What’s that coming over the hill, is it a monster?

British Mark IV Female Tank, taken during trai...

British Mark IV Female Tank, taken during training at Bovington Camp in 1917. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t imagine how terrifying they were as they relentlessly lumbered through the mud, the blood and the smoke towards the enemy. Larger than any such machine before, these riveted behemoths trundled towards the Germans. Traditional warfare in the trenches normally happened at a snail’s pace and the British secretly developed tanks as a means to break the deadlock. Not wanting to alert the enemy, they used the word “tank” in order to obscure their real purpose. I guess “armoured fighting vehicle” would be a give away.

They had high hopes for the new machine, but they were slow, unreliable and vulnerable to artillery. However, they were impervious to small arms fire and could ignore most trenches and barbed wire. Although there were serious shortcomings in the early models, they showed promise. I’ve always loved tanks. The ancient armies had their chariots and the knights had their horses, but for me, the tank is the most noble steed of all. After that first indecisive battle, the British persisted and just about everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. The worst thing about trench warfare was the lack of movement, so what’s not to like about a moveable trench? Especially one bristling with guns?

By the time WW2 broke out, tanks were more reliable, much faster and they had turret mounted guns giving a 360 degree arc of fire. They also packed more of a punch. In response to bigger guns, tank armour became thicker but as in any arms race, there are always losers. Someone trundling round in an older tank facing an enemy in a brand new model could look forward to a short and very bad day. Tanks have their limitations. Cut off from infantry support, they are quickly overwhelmed. Their lack of manoeuvrability makes them vulnerable in an urban setting. However, on an open battlefield, they are masters of their craft.

Alas, I think the tank will soon go the way of the chariot and the knight. There are helicopters that can sneak over the horizon and nail a tank before the crew even know about it. Drones are in regular use and it won’t be long before there are swarms of them on every battlefield seeking out armoured vehicles. Infantry anti-tank weapons grow ever more sophisticated. There are only three conflicting ways to counter these threats; stealth, mobility and armour. A heavily armoured tank won’t be that mobile and will be easy to spot. A lighter tank, although fleet of foot and harder to spot will be easy pickings.

It may all be irrelevant, because future wars will probably be fought in cyberspace. Those that aren’t will probably be fought at a much smaller, possibly biological scale.

Maybe someone will develop a “nanotank”.

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On a scale of 1 to 10…

Risk

Risk (Photo credit: avyfain)

If you ever want investment advice – especially if you reside in the UK, an advisor will ask you to fill in a survey all about risk. I understand why these surveys exist, after all, the advisor needs to make sure you understand the concept of risk versus reward and pitch investment advice to you that is appropriate to how you feel.

By necessity, the survey is relatively simple consisting of statements like “Compared to the average person, I would say I take more risks” and you then tick a box to show how strongly you agree or disagree with the statement.

But who’s the average person and what do you consider a risk? I wouldn’t try anything like skydiving and I’m not too keen on the idea of deep-sea diving, but I do recognise that any kind of reward comes with risk. There’s even a risk of doing nothing because depending on your situation, the lack of action could leave you considerably worse off. If you’re standing in a burning building, you probably take a different view on the risk of jumping out the window.

I find such forms very difficult to fill in because my answers to the questions can vary wildly depending on which aspect of my life you are talking about. I have a very different attitude to the risk I take when I buy a £2 lottery ticket compared with one of those £50 tickets at the airport to win a car. It depends on so many factors; the amount of outlay, the potential reward and the likelihood of winning (or as is more often the case – losing).

When it comes to investment, it’s even more complicated. My attitude to risk changes with timescale, so I have a different attitude about the investment that’s supposed to pay off my mortgage compared to my retirement fund. The age at which you can retire in this country is galloping over the horizon so I’m fairly relaxed about taking some risk because a lot can happen between now and then.

It also depends on where in the world you are talking about. We have people in the western world doing essentially the same job as their counterparts a few thousand miles to the East, but we earn orders of magnitude more money. There is a considerable rebalancing that’s going to play out over the coming years which will affect the likelihood of growth in each area. Asser class makes a difference too. We have a saying “safe as houses.” I imagine many people across Europe and America take a very different view about the relative risks of investing in housing since the sub prime market imploded five or six years ago.

