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Covid-19: The New Variant and the NHS December 29, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in COVID-19, ethics, rant, science.
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<<- Long term hopeful, short term worried

As I said in my blog post a couple of days ago, I’m very concerned about the new variant of SARS-CoV-2 that has been spreading through the UK and is now being found in countries all over the world. My main concern is that this could be what pushes our health services beyond the limit of what they can stretch to and, as a result deaths will jump up – and not just from Covid-19.

New Variant Impact

In my last post I highlighted the new variant of SARS-CoV-2 that is more infections (spreads more easily), but said that there was little evidence that it was any more fatal. Understanding what was going on was hampered at that point as we had hit the festive period and, with the best will in the world, everyone needs a break at some point. New data on hospital admissions, virus sequencing, case numbers were all missing or affected. Scientists studying aspects of Covid-19 were reminding themselves what their partners, kids, and pets looked like after what must have been a heavy year. Now the new information is coming out, as is the analysis by relevant experts.

There is a paper detailing this new variant by Public Health England which was published on 28/12/20. Much of the below is derived from that, but is backed up from many tweets and bits of evidence from the scientific community.

This new variant is know by a few names:

  • VOC 202012/01 – Variant of Concern identified in 2020 month 12, number 1
  • B.1.1.7 – the phylogenetic name of the variant (I think!)
  • 20B/501Y.V1 or simply 501Y.V1 – the identifier given by Nextstrain

B.1.1.7 has many mutations from the original SAR-CoV-2 virus (this STAT article states 17 mutations, the tracking page I mention below lists 17 SNP mutations, this overview by the CDC on VOC 201212/01 lists 20 SNPs and 3 deletions and seems to be the best source of information on this. I’ll explain all the mutations better in a later post) . Mutation is not unusual, viruses change all the time. Each time a virus is copied (and that is how viruses like coronaviruses reproduce, there is no sex, they are identical clones of their only parent) the RNA is copied and occasional mistakes are made and thus changes, mutations, happen. The most common change is a Single Nucleotide Polymorphism, or SNP. One letter of the 30,000 in the viral genome changes.

A single SNP change to the SARS-CoV-2 RNA does not seem to be enough to change the virus into a significantly more infective version (or more lethal, or more likely to infect children, or change it’s behaviour in a way to make it more dangerous). If it did, we would have seen this already – the virus has been so successful in spreading in humans and thus reproducing and so those SNPS occurring, that most individual SNP mutations that are possible will have happened by now (there is evidence for minor change by them though, but that’s for another time). It is going to be a combination of two or more changes I think that has altered the transmissibility.

B.1.1.7 has several changes to the gene that creates the spike protein.

The paper from Public Health England I reference reviews the data that was initially presented to the UK government (on around the 19th December I presume) and resulted in their initial analysis of the 21st, which this paper links to.  This review considers the degree to which the new strain transmits more easily and possible reasons why. It can  be summed up as saying:

  • This new variant is indeed spreading faster.
  • it is becoming the most dominant strain in all the areas it is in.
  • It’s ability to spread to others (secondary attack rate) is increased by about 55%.
  • It is not spreading faster as it is more successful in re-infecting people who have already had Covid-19.
  • There is no evidence it results in more hospital stays or is more fatal.

I’m not sure the evidence is yet firm that this new variant does not also increase the severity of the illness a little as there are too few cases to go on, but it does not like there can be a huge increase. Usual caveat, I’m no epidemiologist.

I’ve also looked at a paper by Nick Davies’ team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

They considered 4 possible methods by which the new variant (they use the VOC202012/01 name) could be causing the rapid spread of the new variant

  • A) Increased Transmissibility
  • B) avoids current immunity
  • C) Children being more susceptible
  • D) shorter viral generation time

As you can see from the graphs, the model based on (A) Increased Transmissibility fitted the date better than anything else.

You may be aware of the new variant in South Africa that is also more transmissible. This is not the same as B.1.1.7, for example, it does not have the 69/70 deletion mentioned in Public Health England paper that is used as a proxy to identify B.1.1.7 in the UK population (again, more information later on the details of the new mutation). So this deletion either is not key to the increased transmission or else there are two methods by which the transmissibility can be increased (now, that’s a worrying thought).

There has been a lot of other analysis and commentary from the scientific community to back up the hypothesis that B.1.1.7 spreads 50%-55% faster.

Why Is 50% Faster Spread So Significant?

Why is this significant? Wouldn’t 50% more lethal be more of a worry?

No. The reason an epidemic is so scary and has such an impact is down to exponential growth. To use an extreme example such as exists before a new disease is recognised and steps taken to control it, If 1 person infects 2 people who infect 4, 8,16,32… Ten duplications later and you are at 1,024 infected people. If each person infects 3 then it goes 1 person, 3, 9,27, 81…ten tripling’s is 59,049. If you know how many people each infected person will infect (the R number) and how long it takes for an exposed person to themselves become infectious, then you can calculate how quickly the disease will spread and grow. So the transmissibility is key.

Adam Kucharski put it better than I can (if you are on twitter and you are interested in Covid-19 science, if you are not already following Adam then I highly recommend you do, and then follow some of the people he follows). This is how he explained it:

Here in the UK the number of cases and, more importantly, hospital admissions have been shooting up. You cannot compare case from the spring to now as testing now is orders of magnitude improved compared to the shambles back in April. But hospital beds occupied is a very powerful metric and can be compared. Up to a point.

I showed a graph in my last post about how many people are ill in hospital with Covid-19, going up to 24th December. The below is the graph up until the 28th December. We still don’t have data for Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland beyond the 22nd December – but England on it’s own ( 20,426) is not far off matching the UK peak of 21,683 back on 12th April. If we optimistically only add on 1,727 for Wales, 1,045 for Scotland, and 451 for Northern Ireland (their figures for the 22nd) we are at 23,649. I’m seeing a lot of stuff on social media and the BBC news about hospitals running out of capacity, cancelling routine work, calling staff in from holiday (and remember, this is staff who have nearly all been pulling extra and double shifts for 9 months already). We suspect are approaching 100% hospital capacity for the NHS.

Patients in hospital with Covid-19 across the UK, 28/12/20

Update, 30/12/20 – we now have the Welsh & Northern Irish data to 28/12, Scotland & England to the 29th . The UK total for the 28/12 is 23,771 (slightly above my optimistic lower threshold of 23,649, as is to be expected. Northern Ireland shows a modest increase that could just be random variation, all three other nations show an increase.

