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COVID-19: What Can We Do to Reduce Social Distancing March 27, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in biology, COVID-19, off-topic, science.
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Summary

The impact of COVID-19 on our society and our economy is going to be long and hard. I hope I am not the first to come up with this idea, but just in case…

Having everyone on lock-down on and off for months will be hard to maintain. But not everyone will need to be in lock-down. You do not need to be locked down if you are immune.

I think we need to look at having a “COVID-19 Immunity Card” – you get the card to prove that you are probably immune to COVID-19 and that you are no longer a danger to others and are not in danger yourself.

Once you have a card you no longer have to abide by social distancing measures in the same way as those not immune. You are also a known “safe” person who can interact with those who are not. This would be particularly reassuring in the “caring” industries.

The number of people with cards will grow over time due to:

  • People being diagnosed with the disease and recovering – not many yet.
  • People being tested and found to have had the disease (possibly without knowing and have recovered) – coming soon?
  • People who have been vaccinated against it – future group.

There are potentially serous drawbacks to this idea. Such a card would be a source of division for as long as we have them and they would be a huge target for criminal activity, but it could help us “sleep with the tiger” of COVID-19.

It could/would allow our economy, health services, and society function more effectively whilst we are living with COVID-19.

Background – Once we “stop” COVID-19 this time, we have a problem…

The UK, like a growing number of countries, is now in a strong, country-wide, social shut-down. The aim is to suppress COVID-19 (see COVID-19: What’s Going To Happen Now ) i.e. drop the levels of person-to-person transmission (The “R” number) below 1. If each person with COVID_19 infects fewer than 1 other person on average, the spread stops. Quickly. It will take another 2-3 weeks for those already infected or sick (as of the date I am writing this, 27/3/20) to develop the symptoms and possibly need hospital treatment, so between now and mid-April we will see cases continuing to rise rapidly, followed by the number of deaths.

Then, something like Mid-April onwards, new cases will drop and, less slowly, the number of deaths.

COVID-19 will have been stopped. However, it will not have gone away, it will still be in the population. If we relax the social isolation we are currently living under, it will start spreading again and we will have another outbreak. Why? As only a small percentage of the population will be immune to the SARS-COV-2 virus. Governments are giving the impression that we will have “beaten COVID-19!” at this point, when the first peak of cases has come and gone, but the scientific consensus is clear that it will return if we all start living normally again. There are several studies going on at present to model what we can do and how. For example, China is relaxing restrictions and the world-wide epidemiological community is watching. For example, this Imperial College Paper on how China is coming out of strict social distancing is interesting.

I think of this as sleeping with a tiger that we don’t want to wake up.

The Imperial/WHO/MRC paper does cover all of this and suggests a way of relaxing social isolation steps and re-introducing them, over a 2 year period. The chances are, this is all going to go on far longer than most people realise and way longer than any of us want!

Reasoning on why COVID-19 will be with us “until something changes”.

The rest of this post is me being an “Armchair Epidemiologist” – proposing untested ideas with only a tenuous grasp of the true facts. But I thought I would put this out there. Note, there will be a lack of links to any solid references from this point. When you see this in articles discussing scientific ideas, it usually indicates it is a thought experiment.

There is general scientific consensus that, if we had better testing, the Case Fatality Rate would be about 1-2%. Case Fatality Rate (CFR) is the percentage of diagnosed cases that die. What we actually need is the Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) of COVID-19:- Taking into account all people who get the disease (whether they show symptoms or not or were tested or not) what is the percentage of people who die. See the Wikipedia entry on CFR for more details of CFR and IFR.

IFR is being argued about by the scientific community as you have to test a large, random set of people to see how common the disease is and testing by most countries is limited to suspected cases. Thus estimates are being made. The really good news is that the estimates of IFR are a lot lower than CFR. numbers seem to vary from 0.2% to 0.6%. See this pre-print of an article on CFR/IFR  and this paper by Nuffield Primary Care Health Sciences  at Oxford University. I’ll be pessimistic and take 0.5%

I am assuming the  Infection Fatality Rate is 0.5%

The reason we need the Infection Fatality Rate is that we can then calculate the number of infected people from the number of people who died – ONCE number of infection and deaths have reduced to low numbers again. You can’t do this (well, I can’t) when the number of new cases or deaths is increasing.

If 10,000 people die in the peak of cases we are currently enduring, if it is killing 0.5% of people and ICU limits are NOT exceeded, that means 2 million people will be immune once the peak has passed (as 99.5% of that 2 million have it and survive).

However, 64 Million will not be immune.

As has been described, we could now relax social distancing and let businesses and the economy start up to some degree again – but then tighten up social distancing again when cases or ICU admissions rise. We have a series of mini-outbreaks.

We have a population of 66 million. At 2 Million becoming immune in each “Outbreak”, we would need 20 outbreaks to get to a level of people who have had the disease where herd immunity is stopping the disease spreading – 60% or 44 or so million people (but we would still have 22 million susceptible to the disease).

With a peak every 2 months (so no single one exceeds the expanded capabilities of our NHS) getting to 60% immunity would take… several years. This is why all those discussions about getting herd immunity in weeks or months is, frankly, naive. We could only have that happen if we did not control the outbreak.

It might be that we can work out a level of social distancing that allows the economy to keep some semblance of normality and the COVID-19 cases at a level the NHS can keep up with, but that is a very, very fine tightrope to walk.

In any case, if we do not simply let COVID-19 rip through our society (killing more people than it would if controlled, as it vastly overwhelms the health services) we have to sleep with the tiger until we we have another option. But I think there is a way to make sleeping with the tiger more comfortable.

People will become immune to SARS-COV-2

A reliable, widely available test for seeing if someone has had COVID-19 and is now resistant to the  SARS-COV-2 is desperately needed and, I think, will become available soon – in a couple of months, long before a vaccine arrives.

We will then have 2 ways of knowing someone is immune:

  • Those who were tested positive for COVID and survived. They are immune.
  • Those that pass an antibody test. They are probably immune – depending on the reliability of the test. There could be several tests that have different levels of reliability.

These people can be given an “I am immune” card and they will not be limited (at least not so much) in lock downs.

Initially there will only be a hundred thousand people who can have the card, as they have been identified by testing to have had COVID_19,  have got better, and are now immune . But, crucially, a disproportionately high percentage of them will be NHS and first responder workers. This is because those groups are suffering very high exposure to COVID-19, by the very nature of what they do. The ranks of these groups are (and will continue to be) literally decimated by COVID-19. Lots and lots and lots of nurses, doctors, lab staff, cleaners, police, paramedics, GPs are going to be in the first wave getting ill.

Once we have the cheap, reliable antibody test , we can look for the rest of the 2 million.

As you can see, the more testing we do, both for having COVID-19 or for having antibodies against SARS-COV-2, the more people we can give an immunity card.

Over time, especially if we have further outbreaks, the number of people who are immune and are found via the above will increase.

Later, when vaccines are developed, there will be a third group of people we can count as immune:

  • Those who are vaccinated
  • Better still, those who are vaccinated and are latter tested for (and pass) an antibody test.

The first vaccines are likely to not be very effective – think the low end of the level of protection the annul ‘flu vaccines achieve, 20-40%. The antibody tests to confirm you have immune to SARS-COV-2 might also vary. But the details on the card will give which tests and vaccines you have had.

The card will hold details of why the person is immune, what test(s) were used to identify they had the disease, what vaccine(s) they had had, and when these events occurred. Minimal details would be held on the card itself.

A central database would hold the details of vaccination & test efficacy, corroborative information about the person etc.

If the reliability of historical tests or vaccinations change, then the immunity status of the individual may change.

The database of information would of course need to be well secured, kept in more than one place (so that a single IT disaster does not destroy all this key information) and protected. These are technical problems that can be solved.

Drawbacks off the COVID-19 Immunity Card

The cards will need to be very reliable, trusted, and protected from abuse.

Both the data they hold (or link to) and the information about the person the card is for needs to be highly dependable. The data needs to specify which sort of immunity this person has, when they were ill (if they have been) or tested, when any vaccine(s) were administered and when. It may turn out that immunity to SARS-COV-2 will reduce over time (that is, our immune systems “forget” about the disease) and the virus may mutate over time such that it avoids our immune response (whether natural or via vaccine).

The link to the person will need to be reliable, so no one can use a stolen or fake card. Obviously pictures, basic information, etc need to be on the card for a quick check, and information on the card links to a data source that can be used to further check identity and give more detailed information about immunity, such as may be needed if the person is in a medical situation.

It strikes me that this is a perfect use for blockchain. Each card, the data associated with it, when & how it is updates, can be accurately tracked in a way that is very, very hard to fake.

The data and the card should link to nothing else. There would be a temptation to be able cross reference the medical data with socioeconomic data, geographic information, even information about shopping habits to see if there are any correlations between between these factors and how people respond to COVID-19. This would be a nightmare as it introduces questions of consent, privacy, abuse of the data, fear of being spied upon.  Ensuring this card is for one purpose alone, with no link to anything else, would reduce the next drawback.

ID cards by the back door.

This will effectively be introducing ID cards, which some people object to strongly on moral or philosophical grounds. I’m not going to do more than note that this is an issue and observe that many societies have ID cards already. If these cards are kept to this one purpose, it would help make them more acceptable.

Criminality

Of course, as soon as such a valuable thing as a card that allows you to avoid social limitations is available, some people will want one, even though they know they are not immune. Criminals will want to create and sell them, so we need something, probably several things, (again, like a blockchain identifier on the card) to help guard against this. I would also suggest we would want to see strong punishment of individuals who try to use a fake card or get one by deceit. After all, these are probably the same selfish gits who bought all the toilet paper. As for criminals trying to make and sell fake cards, the punishments would be draconian – they would be putting a lot of people at risk.

Two-Tier Society

The cards would by their nature split society. Those who have a card would have more freedom. Those who do not would not.

Some people would never be able to get a card as they are immunocompromised  or similarly unable to be vaccinated.

Human nature says some people would discriminate or persecute people who are not immune if there was a way to identify this. I actually see this as the main reason to not have such a card.

Laws would be required to back up a repeated and strong message about why such discrimination is utterly wrong.

SARS-COV-2 Could Change

We do not yet know how the virus underlying COVID-19 will change over time. It is mutating – but ALL life mutates. We use the mutation to track how SARS-COV-2 has spread across the globe and the mutations, so far, are not known to alter it’s infection rate or how it impacts people (though I think I have seen some suggestions about this on social media that are more trustworthy than general scuttle).

However if it turns out that C-19 becomes C-23 and C-28 etc like Influenzela A, the card scheme still works but you are now stuck with identity cards and potential discrimination against those who are not immune etc.

End Life of the cards

I would want to see an agreed termination point for the cards stated when they are brought in. They or the data they link to will be deleted utterly in 3 years time. This can only be changed by a cross-political-party agreement.

 

That’s my idea. If you have any comments – for, against, highlight things I have wrong – I would love to hear.

COVID-19: What’s Going To Happen Now March 24, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in biology, COVID-19, off-topic, Perceptions, Private Life, science.
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I thought I’d record what the scientific evidence and epidemiological modelling is saying about what is going to happen in respect of COVID-19 in the UK (and, to some extent, elsewhere) over the next weeks and months. As with my intro to COVID-19 this post is mostly “for me”. I’m sharing it but please, please, treat all of this post (not the science I link to!) with some scepticism.

The figures are shocking so I want to spell out right at the start that, if our governments does what it needs to do and does it right (and over the last 2 or 3 weeks the UK government has fallen a tad short on this, but it’s improving) in the end over 99% of us will be OK. If they get it wrong, it’s more like 97% of us will come through this.

And, I feel it is important to say:

90% of even high risk people will also be OK.

