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COVID-19: The Current Situation in the UK and June. May 30, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in COVID-19, Perceptions, Private Life, rant, science.
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I’ve not said anything about Covid-19 for much longer than I expected, but really it has been a case of watching the coming peak come and go, pretty much following the pattern of Italy, Spain, Belgium and France. I plan to do a post soon which pulls together the current scientific position, but for now I wanted to record where we are and where my gut feeling (based as ever on reliable scientific sources and not so much on what the daily government updates would like us to think) says we will be in a month or so.

The number of UK recorded deaths where C-19 was present, and detected cases

We’ve not done very well in the UK. If you are based in the UK you may not be aware of the fact that most of Europe think we have,as a nation, been idiots – failing to learn from other countries, late to lock-down, lock-down was not strict enough, too early to open up, our PPE fiasco… I can’t say I can disagree with them. We have one of the highest deaths-per-million-population rates in Europe, exceeded only by Spain and Belgium. But it could have been worse. A lot worse.

I’m truly relieved my predictions in my last post were (for once) too pessimistic. I misjudged when the peak in deaths would be by over a week – it was 9 days earlier than I thought, happening around the 11th April. As a result of coming sooner, the peak was lower than my little model predicted. Even allowing for that, the increase in number of deaths did not mirror the increase in cases (I used the cases pattern as my template for deaths). I think this is because the UK finally started ramping up it’s testing rate. The more testing you do, the more of the real cases you detect, so some of the increase in cases was simply better testing and not continuing spreading. That’s what happens when the source of your metrics changes, your model loses accuracy.

Deaths are directly related to real case numbers, it does not actually matter how many cases you detect. This is part of why case numbers are a much poorer metric for epidemics, whereas deaths are better. The best metric is a random, large sample for those who have had the disease – but we still do not have reliable, large-scale antibody or similar tests to tell us this.

If you look at the actual figures and compare to what I predicted for the peak of deaths, I seem to have been pretty accurate. I said 1,200 to 1,500 around the 20th April and the peak was 1,172 in the 21st April. But I was predicting hospital deaths only. Up until 29th April this was the number reported each day but since then the daily number of deaths reported included community (mostly care home) deaths. The previous figures were altered to reflect this and the graphs to the right are based on these updated figures. Hospital deaths seem to have peaked at 980 on the 11th April, so I was wrong.

I think it is crucial in science and technology (and actually, just in general) that you be honest when you are wrong – even if (like in this case) I could made a fallacious claim to have hit the nail on the head.

The bottom line is, we are well past the first peak and it did not overwhelm the NHS. It got really close and our issues with personal protective equipment was a scandal and must have resulted in more illness and some avoidable deaths to our front-line NHS staff. But, apparently, saying so is Political.

All in all we followed the pattern of European counties that were impacted by Covid-19 before us and implemented similar country-wide lock-downs.

One difference between us and other European countries that have been hit hard is our tail of cases is thicker and longer. We have not been as rigorous in our lock-down as those other countries (e.g we did not have to have written permission to leave or enter an area and children were not utterly forbidden from leaving home, which are just two examples how our lock-down was softer). I know it might not feel like it, but we were not.

What really concerns me is that we are easing lock-down measures so soon in the UK. Our daily new case rate and number of deaths are both still really quite high. The figures always drop over the weekend, especially Sunday and Monday (due to the numbers reported being for the day before). Over the last 3 days (Wed to Fri) we averaged 1998 new cases and 371 deaths per day. If you think Covid-19 has gone away, every single day there are 371 families who sadly know different.

I understand that the economy is important, that unless things are being manufactured, services provided, money earned and spent, that a large part of our society is not functioning. Maybe I don’t really appreciate how important it is as economics has always looked more like a dark art based on greed than anything logical, but some people feel getting back to normal business is critical and the long-term impact of not doing so is potentially as serious as Covid-19.