Patients in hospital with Covid-19 across the UK, 29/12/20

 

 

 

100% Hospital Capacity is a Really, Really Bad Thing

I said that hospital beds occupied is a powerful metric up to a point. Why up to a point? At some point that metric stops increasing so fast or even at all – but not because of a lack of patients to treat, but because you are running out of capacity in your hospitals.

I’m sorry, I’m going to go on a bit of a rant here. The below is why I get so vexed at people saying “I need to go on holiday” or “I must have my nails painted” or decide it’s OK if they have a party or that we don’t need a lockdown.

If you get Covid-19 and are badly affected, you may well need supplemental oxygen. You may also need treating for various blood clotting conditions, or to stop your immune system over-reacting, and several other things. That can only be done in hospital. If it is done, most people treated survive (though some of course still sadly die). If you are not treated, you will die. As some of you know, I had personal experience of this late last year when influenza type A and pneumonia landed me in intensive care for a week, on very powerful CPAP ventilators. If I had not had that treatment, I would not be typing this (or anything). So we can (and do) treat and save many people with compromised breathing and the other things that come with Covid-19. Until we run out of trained hospital staff. It’s not beds per se that are the issue, or ventilators, or really any equipment. It is people who have the skills to run that equipment, monitor you, keep you ticking over and otherwise not-dead whilst supporting the broken parts of your body until they heal. Once the capacity of the health service is exceeded, they have to pick who dies. And of course, we do not just have Covid-19, hospitals are dealing with all the other sick patients we always have – car accidents, cancer, influenza, septicaemia, heart attacks…

I’ve seen the stuff by some people about how “only” 377 or so healthy, young people have died of Covid-19. Part of me can’t be bothered explaining to them why they are selfish, clueless idiots right now but what I can say is if we run out of hospital staff capacity, you can be as young and fit and bloody callous as you like but you will die if you need oxygen treatment and do not get it.

I’ve seen some tweets by people who say things like “well, just get more nurses and doctors”. I checked, they are not made in a factory. Training to be a nurse is not like going on a week-long course to learn to use a chainsaw. Doctors and nurses and radiologists and lab staff (and all the others people forget about who are vital to the NHS) are trained for many years. Being an ICU doctor or nurse is particularly technical and needs months or years of training ON TOP of being a standard doctor or nurse.

The UK was desperately short of all NHS clinical staff before Covid-19. One of my closest friends organises the lab rotas for a very large hospital and she never has enough people to fill the rotas. She has to beg and hassle people to do more than their fair share of weekend and night shifts. They constantly have not just one or two but a dozen or more open positions for staff. I’m not getting political here but there was a crisis in care long before the pandemic.

If you see figures saying ICU capacity is at 90% you would probably naturally think “well, they still have 10% spare, it’s fine”. It’s not. One of my first jobs was writing bed management software for hospital systems and teaching hospital staff how to use the software. The software was a god-send for them. A hospital bed is not just a bed. It’s a type of bed, and there are several types in hospitals. Some are for children, most are for adults, some are powered to help move the patient about, some are specialist for ICU (such as being able to pass air around incapacitated patients to reduce bed sores)… And beds move. For my spell in ICU I was initially admitted to A&E and held in a storage room as there was no spare capacity. They brought a suitable bed to me and squeezed it into the storage room. About 12 hours later, 6 or 7 nurses took the bed with me and a shit load of equipment through the hospital to the ward.

You have to know who is in which bed, the consultant & specialty treating them. For very, very good reasons, the specialist or someone in their group needs to approve a lot of what is done to you in a hospital. To administer a drug to a patient you have to find the bed they are in and you have no time to go wandering around the ward as you have 101 other things to do. The same is true of feeding the patient. You have to track when a patient moves (either with their bed or moving from one bed to another) and you need to know where you can move them to, so you need to know what beds are spare or, more likely, probably going to come spare. I worked on another part of the hospital system, “notify patient as dead”. It was horribly complex, lots of stuff has to happen when a patient dies, for example some lab tests get cancelled, others get created. The bed is noted as empty pending a deep clean. Sometimes, heartless though it sounds, the staff need to know when a bed is likely to become available via that route.

The people in charge of beds need to know ASAP when a bed is free so they can try and do all the juggling above that I mentioned. The fewer spare beds they have the harder it gets to make use of the few spare ones you still have and move people around efficiently. Or even inefficiently.

When I moved out of ICU it was a rush job. Someone needed one of the very most critical ICU beds (yes, there are tiers to what we non-medics think of as ICU), they felt able to move another person into my intermediate dependency bed as they were improving – IF they could get me out of it and into the Respiratory Medicine ward. Which they did, at about midnight. The sticking point was I needed to be isolated to I could not give someone with COPD influenza and finish them off. Another complication. It being night there were fewer staff so only 2 people could be spared to move me. Admittedly, less equipment came with me but half of it (including a heavy oxygen cylinder) was on the bed with me, I had hold of something on wheels, the 2 nurses somehow corralled the bed and other equipment.

The point I am making is that the closer a hospital gets to 100% capacity, the harder all that juggling becomes, and you actually end up having to move patients to other hospitals – and moving a sick patient to a different hospital is generally not in the best interest of the moved patient – or discharge patients who could really benefit from being there longer (but don’t need it as much as the person who is dying that they can’t find a bed for).

I’ve only ranted about beds. I have no idea how they keep track of other equipment, plan who is allocated to do what, how to cover for say a member of staff going ill, a major road traffic accident when all ICU is full…

If we do not see some sort of miraculous downturn in hospital admissions (and all indicators are against this happening) I’m expecting the UK to be in full national lockdown in a week, kids returning to schools cancelled. If we hit 100% hospital capacity and are not in a strict lockdown, then our government will have failed us in this crisis once more.

Even more distressingly, we may see avoidable deaths.

 

 

Friday Philosophy – My First Foray Into I.T November 13, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
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This is the first ever computer I used. The actual one. It is a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K. It was at the heart of a long, terrible family feud, the source of much angst, anger, and even fist fights. Blood was spilt over this machine. Literally!

Picture of a Spectrum home computer

The actual first computer I ever used

Anyone who lived in the UK in the early 1980’s and is currently about half a century old will recognise this box with the grey, rubber (sometimes called “dead flesh”) keyboard. It was the model that came out after the Sinclair ZX81, which is itself a classic of early computers, and sometimes the ZX Spectrum was called the ZX82. The Spectrum could put colour on the screen (up to 8 different colours at a time!), had a resolution of 256*192 pixels, the Z80A ran at 3.5MHz, and it could make a sound. A beep basically (from a wide variation from too few hertz to hear to too many hertz to hear, and of any duration – but it was still just a beep)

The Spectrum was initially a rival in the UK for the Commodore VIC 20, BBC Micro, Atari 400 and, later, the Commodore 64 (C64). They all had their advantages, the Spectrum’s was it was cheap! Even the more expensive 48K version (as opposed to the basic 16K) was cheaper than most rivals. It even tried to make out it was superior to it’s rivals as it was simpler and had fewer chips inside it. The Spectrum and the C64 were probably the most common home computers in the UK. They might not have been the best but they ended up having a huge number of games you could play on them, and that’s what counted.