I strongly feel that the message is constantly that it is the at-risk people who are dying and not that most people at risk will be OK. Yes, COVID-19 is more of a danger to those over 70 and those with underlying medical conditions, but with the media and government constantly saying “the people who died are old” etc it makes it sound like COVID-19 is a death sentence to them – and it is not.

Yes, I’m quite angry about that that poor messaging.

Source of Epidemiological information

ICU beds needed per 100,000 people

My main source is This paper by Imperial College in collaboration with the World Health Organisation and British Medical Research Council. If you can, please read this paper. It spells out how COVID-19 will spread and what happens when the NHS intensive care unit (ICU) beds are all full. It’s a hard read in two ways.  It is technically dense; and it says things people are still refusing to believe:

  • If we had done nothing and had an infinite number of critical care beds, it would burn through the population of the UK (and all other countries) in 3 months, infecting 81% of people. At that point herd immunity stops it.
  • In the UK 510,000 people would die (COVID-19 kills about 1% of people even with ICU treatment). 2.2M would die in the USA.
  • At the time of publication of the report, the “mitigation” plans by the UK government would have failed to stop even more deaths (more than 1%) as the NHS would have been overwhelmed by the 2nd week of April.
  • At the peak we would have needed 30 times the number of ICU beds we have.
  • The paper does not fully spell this out, but if you need an ICU bed and there is not one, you will almost certainly die. Thus the death rate would be more like 2.3% {Note, that is my figure, I have not spotted it in the report. It is based on 4.4% of the population needing hospitalisation and 30% of them needing critical care, figures that are in the report}. I’ll let you work that out based on the UK population of 66.5 million. OK, it’s about 1.17 million.

These figures are truly scary. They won’t happen now as it shocked our government enough to ramp up the social isolation. If anyone questions why we need the social isolation, give them the figures. If they refuse to believe them,  tell them to read the paper and various articles based on it and point out where they are significantly wrong. If they won’t, thank them for their baseless “opinion”.

The calculation of 510,000 deaths in the UK did not factor in self-isolating naturally, as we all saw people fall ill and die. That would slow down the disease.

However, if the hospital is full to absolute bursting capacity with COVID-19 patients, any person who needs ICU care for other illnesses (cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke) or accident. How do you fit them in? Deaths for other reasons will increase.

One thing I am not sure of is that in the paper critical care is stated as “invasive mechanical ventilation or ECMO”. If you need just a ventilator and one is not available, I’m pretty sure you would also be likely to die or suffer brain and other organ damage from oxygen deprivation.

As I understand it, this report is what made the UK and other governments take COVID-19 a lot more seriously and really understand the need to implement strict social isolation.

I’d like to say why I put so much trust in this source:

  1. The three organisations behind it are all highly respected (WHO, MRC, and Imperial College)
  2. They state clearly at the top their assumptions – the R number, incubation period, types of social isolation, the percentage of people who will comply with each one.
  3. They created a model that was then verified by running the numbers and seeing if it predicted what had happened in reality to that point.
  4. The subject matter experts I follow have all endorsed this piece of work.

Mitigation or Suppression

The Imperial College report spells out the distinction between Mitigation and Suppression:

Mitigation is where you reduce the R number (the number of people each infected person in turn infects) down from the natural number of around 2.4 but it is still above 1. At this rate the disease continues to spread and the number of cases per day continues to increase, but more slowly. The idea seems to be that it would lead to herd immunity. This was the UK governments aim until Monday 16th March.

Suppression is where you reduce the R number below 1. Within a few weeks the disease is no longer spreading. But it is still there in the population. This is what Wuhan did and Italy is making progress on.

To achieve mitigation the government isolated people infected, asked those who had had contact with them to self isolate, and asked us all to wash our hands and keep a distance and think about working from home. The impact on daily life, business, the economy is minimal. Further steps would be introduced later, like closing universities and schools.

The Imperial college report demonstrated that mitigation was a terrible idea as the number of cases would still explode, but just be delayed a little, and the NHS would be absolutely overwhelmed.

The graph at the top of this article shows the mitigation steps being considered and how it only shifted the curve and did not lower to anywhere like the NHS ICU capacity. It was simply not enough.

Isolation involves the sort of steps most of us would have previously thought only an authoritarian regime like China or North Korea could manage. Schools, universities and non-critical business shut, everyone not doing a critical job made to stay at home except to buy food etc. Basically, Wuhan. And now Italy is doing very similar. As of the 23rd March the UK is following suit.

Most western countries are now implementing many of the steps needed for isolation levels that will suppress COVID-19, but not all the steps needed.

The graph to the right shows the impact of two implementations of Isolation, both implementing several measures but the orange line does not include closing schools and universities. The green line does. The green line keeps the number of cases within the NHS ICU capactiy, the orange does not. That is why schools and universities were closed.

The graph also makes the point about the main problem with Isolation. It is only stopping the virus spreading, it is NOT getting rid of it. Remember, no one is immune unless they have had COVID-19. When the steps to enforce isolation are relaxed, COVID-19 will burst back.

This is potentially the position that China is in. They have locked down Wuhan province tightly and it worked. The number of cases there rocketed even after the lock-down but have since reduced, almost as fast as they increased. China as a whole now have very few new cases. The lock-down is being relaxed as I prepare this post. Epidemiologists expect the number of cases in China to increase again.

The degree to which either mitigation or suppression is enforced obviously impacts society and commerce. The Imperial College report makes the point that they are not addressing those concerns, they are simply saying what social isolation changes will have what effect on COVID_19 spread, deaths, and the ability of the NHS to cope.

Delayed impact.

UK daily cases to March 20th, Italy deaths to March 20.

This next point is being made widely, by both non-scientific observers and the scientific community, but I want to re-iterate it as it is so far being played down by government (which could be changing at the very moment I am typing).

There is no way to avoid the huge increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths that are going to happen in the UK over the next 2-3 weeks. Expect our levels to be the same levels as Italy. In fact, expect them to be 20, 30% higher. This is because the UK government were too slow to lock down and did it in stages when, based on the epidemiology, we should have shut down totally on Monday 16th when the paper I reference was published, or within 2 days to allow for planning.

Up until now COVID-19 has been spreading exponentially (1 person has it, passes it to 2-3 people. They pass it to 4 people who pass it to 8…16…. 32… 64… 128… 256… 512… 1024). This has been seen in the way the number of case had double every 3-4 days, deaths are now following the same pattern.

The two graphs to the right show the number of cases in the UK to the 20th March above, and the number of deaths in Italy to the 20th. They look like the same graph as they sort of are. This is how something grows exponentially when the growth rate is the same – the same as both cases and deaths are caused by the same thing.

(these graphs are from Worldometers – I use this site as I think the John Hopkins site has more incorrect information on it).

Covid-19 takes on average 5.1 days to show symptoms from when you catch it (this can be up to 2 weeks – with all these averages there will be some cases which are two or three times as long). It takes less time, 4.6 days on average, from when you catch it to when you spread it. So you can spread the disease before you get ill. And some people do not get ill (or only very mildly) and spread it. Like “Typhoid Mary”. If you are going to be ill enough to need hospitalisation it takes 5 days from first symptoms for you to deteriorate to that point.. At this point you will be admitted to hospital, tested, and will join the number of confirmed cases. If you are going to die (I know, this sounds really callous) that is another few days. The report does not spell it out but going on the figures they use for time spent in intensive care in the model, about a week.

Add it all together and someone who dies of COVID-19 today caught it 15-20 days ago on average, so the spike will be delayed that much.

Yesterday, 23rd March, almost total lock-down in the UK was announced. Cases and deaths will rise for 20 more days in the UK. Exponentially. To Italy levels, maybe 20-30% higher. Then they will plateau for a few days and drop quickly, depending on how well people respect the social distancing or are forced to. I am expecting over 9,000 will die in this first spike, with a peak number of deaths between 750 and 900 in one day. Sadly my predictions so far have all been correct or a little too optimistic.

That is the reality and that is why we are seeing the actions of our government that have never been seen outside World Wars before.

Three choices – or is it four?

To summarise the above, there were 3 choices available to the UK (and all other countries):

  1. Let COVID-19 burn through the population in 3 months. It would kill 2-3% of the population as the NHS collapsed and also anyone who needed medical treatment during that time would probably not get it. During the 3 months lots of people would have “bad ‘flu”. 80%  of survivors would be resistant to COVID-19 for now.
  2. Mitigate the impact by the measures implemented in stages during mid-March, reduce the impact a little and stretch the curve a little, and have 1.5-2.5% of the population die over 4 months. 70% of survivors {my guess!} would be resistant to COVID-19 for now.
  3. Suppress COVID-19, 10,000 dead and everyone in lock-down until “something changes”, which could be 18 months or more.  A tiny percent, maybe 5% {my guess} resistant to COVID-19.

The UK government chose option 3, after considering 2 for a while (and thus increasing the death count by, hmmm, 3,000 in that first spike).

The “something changes” in option 3 is that scientist create a vaccine for SARS-COV-2, the underlying organism to COVID-19, or we have a quick and reliable immunity test for it that allows those who have survived the disease to move about unrestricted. See further down in this post. Most of us stay in lock-down until “something changes”

But this Imperial College paper has a solution 4:

Turning social isolation up and down

  1. sorry, 4. I can’t get the layout to work. solution 4 is to
    1. suppress.
    2. Let the known bubble of cases come and deal with it.
    3. Once it has passed, relax (not remove!) the Suppression rules to let business and normal life start up again.
    4. Monitor the number of COVID-19 cases coming into ICU.
    5. When it hits a threshold, back to total lockdown and deal with the next bubble.
    6. Repeat.

It is a clever idea. No one wants to stay at home until a vaccine is created in 18 months. Economically, total lock-down until we have a vaccine would be a disaster. So varying the lock-down based on NHS demand indicators would allow some relief from the restrictions. But not back to normal.

Option 4 comes at a cost. More people will die reach time you relax the lock-down, depending on what is allowed. Much of the rest of the paper details this plan and, based on the figures they state at the top of the report in respect of how many people will abide by the rules, what different isolation strategies and key triggers (how many new COVID-19 ICU cases in a week) to increase isolation levels, gives death rates varying from 8,700 to 120,000. This also takes into account a range of R values (how easy it spreads naturally) as there is still some uncertainty about this.

The paper makes one thing clear – we would need to maintain the isolation levels for suppression for 2 years – their cautious estimate of how long it will be until we have a widely available vaccine.

The best case is deaths creep up (after the initial surge we can no longer avoid) with very strong lockdown only relaxed at very low levels of ICU cases and deaths. I personally doubt very strongly that enough people will abide by the rules for long and, as people start ignoring them, others will feel “why should I play by the rules when they don’t”.

I do not have anything like the understanding of human nature needed to predict how people are going to react so I won’t. But the figures being bandied around a few days of keeping UK deaths to 8,000 or less seem utter fantasy to me.

The “The hammer and the dance” paper…

Some of you may have come across “The hammer and the dance”, which is based on a paper by Tomas Pueyo on “Medium”, a home for science papers that have not been verified by anyone. I would not normally look at things here very much but several people have mentioned the paper or even linked to it. If you recognise the term, you will probably recognise the “dance” part as choice 4 above.

Context is paramount

Lots of numbers are being thrown about, but to understand the true impact of COVID-19 those numbers need to be interpreted in light of some general background.

Let’s start with the base rate of mortality. In the UK there were 541,589 deaths in 2018. That give 9.3 deaths per 1,000 residents. See the office for national statistics article for this figure. Over the year that is 1,483 deaths a day, from all causes. People keep on insisting on comparing COVID-19 to influenza. I’ve struggled to get a definitive number of deaths due to Influenza in the UK but it seems to be between 8,000 and 17,000 a year. Let’s take 17,000 as a top estimate, that is 46 a day.

