V-J Day, Animal Farm, and the digital world; a poignant moment…

The only light in the dark lounge was from the flickering images of a TV programme about V-J Day, the end of World War II in Japan 75 years ago. It was poignant not only because the Badger had relatives who served in the Far East, but also because the Badger’s baby grandson was cradled in his arms, fast asleep. It’s moments like this that make you think about what people endured in those times with how it is today, and the slumbering innocent in his arms, that’s just what the Badger found himself doing.  

Those who lived through World War II and its aftermath – regardless of their allegiance, age, colour, or creed – endured great hardship for years. Rationing, for example, only ended in the UK in 1954.  The Badger’s relatives rarely discussed their experiences which undoubtedly set the high values they held dear for the rest of their lives.  They lived without selfishness and took responsibility for dealing with whatever curve-balls life dealt them. They also had a strong sense of right and wrong, a great respect for law, order, and justice, and they put freedom and their families at the centre of their universe.

The world today is different, but is it better? Hmm.  As he watched the TV, the Badger found himself lamenting that the baby in his arms would grow up in a world in which ‘online’ has already hugely challenged the values and moral compass that his relatives held dear.  Today people seem less willing to take personal responsibility for anything; blame seems to be the first instinct and privacy and freedoms seem to have been willingly traded for convenience. Daily living is dominated by ‘online’ devices and social media whose negatives far outweigh its positives.  The news media is full of questionable content rather than fact, and respect for those who uphold law and order seems to be waning.  There’s something wrong with society when a first instinct is to video any interaction with upholders of the law and immediately upload it to Twitter or YouTube. It won’t be long before everyone videos their one to one meetings with their boss and immediately puts them on YouTube too!    

Looking at the peaceful innocent in his arms, the Badger felt that his relatives, now no longer alive, would be horrified by the erosion of values they held dear.  As it happens, George Orwell’s book Animal Farm was published two days after V-J Day in 1945. The book is as relevant today as it was then, and it will continue to be relevant when the Badger’s grandson reaches adulthood. As the little one gurgled and opened his eyes, the Badger vowed to ensure he knows not only of the values held dear by a generation who did what they had to do for the greater good and suffered personal hardships by just stoically getting on with life, but also that life itself is much more important than anything on the internet and social media.  

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’.

 

Less Twits, better education about what matters in life…

Halfway through a long walk on a hot day with a cloudless blue sky at the Devil’s Punchbowl, a break for a sandwich and a drink at The Gibbet provided some welcome respite. The view was glorious. The air was clear, and the edge of London, some 40 miles away, was visible on the horizon without the need for binoculars. The atmospheric benefits of much-reduced road traffic and air traffic for Heathrow and Gatwick were plain to see!

As the Badger munched his sandwich, a bird of prey hovered in the distance ready to swoop on its prey. The idyll, however, was broken by the arrival of a group of youngsters.  They weren’t rowdy, unpleasant, or badly behaved. They just talked incessantly about Twitter being hacked as if it were the end of the world!  It isn’t, of course, but their conversation influenced the Badger’s thoughts for the rest of his walk.  By the time the Badger reached home, these had converted into the following points:

  • Anyone familiar with ‘security’ knows that the weakest link in any security regime is people. It’s as true in today’s digital world – as the Twitter incident shows – as it has always been.
  • Twitter has become, in just 10 years, one of the prime illustrations of today’s attention-deficit world. Organisations and individuals alike use it for many reasons, including FOMO (fear of missing out), vanity, attention seeking, recreation, influencing and self-promotion. Will you really miss anything that’s important to life if you don’t look at Twitter on your smart phone every few minutes? No.
  • More detailed primary and secondary school education on how the likes of Facebook and Twitter use what you do to make money is essential. A ‘think before you write, or upload photos or videos’ attitude needs to be deeply embedded in the psyche of youngsters.
  • Hundreds of years ago, the printing press ushered in the age of reason, science, and education. Over the centuries this ‘force for good’ has become slowly diluted by commercialism, politicism, propaganda, misinformation, and falsities of all kinds. The same has happened since the advent of TV and radio about a century ago, and also since the advent of the internet and computers a few decades ago. The same has also happened with social media platforms, which have gone from a ‘force for good’ to questionable, surveillance-based, money-making machines in just 15 years!