The Spectrum was the first computer in the Widlake household. My dad agreed to buy it for my older brother Simon, who made a strong argument that it was an educational tool – and the early advertising material for the machine made a lot of it’s suitability as a such, with lots of worthy software for doing graphs and learning computer languages. About the only game available for it on release was chess. Dad was of the opinion Simon was the genius in the family – he was going to go to University! (At the time no one in the family had ever gone into higher education, only about 5% of people in the U.K. did then. As it turned out, all three of us kids went into higher education). So Dad felt it was worth spending the money, as he felt computers were going to become something. He wasn’t wrong.

But before Dad agreed to get Simon the Spectrum, he made Simon agree it was something the whole family was to have access to, he was to share it with myself and Steve, the eldest. Simon agreed.

Spectrum with games and tape recorder

The spectrum needed a tape record and a TV to be used

So the Spectrum arrived. Back then, home computers almost never came with everything needed to use them. The Spectrum, like several rival computers, needed a cassette tape record to save and load programs from tapes, and a TV on which to show the image. Simon had his own tape recorder and he was of the strong opinion that, except when Dad wanted to watch the news, he could use the family TV whenever he wanted, as he was a genius. He quickly lost the TV argument, the last thing our parents wanted was to lose the power of distraction that the TV provided for the other two kids. Steve did not watch a lot of TV but as he wanted nothing to do with the computer, it would have been really unfair on him.

But Simon had a back-up plan. I had a portable TV and Simon was older & bigger than me. So he took possession of my TV. I complained to the court of Mum & Dad but the Tyrant justified his acquisition of the resource on the grounds that he was going to have to share his Spectrum with me – so it was only fair?!? “Yes” I agreed, but only when I was not using MY TV for MY watching of what ever (probably crap) I was wanting to watch. The court came down on the side of the Tyrant, but with caveat of the plaintive. Tyrant could use the TV when Plaintive was not watching it. It turned out that the reality of the situation was that Simon was still bigger than me and to my considerable surprise “I didn’t want to watch anything” whenever Simon wanted to use his – err, sorry, “our” Spectrum.

The next blow to the plans of bigger brother was that it turned out his tape deck (the one in the picture) was crap. Most games would fail to load from it. But my tape recorder worked fine… So, yes, you guessed it, another possession of mine was now to be treated as his – sorry, “our” – possession, still on the basis of shared access to the Spectrum.

So Simon used my stuff as and when he wanted, but did he share?

Sinclair User Magazine

Well, sort of. Those of us of the correct vintage who got into early home computers would buy magazines like (in our case) “Your Spectrum” or “Sinclair User”. Inside there would be long code listings of programs. Simon “let me” read the text of the code out to him to help him type it in more easily. Or, if he was in a really good mood, he would let me type the code in on my own – whilst he was doing something else (like seeing his friends or picking on the cat). I was not allowed to play it until he got back. Yeah, like I paid any attention to THAT rule…

These games you typed in often had bugs in, especially if they had a lot of code. And, to give him his due, Simon was really good at finding and fixing the bugs. Once there was a flight simulator in the magazine, spread over a couple of issues. I think it later got developed further and become “Psion Flight Simulator”. But the version in the magazine did not work properly. Simon found and fixed the bugs and even got them published in a later copy of the magazine. It taught us both that software could be wrong and that it could be fixed. I did fix some of the games myself (sometimes Under Orders from the Tyrant, who was out setting light to papers in people’s front doors or something…)

But I was not allowed to play with the computer myself without permission, and certainly not if he was out. Apparently I was old enough to enter code for him unattended but not to load up “Meteor Alert” or “Ant Attack” and have fun. You’d think from this I was about 8 or 10, but I was actually about 14 and more than old enough to recognise hypocrisy and injustice. I would say that’s what older siblings are primarily for, to teach you about these philosophies. Not by saying “this is something you should not do, oh younger brother of mine” but by amply demonstrating for real what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such bullying treatment. But my oldest brother felt no need to deliver such life lessons, so I could be wrong.

Simon would let me play “with him”. This usually took the form of him playing the game and, once he lost, letting me play until I lost – and then we would swap again. Sounds fair? Not really, as a lot of the time he would be playing on his own and I was not invited. He would be using “our” TV and “our” tape recorder but it was still His computer and he was not letting me join in. So given my lack of practice and that I was younger and not so good at computer games as him, when he did let me join in his go would last 20 minutes and mine would last 2 minutes. Basically, he liked to be beating someone. I was better than him at a couple of games, one being “Attic Attack”, as I had learned the layout. We never played Attic Attack. Oh, he did play Attic Attack. He played it on his own, trying to get better…

I could beat the Tyrant at Attic Attack

After about a year things came to a head. Simon was never going to play fair, in his mind it really was his Spectrum and also now his TV and tape recorder. After all, as he kept telling me, his computer was the more expensive item. Only, it was less expensive than my contribution combined. I started playing on the Spectrum when he was not in, as far as I was concerned I’d put more into this pot that he had and I was not going to accept this shit. As you can guess, this did not go down well with him when he found out and the Tyrant did what all bullying, older brothers did and he physically asserted his authority. He’d hit me. I was not really pleased about that, so when he’d go out and I would absolutely play on it out of spite (and also to keep my edge in Attic Attack) – and it would repeat. One time he made my nose bleed – and it dripped on the computer. That was, of course, my fault…

It was now warfare. I banned him from using my equipment. Which he ignored of course. I went to the court of Mum & Dad, but not only was Simon “the genius” but he was, back in reality, a lying & manipulative sod and he made out he was sharing and I was being a spoilt child and I was told I had to share as he was (!!!!). So I took things into my own hands – and I started hiding the cables to my tape recorder and taking the plug off my TV. He tried to work around it, one day I came home from friends to find he had plugged the Spectrum into the family TV and he’d got hold of a spare power cable for the tape recorder and he was using it, despite me banning him from it. I went nuts. I demanded my stuff back and an apology or something or let me play too and he was having none of it. So I tried to take my tape recorded back and he tried to stop me, but I was so mad I got hold of it (I think I was finally getting strong enough to fight back a bit) and, shouting something like “and you used it to load that games, so I’m taking THAT as well!” I kicked the power plug out the Spectrum. Game gone, no tape player to load one up, games afternoon with his friends was over and there was nothing he could do about it. He went BERZERK, trying to wrench the tape drive back off me but I was so furious I held my own and I think I even kicked his computer again. He was straight off to Mum saying I was trying to break his computer. And this time, the Court of Mum & Dad finally realised Simon was being a little shit. He could not deny he had used my things, even though I had told him he could not, and he could not claim I started it or acted unfairly or attacked him first (his usual stance), as his mates backed me up. Yeah, his mates dobbed him in it!