(you may wonder why it is hard to say how many people die of influenza. Well, influenza kills people who are already seriously ill and likely to die anyway, and I believe not every death attributed to influenza is tested for sure to be influenza.

Our key figures are 1,482 deaths by any means a day and 46 a day from influenza, in the UK.

On the 21st March 56 people in the UK died of COVID-19. More than Influenza, about 4% of the daily mortality rate. Bad, but nothing that significant. In Italy, 793 people died of COVID-19 on 21st March (and it looks like that might be the peak). Our figures in the UK for known diagnoses and deaths are following the Italy pattern very closely (for very good scientific reasons) just 2 weeks behind – 15 days to be more precise. In 15 days the death rate for COVID_19 is likely to be very similar to Italy so, despite my hunch the UK peak will be higher, let’s use Italy’s peak number:

  • 50% of the total death rate for everything in the UK.
  • And 17 times the death rate by ‘flu.

So COVID-19 is incredibly serious,  but it could have been worse. It looks like for a period at least, for each country, it will increase the daily death rate by 50% and maybe more. But it is not killing a large percentages of the population.

I’ve seen some scare stories about this disease sending us back to the dark ages as it kills half the population of the world. Rubbish. It might stop the world population growing for a year.

Why will social distancing last 18 months?

No one is naturally immune to COVID-19 until they have had it. Let’s assume that once you have had it you are immune for several years, as you are with many other viral diseases (Influenza A is a special case as changes so fast and in a way that reduces the effectiveness of both vaccines and immunity via exposure).

We could let COVID-19 spread naturally or at least in a contained way – but it will overwhelm our health services as discussed, and 1-3% of us would die.

The other way is to create a vaccine, which gives immunity or partial immunity without having the disease (or maybe a very mild version of it). Vaccination works, it rid us of smallpox totally and, until the loony anti-vaxxer movement got going, it was vastly reducing measles, rubella and many other diseases.

But creating a vaccine that works is hard. Lots of biomedical scientists are working on it and we might get lucky and someone comes up with a very effective vaccine that can be created in bulk, but by lucky we are still talking months. (There is at least one early trial running – but that absolutely does not mean it will be available next month!)

Any vaccine has to be tested, proven effective, and shown not to itself harm.

All of this is why specialist in the field all say “18 months”. It’s a guess based on science and experience. It could take longer, it could be only 12 months, it might be that an initial vaccine is only as effective as the yearly flu vaccine (the flu vaccine generally protects 40-60% of people – see  this oxford university paper).

We can test for if people currently have COVID-19, the test is accurate and relatively cheap. It checks for the RNA of the virus, an established diagnostic practice. Production of the test is being massively increased and improved and we need that so we can better track the disease and accurately identify who has the disease and put them in isolation. In the short term, wider testing will help a lot and those countries that have gone in for huge testing efforts (South Korea and Singapore are examples) have done well in containing COVID-19.

The other tool we really need is a test for immunity, which is usually for the antibodies to a disease. Again, these tests take time to devise. If we could identify those who have had the disease (but were not tested) and are now immune. They would not need to be isolating themselves. A small and growing part of our population could return to normal. But we have no idea when such a tool will be ready, how accurate it is, how cheap it is to do etc.

Finally, scientists need to work out if immunity to COVID-19 is long-lasting, for how long, and if the immunity is strong or weak. We just do not know yet.

Until we have a vaccine (ideally), or the immunity test (it would really help) we have to suppress COVID-19 via social distancing etc.

Basically we are sleeping with a tiger. Best not wake her.

Disclaimer

All of what I put here is based on what is said by experts, scientists, epidemiologists. I’m just pulling some of it together. As I said in the previous blog, I am not an expert in any of this. I’ll make it clear when something is my opinion. I also want to highlight that I only look at sources that I feel are backed by good science. The only information I take from the government is official statistics on cases & deaths. I’m heartened that our government is now taking the spread and impact of COVID-19 more seriously but I remain angry that the experts told them what was coming weeks ago and they were slow to act, putting business concerns before lives.

Any mistakes in this blog post are mine. There are bound to be a couple.

I would love to hear about sources of information you feel are good. I had several excellent sources pointed out to me after my last post, including being corrected on a couple of counts – which I am very happy about.

However, I will probably ignore anything based on rumour or anecdote. Ginger & Garlic are not going to boost your immune system and protect you, quinine is almost certainly not a magic protector. If you have a peer reviewed article in a reputable journal or the support of a respected epidemiologist to back those opinions, then let me know.

 

COVID-19: Information And Outlook March 13, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in biology, COVID-19, off-topic, Private Life, science, Uncategorized.
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7 comments

Outlook for the months ahead >>

I decided to put together some information on COVID-19 purely for my own interest – but then decided I might as well put it on a blog post. I’m only going to link to what I feel are reputable sources, nothing from tabloid papers or people promoting conspiracy theories.

If you know of a good site I should include or there is an area I have not touched on that you would like more information on, please feel free to let me know.

Update. At long last, as of the evening of Monday 16th March, the UK government listened to the WHO and other epidemiologists and accepted that draconian measures to suppress COVID-19 (reduce the R rate, the number of people each infected person in turn infects to below 1) rather than mitigate it (reduce the natural R value of 2.4 towards 1 but above 1) will save thousands of lives.

This paper by the Imperial College London in conjunction with the Medical Reaserch Council & WHO is being cited as the root of this change in opinion. It’s a hard read as it is a scientific paper, but it is excellent. It helps make clear many things such as the local spread rate, infection rate, how it transmits between countries. the likely number of real cases as opposed to tested and verified cases. And the simulations match what we have seen to date.

In summary, suppression, such has been managed in South Korea and China, virtually stops the disease for a while. It does not end it. When the measures to suppress it (very strong social control) it will burst out again. There is always a chance it will escaped to areas it is not suppressed and blow up again. But it buys time to work on a vaccine and develop better treatment regimes.

Mitigation slows the spread down. But it continues to spread. An argument was put forward that this will develop “herd immunity” by letting most people get the disease. It means it would be over sooner – but at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, just in the UK. The NHS would be utterly swamped during this time.

I’ll move this down into the body of this post later.

 

Firstly, for anyone who does not know me or just stumbles over this page via “Google”, I am not an expert in any of this – I am not a medic, I am not a scientist, and I am certainly not an epidemiologist (someone who studies the transmission of disease). I’m a computer professional with a really old degree in genetics & zoology who has at times worked on systems for the UK National Health Service (NHS), the Human Genome project, and some other scientific organisations.

Secondly, although this is a very serious disease and it is going to continue to have a huge impact,  most people who get it will not be seriously ill. We are not all going to die!

Most people with underlying medical conditions or who are elderly are also going to be fine

The press, at least in the UK, keeps making a huge point that anyone who dies had “Underlying medical conditions” and it is affecting “the old” more. This is true, but the message that comes across is that if you are old or have an underlying medical condition you will die. This is not true.

Even if you are 79 with diabetes and are diagnosed with COVID-19, you have over an 85% chance of being OK, even if you develop the symptoms.

However, the fact that this disease is eventually going to kill tens, hundreds of thousands of people is why saying “I’m stronger than this” or “I’m not letting it impact ME!” is, in my opinion, a highly arrogant or stupid approach. Just as wrong is making it the focus of your life. Most of us, around 90-95%, will be mildly ill at most, or not noticeably ill at all. {Caveat – by mildly ill, you may well feel terrible and spend a few days in bed, but that’s like a normal dose of ‘flu.  Take it from someone who has spent a week on ventilators recenlty, a few days in bed is nothing 🙂 }

Thirdly, though COVID-19 is going to kill quite a few people, the main impact is probably going to be what it does to our health services. It is almost certainly going to over-whelm the health services of most countries, as it has in Italy. Preventative actions, 99% of what we can do, is aimed to spread the load on the health services so that as many people can be treated as best as possible. It is absolutely key that we slow down the rate of cases by not getting together as groups and taking the simple precautions of washing hands well with soap, catching coughs in tissues, things like that.

This article by The Lancet explains in some detail (maybe too much for general consumption) why social distancing and hand washing are vital to “flattening the hump” and helping the health services cope.

As ever, the best approach is a balance. Personally, I am concerned and I am going to avoid mixing with large numbers of people I do not know. I am actually in an “at risk” category as I was ill with influenza & pneumonia in December, in intensive care getting the sort of treatment bad cases of COVID-19 are getting now. But I am not self-isolating. If I get symptoms, I will self-isolate.

Basics

Names and terms

COVID-19 is the name of the disease. It was first reported in Wuhan in China on the 17th November 2019 but came to general prominence in early 2020 as it spread and infected more people, who then started dying in numbers. The World Health Organisation was informed (WHO).

 

The disease is caused by a virus called SARS-COV-2. SARS stands for “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome” which describes what it does to people. It can cause a serious and sudden problem with breathing, which is when it can be fatal. COV stands for Coronavirus, which is the type of virus.

It is commonly referred to in the media as “Coronavirus”, which is not a very accurate name. It would be a bit like going to a restaurant and ordering “mammal” (beef, lamb, pork, cat). But the name has stuck and is understood to mean the disease COVID-19 that is worrying everyone at the moment.

This wikipedia article describes the COVID-19 epidemic and this wiipedia article describes the disease itself

What COVID-19 does to you

The virus infects your lungs. It attacks the lining of the alveoli, the little “bags” in the lungs which absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide. That’s why in mild cases you cough and in serious cases you get short of breath while at rest. If you are sitting quietly but finding you are having to breath hard (as if you have just exercised but you have not), contact the health services immediately. And if you pass out due to not being able to breath, call an ambulance (when you wake up, obviously…).

When the alveoli are infected by the virus they fill with fluid and their linings are damaged. This stops them from absorbing oxygen. All the cells in your body need oxygen, delivered by your blood. In a serious case of COVID-19 you have to breath harder and harder to get that oxygen until you reach a point where you simply cannot breath in and out hard enough.

The treatment is simple. Normal air holds about 20% oxygen, so the medical staff give patients air with extra oxygen in it, or even 100% oxygen, via a mask. If this is not enough a ventilator is used, which is basically a pump or fan that blows the oxygen out under pressure and pushes it into the patient’s lungs. It reduces the effort of breathing also. Ventilators come in increasing powers.

If this is still not enough, the patient is anaesthetised to make them unconscious and a tube is put down the throat (this is called intubation) which is used to push oxygen directly into the lungs. Making patients unconscious also reduces their need for oxygen. If even this is not enough the only final step is to use an artificial lung such as is used in major heart surgery. Hospitals won’t have many (or any!) of those.

In these extreme cases where more and more powerful ventilation is needed then the patient is probably suffering from something called a Cytokine storm. Basically, the immune system over-reacts and causes damage to other organs like the kidneys.

Normal influenza tends to attack higher in the lungs, so is less dangerous. This is part of the reason COVID-19 is worse than influenza.

This article on how it impacts your lungs is quite technical but very good. The article then goes on to explain how the impact on our health services is a massive concern.

 

What we need to do to slow the spread

COVID-19 can no longer be stopped. To be frank,  it could not be stopped 3 weeks ago. Once enough people were infected with the disease, it became impossible to track them all down by contacting all the people who someone diagnosed with the disease had interacted with.

Two main factors control how quickly a disease spreads:

  • How easily it is passed from one person to another
  • How many people an infected person is in contact with

That second point is not just the people the infected person is physically in a room with. It is, for example, if they cough on a door handle or touch it after coughing into their hand, the live virus will be on the handle. The people who then touch the door handle can be infected.

Washing yours hands with soap and not touching your face is reducing how easily it is passed.

Banning large gatherings reduces how many people are in contact.

Self-isolating will greatly reduce how many people you can infect (or can infect you).