And it interest rates start going up or America decides that what the world really needs is another war – it will all change again. Maybe I’ll fill out 10 different forms.

Responsibility

English: A girl caresses a snail after having ...

English: A girl caresses a snail after having worked in the garden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t know what the opposite of green fingered is – grey fingered? Whatever it is, that’s what I am. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the flora on our planet, after all, if it wasn’t around, we would soon run out of oxygen. It’s just that I don’t want the responsibility of looking after it.

It’s no great surprise that both our front garden and back garden are tiled over. No mowing the lawn for us. Although, there are still weeds that find their way through the cracks in the stones as if to mock us.

We have a neighbour, however, who adores her garden. Her front garden is set out in a Japanese style with a path that winds its way through to the front door. In her back garden, she likes to grow vegetables. She told me a gardening story today which tickled me and I just had to share it.

There is a 4-year-old boy who lives in the neighbourhood. He often appears when our neighbour is knee-deep in gardening, keen to help. Today was no exception. Our neighbour tended her garden and the boy kept watch. After a short delay, he spotted a snail crawling across her path and asked if he could take it. Our neighbour considered the request carefully. After all, in the past she saw him stamping on snails and throwing them into his pond.

“I’ll make you a deal. You can have the snail as long as you promise not to hurt it. No stamping on it and no drowning the poor thing.”

The boy’s face contorted as he weighed up the deal in front of him. On the one hand was the prize, a nice juicy, fat snail. On the other were the heady responsibilities it came with. After a short delay, he made up his mind and nodded vociferously. Our neighbour, duty bound by the agreement handed over the snail.

After a short delay, to her considerable dismay, she saw the boy cast the snail into his pond.

“I thought you promised not to drown the snail?” her challenge.

“What does drown mean?” his response.

The leadership lesson of the day is when you make any kind of agreement, make sure you understand what you are getting into. It’s also worthwhile making sure the other party understands their obligations too. Could save a lot of upset down the track.

Gamification

Andrew contacted me after reading my post about Jane McGonigal and asked whether I’d like to share his Infographic about gamification on this site. I’m impressed by his work and I’m happy to share it;

Please include attribution to OnlineBusinessDegree.org with this graphic

Winning at Their Own Game: The Business Benefits of Gamification

Home sweet home

English: The interior of a migrant ship to Ame...

English: The interior of a migrant ship to America At the Ulster American Folk Park, the transition from the Irish display to the New World is made by boarding a (static) ship and emerging in America. This is the interior. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a unique museum just outside Omagh in Northern Ireland called the Ulster American Folk Park. Set in delightful countryside, the museum aims to tell the story of how the natives used to live and follows those that emigrated overseas to seek new opportunities in the new land of America.

As you walk through the park, the buildings start from the simplest of hovels and progress along the evolutionary scale until you come to a wooden sailing ship in the centre of the park. All the buildings before the ship reflect what life was like through the ages in Northern Ireland. The buildings that follow the ship reflect the lives of those who chose to settle on the other side of the Atlantic.

Inside the ship itself, the exhibit tells the story of what the emigrants went through during their long sea voyage. As if the voyage wasn’t hard enough, they were ensured a frosty reception at the other end with many sent back because of suspected disease. It seems even back then, the Americans were particularly choosy about who they let in.

The park is very interesting and well worth a visit. One of the things I find most interesting about the place is how housing technology changes over time. In the space of a few hundred years, the humble abode evolved from little more than a cave through a single room hut right up to multi-storeyed, multi-roomed, stone built dwellings. At the end of the park, although the timeline hasn’t moved beyond the 19th century, the technology used is not that different from brand new houses being built today.

Sure, there have been advances in glazing technology which means windows are no longer single glazed, they’re double or even triple glazed. Homes are built with more advanced materials with less environmental impact, but the majority of new houses today still have four walls and a pitched, tiled roof. Modern heating means less chimneys, but the silhouette of a modern dwelling is broadly the same.