I also know that not being able to go to places, eat out, have a drink in the pub, meet up with friends in a building or in more than small numbers is frustrating. For many, not seeing your family and loved ones who are not in your home is very upsetting.

I’m sure that parents are desperate for kids to go back to school (partly for education and partly as it turns out kids are a lot of work), couples need a bit of time apart, people are missing their jobs. Nearly all of us have never had to spend so much time with a very small number of other people.

But I’m also sure that what we don’t want is in 4-8 weeks to have to go into the same level of lock-down as we spent most of this spring in. And the next lock-down may be even more draconian as there is a difference now to where we were at the second week of March when we should have locked down first.

SARS-Cov-2 is now endemic and prevalent across the UK. It is everywhere.

At the start of an epidemic the disease is growing in a small number of places, so usually (such as was the case with MERS and SARS) you can contain it by strong isolation and tracking efforts in those areas it occurs, as most of the population are not exposed. This is why you cannot contain seasonal ‘flu epidemics by isolating people, it does not work if it is wide-spread enough. ‘Flu simply flows through the population and it does in some years kill a lot of people.

With Covid-19 right now, If our R(e) – the effective reproduction number – goes above 1 anywhere across the UK, Covid-19 cases will rapidly increase in that area. And with restrictions being lifted across the whole UK and in England especially, I am privately convinced the disease will burst fourth again in many, many places and it is going to go very wrong again. I think the government is being utterly disingenuous about the impact of opening up schools and my friends who are teachers and medics have no doubt this is a significantly more dangerous step than it is being sold as. It might be the right move, but lying about it’s potential impact is not helpful long-term.

Not only are we relaxing social distancing steps too early, but I feel the government has utterly bolloxed up (technical term meaning “done a jolly poor job of”) the messaging. As examples:

  • The very clear “Stay at Home” became the vacuous “Stay Alert”, which no one seems to be able to clearly define and every one seems to have a different interpretation of.
  • We were given contradicting and non-nonsensical rules such as you could see one family member from outside your household in the park, but you could have people come and view your house. So if you want to see your mum & dad at the same time, put your house up for sale and have them view it.
  • Parts of the UK (Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland) have said they were not consulted on changes, they do not agree with them, and they are doing their own thing. That’s not confusing to people is it?
  • The whole Cummings affair. Dominic Cummings did break the rules, he acted like a selfish idiot, he lied about what he did, he had pathetically stupid excuses (“I drove my child around in a car to test my eyesight” which shows he either does not care at all for other people’s safety or has too low an IQ to be allowed out on his own). The issue is not that one arrogant, self-important person decided the rules do not apply to him. It is that the government fail to understand that not sanctioning him is being interpreted by many to mean they can make up their own minds about which rules apply to them and which they can ignore. Continuing to say “look, get over it” is simply coming across as telling us all to bugger off.

To help steer us through this crisis, we really needed a government with both the mandate to introduce new rules and also the acceptance by most of the population of those rules, and at least acquiescence from the majority to put up with limitations placed upon us. What we have now is a not just the hard-core “we won’t be told what to do” people that would always be a negative factor in limiting the spread of a disease, but a large number of angry, confused, worried people across the country. Almost everyone I personally know in the UK feel angry, confused, worried, and mostly with a progressively declining respect for the government and their advice.

I know I’m not very good at understanding people, it does not come naturally to me. If someone does not think like I do, I can have a devil of a job working out why. But I’m pretty sure that here in the UK a lot of people are going to start saying “to hell with the lock-down rules, everyone else is ignoring them and I’ve not seen anyone die in front of me…”

I went to see my Mum this week. I had to drive 100+ miles to do it. Unlike in Dominic’s case, it’s allowed now and I have no Covid-19 symptoms. I took a mask, I took my own food, we sat in her garden (I got sunburn, so Covid-19 might not get me but skin cancer might). I assured myself she was OK and that her tech will keep working so we can stay in touch. And I felt a little naughty doing it.

