartan, food was still rationed, satellites didn’t exist, microchips had not started to revolutionise the field of electronics, and the Information Technology sector had yet to be born.

Things are very, very different today. The technological change during the Queen’s reign has been phenomenal. It has been diverse, fascinating, and awe-inspiring, and it has evidenced the truth of the ‘nothing is forever’ words of the Badger’s boss. The Queen’s reign saw both the emergence of multiple new technologies that changed our lives, and their subsequent obsolescence. The emergence and then decline of video tapes, CDs, and DVDs with the advent of streaming illustrates the point neatly, as does the journey from bulky black and white and then colour TVs with Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) screens to today’s ‘Smart’ flatscreen, wall-mounted, multi-functional, entertainment devices. The journey from early mainframe computers for business, to personal computing, the internet, and the powerful tablets and smartphones in our hands also potently illustrates the numerous cycles of innovation and obsolescence that have occurred during the Queen’s reign. It’s a sobering reminder that the technology we embrace today is inevitably tomorrow’s obsolescence.

Nothing lasts forever’ is an undeniable truth, a truth that the end of the Queen’s reign brings into stark perspective. It’s a truth that applies to everyone, everything, and in every facet of life, and one that our new monarch, King Charles III, is now steadfastly embracing. These three words remind us that we should actively and positively deal with the cards that are dealt to us in life, and that there are no better role models for doing this than the Queen we mourn and our new King.

The Metaverse; What matters most will be trust…

There’s always a technological development lauded as the ‘next big thing’ that will change our lives forever, after huge financial expenditure, of course. One such is the metaverse which, according to Gartner, will not reach the ‘mature’ phase of its evolution  before 2030. The Badger admits to having an objective scepticism about the metaverse, ostensibly because ‘next big things’ often fail to meet their hype in anything like the forecast timescales. Development of the software, systems, and platforms for the metaverse is, of course, progressing apace, but that’s rather different to it ultimately being embraced by the masses because it provides tangible benefits to their lives.

During a social meeting recently, a tech-savvy millennial asked the Badger to answer  the following three questions about the metaverse using the simplest possible terms:  What is it? Will it happen? What about it will matter most to the average member of the public? An academic treatise can be written for each answer, but the Badger kept his answers, below, as simple as possible.

What is it? To borrow from Deloitte, the metaverse is, in the simplest of terms, the internet but in 3D, with facilities that provide users an immersive, 3D, virtual experience when engaging with virtual environments or other users. It’s a 3D virtual world within which virtual incarnations of a user can interact with simulated environments and other people for social or work purposes without being physically present.

Will it happen? Eventually…perhaps. Aspects of metaverse technology have developed in online gaming over the last 25 years, and Microsoft, for example, has implemented avatars and meetings in virtual reality into Teams. However, that’s still a very long way from a coherent metaverse that changes everyone’s life, especially when the legal, regulatory, data security, and privacy issues  with it are much more profound than with the internet and online world that we currently know.   

What about it will matter most to the average member of the public? Trust. If the lessons from rampant online evolution over the last 25 years are not learned, then the same mistakes will be replicated and amplified in the metaverse. Today we are generally more careful with our personal data and privacy, and more conscious of online security, rampant mis/disinformation, abuse, commercialisation, and the weaponization of information. If trust is not the starting position for the metaverse from the outset, then it will be just another ‘next big thing’ that irritates rather than benefits our lives.

The Badger told the millennial that others have different answers to these questions. They just nodded and said ‘It will be dominated by those who want to manipulate or control us. If I don’t trust it, I’m not going to participate’. If this view is widespread amongst millennials, then the metaverse may stall. Time will tell.

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?