This video describes how exponential growth works  and why reducing gatherings and simply hygiene will slow down the spread of the disease, with COVID-19 as the example.

It also explains how you can tell if things are getting worse or could be getting better. It is to do with the “inflection point”, when the number of new cases starts to drop. Until that happens, it’s going to get worse. This is a significant part on what epidemiologists look at in respect of how a current illness is spreading. In the UK, Spain, US, pretty much all countries where you cannot control the population, the rate of spread is staying high and the numbers of new cases and deaths is growing exponentially. This is what makes COVID-19 such a problem and why scientists worried back in January. It spreads really well and sometimes before symptoms show, which is why we all need to wash our hands, keep away from large gatherings, cover our coughs. You might feel fine, you could be spreading this.

Why washing with soap is the best protection

A virus is piece of RNA (very similar to DNA) covered in a coat of fat – called a lipid layer. Soap dissolves fat. That is why soap is so good at destroying viruses like COVID-19. Alcohol can do the same but it needs to be strong alcohol (70% or more) and works best if it also contains a soap or detergent.

The antibacterial chemicals in antibacterial cleaner do nothing to viruses. Bacteria are totally different to viruses, Bacteria are much more complex.

This twitter thread explains in some detail how soap destroys viruses

 

Monitoring (probably what most people are staring at)

The below are links to pages with info that is updated regularly.

****

Update, 19/3. The data on number of cases coming out for the UK has become less unreliable. The official Public Health England page is not being update until later and later in the day – and it is for figures for the previous day. Worldometers figures do not match the Public Health England figures for most of the last 2 weeks now, except the last 3 days. I think the official figures get corrected but worldometers is not picking up those corrections.

I still check both but I use the official public health England figures for my own trending.

Some days, most annoyingly for me the 16th March, have a figure for new cases that is not at all in line with those before and after. In fact, I think unbelievably different.

****

I tend to go to this worldometers  site as it is updated quicker than the official UK one.  On Friday 13th in the evening it showed an increase in the day’s total and the 11th death before the official UK site did. However, it does not seem to be corrected in retrospect like the official UK one is (I am not sure if that is good or bad)

This is the UK government page that tracks UK COVID-19 cases . It is designed for PC. For mobile phones go to this entry point and pick the option Note that it is a day behind. Information is gathered as-of 9am in the morning and is usually published at around 2pm. {this is now more like 6pm in the evening)

{update 24/3 I removed the link to John Hopkins as their figures consistently fail to match the UK government figures in any way, or the worldometers numbers – which are more consistent between them. Also, a JH person was tweeting how it was THE BEST source and did not reply to two response pointing out it is flawed. It might look nice but it is a poor source of data.}

Lots of people have shared the John Hopkins institute site, but I find information drops off it or the list of countries on the left do not match what is highlighted on the map, so I don’t it.

This page is a global view.  I have to confess, I have not looked at it in a couple of days, but it has lots of interesting information

 

Why certain diseases make things worse

As has been widely shared, a lot of people dying “have underlying medical conditions” or are old. I want to stress that people who are old or have these conditions (and even both)  will most likely recover. But it is true that if you have cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and several other conditions, you are at higher risk. The advice is to maintain your treatment and to keep as fit and healthy as you can. If you can exercise, do so!

If you are generally in poor health or have a debilitating condition, all disease are going to impact you more. Especially anything that reduces your lung function or blood supply as the virus makes you ill by reducing how much oxygen is absorbed by your lungs and taken to e.g. your brain and liver by the blood. Maybe now is a good time to stop smoking if you do!

I could not understand the increased diabetes risk. A suggested answer is very technical, but it might be to do with the levels of ACE & ACE2 proteins you have. COVID-19 seems to enter cells by using our own ACE2 proteins, but it is unknown if this is a genuine link or not.

This “The Lancet” article describes  suggests why diabetes and hypertension make you more susceptible to COVID 19. It’s short but quite technical. To balance that, the European Society of Cardiology claim there is no link (thank you David Harper for that).

This does highlight that COVID-19 is a new disease, most focus is on understanding and treating it and details like this will become clearer over time.

I should stress, never stop taking medicine based on social media guff – including this page! Even *IF* there is a link between drug X and COVID-19 susceptibility, you are taking drug X for a good reason and that reason has not disappeared. If the potential impact is large, it will be obvious to medics who will highlight it as an issue.

What facilities do the UK have to treat COVID-19?

According to announcements by the government on how well prepared we are in the UK for the “peak” of cases (which we are no where near yet):

Apparently in the UK we have 4,000 intensive care beds and “more are being made available” but there seems to be no detail on that.

We have 5,000 ventilators. The government is asking other companies to make them.

Update 19/3 the UK government is talking to companies about the details of making more ventilators and I know of at least one company that is offering to make many more. The issues is that there are stringent tests for suppliers of medical equipment and of the equipment itself. Any equipment used for medical purposes has to be built in a clean environment.

5 hospitals are stated as having ECMO equipment (Extra-corporeal Membrane Oxygenation machines) available for treating COVID-19 patients. These can re-oxygenate blood in the the same way the lungs do. They are massive and complex and they won’t be able to build extra ones for months – and of course every country will want them.

These figures are oddly “round” which suggests they are estimates or guesses. As the only real treatment for COVID-19 is extra oxygen and ventilating patients, then treatment will again be limited by the equipment we have or can be made. I’m no expert on equipment manufacture, I’ve seen no information on how easy it would be to ramp up production but I do know that when our Prime Minister asked companies that don’t make them to swap production to them the answer was “give us a full specification and a set of patterns and we *might* be able to). Medical equipment has to work, no company is going to want to “give it a go” and, if the machines don’t work or break down or harm the patient, face being sued into bankruptcy once this is over.

 

There is no vaccine and there is no known drug treatment that has anything but sketchy “it seems it might help” evidence.

Vaccines take years to develop normally. This can be fast-tracked by reducing the level of testing and precautions, but that means risking creating an ineffective vaccine at best or even killing more people. On the plus side, scientists already have targets for creating a vaccine – the RNA of COVID-19 has been sequenced (read), we know some of the proteins involved, it looks like the main target to infect cells is known (ACE2). The trick is to develop something that looks like one of those elements and that prompts the human immune system to develop antibodies against it (without harming the human) that then attacks the COVID-19 virus (without attacking anything else in the human) and that can be created in huge amounts (there are a huge number of humans).

There is no existing drug that seems to work very well. Existing antiviral treatments are being tested. Anything with any hope at all are being tested. If they worked well, we’d probably know already and the international medical community would be making it known. ANYthing you see on the internet about a miracle cure or “In India they have discovered that vitamin C, Ibuprofen and Tamiflu taken in large quantities together cures 76% of cases” is utter bullshit. Spreading this bullshit on social media is extremely not-helpful as some people will believe it and start demanding a treatment that does not work.

Medics and scientists will continue to work and they will get something eventually, but almost certainly not in the next few months. Sorry.

There appears to be no natural immunity

Like most viruses that attack us, the only way to be immune to it is to either catch the disease and get better, or be given a vaccine (which, in effect, is the same to the body as getting the disease but without most of the illness).  This means that, given how well COVID-19 spreads, we will all get this eventually until herd immunity slows it right down. At that point, everyone who has not had it will still be at risk of getting COVID-19 if they meet someone with the disease.

Bottom line, until a vaccine is created and everyone takes it, COVID-19 will continue to spread until most people have had it. The key thing is to try to slow it down so that our medical services can cope with the number of people it makes seriously ill.

 

Predictions

Before reading any of this, remember – I am not an expert! I’m a computer programmer with a smattering of some relevant experience.

However, about 3 weeks ago I felt I knew what was coming and I’ve spent the last 2 weeks being “the voice of doom”. Sadly I think I have been mostly right. So I thought I’d put somewhere how I think some things are going to play out.

I’m not trying to scare people. Well, sort of I am. I want people to be aware that it is going to be bad for a while, that as nations and individuals we need to take the right, simple actions. And that governments will lie to you about some of this stuff. Look for scientific/medical information.

(predictions made on 13th March 2020)

  • In the UK we will have about 250-350 new cases on Monday 16th March.
  • By the weekend of the 21st/22nd we will see 1000 new cases a day in the UK.
  • Numbers of deaths will “take off” around the 18th March and will double about every 3 days for at least 2 weeks.
  • Deaths as a percentage of known cases in the UK will be between 0.8% and 1.8% by the end of the month and will escalate.
  • The rate of new cases will stop growing so fast, but the rate of deaths will continue to grow as a faster rate. This is due to 2 factors – (1) the delay from getting ill to dying is on average a week or so (2) the UK is no longer testing everyone, buggering up the figures.

****

Update 19/3 – how did I do prediction-wise. Well, on the 16th March there were officially 152 new cases. But on the 15th there were 330, and 407 on the 17th. So I was wrong in both directions! On the actual date, I overestimated. But for the 3 days around the 15th and going on the trend, I had underestimated. I was not pessimistic enough.

The deaths did take of in the middle of this week – 16,33, and 41 for the 17th, 18, &19th March.

And we are well on track to hit 1,000 new cases by the weekend, but given the ever changing information on who is being tested, I’m not sure that confirmed cases is very accurate. I think the percentage death rate will have to be increased to take into account the lack of testing.

So, sadly, I seem to be still predicting quite well what is happening. BTW I base my predicitons by stealing the work of proper, real scientists and mostly ignoring the UK government. I’m not doing anything more “clever” than choosing my sources and a simple spreadsheet.

Update 21/3. We hit over 1,000 cases – 1,035 today. So “my” prediction (really I just use a simple calculation based on the work of the real epidemiologist) is sadly spot on.

Deaths reported, 56. It’s taken off but not doubling every 3 days. It will.

*****

19/3/20

  • Daily deaths in the UK due to COVID-19 will exceed a thousand in the first week of April.

 

  • I’m not so sure about this one – I think we will have a slowdown of new UK cases in about a month and than after a gap of about a month  it will take off again.

 

  • COVID-19 will reach every country by April

 

  • China will have a second wave of infections in a month or two.

I think this because although they managed to control the first outbreak (by taking measures most western countries would not entertain), the virus has not spread through the rest of the population and it will get re-introduced from another location.

  • This is going to hit the USA very hard indeed.

This is because:

They initially had little capacity for testing (it is still poor despite political promises – and they have been having a damned argument about which commercial company gets to set up a new, Invented In America test to make a few people very rich indeed)

Their health service is far more about making a profit than treating people, so ill people will not get treated (or tested!);

The percentage death rate is going to look terrible, maybe 3 or 4%, as the number of cases actually tested will be low (if they “guess” at the infected numbers this might not happen);

Ill people will not self isolate as most US employees have little or no sickness pay.

 

 

 

Postponing Ireland Conference – & Maybe Myself? March 5, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Presenting, Private Life, science, UKOUG, User Groups.
Tags: , , , ,
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As I tweeted a couple of days ago, I never thought I would write something announcing cancelling an event due to a worldwide pandemic. And yet that was what I was asked to do earlier this week (first week of March 2020). It will be interesting to look back at this in the future and judge if it was a wise decision or an over-reaction. At present, I am 100% for Wise Decision.

This week UKOUG decided that, in light of the impacts & concerns around the COVID-19 coronavirus, to postpone this year’s annual Irish conference we hold in Dublin. I thought it would be interesting to some of you to know a little of how we came to that decision.

Firstly, this was a joint decision made by the event committee, the UKOUG board, and the UKOUG senior management. Discussions around the topic of COVID-19 and  had taken place between some of us over the prior 24 hours and the event committee had decided that, in their opinion, there was a strong case to not hold the event at this time. They discussed this with the UKOUG senior management and our CEO decided this deserved an emergency board call. This board call would not just consider the event in Ireland but also our future events, our staff, and our members. (In this post I’m only talking about the Irish event, but enough to say that we are taking steps to protect our staff and consider future events and how they might impact our members & the public, plus how we may replace physical events with remote ones).