But I made a conscious decision to do it now – as I think SARS-CoV-2 is about at it’s lowest prevalence in our population right now (end of May 2020) than it is going to be for months. Admissions and deaths are going down and I expect at least deaths to continue to do so for another week or two. Personally I am deeply worried that in 4 weeks time new cases, hospital admissions, and deaths will be going up again. I don’t want them to be but I’ll be (very happily) surprised if they don’t go up  – what we see in cases & deaths at any point in time is based on the level of spread one or two weeks ago respectively. I suspect that as I type our R(e) number is going up and will exceed 1 this week.

If you don’t agree with me, just keep an eye on what the scientists are saying. Some are already making noises of anxiety as an article on the BBC is already saying today. Scientists tend to make cautious statements such as “we do not think this is wise” or “we feel there is a danger in this choice of action”. It’s a normal person’s equivalent of screaming “Are you bloody idiots?!?”.  Once again, the experts are saying we should do one thing and the government are doing another. It’s not gone too well to ignore the scientists so far.

There is a T-shirt you can get at the moment, which I really must order a dozen of.

“All disaster movies start with someone ignoring a scientist”.

 

 

Friday Philosophy – Concentrating and Keeping Calm. April 3, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in biology, COVID-19, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, Private Life, science.
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I was talking with a friend this week (via a webcam of course) about how he had been looking & looking at some misbehaving code for days. His team mates had looked too. It was not working and logically it should work. None of them could work it out. The problem turned out to be a small but obvious mistake.

My guesses for UK cases & deaths. Do Not Trust

This of course happens to us all occasionally, but we both agreed that, at the moment, we have the attention spans of a goldfish and are as easily distracted as a dog in squirrel country. I asked around a few other friends and it seems pretty much universal. All of us are making cups of tea and then taking the milk into the lounge & putting the cup of tea in the fridge. Or walking into the kitchen and asking who got the bread out to make lunch. It was you. The cat is wondering why I open the pouch of cat food and then leave it on the worktop and go do my email for 20 minutes. She’s getting annoyed.

Why are we all failing to function? Because we are all worried. This is one of the things anxiety does to us.

The whole COVID-19 thing is stressful – the feeling of being trapped inside, concern for friends and family, the ever growing numbers of infected & dying. I actually think if you are not at all worried then you are either:

  • Not understanding the situation
  • In denial
  • A total sociopath
  • Someone who should not be allowed out alone
  • Have reached a level of Zen calm usually only attainable by old oriental masters/mistresses

I’m by my nature often in camp 3 above, but even I am worried about this and I know it is making me tetchy and less able to focus. I’m struggling to keep my mind on things. Except on COVID-19. I tend to handle things I find unnerving by studying them and I probably spend about 3 or 4 hours a day looking at the latest information and scientific output on COVID-19. However, I note more things to “look at later” than I actually look at, as I am trying to manage my stress.

After an hour I make myself get up, go trim some roses, play a computer game, read a book. Anything to distract me. I’ve even started talking to the other person in the house and my wife is finding that particularly annoying. Sue seems easily annoyed and quite distracted at the moment. I wonder why?

Another way I cope is I talk with people about topics that are causing me stress. If I can’t talk, I write. Thus I wrote this Friday Philosophy – think of yourself as my counsellor.

I’ve seen a lot of social media “memes” about how long ago the 1st of March feels like, when we first started worrying about this. It seems like months ago, yes? To me it seems like a year. I started worrying about this a good while before the 1st March. I think the worry started about early/mid-February. Why? Because I’m a genius of course. {Note, this is called British self-deprecating sarcasm – I’m not a genius!}. No, the reason I picked up on all of this early was that chance primed me to.