This led to a full judicial review and this time the voice of the Plaintive was heard (after all, I had witnesses and I must have been pretty mad at him to be taking the plug off my TV!). Simon was told to play fairly or else… have his precious Spectrum removed.

Amstrad CPC 464

This was my Amstrad, I bought it, Simon was not using it.

After that, it got a bit more equal. I did get some time on the Spectrum myself (though I did sometimes have to get enforcement from the judiciary) and I did not just play games, I had typed in a lot of programs for Simon and fixed a few of them, so I slowly learnt how to program. I wrote a couple of my own simple games and put in stuff from magazines I wanted to try but Simon had no interest in.

But it never did really completely end. He could no longer stop me using the Spectrum. But if I was using it and Simon decided he wanted it, he would just bully me, or tell dad I was stopping him “learning” (I am not so sure what you learn from playing “Jet Set Willy”). That Spectrum came, for me, to represent what a selfish, lying, bullying, devious shit my older brother was. I swore one day it would be mine.

Then I got my own computer, an Amstrad CPC464, which I bought with my own money I earnt from months of back-breaking fruit-picking work (Simon was “too good” to do manual labour, so he had no money). It had not been bought by Mum and Dad, it was in no way a shared resource, it was totally mine. And guess what I said to him when he asked (well, demanded) to use it?

Yes, he could Fuck Right Off.

And I was now strong enough that it would be a more equal fight if he tried his old tricks (manual labour will do that for you), so he decided against that. He could keep his crappy Spectrum.

Well, the Spectrum is now mine. I picked it up from Mum’s house this week. Simon passed away many years ago, so it’s been sitting in a drawer for almost 2 decades. Well, being a Friday Philosophy I guess I should now tell you what the Spectrum now means to me, the healing process, what we can learn from this?

Well, I can.

Simon was always a bullying, nasty, selfish, self serving sod and he got no better as he got older. So there.

And the Spectrum is now *mine*!

But I don’t have a TV to plug it into and I know already – that tape drive won’t load games…

Friday Philosophy – Is The Problem The Small Things? August 7, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, off-topic, rant, User Groups.
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4 comments

Something has been bothering me for a while. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s been depressing me. It’s you. Well, many of you.

Well, it’s not MY problem!

What do I mean? Well I’ll give you an example. A week or so ago I went out in the car to get some shopping. A few minutes into the journey, as I go around a gentle bend, I see there is a car coming towards me – on my side of the road. I had to brake to give it space to get back over and I see it has swerved to avoid a branch in the road. As you can see in the picture, it’s not a huge branch, it covers less than one lane. I’m past it now so I go on to the shops and get my stuff.

30 minutes later I’m coming back. And I’m thinking to myself “I bet that branch is still there.” And it is. I can see it from maybe 300 meters back. The two cars in front of me barely slow down and they swerve past it. An oncoming vehicle that *I* can see coming, let alone the two cars in front of me, has to slow down for the swervers like I did. That slight bend means you get a much better warning of the obstacle from the side of the road it is on and as it is on your side, it’s really your responsibility so slow or even briefly stop, but the people in front of me just went for it. They did not care.

I did not swerve. I slowed down. And I put on my hazard lights, and stopped about 20 meters back from the branch. I double checked that no car has appeared behind me and I got out the car. In 20 seconds (including taking the snap), I’ve moved the branch off the road with no danger at all and I’m back to my car.

I know, you would have done the same.

Only no. No, you would not have.

Some of you would like to think you would have stopped and moved the obstacle.

I suspect most of you would claim, if asked, that you would have stopped and moved the branch.

And of course all of you would have slowed to avoid inconveniencing others.

But reality shows that nearly all of you would not.

As I left the scene, I was wondering how many people would have passed that branch in that 30 minutes I knew for sure this small branch had been an obstacle on the road. I’m going to let people going the other way off, as they would have to do a u-turn to come back to it, so how many people would have had to swerve past it?I know that road well, it would have been hmm, 4 or 5 cars a minute going past in one direction – certainly more than 3 cars, less than 10. So well over a hundred drivers would have seen that branch from a distance, most would have been able to safely slow and stop – and yet not one of them had. I have no idea how long the branch had been there, it was not too beaten up so maybe not long, but it could have been a couple of hours. It was easy to avoid – especially if you swerved with little concern for any on-coming traffic…

It turns out I’m the one in a hundred.

Are you thinking “well, it’s not my job to move branches of a road!”

So who’s job is it? And if you could label it as someone’s job (let’s go for someone in the “highways agency”) how do they get to know it needs doing? I don’t know about you but I see dozens of highways agency maintenance people on every journey I do, just cruising around looking for things that need doing. {sarcasm}.

When was the last time you saw something that needed doing in a public place and took the time to think about who should be told, try to contact them, get told to contact someone else, find out it’s not their job but are asked to ring Dave, who you do ring and he says thanks (before making a note to think about it, whilst probably muttering “this is not my job, I’ve got major roadworks to look after”). Hell, it’s easier to stop and move the branch.

Generally in life, in so many situations, I am constantly wondering why someone has not done X (or has done Y). Why don’t you reach for the jar in the shop the old lady can’t quite reach? Why don’t you hold the door? Why did you drop that litter when the bin is JUST THERE! That person  in front of you buying a parking ticket can’t find 10p in their purse to make the correct change? You have loads of 10p pieces… some in your hand already.

This is what is depressing me. Even though nearly everyone likes to think they are the nice person who will do a little for the common good, the reality is that most people won’t when it comes to it – but most people think we all should, and you tell yourselves you do the little things. You are telling yourself now, aren’t you? You are trying to think of the little things you have done for the common good. If you can think of a half dozen in the last month then you really are one of the good guys/gals. If you can only come up with a few…and actually most of them were ages ago… well, sorry but you are the problem.

The strange thing is that, having just insulted you all, as a group you lot are much more likely to be in the 1% than normal. Even though out of the general public not even 1 in 100 people would put in a little effort to move that branch, out of the people reading this, I’d say 10% would. Because I spend a lot of time in the Oracle user community, packed with people who give up their time, knowledge, even their holidays, to speak at conferences, help organise meetings, answer on forums, write blogs, answer questions on twitter, and all that stuff. Many of you reading this are active members of the User Community doing not just small things but often large things for the community. That’s why the community works.

