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Friday Philosophy – On The Return To Physical Gatherings December 3, 2021

Posted by mwidlake in Uncategorized.
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In my last post I talked about why I had decided to return to attending physical events, even while having reservations about it. The event, UKOUG’s annual conference at the Oval cricket ground in London (a wonderful premises to spend time in), happened at the start of the week. So, how was it? Did I feel safe? How did they look after us?

The Event

Sorting out a few technical AV issues before a cracking session on hacking

I’ll just start with a couple of paragraphs on the actual event and then move on to how I found it all.

The conference itself was very, very good. It covered both Tech and Apps over 2 full days, with a speaker/volunteer evening event the day before the conference. The Oval was generally a nice venue but the number of issues I saw with AV… Boy they need to sort that out! As for the evening event on the roof terrace – great for Covid security, terrible for avoiding hypothermia! I heard a few people who said there could have been a bit more technical content and there were some slots where there were too many “Oracle Names” at the same time or two talks on the same topic, but unless you have helped organise the schedule for a large, complex event like this, you have no idea how hard it is! This was not helped this year by a larger-than-usual drop-out of speakers just before the event due to the new Omicron covid-19 variant. The variant itself was not the problem (there are very few cases outside Southern Africa yet), it was how countries were changing their travel and isolation rules. Coming to speak at a conference than then having to spend 10 days locked down when you get back to Switzerland is a big ask. I used to take complaints about there being too many good session clashing as almost a complement – there was just too much good stuff to see.

I have to take my hat off to the board, office, and volunteers who put the conference together. It’s always been a challenge and that was with an office of over a dozen people and a small army of volunteers, with the board having oversight. To survive Covid-19 and the massive drop in revenue, UKOUG has had to par right down to 3 staff and the board have been very, very hands-on. The conference this year was nothing to do with me, I had to step down from the board last year. For the first time in over 10 years I had nothing to do with the event at all, I was there purely as a delegate. I hope I made this clear to all the people who thanked me for the event! It was strange being just a delegate after over 18 years of either presenting, hosting, planning, or fronting.

Being With People Again

As anyone who regularly reads my sporadic blog output or follows me on social media knows, I’ve been very cautious about Covid-19 from the outset. I’ve kept away from people, followed all the guidance, and actually gone beyond the official rules as I’ve kept abreast of what professional epidemiologists, medics, and virologists have to say. But as I covered in my previous blog I had made the decision to go to the conference despite my general caution. I’m double vaccinated, had my ‘flu jab, I know the majority transmission is via aerosol droplets so I can do some things to reduce the risks. I love the community and conferences, it’s pretty much what I have focused on for 5 or 6 years, so for me I decided it was worth the risk. I utterly respect anyone who comes to the opposite conclusion.

As I said in that post, the part of attending the conference I was most anxious about was getting there. I ended up travelling into London with a friend, Erik van Roon. He had been amazed at how few people on the London Underground were wearing masks, often sat under signs saying it was mandatory. That’s what happens when you have a government that does not lead by example, ignores their own rules, and no one enforces any restrictions. I hate being on UK public transport at the moment. We both wore our masks. The trip in on the train was OK as it had come from the airport. Most of the other people were from other countries and were happy to wear masks. None of them passed out or spontaneously died… On the London Underground is was about 50/50 mask wearing but, thank goodness, it was remarkably quiet and quick. I’ve never done that route so quickly and quietly except at 10pm at night. Despite the pleasant company I had, I really disliked the trip and I was glad when it was over.

We had a gentle introduction to “crowds” on Sunday night when we had a speaker/volunteer gathering at a club in central London, just off Leicester Square. I have to confess that for the first few minutes, as more people arrived, I got a little anxious and had to concentrate on not showing it {standing in a room screaming “get away from me you plague-ridden vermin!!!!” is likely to dent the atmosphere}.

However, the room was waaaay bigger than it needed to be for the numbers there and there was a wide open doorway out onto an outside balcony. I would have preferred more mask wearing but I noticed people were standing in looser circles than normal. Most people avoided physical contact. After the first half hour I found the experience easier than I thought I might, partly I think as I knew most of these people and (utterly wrongly) thus unconsciously felt they were “safe”. That’s an oddity of human behaviour, we tend to treat people we know as safer than strangers, even when logically we know it is not true. Also, of the people I actually knew, I was sure they were vaccinated. I don’t personally know many people who are Covid-19 denialists. One thing I did do is not go for food when it came out. It was platers of stuff with people crowed around them. No thanks. But later on more food came out and people had wandered off, so I had some of that. This might sounds a bit “off” but I’m probably at more risk from Covid-19 than most. If I get a bad spell of it, it’s probably hospital time again and I don’t like the idea…

As the evening wore on and alcohol was consumed, people did relax more and distances shrank, but then so did the number of people there. I confess that when, at the end of the night we moved on to shorts, I totally stopped worrying about how many SARS-CoV-2 particles there might be. The lesson there is that increasing alcohol consumption decreases bio security. Who knew? (sarcasm).