I have a background in biology and some of the job roles I have held over my career have been in healthcare and the biological sciences. One role last year was working with a small biotech company working on immunology. So I take an interest in this sort of thing, it’s “my bag”. I was also pretty ill in December with Influenza (and yes, it WAS influenza, type A – I am not “the first case of COVID-19 in the UK”). So I was convalescing at home and took a specific interest in a new illness spreading through China that was influenza-like… And was worrying the hell out of the Chinese authorities who were coming down on it in a way we have not seen before, even with SARS and MERS.

My play spreadsheet.  I should leave this to the experts really

I have to confess, I initially suspected (wrongly, I hasten to add) that this new disease had escaped from a lab. The way it spread, that it seemed to be ‘flu-like, the rapid response by the authorities. I don’t doubt research into modifying diseases goes on – by the UK, China, USA, the Vatican, by every country with a biotech industry. I know we have the tools to directly mess with genomes, I did it myself, crudely, 30 years ago and I know people now who do it now, with considerable accuracy, for medical and other altruistic reasons. However, genetically engineering an organism leaves traces and when COVID-19 was sequenced there was no sign of this and it could be tracked to similar, previously known samples. I might even know some of the people who sequenced it and checked. But, anyway, that suspicion also made me watch.

The rate of spread in Wuhan was as shocking as the authority’s response and then through February the scientific analyses started appearing. The R(0) number (infection rate) and the high case fatality rate were both high. I’m not an epidemiologist but I had been taught the basics of it and I knew what was coming. No, that’s not right, I suspected what was coming, and I was worried. It was when the number of countries with cases started to increase that I felt I knew what was coming. By the end of February I was sure that unless something huge happened to change it, 2-3% of people, everywhere, would be killed. This was going to be like Spanish ‘flu only quicker (as we all travel so much). I became “The Voice Of Doom”.

On 2nd March I recommended to our CEO that UKOUG cancelled our Ireland event (people & organisations were pulling out so it was making it financially untenable anyway, but my major concern was that this was going to explode in the population). Thankfully the rest of the board agreed. I created my tracking spreadsheet about the 5th March. So far it’s been depressingly good at predicting where we are about a week in advance, and not bad for 10 days. I leave it to the experts for anything beyond that. All so depressing so far.

But Something Huge has happened. Governments did take it seriously. Well, most of them. And those who took it seriously soonest and hardest have fared best. The social lock-downs and preparation work that is going on in the UK is going to reduce the impact down dramatically and, more importantly, give us time to try and find solutions. But it still worries me. And I think they could have done it sooner. But most of the world is taking this very seriously – as it is very serious.

Part of me wants to keep watching how COVID-19 develops, and maybe writing more articles on it. I’ve had some really nice feedback on the first two and I want to do a post on where we might go in the coming months and why. But part of me wants to stop as it is making me very anxious and I’m sick of losing my cups of tea, or being stared at hard by the cat, and the wife asking me what the hell am I doing with the spanner and tin of peas.

I can’t easily listen to the government announcements each day as it is obvious, if you look at the scientific data and what medical professionals are saying, that they are simply not being candid. It’s all “we can beat this in the next few weeks” and “we will get you testing kits this month that are utterly reliable” despite the fact that’s going to need a scientific miracle to do that, let alone develop a reliable vaccine. I understand we need to keep positive but I think bullshitting the population now is only going to make telling them anything they will believe in 2 months even harder. In 6 months time when there is still no reliable vaccine and so many people have been wrongly diagnosed and the first few countries have had this rip through them almost uncontrolled, the lack of candid honesty will come back to roost. I worry about that a lot.

So I’m worried and I’m worried I’m going to be worried for months and months and months.

But for now I’m going to go for my daily (local) walk along a path I know will be almost empty of people and relax.