When I was young, I used to think that we would all be living in space or under the sea. Or maybe a troglodytic existence in an underground labyrinth of tunnels. I assumed that we would use far more advanced materials than merely bricks. Houses would have a fusion reactor to provide energy. Windows would be extra-dimensional spaces which would have whatever you wanted on the other side of them. Fancy looking out on Lake Geneva – no problem.

There would be no need to clean or even decorate. Drones would wake up now and then and take care of the dusty corners and usher out the occasional rogue spider that breached the laser defences. Instead, we all live in houses that our Great-grandparents would feel right at home in.

My science fiction itch

Sketch of Larry Niven's "Ringworld"

Sketch of Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve always been fascinated with anything futuristic. My favourite viewing as a child ranged from the Tomorrow People through to Logan’s Run and everything in between. When the Star Wars films came out, I was in heaven. Although I liked the science fiction represented on TV and in the cinema, it took me a long time to grow a liking for literary science fiction.

I tried many books, but found that most of them lacked the raw guttural excitement of what I’d seen on screen. I found myself drawn to fantasy fiction. Somehow, the reverse was true. Most fantasy films were pretty ropey when compared to the best of the written word. Of course, these days we are spoilt with Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit & Game of Thrones.

Lately though, I have a science fiction itch that I can’t quite scratch, so I find myself steadily ploughing through the SF Masterworks series from Orion Publishing. I can pick them up for a song from my favourite disorganised bookshop. I started with the Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Published almost 40 years ago, the novel still seems fresh and follows the life of a soldier in an interstellar war against the Taurans. The war ebbs and flows as both sides learn from the conflicts. Straight after this, I read Tau Zero by Poul Anderson which is even older. The bed-hopping colonists in the book suddenly realise there is something terribly wrong with their ship. Although the scope of the novel is epic – the destruction and rebirth of the Universe – I can’t help being disappointed with the ending.

Larry Niven‘s Ringworld was next – again, an old book. Published in the year I was born, it follows an unlikely group of 4 voyagers setting out to explore a the massive ring like construct of the title. The story bounces along at a jaunty pace and the characters grow throughout the book. Of the three, this was the best so far. What struck me about each of these books was the role that physics plays in the story. They almost read like stories made up to illustrate the theory of relativity.

More recently, I read the Demolished Man which is the oldest so far. In a world full of people who can read minds – how can you murder someone? An intriguing concept and the story proceeds at a breakneck pace. Of all the books – it is very difficult to believe that this was written over half a century ago. It feels so fresh. Highly recommended!

Right now, I’m reading Hyperion. A massively imaginative tale of a group of pilgrims heading to a religious site on the planet of the title. The story unfolds in a Canterbury Tales-esque fashion with each character telling their story. Of course each tale is intertwined and quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. This is the most recent tale and the first to convince me to seek out the sequels. My disorganised bookshop doesn’t carry them, so I’ll have to pay full price – but somehow, I’m convinced they are worth it!

What else should I read to scratch my science fiction itch?

No heart attack problem!

Part of the tunnel complex at Củ Chi, this tun...

Part of the tunnel complex at Củ Chi, this tunnel has been made wider and taller to accommodate tourists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We were all exhausted. The man next door to me held my arm as he sat down. Then he lay down. In some fairly uncomfortable looking undergrowth. His breathing was slow, laboured.

All of a sudden, I heard screaming from behind me. I moved back out of the way as two women from our party rushed over and ripped the man’s shirt open. They started cardiac massage and mouth to mouth resuscitation. They seemed to know what they were doing.

We were in Vietnam visiting the Cu-Chi tunnels. A couple of years before we were born, a battle raged here between the United States and the Viet Cong guerilla army. The Viet Cong lived and fought from the tunnels. They covered a massive area. I don’t remember how many Viet Cong the tour guide told us, but I remember thinking that something like the population of my home town lived down there in the darkness.

The Americans tried many different ways of destroying the tunnels. They tried dropping bombs. They assaulted the tunnels on foot. They tried gas and boiling water. They even trained some small guys (called tunnel rats) to infiltrate the tunnels armed with little more than a pistol, a knife, some string and a torch. I can’t imagine the horrors they experienced. Despite all the efforts of the good old US of A, the tunnels persisted and were a major factor of the outcome of the conflict.