To the rest of you, instead of liking to think you would move the branch or claiming you would (as everyone wants to be thought of as the nice guy/gal) just occasionally move the branch. Or pick that piece of litter up. Or do something small that cost you so little but it just would be nice if someone did it.

No one will thank you.

But you will know you did it. And you are becoming no longer part of the problem but part of the solution. I’m not asking you to give 10% of your salary to charity or give up an important part of your life, just do a bit of the small stuff.

If more of us do it, we will have a better world. If someone had moved that branch soon after it fell, I would not have had to  avoid some swerving dickhead, and the person I saw later would have not had to avoid people who could not even be bothered to slow down or stop briefly. And, in the worst case, that needless accident need not have happened. It really is as simple as spending 1 minute moving a branch.

Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution. It’s really, really, really easy.

 

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

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
Tags: , ,
2 comments

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.

 

Friday Philosophy – Not My Cup Of Tea March 16, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
Tags: , ,
3 comments

A few days ago I tweeted a copy of a “motivational poster”. I don’t normally like motivational posters but this one struck a chord with me as it was a lesson I took a long time to learn. Not everyone will be your cup of tea. Which is a very British (I think) way of saying you don’t like something or someone. “Ohh, that Mavis, she’s just not my cup of tea!”.

As I’ve got older, my thoughts on how we do or don’t get on have changed, as I describe below. I’ll say what I think now and where I came from. I think over time I’ve moved from a position of thinking we should all like each other and to not do so is a failing, to more that we won’t all like each other but it’s far more important how we deal with that.

Not everyone in this world is going to like you. No matter what you do, how reasonable you are, the number of olive branches you offer, some people are just never going to like you. That bit I learnt early at school when Nigel was leading the bullies. Each one of the bullies I could manage on their own, negotiate some peace, but not Nigel. Nigel was determined to always keep up the antagonism, no matter what I did. Over time I realised it’s just a reality: some people will not like you and sometime there is no discernible reason. And sometimes it can be a very passive dislike – no anger, no hate, just a total absence of like rather than actual dislike I guess. This was not the case with Nigel. The underlying reason he led the bullies was because if they were bullying me – they were not bullying him.

You are not going to like everyone. This is not a case of you needing to be a better person or some sort of saint, I don’t think I’ve met anyone yet who likes everyone. Some people respect everyone, have time for everyone, will try to think the best of everyone. But not like. I did not like Nigel, for good reason, but there are other people who I do not like who have never done anything bad to me. Again, it is not that I dislike them, I’m just indifferent or mildly irritated by them. For many years through my 20’s and 30’s I thought I should try and alter that – but I failed. I just don’t like some people.

It’s OK and Normal that some people you will just not get on with. I struggled with that for years. Surely, so long as someone is not psychotic or just simply a bad person, bridges can be built? When I started thinking more about teams, managing people, getting people to work together, I did learn more about how to identify the reasons for bad feeling and resolve them. I had more success at it than I thought I would. I also found that acknowledging that half the time it was my fault not theirs helped. But with some people, no it was not happening, we did not like each other. But things could usually be improved – if not bridge-building, then at least waving politely at each other from our respective sides of the river.

That led me to what I felt was the final part of being someone’s cup of tea. I like tea with sugar and milk, some people think that is disgusting and, anyway, it should be green tea. They are wrong. But it does not matter. If they want a cup of tea, green tea, I’ll make them a cup of green tea. This is a trivial example of a larger lesson:

Not getting on with someone is not a problem – so long as you don’t MAKE it a problem. If you don’t like someone or simply do not agree with someone, there is no need for you to make them “The Enemy”. If you do, well you just made an enemy and that person is likely to be obstructive to you, retaliate and generally make life less nice. And that will spill over to others around you. Oh, I’m not a saint, I try to apply this rule to myself but I don’t always pull it off.

I’m not wise enough to know all the reasons we do not all get on but I think sometimes the reasons are just not important. I might remind you of someone you really detest, I might find the way you keep singing bits of “The Smiths” an affront to good musical taste. And even if there are reasons that seem good, the less antagonistic you can keep it, the better. And I repeat, sometimes it is not active dislike, it is just an absence of like.

The context is also a factor in this. In a social situation, if you do not get on with someone it’s easiest just to avoid them. And we all do this. But you don’t need to try and make everyone else dislike them. In a work or family situation it can be harder as you have to deal with people you don’t like. I think that acknowledging that you just don’t get on and it happens, no blame either side, makes it easier to be equitable about it.

It seems to me that the people I do not get on with have a different life philosophy to me and the larger the difference, the larger the chance of dislike. I don’t like Right Wing conservatives. I don’t like selfish people. To them I am probably sanctimonious, deluded and borderline communist – which is not fair, I AM communist. In that I think our community is the most important thing about being human. But I also use humour a lot and that really annoys some people as I use it in inappropriate settings or they do not think I am taking issues seriously enough or professionally enough. And they may be right.

So, all very good and very grown-up of me so far. Now for my final point.

Some people are just not nice. We’ve all met them, the person who no one can get on with as they are so self-opinionated, bullying, harsh, self-serving. And any attempt to build bridges with them is either seen as weakness or used as a way to get you on-side before they hang you out to dry.

Is this just an extreme case of not being your cup of tea? Well, maybe, but I don’t think that.

Some people are just not worth the trouble. And some people are trouble.

It comes back to Condoning Bad Behaviour. I actually decided that some people are not nice (and probably never will be) long before I came to the conclusion about it being OK to not get on and trying to not make it a problem. At that point I wondered if that would be the whole solution, just accept that you do not get on and let it lie.

But I kept hitting up against the occasional person who, no matter how much you tried to not make it a problem, they did make it a problem. And they continued to bully, oppress, be antagonistic – and they got away with it. With these people I still try and walk away. And if I cannot? I don’t condone bad behaviour. I’ll tell them what I think and, if I can, I’ll stand against them. It is not easy though as they are like Nigel. They surround themselves with similar people or stooges they can direct. Now that is a totally different issue.

I think it’s right to try and be friends with everyone.
But you won’t be friends with everyone so strive for peace with the others.
And if peace is difficult, distance should work.
But I will not condone bad behaviour, OK?

Some people need to see me using this cup

Friday Philosophy – Criticism is Critical for Believable Endorsement March 2, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
Tags: , ,
7 comments

If you had a friend who always told you that your were the best, that you had no faults, and that everything you did was great – would you trust them? I know I would not. I am fully aware that I am not perfect(*). I used to see this sometimes in relationships too, especially when I was younger. One of them would be so desperate for their boyfriend/girlfriend to like them that they would never criticise the light of their life. The relationship never lasted as it was, well, creepy and false.