 

* Note, the graph and the spreadsheet are just “decoration”. They are my wild guesses on what may happen and have no reliability at all. Just saying

 

 

 

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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<< COVID-19 Basics. What it is & what it does to us

  COVID-19: What can we do to Reduce Social Distancing >>

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

How to (Not) Present – The Evil Threes November 22, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Perceptions, Presenting, User Groups.
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<< I Wish All New Presenters Knew This (and it will help you)
<<<<Controlling The Presentation Monster (Preparing to Present)
. . . . . . . . . Presenting Well – Tell Your Story >>

I’m going to let you into a secret. One of the most commonly taught “sure-fire-wins” to presenting is, in my opinion, a way to almost guarantee that your presentation is boring and dull. Whenever I am in a presentation and I realise they are going to do the “Rule of Three”, a little piece of me dies – and I check to see if I can get to an exit without too much notice. If I can do so I’m probably going to leave. Otherwise, I’ll be considerate and sit quietly. But I’m already thinking I might just watch cat videos on my phone.

The Evil Three!

The Rule of Three is a presenting structure that is useful if you hate presenting and you feel you are poor at it, but an inescapable part of your role is to present information to groups of people, be they internally to your team or to small groups. The principle is this:

  • People will only remember 3 things from your presentation.
  • There are three parts to your presentation – the start, the body, the end.
  • Use lists of three. I have examples below but basically do something like “be more engaging, more dynamic, more able to get the message over”. 3 parts.
  • 3 squared – use the above to create a killer presentation!
    • Tell the audience in the intro the three things you are going to tell them (briefly)
    • In the body explain each one of the three points in turn, in detail (using lists of three)
    • at the end, sum up the three points briefly.
    • Finish. To indifferent applause.

The problem with the Rule of three is it is a formula, a structure, to help the presenter to cope. Which if presenting is not your thing is OK. But it is not a method for engaging the audience or for making a talk interesting. It is in fact a straight jacket on a talk. As soon as it starts you know that you are going to be told three things. You will be told them again – but actually you won’t, as the presenter nearly always has 2,4, 5, or 12 things to tell you and they will “make it fit”. And at the end, you will have to listen to a summary of what you heard twice already – but again, it will be squeezed into the 3-point-rule.

I guess part of the reason I dislike this technique so much is that back when I started presenting, it was ubiquitous. I’d say half the talks I saw were Rule of Three style and they were the bulk of the poor ones. Back then we did not have Smart Phones. Many of us did not even have Dumb Phones (you know, ones that pretty much only made calls and sent texts, but worked for a week between charges). I played a lot of “snake” during those bad talks. Another thing we had back then was more in the way of training courses. And maybe that was the source of the popularity of this style…

After a year or two of my “presenting career” I went on an “advanced presentation skills” course. I checked before hand that it was not a course for those who had never presented or had to present but it made them want to die,  but that the course was aimed at taking you from being competent to being a skilled presenter. They said yes, it was, it was for people who already presented but wanted to be more engaging, more dynamic, more able to get the message over. My next question was “so no Rule of Three then?” They said no, no Rule of Three.

This presentation Sucks

The course was all around the Rule of Three.

Now don’t get me wrong, if your aim is to describe something fairly simple and all you want to do is get that information from your brain into the brains of the people listening, with the minimum of pain to you, then the Rule of Three will work. It is fairly simple and it is efficient. But you better have a topic that has 3 parts to it and you are using this method as you are only presenting as you are being forced to and this is a way to cope.

If you want to Present, then the Rule of Three sucks. It really sucks. It sucks the enjoyment out of the talk, it sucks the energy out the room, and it sucks the oxygen out of the atmosphere.

They heard I was doing a Rule of Three presentation

The one part of the Rule of Three that I do have a lot of time for is having three parts or examples to a phrase or description. “Be strong, be bold, be brave!” Listing three options such as “If you want to wake up a little the try some light exercise. Go for a walk, get on the bike for 15 minutes, or even a jog a mile or two”. This is a pattern the ancient Greeks used a lot, as you will find out (ad nauseam – which is Latin not Greek) if you google “The rule of three”.Two does not seem enough and 4 or 5 seem a little over the top. But don’t use it all the time as otherwise it can make what you say (or write) too formulaic, too structured, too obvious… a bit crap.