At the end of the walk, the Badger slumped into his favourite chair at home, hot, bothered, and tired. Perhaps it was this that triggered a final thought, namely that anyone or any organisation that puts great store in Twitter should be called Twits! The world needs less Twits and better education about what really matters in life. The Badger fell asleep in his chair…

The ‘Smart’ prefix has had its day…

If something is prefixed with ‘Smart’ today, then the Badger tends to wince and immediately think of the need to tread carefully! Why? Because ‘Smart’ has become over-used in today’s digital world, although many may beg to differ.  The fact is that every new gadget in the last 100 years was thought to be ‘smart’ by those living at the time. The Badger’s parents, for instance, thought the introduction of a timer on their washing machine some 70 years ago was ‘smart’. They thought answering machines some 40 years ago were too.

In today’s Information Age, the word ‘Smart’ is much overused by marketeers, media pundits and politicians alike. For many the word has become tainted and a signal for something whose benefits are oversold, whose downsides are understated (or ignored), and whose value for money and longevity is questionable. Many feel that ‘Smart’ implies they will be fleeced of their hard-earned cash (and maybe their personal data, privacy, and security) for something that might quickly become obsolete.

Using the word ‘Smart’ as a pre-fix to something is becoming a euphemism for high cost and questionable benefit, at least from the average consumer’s perspective.  For example, the UK government’s ‘Smart’ Meter programme has already cost consumers through their bills, its roll-out is grossly late, and it’s not really delivering the promised benefits for consumers. Expensive ‘Smart’ Motorways appear to lead to more not less death on the roads, and the expense  of these complex ‘enhancements’ seems somewhat  questionable and wasteful to the average consumer if safety on the road has got worse.   And then there’s Smart Homes full of interconnected lights, fridges, power sockets, and so on. Do we really want or need to live inside a machine?

And then there’s the ‘Smart’ phone in your hand.  Apparently, the device itself has an average life of 4 to 5 years and we keep them, on average, for between 2 and 3 years.   How much did you pay for it? The percentage depreciation is probably worse than your car over the same period.

So, what’s the Badger’s point?  Simply that the term ‘Smart’ is not a relevant label for digital technology anymore.  Consumers today are no fools, are distrustful of the big Tech companies, and are more vocal about government expenditure. The pandemic has changed the way we think, behave, live, and work. It has made us realise not only the importance of technology in today’s world, but also that it doesn’t need to be labelled ‘Smart’ to have a positive impact on our lives, the planet, the climate, and wildlife.  The ‘Smart’ prefix has had its day.  There’s only one thing that should attract this label, and that’s us – we human beings! And some of you may well argue with that…

Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium…

Did you know that the Periodic Table of Elements has existed since Mendeleev shaped it in the 1860’s?  The world has changed significantly since then, but the Periodic Table  is still a fundamental foundation for the world we live in. In the UK it is part of the national curriculum and so anyone who attends school should be aware of the Periodic Table’s existence. At least that is what the Badger thought…until this week.

The Badger was walking with a companion in the local park which has a beautiful lake. It’s a popular place with all age groups.  We stopped for a sandwich and a drink at a park bench overlooking the lovely lake with its many different species of ducks, geese, and waders. Nearby a group of about a dozen millennials, just about the age to be leaving College for University, were having a picnic, and discussing their aspirations, beliefs, and ambitions.  One was dominating conversation in the group and proclaiming they were going to be an environment and planet sustainability ‘activist’. They seemed to be very vocal and have strong views about what governments must do to fix the world’s problems.  What passion…and naivety…the Badger thought as he threw a few bits of crust to a friendly mallard. (I know. Bread is junk food for ducks, but this mallard was clearly hungry).

The youngster droned on and on, and even the Badger’s walking companion commented that they liked the sound of their own voice too much for their own good.  And then a young lad in the group piped up with a killer question. ‘Do you know what the Periodic Table is?’, he asked. ‘No, and I don’t need to’, was the swift response. The young lad just said ‘The Periodic Table captures all the elements that make up our world. How can you be an environment or planet activist if you don’t know its elements?’

The orator shut up. The Badger almost clapped. The young lad asking the question will go far!  But isn’t it a bit worrying that someone can go through an education system, aspiring to be a green activist, and not know something about the Periodic Table?  If you want to be a young ‘green’ activist – and there’s nothing wrong with that – then surely you cannot say ‘I don’t need to know’ about the Periodic Table of elements that are at the heart of  the gadgets we use and all life on the planet?

Anyone aspiring to be any kind of green activist should needs an awareness of the Periodic Table to be credible.  In fact, perhaps we should all remind ourselves of the elements (and their scarcity) that underpin everything on the planet by refreshing our knowledge of the Periodic Table. You can find it on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s site here.  