Perfect In Absolutely Every Way

For your opinion of someone to be seen as honest, there has to be space for criticism. I love my wife very much, but she’s crap at loading the dishwasher. Joking aside, I believe my wife when she says she likes some aspect of my character as she will tell me about the ones she does not like. Thankfully, not at length.

In exactly the same way, for your opinion on a technology or application to be accepted as honest & worthwhile, there has to be space for criticism. I’m not saying that there has to be some criticism within any given endorsement of a product, I’m saying you need to be confident that the person would mention any faults or drawback they are aware of for you to believe that endorsement. I’m really hoping you are all agreeing with me on this!

So why do Marketing departments so often not get this? What is so fundamentally broken – OK, let’s be nice and say different – about their view of the world that any criticism is not acceptable? I just don’t understand either their belief that their product is perfect or that people will be fooled by an uncritical opinion of that product.

I can see how this would work in social media reviews like TripAdviser though. I recently did reviews of several places I had visited and a couple of companies then contacted me to ask me to remove the bits where I had said anything negative. They fundamentally wanted me to lie for them, or at least implicitly (and complicitly) give a better review by omission. I don’t take it well when I am asked to lie. In this case of social media I can see how “cleaning up” the reviews might help as most people look at the sum of all reviews and not at the reviewers.

But when you are actually a known person giving a review or endorsement, your reputation is critical to how the review is perceived.

What triggered this post was I recently discovered a friend of mine had been asked by a marketing person to remove some negative things they had said. They refused and made the point I have just made – if they were to be seen as believable when they said something else that the company produced was great, they had to be seen to be honest in criticising anything that was less-than-perfect. And let’s all be grown up about this, I’d say no software or application is perfect! However, the marketing person found this concept alien to them.

I wonder if people who work in marketing departments have difficulty maintaining long-term relationships? Based on my experience, quite a few of them are willing to ask you to lie for them and they don’t understand honesty is core to trust. Or am I just being very, very naive?

For me to trust the opinion of someone commenting on software & applications, in fact on anything really, I want to see some proof of their integrity by them being critical as well as complementary. If it is all positive, I will assume that their opinion is bought in some way or they are not particularly discerning. So Marketing People asking for negative comments to be removed? You are doing your employer a disservice. Please keep that in mind.

(*)I’m not perfect – but sometimes I’m so close it hurts. My wife got me a T-shirt with this on, so it must be true… Or she was being sarcastic?

Friday Philosophy – Robots Rising & Tech Taking Over? July 7, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, future, Perceptions.
Tags: , , ,
7 comments

Today I saw some cracking photographs of a lighthouse. How many of us have at some point wondered if it might be nice to be a lighthouse keeper? The solitude, the scenery, the stoic fortitude in the face of the storm – quite literally. (Thank you Brendan Tierney for the photo I’ve stolen from him).

No one lives here anymore

It’s an odd job lighthouse keeper, it holds a special place in Western culture and literature. A job to be held by those a little apart from society and yet with a dedication to the betterment of mankind. I suspect a lot of people in I.T. (and the wider community) find a resonance in that, as so many of us are a little bit apart and yet intelligent & care.

Well, you can’t be a lighthouse keeper anymore. At least, in the UK you can’t. Check out This web site about UK lighthouses and lighthouse keeping. That job, that vocation, was handed over to automated I.T. systems a few years ago, effectively handed to robots & technology. You might think you know where I am going with this, and initially you will be right, but bear with me.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last 2 or 3 years about the increasing use of technology and robotics to do tasks that we humans have been doing. An obvious one is autonomous driving vehicles, where The I.T. smarts and sensors are leaping along incredibly fast. I am in a long-running “argument” with a friend about when fully autonomous vehicles will be a reality on public roads. He says under 5 years, I think it is more (I started saying more than 5 years to him in 2016, so, giving some leeway, I say not before December 2021 will we see fully autonomous vehicles driving from a town centre to another town centre, sharing lanes with human drivers – specific enough Neil?). But self-driving vehicles will be safer than humans “soon”, and cheaper than employing humans, so companies will swap to it. That will end a lot of employment.

I know others have pointed this out and it is not as if history isn’t almost a continuous tale of technology assisting or replacing human effort. Tolpuddle martyrs, dark satanic mills and all that. Industrialisation of farming has put a lot of farm labours out of work but we could not feed the current mass of humanity without it. People move on to new tasks.

But the difference now is not that we are handing jobs to a slightly better automated system where we still need some human control, we are removing the human element. And we are doing this in a lot of areas in a very short space of time. Factories are becoming far more automated, we order our goods online and huge conveyor robotic systems are being built to do the packing, with fewer people involved and lower long-term costs.

But it’s not just physical tasks that are being automated. Genetic algorithms, neural nets, deep data and machine learning is starting to replace tasks that have needed human interaction. Chatbots are getting smarter, to the point where they are used by companies as first-line support {often laughably poorly at present, but it is getting better – and Oracle do have an interest as was covered in Oracle Scene recently {sorry, that link might not work for long}. Expert systems have been developed that can judge simple court cases such as parking fines and beat humans at spotting pre-cancerous cells in tissue samples.

Oracle and the Bots

We now see expert computer systems breaking a lot of barriers and doing things that until now have been deemed uniquely human cerebral tasks. Computers won at playing chess 10+ years ago, they triumphed in “Go” last year and now they can win at versions of Poker where you are not sure of the data and have to read the play of your opponent – in effect second guess a human. Currently all these systems are very expensive, highly focused and specific to a task, built on huge data sets and using fine-tuned sets of algorithms, to do one task. We have nothing as generally capable as a 5 year old child or even a dog.

Only, we keep building systems that are better and better at specific tasks.

So why do I say this bothers me but not in the way you would expect? It’s because I keep seeing “thought leaders” present the same denial of these impacts on us in I.T. of the systems we as an industry are developing, platitudes that we are a special case and will be OK. Several times over the last couple of years I see some utter pillock in a suit from upper management telling a crowd of I.T. experts that we will be just fine as we are smart and we can stop doing the easy tasks and concentrate on the harder ones, use our brains more.

This is balls for two reasons. Firstly:

What about everyone who is below smart?