Secondly, as you can see above, this was a considered decision and not a knee-jerk reaction.  We had people who live in Ireland involved, we considered feedback we had received from partners/sponsors and also delegates. We talked with the venue. We looked at factual information about COVID-19, it’s communicability & mortality rate (how easily you can be infected and how likely you are to die respectively). In the end the decision was easy as we were all in agreement, we needed to postpone the event.

Thirdly, there were several factors behind the decision to postpone OUG Ireland.

Public Concern

We had several presenters pull out from the event. For most their employing company had banned non-essential (or even all) travel, and some had decided that they personally did not want to risk exposure. A couple of sponsors were in the same situation of being told they could not attend. Further, we had concerned delegates contacting us asking if the event was still on or what steps we were taking. Some cancelled coming, again a mixture of diktat from employer or a personal decision not to attend.

Interestingly, we were getting as many new delegates signing up for the event as dropping out, so obviously some people felt COVID-19 was not an issue.

We knew we had enough speakers in reserve that we could call on to fill agenda holes but we also could see that more and more events were being cancelled across Europe and more companies were announcing travel limitations, so the cancellations were likely to escalate on the run-up to the event. What happens months ahead, no one knows, but for now the public concern is very, very high.

I considered titling this section as FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, & Doubt. But FUD is usually a derogatory term indicating a baseless over-reaction. I think there is a lot of FUD going on in the general public, but people in IT tend to be smarter than average and more balanced. I think it is very reasonable to be concerned to some degree and, as you will see at the end of this piece, the concern will vary depending on your personal circumstances. For some people (e.g those with Asthma or similar decreased lung capacity) there is a significant increased personal risk from this specific illness, it is not always a case of a simple “I’m worried about a pandemic”.

Financial Considerations

With the best will in the world, user groups needs money to put on events. There is a commercial aspect to this. Putting on an event that fails and loses money is a danger. We at UKOUG do insure our major events against Force Majeure, basically events beyond our control, but we are like all user groups in that we walk a tightrope of finance.

Cancelling an event does not always save any money as it has already been paid out. But if a sponsor gets a poor experience in return for their sponsorship £/€/$ they are not happy (and neither are we as the organisers). If delegates come and the event feels like an empty room or the agenda is not what they want, they may not come again. As you can see, it is complex

I have to say that for Ireland we benefit from an excellent relationship with our venue, we have held the event at the Gresham in Dublin for several years and our committee & office know them well. They reduced the potential financial impact on us by offering us flexibility in re-arranging this event.

I make this point as some user groups (and of course, other companies) putting on public events in the near future may find that they have no such flexibility. For them cancelling a conference could actually kill the user group financially or result in individuals losing a lot of money. Did you know that sometimes it is individuals or a very small company that is bank-rolling your usergroup events?

For some user groups the financial consideration will be far more acute than it is for UKOUG.

Public Health

This is not the same as public concern. Public concern is about the actions people take in response to a danger or threat. Public Health is about the actual, real threat.

At present you (yes, you reading this) are almost certainly in more danger of being murdered, killed in a road accident, or dying of normal ‘flu than of dying from COVID-19. And have been all year. And yet none of you stopped living your normal life because of those threats. Most people who will think they have COVID-19 over the next month will actually have either a standard cold or normal influenza. And in fact 90% or so of those who catch COVID-19 will not be that ill. Medical testing is the only sure way of knowing which disease you have had.

But COVID-19 spreads relatively easily via fluid contact – droplets in the air through coughs & sneezes but, more commonly, similar dampness on hard surfaces by people touching their mucous membranes (think eyes, nose, and mouth) and then door handles, surfaces, smart devices. You then touch these surfaces and then your face and you have transmitted the disease to yourself.  Prevention methods are all about constant washing of hands and avoiding touching things. Face masks do diddly squit except if you are in the situation where people might cough in your direction (so medical staff) or to help prevent you coughing the virus out and infecting others. I find it somewhat ironic that in some places so many people have rushed to wear face masks to protect themselves from others but actually it will be doing more to protect others from them.

COVID-19 also has a higher degree or mortality than ‘flu. It stands at about 3.4% at present, compared to 0.1% for standard influenza. I’ve seen arguments that “the real rate is lower as it kills mostly old people or those with underlying conditions”. Well, of COURSE it kills those groups more, that is true for all other diseases. Influenza mostly kills the old, the very young, and the at-risk. That 0.1% is measuring a similar spread of deadliness as the 3.4%. If you get COVID-19 you are something like 30-40 times more likely to die of it than if you get typical influenza. An oddity of COVID-19 is that it does not seem to affect babies and toddlers as much as influenza does. So this new disease is overall more dangerous to adults, especially older adults, than flu than the basic figures indicate…

The mortality rate has increased from around 2% to 3.4% over the last month. Why? Mostly as people are now aware of COVID-19 and deaths will be correctly attributed to it rather than wrongly to other, similar things (like ‘flu). It’s almost certainly not getting more potent. In fact, we might expect the mortality rate to drop as people with a mild version of the disease were probably not being recorded or were being wrongly diagnosed, so the total number of cases would be a lot higher. I expect this figure to drop below 2% for countries with a good health service and no unusually high elderly population.

So what are the chances of holding a user group event and someone infected with the disease coming to the event? Very, very low. The number of known cases outside China are, as a percentage of the population, sod all. But if someone infectious does come to the event? Catching COVID-19 (and in fact a lot of people catching it and it becoming a new source or widespread infection) is quite high.

For those of use who look at project risks it is a very low likelihood/very high impact risk. Something like a hard disk overheating and setting fire to the server. I’ve had that, by the way.

So far the steps taken to keep this disease from spreading are proving effective at slowing it down. But it is spreading. I personally think it is going to get worse before it gets better. Maybe a lot worse, and I am pretty cynical about most “we are doomed” news stories.

Large Oracle user group events are more of a risk than say a big party. Why? A lot of speakers and exhibitors come from geographically distant places, so you are bringing people together from a large area. These people travel a lot and meet a lot of people. It increases the risk. At a party everyone is probably local and if there is no one local with the disease, you are safe. Safer.

This is partly why I was very much in favour of postponing the Irish conference, it had an enhanced risk associated with it as we had an international contingent coming.

What makes me feel qualified to think this? I am not a medic and I am certainly not an epidemiologist (someone who studies disease spread), but I have the advantage of a degree in genetics & zoology and many years of working with the National Health Service and biological academia (some of it on disease and immunology). I am not an expert, but by accident of my history I am better informed than most.

These factors made Ireland too much of a risk, even if the likelihood of something bad happening was actually very low.

Smaller events are less risky and, at present, will go ahead. But all will be reviewed.

 

People want the event

The final factor is that people want the event. Either they do not think the risk is real or they feel that they will be OK anyway as they are young(ish) and healthy or “fate” or whatever. So they will come to the event anyway and cancelling it is “giving in”. Lots of large sporting events are now being cancelled (such as come 5 nations rugby matches) and I am sure a lot of fans are not happy about this. But these are exactly the mass gatherings of disparate people that will really help to spread COVID-19 and create a true epidemic.

In some ways, cancelling a large event could be seen as protecting the ignorant 🙂

 

Maybe Myself?

In the title I mentioned I might need to postpone myself. Why?

At the moment I am an At Risk person. 3 months ago I was in intensive care attached to the most powerful ventilator the NHS uses which does not need the patient to be knocked unconscious and a tube put down into the lungs. In fact, shortly after I was admitted and I was deteriorating, it was expected that I would probably be put into a medical coma and mechanically ventilated. I’m generally fine now – but my lungs are still damaged and recovering. I had influenza & pneumonia. I’ve been asked by a couple of people if I could have actually been a very early COVID-19 case? No. It was not known outside China at the time and lab tests identified the exact strain of influenza I had. If I had been diagnosed with an unknown strain I’d expect the sample would have been re-tested, but this is not the case.

I’m no more likely to catch COVID-19 than any of you, but if I do catch it I am more likely to be at the 3.4% end of things due to the slowly healing lung damage. This is another reason I have paid extra attention to the science behind COVID-19.

I probably should have cancelled my trip to Ireland before the event was postponed, but I was in that last area of consideration. I was not thinking it would effect me and I wanted to go to the event. In the last few days I’ve been advised by people who are clinically qualified that airports & public transport are not a good idea for me. My wife has expressed a desire for me to not give the whole intensive-care-kept-going-by-machines thing a second go as it stressed her. And the cat.

Smaller events I will probably still go to as the risk is lower. And events where everyone is local and there is no signs of the disease there. I really want to go to a meeting in Poland where this will be the case. But to get there I have to go through airports. Full of people from all over the globe. Hmmm.

Personally I am expecting more events, both user groups and generally, to be cancelled. Part of me thinks they should be, the very small risk of a very bad impact is not worth learning a bit more about some software – and you all know how passionate I am about learning.

I think I should be more mindful of the risks myself, but then am I over-reacting?

And I think COVID-19 is going to spread more and kill more people before prevention steps and, eventually, treatment is developed to keep it in check. But I really hope I am wrong on that.

Should You Go To Oracle OpenWorld Europe? Yes!… But… February 3, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Knowledge, UKOUG, User Groups.
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Oracle Open World (Europe) is taking place in London in February. On Wednesday 12th & Thursday 13th Oracle will be giving lots of talks on Cloud, AI, Business Intelligence, Cloud Application Development, and anything else they see as modern and trendy. Oracle Partners will be there, demo booths by Oracle where you can talk to area experts, Safra Catz will be giving a keynote and, for entertainment, there are a couple of well known guest presenter. Go see who.

Stolen outrageously from Oracle web site

I’ll certainly be going along to see what they have to say. And if Oracle is part of your IT ecosystem (or might become part of it) & you are in the UK then I really think you, or someone in your organisation, should be there. Especially if you are making decisions on business applications, where you keep your IT services, or what tech you use. I’d say it’s worth a trip over from Europe for it, especially if you are “close”. Oracle will be telling you an awful lot about what is new and the event is free! Yes, Oracle giving something away for free. The only cost to you is your time. And travel to East London. Maybe a hotel for a night.

Free.

And that is the “But…”. Like any event by any large vendor, what you will hear about will be deeply coloured. Red in this case (though Oracle seem to be going a lot more pastel with their branding these days and I much prefer it). What do I mean by deeply coloured?

  • Everything you hear will be at least rose-tinted and potentially unrealistically optimistic.
  • The vendor will be pushing what it wants to see growing in it’s order books, not what you currently have.
  • You are the “product”, especially if an event is free. “Free” and “Big Vendor” do not really go together, vendors doing this sort of thing are trying to expand market share, or at least preserve it.
  • You will hear nothing about any competing services or tech, except how it is not as good as the Vendor’s. Even if the other solution is by far the best option for your business.

This is of course self-evident. A business depends on sales and Oracle is no different. But in amongst all the gloss, free food, carefully crafted messages, and entertainment, somehow the reality gets diluted and people seem to think the vendor has become somehow charitable and are doing this out of the goodness of their corporate hearts.

Would you prefer an event where all the above are not true, or are at least diluted?

Well, In I.T. there is an alternative -or, I should say, a complement – to the corporate marketing pitch.

User Groups.

A good user group is independent of the vendor, just as the UK Oracle User Group is. UKOUG is not funded by Oracle, Oracle has no say in what we do, and we do not simply repeat the current Oracle Marketing Pitch of the year. We say what is bad. We say what is good. Because we will say what is bad, you can better trust us when we say what is good. What is more, Vendors want to know what they are doing bad (and good) – so they listen to us.