The Big Crowd

Next day came the real test. Would I find being in crowds worth it for the event?

Martin Klier explaining why PDBs can impact each other

I should say at this juncture that everyone at the event was double vaccinated or had had a negative test prior to the event (or at least should have) and I know checks were made. I could not guarantee to you that everyone was checked, but that was the intent. {update – see the comment by Neil Chandler for more details on the steps taken to keep us all safe}. I had personally also taken lateral flow tests for 2 days before attending and did more during the event. I didn’t want to be Typhoid Mary All foreign speakers/attendees had had to do tests as part of their trip here (though ask me some time how well all of that was handled!!!) so I knew I was safest with my overseas friends.

Even so, walking into the keynote talk I found unnerving. But also really welcome. People, “my” community, lots of men and women with a shared interest and a desire to learn or teach. And not via (excuse my French) bloody Zoom or MS Teams or some other sodding screen.

I noticed that the crowd was spread out far more than normal, people were sat with spare seats by them or between their little group and the next one. The windows were open. The turnout for the conference had been higher than the organisers had feared, especially given the hype of Omicron variant for the prior 2 or 3 days, but we were well below 50% capacity for the venue, I would say 30%. It helped that, unlike most conference venues, all the rooms were in a long row with windows/doors outside on at least one side. Thinking back, it was also nice to be at a conference where there was natural light in every room.

As the conference progressed it remained the case that people kept a little extra distance (though I moved away from some people who got too close) and everyone seemed relieved to be having a fairly normal conference experience. We had coloured badges on to indicate how hands-on we wanted to be. Green was “touch me if you want”, yellow was “I’m happy to be in your presence but no tongues” and red “Keep the hell away from me!”. I can’t remember meeting any reds (well, they should have been keeping the hell away from me) and I was yellow. A few people said they were surprised I was yellow – they can’t know me that well! I hope the colours were different enough for anyone colour blind to work it out as there was no text on the button (kiss me quick/I’m terribly British so no touching/bugger off).

The only times when there were a lot of people together where breaks and the evening event. All the catering staff were masked & gloved, generally they were putting your food on a plate and giving it to you at the end, no finger food or standing coughing over sandwiches. Even the tea/coffee was prepared for you and handed over. Having said that, on the first day I decided not to join in (helped by the fact it was all dry, brown food) and I went out and got something. Again, my lungs are shot so I take extra precautions.

The evening event was, as I said above, in the open air and with lots of space. I did not feel anxious about it at all. The venue was originally booked for June when the terrace would have been stunning. At the very end of November during a cold snap, you were in more danger from the cold than any virus.

The final thing I’ll cover is masks. Very few people wore masks. It’s the one aspect of the whole experience I was not happy with – and yet I was not wearing my mask. Trying to talk with people when you have a mask on is harder. I also personally find wearing a mask for long difficult. I was strapped to ventilation machines for a week, unable to breath enough on my own to keep me alive, and as a result I sometimes get very anxious wearing a mask. I’ve still got poor lung function and, though I am generally OK wandering around or going for a walk on the flat, any incline is a challenge and forget trotting or running at the moment. A set of stairs can leave me gasping on a bad day. A mask makes me breath that little bit harder so it’s tiring. But I always wear one on public transport or in shops. I find people who claim masks “poison you” farcical, given how many people in medical or dirty jobs wear them all day just fine. If I can wear one with my problems, they can. But at the conference I didn’t wear a mask and I am not really sure why.

Something a friends said to me during the conference was that if he heard of someone going off to a big party, especially now with the new variant in everyone’s mind, he’d think they were mad. But we came to this conference. It’s called cognitive dissonance, hold two opposing opinions at once. OK, it was not a party, it was something we do as part of our careers (or in my case my hobby), but really it was something we did not NEED to do.

Was I glad I went? Yes. Was it sensible? Probably not. Would I do it again next week? Absolutely not. For one thing, I count myself as a risk to others for the next week or so. Would I do it next Spring? Depending on unknowns with the pandemic and whether I can manage the flight (or go by land) probably.

I love conferences and other meetings. I don’t take part in the community for my career anymore as my career is over, I do it as I like many of the people I meet in the Oracle sphere and I love the sharing of knowledge. It’s important to me and I will take some risk, if I feel that those around me are going to also be sensible. I would not go on a holiday to the costa del sol at the moment as I know what the average UK tourist over there is like, and I would not go to a night club (but then, I don’t like them!). But another conference? Yeah….

All rooms opened out onto the famous Oval cricket grounds. Don’t ask me to explain the rules of cricket.