Most of us in I.T. are not only above average intelligence (probably IQs of 125 and upwards), we are surrounded by similar smart people. Our life partners are generally above normal intelligence, we work in teams who are above-average smart, we probably mostly socialise with generally intelligent people (as a raft of psychological studies show, we gravitate to those at a similar IQ to ourselves, irrespective of where we are on the scale). Even the end users we abuse tend to be above average intelligence. I suspect that most of us somehow don’t “get” that well over 60% of people are not only less intelligent than we are but they have few options if our society passes the jobs they can do to computers and robots. And they are not that likely to be philosophical about having no point to their lives and being poorer. They’re probably going to be very angry, very poor and pretty pissed off with smart-arses who say that “we are OK” – and there are a lot, lot more of them than us.

And that leads to the second reason it is balls.

The smart work will also be doable by Tech

As I’ve said already, we can already create technological systems that can beat us at specific cerebral tasks and there is going to be a small and smaller pool of work for highly-intelligent workers. Let’s face it, a lot of what we do now in I.T. is drudge and boring, there is not really that much smart work needed doing, even in this industry stacked by us smart people. And doing work that really needs you to be smart is tiring (well, I find it tiring!). And our work in I.T. tends to be logic-based and what are computers good at? We will just have a breathing space before our work is also more cheaply done by computers.

I’m annoyed as I think those of use who are involved in this revolution are being told a deluded lie that we will be OK if it pans out like I have just said. Those extra 25+ IQ points are not going to keep us special for very long.

So if computers can drive the taxis & lorries, manage the steel works and build the cars, derive the best drug treatment and give the perfect injection (yep, theoretically a robot already wins on that) what do we as humans do?

Only a few people can be “utterly human” – artists, poets and philosophers. And we do not need 7 billion of them anyway.

We could try and legislate against it, tax robots hard. But those who make a lot of money already run the “free market economy” and will continue to do so. If Robots and computer programs do tasks more cheaply, companies that uses robots will rise to the top of any monetary-based society, i.e. a capitalist society. What will change what has been in place for 100+ years? I can’t see the currently rich and powerful objecting to working methods that increase their wealth. Even if it means more and more poorer people.

Some argue for a basic living wage to keep us all alive – fed, warm and basic healthcare whilst machines do the work. That would give us that often cited nirvana of being free to do “what we want”. But if you have no job, what do you do? Again, for those of us with high IQ we can maybe come up with things to do. Maybe. I seem to be relatively happy being semi-retired, but I’ve done a lot of stuff and had my time of striving to achieve. And still do. But how about those who are IQ 100 and below? I suspect entertaining yourself is not as easy. I think anger, resentment and the feeling of being disenfranchised is just going to continue increasing. I think it’s why the UK is leaving Europe and why the US has an egotistical man-child as president. More and more normal people are unhappy with their lot and see no good future – so they vote for a change. ANY change. Even if it is crazy change.

I know, not a very happy Friday Philosophy. Will someone please tell me it will all be OK? And I mean OK for everyone, not just us “smart” people.

Friday Philosophy – Is a “Free Lunch” Only Ever a Mirage? Look Closer! December 16, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
3 comments

Nearly all of us have heard (or even used) the phrase “There is no such thing as a free lunch” and we know what it means – if something of value is provided for no up-front cost, you are paying for it in some other way. According to the Wikipedia entry for it the phrase could have originated from US bars that offered a free meal with a drink, but the meal was salty and so made you want to drink more. Now you know why some up-market bars offer free salty nibbles, it’s so they can sell you more beer and the extra profit is more than peanuts.

Milton Friedman wrote a book about the lack of cost-less consumables

Milton Friedman wrote a book about the lack of cost-less consumables

I recently saw a post in a discussion thread I was watching about business interaction which said “well, I think this is OK as there is no such thing as a free lunch”. It made me pause because I realised that there are free lunches.

Why? Because the person writing it, I know I could unexpectedly land in the airport near them (say we got diverted) at late-0’Clock, call them and say “could you please come and pick me up – and I’m hungry and I have nowhere to stay”. OK, it’s not lunch, it’s probably dinner or tea or supper. But I know I could do that and they would get me and feed me and make sure I was OK. Why? Because they are a friend. I’d get my free lunch and a free bed for the night – well, maybe a sofa with the dogs but, hey, am I picky? If things similarly went wrong the next month too, I feel I could again make the call and all I would get is some light-hearted banter about “this is becoming a habit!”.

The key difference is that business is not friendship. Business is all about making more money than you spend and if your company has shareholders, they generally want as big a dividend as possible. Making money does not match giving things away for free! Unless it is a short-term cost to prompt a larger eventual profit. Any business that does not aim to maximise profit is probably going to be less successful than a similar company in the same sector and will probably eventually fail {I know, there are rare exceptions to this}. I would argue that if your friendships are based on expectation of getting more out than you put in, you are living your life with the wrong philosophy!

You could argue that with friendship there is an expectation of reciprocation – if my friend landed at Stansted Airport and needed a bed and a meal and they let me know, they would get it. Heck, if they landed in Leeds airport (about 3 hours drive from here) they would probably still get it {if I was not too drunk to drive}. But no matter which of us had been the provider of the free lunch, I don’t think either of us would be walking around with a mental tally in our head saying something like “I need to get some payback from that guy – my next flight over there, I ain’t booking a hotel”.

I’ll give you another recent example. Another friend and I do a lot conferences, often in the same place. He is more organised than I and he has at times sorted out planes and hotels and just told me what I need to do, where to go and what I owe him. I pay him. Or I don’t and I pay for a meal or buy us beers or whatever it is we decide to do. We keep a rough tally. Hang on, didn’t I just suggest that friends don’t keep a tally? Well, we do. A rough tally. And the reason we both keep it is as we don’t want to take more than we give back – which is very different from ensuring we take back at least as much as we give. But the most interesting part of this is that last month, after I paid for a meal, I asked him what the balance was as I had lost track. He just looked at me and said “I have no idea – is it even?”. Who knows. Who cares? Part of me worries a little that I am in debt but I think he worries the same. In the end it is moot. Neither of us is counting anymore.

I’m sure we have all had the odd friend who does seem to take more than they ever give back (that Andy, never buys his round in the pub!) and if it is too extreme you might come to the conclusion that this is not a friend but a free-loader – and quietly drop them. But some people either just never think about it or might be a lot less well off than you and simply not want to admit it. And in the whole friendship scheme of things, reciprocation of favours should only ever be a part of it I think.

So in business I think the “no such thing as a free lunch” is pretty much a true state of affairs. In friendships, I’d like to think it is certainly not true. Friendship should not be like a business. If any of your friendships are, maybe they are more ‘mutual arrangements’.

“Hi, meet my mutual arrangement Dave. I’m currently up three beers on him, so he’s buying”.