Most countries across Europe (and around the wider world) have national or local Oracle user groups that are similar to UKOUG. They are independent of Oracle, they are run by a mixture of volunteers and occasionally small companies and they exist solely to help the user group community get the most out of Oracle and related services & technology. If you use Oracle, you really should be a member of an Oracle User Group.

Why? I’ll use UKOUG as the example (I am biased, I am president of UKOUG – but I present at and have in other ways helped many user groups across Europe and beyond, I’ve had the advantage of being a member of UKOUG for over 15 years).

At UKOUG events we don’t Market Oracle, we have content on:

  • Current and older products & tech, the stuff you are using NOW. Stuff that is mostly ignored at marketing events, especially free ones.
  • Real world stories which include the real-world “this did not work” or “we had a sod of a time sorting out X”
  • Details of how to get something to function rather than a “it’s so simple, it just works”
  • Discussions on how to get technology or applications from one vendor to mesh with another, and even how to get your data out. Database Vendors tend to tell you only how to get data in!

And on top of all this we also have the latest-greatest from Oracle. Oracle know that members of the user group are engaged and looking for solutions. Of course they want to present to this group. But we at UKOUG also work with many Oracle product managers, many of whom are keen to talk about stuff over and above current marketing angles. Product managers know that 90% of businesses using their products are way more interested in what they can do with their current solutions (and sometimes they are pretty old current solutions) rather than going latest-greatest

UKOUG – My community.

We have hundreds of engaged members and partners who can help you with the problems you are facing, right now, with the version of whatever you are using in your business.

The way I see it, being a member of an independent user group is a cheap insurance policy for an organisation. You pay a lot of money for large vendor solutions and on-going maintenance, often hundreds of thousands of £/€ or even millions for large companies. Being a member of the UKOUG is small change compared to that (from £45 to £1,628 depending on how much goodness you want from us). Going to user group conferences across Europe is probably cheaper all-in-all than a trip to London, and you get a much more realistic take on the technology you are using. The canapes & coffee won’t be as good, mind, our budgets are very limited.

I absolutely, 100% encourage people to go to Oracle and other big vendor events, especially free ones like OOW Europe. If you want to know what is coming with Oracle, if you want to investigate what options to buy or upgrade are available, or you are simply curious about the state of the art, then get yourself a pass to OOW Europe. Do it now, the event is almost fully subscribed.

If you want to have another source of the truth, one less coloured by Marketing and more coloured by reality, join your local user group and go to their events.

I’m biased of course, but a UKOUG membership is a very, very wise investment for anyone who has already invested an eye-watering sum with the vendor. If you are based somewhere else in Europe, check out your national user group and what they can offer. You can of course still join UKOUG but look local first.

UKOUG will have a stand at OOW Europe. Come over and see us, whether you are a member, want to be a member, or just want a friendly chat. Being a user group, we are pretty friendly!

Friday Philosophy – Presenting Sex January 24, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Presenting.
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These slides are from the first ever presentation I did. And yes, the presentation was at work.

The Evolution Of Sex

My first real job after college was as a trainee analyst programmer for the National Health Service and, as part of the “graduate training program”, we attended a short course on presentation skills. As you would expect, we all had to do a presentation at the end. As most of us had never had a job before and we were dull with no interesting hobbies, most of the presentations I could see being put together around me were a little… boring. I decided to try something different.

If you think the photographs with this article are a little poor with odd reflections, that is because the original images are printed on transparent acetate sheets and were displayed by putting them on an overhead projector – a large box-thing with a blindingly bright light that shone through the acetate sheet and cast the image onto a screen or wall via a mirror/lens bit. Laptops had not been invented back then and I’m not even sure a PC (if you could afford a PC 386SX) could drive a projector. This was all manual – you had to change sheets by hand. At least you never had problems with connecting the overhead projector to the acetate sheet, you simply put the sheet on upside down and back-to-front and had to re position it 3 times before you got it right. This is important, I could not quickly flick between images.

When I put up my first sheet, with the cute little couple holding hands, our tutor screeched and said to one of the other delegates “Oh God! I thought you were kidding when you said what he was presenting on!”. Before I could even take this opening image off the projector sh had stepped forward and told me I could not present this.

“Why not?” I asked, “we are all adults!”. She refused to let me swap to my first proper slide, “This is not the sort of topic that is suitable at work.”

Stand off.

“Well, what do you think I am going to talk about?”. Our tutor was now quite flustered. “I think we all know what you are presenting on – and I shudder to think what the next slide is going to be of!” (or something like that, this was a long time ago). I had no choice. I got her to come closer and look at my next couple of slides…

Her relief was visible. She could immediately see the next slides were not based on “The Joy of Sex” or similar publications and after she’d looked at each of my acetate sheets carefully (just to make sure) I was allowed to continue.


Of course, this had somewhat diluted the tension & expectation that had been building up, but I felt I had milked the initial surprise as much as I was going to be able to. I moved onto the next slide and most of the audience was disappointed by the lack of limbs, bodies and appendages to be seen. As you can see to the left, the next slide was an odd set of little diagram of dots & letters and what many of us would now recognise as a sort-of family tree diagram. As some of you know, my degree had been in genetics (and zoology but that is bye-the-bye).

There is a very interesting thing about sex, as in sexual reproduction. What is the point? Well, apart from the immediate pleasure for animals like us that seem to enjoy the initial act, why do we mix the genomes of two organisms to produce new offspring? It is not mandatory, many organisms (especially plants and bacteria) employ asexual reproduction. All the children are effectively clones of the adult. There is no finding a mate or the need for pollen to arrive, the actual process biologically is a lot simpler & more reliable, and you don’t need males running around using up resources for, let’s face it, a pretty small contribution to the effort. Asexual reproduction is a lot quicker, simpler, needs less energy. A species that does away with sex can out-compete sexy competition.

 

My little talk was all about that, about why you have male and female, why mixing the genes from two individuals and, over time, across the gene pool of your species, is beneficial. I won’t bore you with the details here.

That first presentation of mine went down very well and it was remembered by everyone there. A lot of people (who had not even been there for the premier of that talk) mentioned it to me when I left the company. It made an impression on me too – if you can grab people’s attention at the start of a presentation, it really helps make it a success.

And, of course, as anyone in marketing will tell you – Sex Sells.

In this case, even the lack of sex.

Friday Philosophy – Community Means So Much December 27, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, Private Life, User Groups.
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There have been a few things in the last month that have really brought home to me how much I personally receive from the Community. In my case, my Community is primarily the Oracle User Community – The end users who come together to share knowledge, the Oracle employees who support this, and the companies that support the end users. For most of you reading this, you are part of the Oracle User Community, but most of you will be (I hope) in other communities too through your other interests, be they religious, music, hobbies, sports, charities etc.

My community. I even like some of them 😃

At the start of this month (December 2019) I was at UKOUG’s Techfest2019, our annual December conference which is now focused just on Tech. As “El Presidente” of UKOUG (an unofficial modification of the official title of President, dropped on me by friends with a similar sense of humour as myself). I represent the whole of our membership, be they tech, business applications, or data analytics. But my background is Oracle Technology and so I naturally know more people in that sphere. And I’ve known some of them for over 15 years. There was close to 500 people at the conference on a couple of days and I recognised probably 2/3 of these people, and knew half enough to swap pleasantries. More importantly, a couple of dozen of those people have become good friends.

Conferences, to me, epitomise the community. We exchange knowledge, we learn, but we also have fun and we socialise in a way that I feel you simply can’t via social media. I like nothing more than meeting someone in the flesh that I have only known on-line, having a chat or a coffee or a beer or even a meal. It can really help make that connection that moves acquaintance to friendship (we’ll skip over those rarer occasions when you meet in the flesh and realise they are simply not your cup of tea!).

UKOUG conferences have become a little weird for me over the last few years, due I think to my roles in helping organise parts of the event and now being UKOUG president. I get a lot of positive feedback and personal moral support from people. I’d goes as far as to say I receive genuine affection from some people. I’m told how much they enjoy the event, how much better the coffee is, and sometimes what is not so good about the event (which I need to know), but always in a constructive manner. And people take the piss out of me. Oddly enough, especially with men, you know you are liked when you get good-natured abuse. I get a lot of abuse. In my head it is 95% good-natured 😃.

You had to be there for it to make *any* sense

The downside is I just can’t spend time with all the people I want to spend some time with. I’m getting better at moving about and trying to chat with as many people as I can, but I can only sit down and have a coffee or beer and socially catch up with so many people in the time I have. And not all my time is my own, I have to be President and do things. On that note, I apologise for any mental health issues caused by me taking my clothes off on stage this year…

The care of the community was really brought home to me after Techfest19, when I came down with ‘flu which then ganged up with secondary lung infections and put me in hospital for over a week. I only posted to Facebook (briefly) during this period (I did not want to shout it out over Twitter, which is like talking to the world). For me Facebook is friends & family. Even so, I got so many notes of concern and good wishes. And when I did put up a blog post when I was getting better, I got another burst of support and concern – and that was really nice. If I was not involved in a community, I would not have got that.

But there was another aspect of that show of affection by community that surprised me. My wife Sue is in her own community, that of millinery & hat making. There is not a lot of crossover between that world and the Oracle world! Sue had had the same ‘flu as me but without the extra “fun” I had, and she was having to try and help me in hospital as she struggled to recover herself. And her millinery community gave her so much support and care, which spilled out to include me.  And as Sue has a bit of a foot in the Oracle community also (she has presented at a UKOUG event in her own technical right and has joined me at conferences and met some of my Oracle friends), some of my community reached out to her to check how I was – and how she was coping. That was lovely.

Another aspect of community is the sharing of technical help. I’m a member of the OakTable network and as well as sharing our knowledge with the wider community (we are pretty much all presenters, bloggers, explainers), we help each other. None of us knows the whole Oracle stack or the related tech. During December there were several threads from people you would know as experts going “guys & gals, I’m confused by this” or “I’m seeing X and I suspect Y but I’m just not able to prove it”. And each time people stepped in and helped. Even the big Oracle names need help from the community. So you see, it does not matter if you are brand new to a technical area or lauded as the God of Tuning, everyone at all levels learns from the community.

The Oracle ACEs at Techfest19, core to supporting the Oracle user community

I’m not happy with a lot of things going on in the world at the moment. The UK is becoming more nationalistic, more jingoistic, fundamentally more tribal and distrusting of “them” – foreigners. I hate it. Our right-wing, Conservative government is milking this, encouraging this attitude. You also see it in the US & Trump with his MAGA and his talk of beating other countries with trade embargoes or military might. I know other European countries are seeing a rise in the worst aspects of nationalism and tribal distrust or even hate of “not our tribe”. It really upsets me and makes me worried about where our nations are going.

I think none-tribal communities like the Oracle one, the Millinery one, like most hobby ones, can help dispel this. It’s harder to dislike people from other parts of the world when you engage with them and know, on a personal level, they are the same as “us”, whatever “us” is.

And on my own personal level? I get out of my community five times what I put in.  This month I have received in plenty.

I’d encourage you all to get more involved in your communities and consider joining new ones.  And if you get the chance to physically meet members of your community you only know through screen & smart phone, put the effort in to do so. It can convert acquaintances into real friends and I think most of us would benefit from more friends.

I’m not sure I’ll post again this year, so Happy New Year everyone. And thank you.