The Viet Cong were tiny and their tunnels commensurately so. They were far too small for us tourists. A small section of tunnel specially widened was available for us to crawl through. I was keen to experience what it was like down there. Julie was less convinced, especially when the tour guide said over and over in his Vietnamese accent “No-one with heart attack problem down tunnel”.

“You’re not going down there are you?”

“Absolutely.”

“Oh my God – that means I have to go with you!”

I don’t have a “heart attack problem” but I do take tablets for blood pressure. I looked at some of the people getting ready to descend into the tunnel. If they can do it – I can do it. We climbed down a ladder into a small chamber before climbing down further into the tunnel. For some reason, I assumed the tunnel would be cool. It wasn’t. It was claustrophobic and hot. It was also dark. We had to crawl along in single file. I quickly realised that with a man in front of me and Julie behind, there was no quick way out. It was also very hard work.

The man in the bushes was not doing well. One of the women attending to him kept screaming for a doctor. The other kept screaming for oxygen. The tour guide apologetically said “This is third world country – no oxygen”. A Vietnamese man with a stethoscope appeared briefly but I suspect I knew more about medicine than he did.

Unfortunately, that was the last holiday for that man – he didn’t make it. I’m sure if he was at a tourist attraction somewhere in the Western world, he might have fared better.

My data – it’s just so big!

Regional ship on the amazon river

Regional ship on the amazon river (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every day we produce 2.5 Exabytes of data. How big is an exabyte? It’s a quintillion bytes. How many in a quintillion? 1 followed by 18 zeroes. Still struggling to visualise it? A quintillion pennies, if laid edge to edge, would cover the Earth two deep. If arranged in a cube, would measure 5 miles a side.

You can’t go to a conference these days without someone telling you that we produce more data today in the blink of a gnat’s eye than we did from the dawn of creation up to when something happened a long time ago. Every day, more people start using the Internet. More people join social networks. More social networks are created. More connected devices are manufactured. They all produce data.

Despite the soundbites, I doubt anyone really knows how much data we produce now, let alone how much we produced 10 or 20 years ago. Any figures you hear must be based on estimates on top of estimates, but no-one doubts we are producing a lot and over time the amount of data we produce increases at an ever-growing pace.

When it’s growing this fast and when we have this much, coping with it becomes a challenge. It’s a bit like trying to analyse the Amazon river. Every second, the Amazon spits out roughly 55 million gallons. Even the largest tank in the world would fill in less than a heartbeat. We have to use a different strategy. Either we sample the water every so often and extrapolate or we find a way whereby when something we’re interested in passes by – we get a message.

It’s no surprise that the software industry recognises the need to process and analyse all this data and it’s even less of a surprise that buzzwords have come about to describe the process. Big data is big business and it’s easy to see why. By analysing weather patterns, large retail chains can make a good guess about what’s going to sell and stock their shops accordingly. By analysing web searches, astonishingly accurate predictions can be made about election results or the potential success of a film or a music artist.

However clever all this seems, I can’t help thinking that we are like toddlers discovering our first toy. The potential in all this data is enormous. Who knows, we may be able to predict earthquakes, volcano eruptions, traffic jams, epidemics and murders by analysing everything from how many big macs are eaten in Bolton through to the water temperature in Tahiti.

Europe – are we united or divided and do we care?

European Union

European Union (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The history of Europe over the centuries looks like a battlefield both literally and figuratively. Every so often, the powerful countries of the United Kingdom, France and Germany would fall out over something or other and go to war. World War 2 was the last such conflict and it has now been nearly 70 years since that war came to an end.

We have enjoyed nigh on 7 decades of relative peace, thanks in no small part to the European Union. The UK wasn’t interested to start with and applied to join a few years after the start only to be vetoed by the French. We persisted and joined the community in 1973.

Our relationship with Europe has been tumultuous ever since and there is a growing groundswell of opinion among the general public that we would be better off outside the European Union. Indeed, the UK Independence Party, started some 20 years ago with an exit from the community as their central policy. For many years, they gained little or no traction but recently, their share of the vote grew dramatically. So much so that the Conservative party promised a referendum on membership of the European Union should they win the next general election.