So I think you can have a free lunch. They are provided by friends. I’ll be popping over to your place for one soon 🙂

Friday Philosophy – When Tech Fails to Deliver, is it Always a Problem? December 9, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, development, ethics, Friday Philosophy.
Tags: , ,
11 comments

I nipped out to the local supermarket this lunch time to get stuff. I use one of those self-use barcode scanners to log all the goods I put in my basket (apart from the bottle of whisky I was stealing). I then go to the payment machine, scan the “finish shopping” barcode and try to pay. I can’t pay.

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I can’t pay as I bought some paracetamol (note to US readers, you know it as acetaminophen). It turns out you need to be 12 to buy paracetamol. Fair enough, but why did I have to stand there and waste 30 seconds of my life before the assistant for the area noticed and came over? She had to uses her special device to access the permissions screen, check I was 12 (the greying beard helps) and authorise it.

I asked why I had to wait. “So I can ensure you are old enough – the machine does not know.” But it does! Or at least it should. I’m using their self-scan service for which I have to be registered. They know my name, address, age, hair colour and inside leg measurement. The system knows I am old enough. Plus I have to pay with a credit/debit card (no cash option with this system). You can’t have a credit card until you are 18 in the UK so by using one of them it knows I am old enough to buy the pills – and even the bottle of whisky I was stealing. And when you use any card, it checks your details. So if I was using a debit card it could check my age at that point and stop me when it makes the check. It’s possible and should be done!

The assistant had wandered off long before I finished making this logical case. I was just an annoying customer and she’d done what I needed her to do. But it really annoyed me – it is possible for the system to check me using technology and the data at hand, and not make me wait. The problem is, they were too lazy to build this limited smarts into the system!

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There is a lesson here. And that lesson is this – I should stop being such a self-centred, argumentative and miserable old sod. Firstly, I had to wait 30 seconds (and I am probably exaggerating that). Big deal, I had hardly been inconvenienced and it was a lot quicker than going to a normal till. Secondly, the assistant can’t do anything about the software behind the system. I mean, many of us spend our lives working on computer systems and often we can’t make any changes. Thirdly, I am aware that some parents give their children their credit card & number (the idiots!) so even though it is illegal to do this, the result is there a lot of people under the age of credit who have the means to pay for dangerous things (booze, cigarettes, paracetamol, knives, DIY expanding foam, ‘Viz’ magazine…).

Just because something is possible with the data to hand, sometimes it is not really worth much effort to make it happen.

And sometimes, although it seems logical & sensible given all the parameters (they have my info, no one but me should be using that card) in the real world those rules and data associations are not reliable. There is no enforced RI on our lives, at best there is a set of intended/encouraged limits. A person checking my age is way more reliable than some algorithm in this case.

So next time I whine about waiting 30 seconds in the queue, I hope the assistant just gives me a withering look and tells me to grow up.

I also hope they do not check my basket for un-scanned booze.

(* Just for the record, everything about the whisky was untrue. It was gin).

((And being serious, such system prevent fraud by 2 methods.
The first is that 1 in X times you get re-scanned. The assistant has no idea if they scan anything you had not and this is on purpose – so there is no scene in the shop. But the comparison is made and recorded, for further action.
The second is that apparently they can spot likely cheats just by the data you give them when you sign up and your spending habits. Now that is ‘Big Data Analysis’.
))

Nice Social Media Profile Picture! Oh… Err… September 30, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions.
Tags: , , ,
5 comments

A few (months/weeks/days/hours)* ago I saw a friend request on Facebook. I looked at their profile which indicated that they were kind-of in my technical arena and the profile picture made me think “Wow – that’s an attractive person!” and I was about to click on the accept button.

And stopped.

I only friend people on Facebook who I know. By that I mean I have either met in real life and liked or have had a LOT of contact with through social media and liked. People who, if they were delayed at Stansted airport at midnight and needed a place to sleep, I’d be happy to go pick them up and bring them home to stay in my spare room.

This person did not pass this criterion. I was going to add them to one of my social media cohorts based on a superficial, image-based reaction, based on a pretty weak “they mention Oracle and DBA in the profile” and a much stronger “that’s a nice looking lady”. Whether this is Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, whatever – it struck me that if I am adding people based on looks then that is the wrong reason and is “appearanceist”. When I link to someone on LinkedIn it is supposed to be all about “are they in my area of I.T.” not how hot they are. But I do notice that attractive people, especially ladies, seem to get a lot more followers. That made me think about the whole tricky subject of whether we are allowed anymore to comment on someone’s looks, what is sexism, how some people get ahead by being attractive or even get held back by it.

I could now write a long, meandering, and probably pretty much worthless analysis of sexism in IT and how social interaction should be different to professional interaction. But I will keep my point brief. I’ll just state three thoughts and three brief paragraphs:

1) How often do we socially link to someone based on their physical image?
2) Is this wrong?
3) How often do we attempt to improve the physical appearance of our own online profile picture?

I am guilty of 3. I have Rosacea – a long-term reddening of the facial skin a bit like teenage acne. I don’t really like it so I use an older image of myself for my profile picture. I know that many people use a photo of themselves from when they were younger (sometimes a lot younger) or one taken by a professional photographer to show themselves in the best (and let us be frank, atypically flattering) light. i.e. a picture to make us look more handsome/attractive than we really are.

If we all accept that, especially on a professional level, we should all be judged on what we do & who we are as opposed to our physical appearance – why are we so careful of our own online physical appearance?

If we falsely manipulate our own online physical image have we any moral basis for criticising anyone who uses their good looks to gain exposure, acceptance or advantage? No matter how subtle or blatant it is.

So my premise is, if you manage your own image you have to accept others doing so and, to some extent at least, lose the right to object to anyone making judgements based simply on physical appearance. Can I now feel justified in only hiring women who I personally find attractive ? (I don’t find many men attractive, sorry guys).

I’m sure many of you feel that combing your hair, putting on nice cloths and perhaps using a touch of make-up is absolutely nothing like using a salon hair stylist, most of Max Factor’s product line and slightly revealing clothing to get a job. But where on that spectrum is OK, where isn’t and how are you making that judgement call?

A final thought. I did not link to the person who sent me the Facebook request as they were, in my opinion, attractive and I would be doing so for the wrong reasons. Was that morally strong or morally weak? In this case I would like to feel the former as I use Facebook only for established friends. If this was in, say, LinkedIn which I use totally on a professional level, if I did not link to that person as I felt I was doing so partially influenced on their looks… That’s a very interesting take on positive/negative discrimination. Especially if their image turned out to be old…

(*) I get so few Facebook friend requests that if I stated when I saw this one, the person I think is attractive might realise who she is and then I would be very British Reserved uncomfortable around her 🙂