 

Philosophy – Treating Illness As A Performance Issue December 24, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Private Life.
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Firstly, I’m on the mend. This is not a post about “oh woe is me, I am so ill”. But I have been rather ill.  I’ll just give you the highlights: The highs of UKOUG Techfest19 at the start of the month were followed very quickly by me developing full-blown influenza (Type A). After about 5 days of being ill in bed I realised I was fighting for breath just laying there. I analysed the problem and came to the conclusion “something else is very wrong and paracetamol is not the answer”. I was taken into hospital and put on increasingly powerful ventilating machines until they could get enough oxygen into me to keep me (sort of) functioning. I’d developed secondary infections & pneumonia, seriously reducing my lungs’ capacity to exchange oxygen & carbon dioxide. {Update – no, I was not an early, uncrecognised COVID-19 case. If that was so my type of influenza would have almost certainly come up as unknown – the two viruses are quite different}.

Wearing this thing was like being up a hill in a force 8 gale!

A normal oxygen (O2) blood saturation level is 100. Below 90 is a cause for concern. A constant level below 85% is medically deeply worrying as 80% and less is harmful to several organs and confusion/unconsciousness are likely. Below 75% and you are almost certainly unconscious. I do know that when I first got to hospital they could not get me up to 85% and they could not understand how I could still talk and be (mostly) rational. I went from nasal O2 to a face mask to a machine that blew damp, warm O2 up my nose and finally a pressurised face mask. Next step was sedation and full mechanical ventilation – but they did not want to do that. My blood O2 became my main metric and I followed it like a hawk.

So I’m in hospital, very unwell (but not dying {update – at least they didn’t tell me at the time. They told Sue I was seriously ill and would probably be put into a medical coma} ), under excellent care. And I’m almost, but not quite, totally incapacitated. To me it was a bit like I was a computer system with a serious deficiency of CPU power. Or a toy robot with failing batteries. Energy conservation is paramount. So what do you do in this extreme situation? Turn off everything you don’t need turned on, and save energy for things you have to do.

Turning things off was relatively easy. After all, I was connected to a load of monitoring technology and breathing kit so I was not going wandering about. I didn’t move much. If I needed to sit up I was not going to use those stomach muscles, the bed was powered and would move me about. If I wanted something from the table besides me (like a drink) I’d relax, breath deep, get my Blood O2 up –  and then get it. A little rest and then I’d e.g drink or look at the phone.

Some things I had to do (or insisted on doing) and I realised how much energy they took:

Having a poo

It takes a lot more energy to have a poo than you think. I was just about mobile so I was allowed to look after my toilet needs. They would bring me a commode, position it so I could get there still attached to the ventilator keeping me going, remove some of the monitoring (but not all, heart monitor and blood 02 had to stay on) and get me ready to swap to the commode. And then leave me alone for 10 mins. I think at first they hung about by the door listening for a thud, and I had a call button. Getting onto the commode was OK (breath-breath-breath, move, pant for a minute like you just sprinted 100m… relax), but the actual job itself uses more abdominal muscles than you probably every realised. Tiring.

All the monitoring kit was on one arm. The one I normally use to “tidy up” with. Using the other hand was very odd. And again, tiring, I had to take it in stages!

My PICC line. patch in armpit, line along vein almost to my heart.

Post event I would need to rest and let the blood O2 lift back above 90% and then I could shuffle back to the bed and press my button. The nurse would come in, congratulate me, and attach any removed monitoring. I’d lay there and wait for the O2 to get back above 90% and the bloody monitoring machine would stop pinging.

For 3 days this was the hardest thing I did, it was my main exercise…

Eating

Actually chewing & swallowing was easy. But to do that you have to get the food into your mouth. Holding your arms up to eat is hard work! I took to cutting up what I had (if it needed cutting up), having a rest, then eating with one arm, mostly balanced on the table with brief bouts of effort to ferry morsels to my mouth. I was incapable of lifting a pint. Even more incredible – I had no desire to lift a pint!

I’d have a little rest after eating and I found I had to listen carefully to my body about how much to eat. Anything more than about what you would feed a cat in one sitting, and I would lay there, 2 or 3 hours later, conscious of the need to move that food out my stomach and into my gut. Who knew the mechanical side of digesting needed effort.

Washing

You can’t have a shower if you are attached to breathing machines. And I was not able to leave my room anyway as I was an infection risk to other patients (I had ‘flu remember). Plus, at first, no way could I do all that waving arms, applying shower gel and the rest of the business. So it was washing with a bowl, cloths, and lots of towels. If I took it steady I could do this myself, except my back and, oddly enough, my legs. lifting them up was exhausting! Nice nurses did those bits.

Weeing

I’m a man, weeing was not an issue. They give you an endless supply of little bottles with a hole towards the top. So long as you tuck the relevant part into the hole (having sat up using the bed) you just “let go” and pressure does the rest. No energy. The first time is worrying – “what if I miss, what if I fill the bottle”. The bottles are designed to be bigger than a human bladder.

This pushed warm, O2 laden air into my lungs and Was My Friend

However, if you do what I did and then drop the bottle of wee on yourself, do not attempt to sort it out! I did, I stared trying to use a towel and get out the wet spot and I nearly went unconscious as my O2 plummeted from the effort.

What you do do is call the nurse and say “Nurse, I just poured my own wee over myself and I’m wet”. Nurse will remove your wee-covered clothing (a hospital smock), un-plumb you from some machines, move you to a chair, plumb you back in, and then clean up the bed, bedding, floor etc. They don’t either laugh at you or grumble. You just sit there feeling like a pillock.

Nurse will then ask how much you had wee’d. Why? I’m on a high dependency ward, they measure everything. A key thing is fluid in (via saline drips and drinks) and fluid out – blood taken for observations and weeing. I knew I was getting better when the weeing increased compared to drinking. This is because my lungs had swollen with fluid and, as they recovered, they released the fluid. A pair of swollen lungs hold a lot of fluid!

It had been a good wee, I guessed 350ml. It certainly was enough to make me and the bed very wet.

Coughing

Having a good cough (which I did a lot of, of course, what with all the lung issues) would send my blood oxygen plummeting. Again, lots of abdominal muscles and the diaphragm (the sheet of muscle between your lungs and stomach) are used in coughing. If I could, I would build up to a good cough, conserving my strength and getting my O2 up in preparation for a real good go. But if it caught me by surprise, it could drop the blood O2 dramatically. But the good thing was, coughing helped expand the lungs and I recovered quickly and was “better” for half an hour.

Thinking

At rest, your brain uses about 20% of your total energy. This is true even for stupid people like Donald Trump :-). Biologically it’s very interesting that humans have such large brains and put so much energy into it – far more than any other animal (in relation to body size). Our brains makes us different to all other animals, ie “intelligent”, but at a significant energy and nutrients cost.

If my blood O2 dropped too low I would start shutting down. This is why people with breathing difficulties pass out, once blood O2 goes below a certain level, your higher brain functions stop to reduce demand and protect the rest, unconsciousness comes quickly.

Thinking was hard. I’ve never been one for just sitting there “thinking of nothing” but I did an awful lot of that in hospital. It was my brain saving energy.

Socialising was a real drain. I could do the 2 or 3 mins with the nurses or docs when they came to do observations (oh, so many observations in a high dependency ward!) or put drugs in me, take out my bood (Oi! I wanted that blood! I was using it to ship the small amount of O2 I can absorb!). I had to be really on my game when the docs popped in once or twice a day as this was my opportunity to try and ask smart questions like “so we have a diagnosis, what is the prognosis?”. Don’t worry what it means, medics live by it so asking them makes them think you know some of the secrets… Docs don’t tend to tell you much in my experience, unless you can ask pertinent questions and show you understand the answers. They seem to think ignorance (on the part of the patient) is bliss. If I knew when the docs were going to be in, I’d try and have a pre-visit snooze so I was at the top of my game.

Where it was hard was dealing with Mrs Widlake. Mrs Widlake was wonderful, she would ask me what I wanted and the next day she would bring it in, let me know what was going on, if people had been in touch, who was annoying her. And kept me company. It was very important to me.  But after about 1/2 an hour I would start shutting down, the thinking (and talking) reduced my low energy levels. We worked out a solution. She would come in, give me my new book and the bizarre, random items I asked for and chat to me. After 1/2 an hour she would go have a cup of tea in the visitor’s room whilst I zoned out, then came back for more chat. Resource management and time sharing! Sue did not want to leave me alone but after a few days we both accepted that a daily visit in sections, kept to maybe 3 hours, made the best use of the resources available. It was a bit like my batch processing window!

My Nemesis – The Evil pin-Ping-PING machine!

Monitoring

So I was managing my resources and finding out which ones took effort. But like any good system, you need monitoring, real-time feedback. And boy was I monitored! I was on a high dependency/close observation ward. Every hour, every single damned hour all night too, they would come and do blood pressure, record my heart rate and O2, measure my wee, what I had eaten, temperature etc, steal blood.

But the main thing was the machines I was attached up to. They constantly monitored. And pinged. Oh god, did they all bloody Ping. If a chest sensor fell off or I sat on the connector, that machine would ping. If a drip (drug or fluids) ran out, it would Ping. Breathing machine ran out of water? Ping Ping Ping! The ventilator had to up pressure or I moved too much (I duuno why) – Ping Ping Ping.

But the worst, my nemesis (and also my KPI) was the blood O2 monitor. If I dropped below X, usually 86 or 88, it pinged & pinged & pinged. If I dropped below 85 it would up the volume and multi-ping: “ping-Ping-PING! ping-Ping-PING! ping-Ping-PING!”. You could not even cheat it by taking the monitor off, as then it went ping-bloody-crazy. All those tasks I mentioned above that took effort? They all made this blasted machine ping or ping-Ping-PING!

The one biggest challenge to me during my stay was not boredom, not pain (I was lucky, no pain other than what they inflicted on me putting in drains etc, or headaches due to low O2), not fear – it was trying not to go crazy due to the the pinging. I did everything I could to stop the pinging. The only time I really lost it with the nurses was one night as I improved and they changed the warning levels up to 90 and every time, every time I started to fall asleep it bloody ping-Ping-PING’d. I told the nurse to turn the levels back down else I would rip the damn thing off the wall. She said she could not, as she was not qualified to make the decision. “Well find someone who can as, if it does not let me sleep, I will lose my shit”.  It’s the only time I swore at any of the people looking after me. It got turned down.

This is exactly like having OEM monitoring a database and alerting on a KPI such as CPU usage when usage spikes and is actually OK. Just endless, endless false alarms. What the damn things should have done (in my opinion, for me) was only Ping if I was below a limit for over a minute, or went down to critical. Then it should go absolutely crazy.

And it was not just my machines. Other people in the ward had their own pinging machines. They. All. Pinged.

I’m back home now and recovering. I can breath unaided and slowly, slowly I am able to do more without running out of breath. Like have a shower or make my own cup of tea. Give me a month (I’ve been told it’ll take a month) and I should be back to sort-of normal. I won’t be running marathons or using the axe in the garden for a while. I’m still treating myself like an under-resourced computer and dolling out effort where best used. But each day another core comes on line and I can expand the extra effort. I think it’s called getting better.

Friday Philosophy – Computer Magazines & Women (Not) In I.T November 29, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
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I often get into discussions about Women In IT (#WIT), even more so in the last 4 or 5 years with my growing involvement in organising and being at conferences. There is no doubting that the I.T industry is generally blighted by a lack of women and other minorities (and I don’t like referring to women as “minorities” as there are more women in the UK than men). Ours is mostly a white, male, middle-class and (especially in the Oracle sphere) “middle aged” world.

Is this part of the problem?

I’ve never been happy with the ratio of men to women in the IT workplace – and I started my career in the UK National Health Service, where the ratio of men to women in technical roles seemed more like 80:20. In all companies since, the ratio I would estimate as been 10-15% women. And I haven’t seen it changing much. And I’m afraid to say, to a certain degree, I have almost given up on trying to correct this imbalance in our current workforce. Note, current workforce.