Because we live in a democracy, we are bound to follow the wishes of the majority. If they want us out, then out we must go. Sky News recently carried out the first in-depth survey to show what people’s voting intentions would be, why they would vote that way and what would make them change their mind (if anything). The results show a country broadly split down the middle with 51% in favour of leaving and 49% wanting to stay. The number one issue cited in the survey is immigration.

I hope that when it comes to the referendum proper, people vote with a clear understanding of what’s at stake either way. This mustn’t be a protest vote. It mustn’t be an emotional knee-jerk reaction or based on reminiscing about the fact that we once stood alone and we can do it again – us against the world. The issue is far too important. By all means, vote for what you want – but make sure you have a reasonable understanding about what you will gain and what you will lose.

As for me, I remain broadly in favour of the UK staying in the European Union. I understand there are drawbacks but I think we gain more than we lose. I think if we leave, much of the foreign companies we’ve attracted to invest over the years may well reconsider. I believe trade will gradually become more difficult and we will lose a lot of influence. According to the Independent newspaper, we gain from immigrants into the UK and if we stopped them coming, it would cost us £18Bn over the next 5 years. I like the way that people can move freely around Europe.

David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative party has pledged to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU so the club might have different rules when we get to the ballot box. If he can swing our membership such that it becomes more economic and less political then it should give a boost to the stay vote. It worries me that a large percentage of the respondents to the Sky News poll would not change their voting intentions no matter what.

What about you – shall we stay or shall we go? Why? Do you care?

Building culture

River Gade and the Kodak building, Hemel Hempstead

River Gade and the Kodak building, Hemel Hempstead (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was my first day in a new job and coincidentally the first time I saw the office building in which I was to work. It was a plain, red brick, shoebox shaped affair. It must have taken all of 5 minutes work for the architect to come up with the design. Inside, the fittings were elderly and tatty. When I reached the door to our particular office, I took a moment to take in the atmosphere.

It was untidy. In one corner, a pool table sagged under the weight of old computer equipment. There were shelves everywhere struggling to support the myriad of computer books, some of which wouldn’t look out-of-place in the British Museum. The whole place reeked of quiet industry, everyone far too busy to even think about tidying up.

The company had just been acquired and a move to smarter premises was afoot. We moved into a floor of Kodak House, the tallest building in Hertfordshire. Although the building itself is drab on the outside, no expense was spared on the internal fixtures and fittings. Although it was nice to have such a pleasant place to work, there was a part of me that missed the atmosphere of the old office.

We weren’t there for too long before we moved into a brand new state of the art building. It looks very space age from the outside with vanes that track the angle of the sun to shade the building from excess sunshine. Unfortunately, they don’t work. They track the sun OK, but unfortunately don’t block it out so they are effectively useless. In fact they are worse than useless, because a man has to come out in a cherry picker now and then with a big spanner to tighten the nuts. If it gets too windy, the vanes blow off in spectacular fashion threatening to decapitate any passers-by.

Not only that, but the air conditioning is poorly configured. We are on the ground floor and we freeze. The guys on the top floor get so hot they cook so there’s no air conditioning setting to keep everyone in the building happy. The landlord’s solution – to fit heaters on the bottom floor so that we can keep out the worst of the chill. It’s such a clunky, inefficient fix but at least we don’t freeze anymore. The feeling of quiet industry is still there but there is more of a pride in keeping the place tidy.

We managed to maintain the culture despite occupying 3 very different office buildings. It was not the same story when I worked for BP. We had an aging tower block in the town centre, part of which was condemned. The office culture was amazing – everyone knew everyone else, despite it being a large building. We moved to a purpose-built affair close to the motorway. The building, allegedly in the style of a country manor house, won many awards for its architecture. Unfortunately, the layout of the place meant you were unlikely to bump into many other people day-to-day. Almost instantaneously, the buzz about the place died.

Our working environment has a big effect on the culture that exists within so it’s no wonder that companies like Google and Apple spend so much money on providing world-class office blocks for their employees to thrive in. In doing so, they need to be very careful they don’t lose their culture along the way.