 

The most powerful people in the world are not who you think…

With coffee in hand, laptop on the knee, thunder overhead, and ‘what is wrong with people’ news on the radio, the Badger sat in his conservatory watching rain pummel the garden flowers and had a thoughtful moment. As the petals of a large peony disintegrated in the rain, one thing came to the fore in the Badger’s mind – that the world is in the grip of non-biological pandemics, not just the biological COVID-19 one!

There’s a pandemic of misinformation, disinformation and distortion, an escalating pandemic of disrespect for law and order, and a pandemic of the ‘human stupidity’ virus – a virus which appears to spread much faster than even COVID-19! Rational evidence for all this is easy to find. For example, this week  UK House of Lords peers led by Lord Puttenham issued a report demanding legislation because misinformation, disinformation and distortion is threatening lives and democracy,  the press is full of examples of unnecessary thuggery,  and Bournemouth beach illustrated just how quickly the ‘human stupidity’ virus has taken hold.  It seems to be similar in other countries too! On a more positive note, however, there is also a pandemic of appreciation that if human behaviour doesn’t change then our planet will be unsustainable, and we will be responsible for our own extinction.

The Badger sipped his coffee, watched a Blackbird tug at a worm in the lawn, and pondered on whether the most powerful people in the world are capable of addressing our problems. But who are the most powerful people in the world? A quick scan down the list here – where power is about control over resources to drive the world in a particular direction – doesn’t inspire confidence. The Badger found himself thinking laterally and deciding that these aren’t the most powerful people in the world! So, who are? The answer is real scientists and engineers, most of whom are not and never will be household names.

Chris Packham’s stirring and inspiring speech on why Alan Turing is the Greatest Person of the 20th Century, makes the point that scientists, not high-profile politicians, corporate leaders, media stars, musicians, sportsmen, or celebrities of any kind, are the only hope for the future.  The Badger agrees.  With deference to the last section of Chris’s speech, just pick up your phone, stare at it, and know that it only exists because of scientists and engineers.  If you are a youngster considering education choices, marvel at the device in your hand and know that if you study STEM subjects then you will become one of the most powerful people in the world. You will also be our hope for the future.

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…

Hearing is not Listening…

When the Badger was a teenager, his parents said he suffered from ‘selective hearing’ because of a tendency to ignore things he didn’t want to acknowledge. The Badger’s ‘selective hearing’ was not a physical or mental condition! All the words spoken were actually heard, but the Badger’s mind simply chose not to acknowledge what was being said. As he matured, the Badger soon learned the difference between hearing and listening, and that listening was a crucial ‘soft’ skill in life and a career.

Hearing and listening are different, as highlighted neatly here. Hearing is a sense. It happens when sound hits our eardrums and is processed in our brain. Listening, on the other hand, is a conscious action to give attention to what is being said. It goes beyond just hearing the sound of words. The world needs good listeners, but, sadly, not everyone is a good listener.

Many years ago, the Badger was tasked with sorting out a major systems and software project providing the crucial control system for a specialist manufacturing process. The end client was building a new facility for the manufacturing process and a large US engineering organisation was the prime contractor for the whole endeavour. The IT systems were seriously late and delaying the entire programme of works. The Badger, his boss, and his boss’s boss were summoned to a meeting with the prime contractor’s general manager to explain the actions we were taking. It was a memorable meeting!

The general manager, a civil engineer with no real appreciation of IT or software, had marshalled a team of 20 people to hear what we were doing to stem our project delays. The Badger explained comprehensively, but the subsequent Q&A culminating in the general manager saying ‘If I want to paint this facility faster, I get 50 extra painters to start on Monday. Why aren’t you getting 50 extra programmers to start on Monday?’ The Badger answered and a tirade about the importance of avoiding delay ensued from the general manager who ended by shouting ‘You are not hearing me. Get more programmers for Monday!

The Badger’s boss’s boss calmly said ‘We are hearing you. But you are not listening to us, which I find surprising given your seniority’. The general manager was flummoxed. We left the meeting. That moment cemented the importance of listening in the Badger’s psyche forever.

So, if you are starting out on your career in today’s tech dominated world, don’t neglect developing and honing good listening skills. They help you to make better decisions at home and work, and help you to remain objective and rational in a world full of ‘hearsay’ and ‘selective hearing’. Better listening is what we should all do. If your listening skills are below par, then it’s time to do something about it.