Why? Well, I’ve tried for years to increase the ratio of women in technical areas or at least to increase female representation. That is, make women more visible:

  • When I’ve hired new staff I’ve given female candidates an extra half point in my head – and part of me hates doing it because it’s sexist, the very thing that is the problem. But the small wrong done to try and right a larger wrong.
  • When allocating pay increases I looked out for imbalance (is Sarah doing the same role as Dave to the same level, but being paid less? Let’s fix that).
  • When I have input to paper selection for conferences, “minorities” get an extra half point. But only half. They have to be good at presenting/have an interesting abstract.
  • When it comes to promotion, it is utterly on merit. I don’t care what’s in your underwear, the colour you are, what clothes you wear that are dictated by religion. If your work is deserving of promotion and I can promote, I promote. No positive or negative discrimination. I take this stance as I know people do not want to be promoted “just because” of filling a quota. Further, if it is perceived that this is happening, it creates a bad backlash.

But, really, it’s had little impact. The problem I keep hitting is that there are simply far fewer women in I.T. We can all try and skew things in the way that I (and many others) do or strive for more women in visible positions to act as role models, which I think is an important thing for our industry to do.

But we can’t magically create more women in I.T. Specifically, we can’t create women who have been doing the job for a long time and so are more likely to be skilled and willing to present. We can only work with what we have. One result of the skewing is a relatively small number of women are constantly asked to present and invariable sit on #WIT panels. We see the same people over and over again.

What we can do is encourage a more mixed group of young people coming into the industry. It won’t help much with something like the database world, or at least the database user community, as you see few young people of any type coming in – we need to fix that as well and I applaud things like the German user group #NextGen efforts – databases do not attract young people, It’s Not Cool. But that’s a whole other topic for another day.

In discussing all this, many times, over the years the idea that we need to go back to pre-work people (that would be kids and teenagers then) and encourage everyone – irrespective of gender,sexuality, ethnicity etc etc etc – to do IT, Science, Art, domestic science, whatever they want and ignore the stereotypes of old – is pretty much agreed to be A Good Thing.

All of this is great but it left me with a question. How did we get into this mess in the first place? Why are there so few women in IT between the ages of 35 and retirement? In the early days a lot of women were in IT compared to the average number of women in scientific areas generally. When I was at school (1980’s) they introduce Computer Studies into the curriculum and there were as many girls as boys in my class. Ability was equally spread. The number of women taking IT at college was admittedly terribly low when I went, but colleges did a lot to encourage women and the numbers were rising. And then stopped. Why? What was stopping girls continuing with computers? Well, a year or two ago I read an article (I think in print as I struggled to find similar online – but if you find one let me know) about the computer press back in the 90’s. And it stuck a chord with me.

The article argued that part (not all, but maybe a big part) of the problem was the computer magazines of the time. I’ve picked on “PC Format” as it was a magazine I bought often and knew, but others were similar. PC Format seemed to me to nearly always have a sexualised image of a woman on the cover, like the one at the top of this article. This was especially true if the image was a bit “science fiction”, say a ray-traced image to promote graphics cards. The image would invariably be of a woman with a, frankly, quite striking and often physiologically unlikely figure. Inside the magazine adverts were liberally decorated with nubile women leaning forward provocatively or with striking make-up & hair and yet wearing nerd glasses. You know, the sort of look you NEVER saw in real life. This was not a style or fashion magazine, it was not an “adult” magazine, it was about mother boards, CPUs, games, programming and general tech.

The covers I found online for this article are not as bad as many I remember (and perhaps I should not be using the worst anyway), but you get the idea. And it was not just PC Format, but that particular publication seemed to style itself as more a lifestyle magazine than just Tech or just Games. Games magazines also had a fair amount of “Dungeons & Dragons” images of women wearing clothes you would freeze to death in and be totally unsuitable for a bit of sword fighting. Why all the women?

When I read the article about this sexism I remembered a letter that had been published in, probably, PC Format. That and the response utterly summed it up. The letter asked why the magazine kept using sexy images of women on the front of a computer magazine. It wasn’t very Women’s Lib. The answer by the magazine was basically “If we put a sexy picture of a woman on the front it sells more. The more copies we sell the more money we make. We are simply giving you what you want; it’s not our problem, it’s actually yours”.

At the time I liked that letter as it said “you the public are in the wrong” and I rather liked stuff that put two fingers up at the majority and I mentally supported the magazine’s position. Looking back now, what strikes me is the abject shirking of responsibility and blatant putting profit before morality. Which I think is the biggest blight on society. Now I’m angry that the magazine just shrugged it’s shoulders and kept on.

When you added the magazines to the depictions of women in science fiction films & TV, and then once you were in the industry the use of booth babes and that nearly all women in sales & PR looked more like models than average (which still is true today) then the whole message was “women – you can be OK in IT if you are able to look like and act like this”. It’s not very inclusive.

The odd thing is, If you look further back at the old Sinclair User or Commodore User magazines, they had nothing like the same level of sexualised imagery of women on the front – they mostly had screen shots of the games in them or art work based on the games. The sexism grew through the end of the 80’s and into the 90’s I think.

So what is my point? We see less of this stuff these days, isn’t it more historical? Well, I think we need to keep an eye on history as it informs. I think it also explains (partly) the lack of mature women in I.T and that it’s almost impossible to change now. But also, it’s not so much “don’t repeat the mistakes of the past”  but “what mistakes are we currently making that in 20 years will be as obvious as that old mistake”. It’s not avoiding the same mistakes but similar ones.

I’ve been talking to Abigail Giles-Haigh recently about her presenting at our (UKOUG’s) #WIT event at Techfest 2019.  Abi is an expert on Artificial Intelligence and we were chatting about the dangers of training systems on historic data, as they can perpetuate historical bias. Also, any system we train now can bake in current bias. It might not even be conscious bias, it can be a bias due to an absence of training data. Some face recognition systems struggle to recognise people with dark skin tones for example. It’s not beyond reason that if we were training AI systems back in the 90’s as to what makes a computer magazine popular, it might have picked up on not just the sexualised lady images but also other aspects of an overtly male-oriented magazine, such as the type of adverts or the language used. Adjustements in light of the data would be made, sales would have gone up even further, and locked in the white-male bias. Only now it would be AI driving it and would we question the underlying, unconscious biases? I do think it’s a danger.

I think it’s going to continue to be a real struggle to encourage more non-white-male-old people into the industry, especially if we try and change the mature workforce. I’m not going to stop trying but I honestly don’t think we can make much difference to the here-and-now.

But we can work more to remove bias for the in-coming generation. And for that we need role models. From the current generation.

 

Presenting Well – Tell Your Story November 28, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Presenting, User Groups.
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I don’t think the key to a really good presentation is the content, the structure, the delivery method, or even the main message. It’s The Story.

Coming to a Conference Near You Soon!

Actually, I’d go as far as to say that there is no one, single key to presenting well – but The Story seems to be at the heart of many of the best presentations I have seen and I think that some of the best presenters I know use The Story.

More and more I strive to present by Telling A Story. It works for me and since I started doing this, I think my presentations have got a lot better.

When you read (or watch) a story, it is about something – a person, an event, how change occurred, overcoming an obstacle. It might be hard to totally define what a story is, but when you read a book and it does not really go anywhere, it’s usually not satisfying and you know it has not really told the story. Some presentations are like that: They have some great content and there is knowledge being passed on but, just as when characters are poorly developed or the plot is disjointed, the presentation feels like it’s made of bits and you come away feeling you can’t join all the dots. With a book lacking a good story you may feel you did not get the whole thing; with a technical presentation you might feel you don’t really understand how you do something – or why.

When people design a talk they usually focus on “what facts do I need to tell, what details must I include”. The aim is to put information in other people’s heads. But facts and code and details are hard to absorb. For many a story helps it all go in more smoothly. You absolutely need the facts and details, but if you start gently, setting the pace – but maybe hinting of things to come or an early nugget of detail maybe  (as you do with story) – then expand the scope and go into the details you stand a better chance of carrying the crowd with you.

If you are now thinking “It’s hard enough to come up with a presentation topic, design the talk and then deliver it, and now you want me to do all that and in the form of a story?!? – that’s going to be so much harder!” well, let me explain why I think it is actually easier.

This man is telling a story of Violence, Despair and… APEX

It’s already a story

First of all, what you want to talk about could be, by it’s very nature, already a story.

If the presentation is about using a software technique or product to solve a business problem – that’s a story about how you did it (or, even better, how you tried to do it and it failed – most people present on successes but presentations on failures are often fantastic!).

If it is about learning about a feature of a language or of the database, your story is something like:

“how do I get going with this, what do I need to learn, the things that went wrong, my overcoming adversity {my ignorance}, and finally reaching the sunny uphills of expertise”.

Flow

A story has a flow. It’s a lot easier to learn a story than a set of facts. Some talks are just facts. In fact {see what I did there} many techniques for remembering lists of things are to make them into a story.

Rather than making it harder to remember, having a story makes it easier to remember your talk and move through it. Each part of the presentation leads to (and reminds you of, up on that scary stage where your brain might burp) the next part. The Story helps remove the fear of forgetting parts of your material, and thus helps Control the Presentation Monster.

For the audience it gives them a progression, a narrative. I find that if a talk does not so much leap from points but more segues into them, it is easier to listen and focus. As I design my talks and add more facts and details, I keep in mind how can I preserve the flow. If I am going to talk about some of the things that can go wrong, putting them all in 4 slides together is easy for me and I have a chunk of “things to avoid” – but it may well break the flow, so I try to mention the things to avoid as I came across them or as I expand my theme. I fit them into the flow of the story.

Added colour

I’m not at all suggesting you invent characters or plot devices for your talk. That really would be hard! I also suspect that, unless you were a brilliant story teller, it would be pretty awful! But you can add in little aspects of this.

If I mention someone in my presentation, I usually give a couple of bits of information about them. Not a biography, just something like “Dave was the systems admin – wonderful collection of Rick & Morty t-shirts and no sense of smell”. There is no need for me to do this, it does not help understand the technical content, but now people have a mental (and possibly even nasal) image of Dave.

Side plots – if in learning about some aspect of say Virtual Private Database I discovered something about PL/SQL functions, I’ll divert from My Core Story and give 3 or 4 minutes on that (as a mini story). The great thing about side stories is that, depending on your time management, you can drop or include them as your talk progresses. If I get asked questions during my talk and it has slowed me down (which is NOT a problem – I love the interaction) I can drop a side plot.

Interaction

All engaged, no phones being looked at…

Finally, when you tell a story you talk to your audience. You are not talking AT an audience. You are explaining to them the background, taking them through the narrative of the topic and leading them, possibly via some side stories, to the conclusion. It is far more like communicating with your audience than dictating to them. And, if you are brave enough to do so, you can look at your audience and engage with them, try to judge if they are following the story and have any feedback or response to it. Mostly any feedback is quite passive (no one shouts out to hear more about PL/SQL functions) but you will catch people’s eye, get a smile, get some indication that they are listening.

For me, discovering that last bit about The Story was when I finally felt I had a way of presenting that worked for me. If I am talking with my audience and I feel there is an engagement, a rapport, that is when I do my best job of it. That’s when I come off the stage buzzing and happy.

Danger Will Robinson!

There is a danger to Telling a Story and that is time. Most good stories build to a satisfying end. Most technical presentations also generally have a main point. But if you are progressing through a Story you might run out of time, in which case you do not get to your Big Expose or you have to suddenly blurt out the ending. It’s like those TV programs where they obviously run out of steam and some kludge is used to end it  – “And then the side character from an hour ago appears, distracts the dragon and you nick the golden egg! Hurr…ah?”.

You can modify the run time with side plots as I say above, but if you are going to Tell a Story, you need to practice the run time more than normal.

You can finish early, it’s better than not finishing at all. But being on time is best.