Anyway, having got to the course and discovered that it was all on the Rule Of Three, to say I was annoyed would be a serious understatement. The course was not at all on how you make your presentations more engaging or how to identify things to avoid. (And I will do a post or two on those topics next).

However I did manage to have some fun. On all such presentation skills courses you do at least one, if not several, practice presentations to the other delegates.

I did one that went down very well. It was on why I so, so, so dislike presenting by the Rule of Three.

Controlling The Presentation Monster (Preparing to Present) November 18, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in humour, Perceptions, Presenting.
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As I covered before, nerves before a presentation are not a bad thing. In fact, many excellent presenters/performers recognise that those butterflies of anxiety are necessary to make your presentation really sing. But you need to control the Presentation Monster. You want to take it down from lion-taming to annoyed-but-fundamentally-not-evil-cat-training.

Presentation Monster Gonna Get You

Embrace the Emotion

As the linked-to post above describes, nerves before a performance (and presenting is a kind of performance) are normal. So the first thing to do is accept that you not only will be nervous/anxious/really wanting the toilet very badly but that, if you didn’t, your talk is probably going to be poor.

Just accepting that and knowing that the people you see presenting apparently in an island of calm are mostly faking it helps. If they can fake, it so can you. Some of the below will help you turn down the anxiety dial or, if there is a need, even turn it up a little to get you buzzing.

Practice, practice…. practice.

I know it sounds obvious, but this is so true. You need to run through your presentation several times and in the right way. And people often don’t do it well.

When I prepare a new presentation, once it is written, I want to run through it from start to finish, in real time, 3 times. This is where most people go wrong and they make one of the following mistakes:

  • They will spot a problem on a slide, for example some text is garbled or an image is too small. And they stop to fix it, and then continue the practice session. Well, you just stopped the flow of it all and any timings you do will broken. Don’t do this – if you are still correcting big mistakes then your talk is not ready for the practising step, small mistakes you can go back to once you finish.
  • As each slide flicks up they go “yeah, OK, I know what I am going to say” – and move on. Don’t. Say it. Imagine the audience, talk to them, include any anecdotes or side points you plan (or suddenly think of), and speak slowly. It is way better to be faster for the real thing than slower as most presentations lead up to a Big Point or the Most Interesting Bits at the end, and if you run out of time…
  • They never time it. How do you know this takes 45 minutes unless you have done it in 45 minutes?

Practice any anecdotes or jokes. Ideally you want them to sound spontaneous but, like sincerity, you can fake spontaneity 😄. You will know if you are the sort of person who will wander off topic or throw in something you suddenly think of. If you do, the speaking slowly during the practice is vital, and make the talk 5 minutes shorter. You know you can fill it. You can’t so easily drop content without it being obvious and dropping content usually goes down poorly.

Once you have done a presentation for real a couple of times then it gets a lot easier to repeat, but you really do still need to do a full run though before each time you present it.

The aim is to ensure that you know your material, you know it will fit, and you will not be surprised by a slide coming up when you don’t expect it.

Just One!

A Little Glass…

If you partake of alcohol, consider having a drink, ONE drink, about 1/2 an hour before you present. A glass of wine or a beer.

Why? Well, alcohol is a depressant, in that it turns down the nervous system a little (as opposed to making you sad and morose, which it can in larger quantities). It enhances the activity of a neurotransmitter called GABA in your brain. The end result is it relaxes you a little and it also slightly suppresses the social filters we have in our heads to stop us saying things we worry we should not say. It actually helps when presenting if you are a little more… open and verbose.

By having the drink half an hour before you present, it will be having it’s full effect as you get going. By only having one you are still in control. If you are having 3 beers or half a bottle of wine before presenting, you are probably doing this very wrong and should stop!

An alternative is to have a coffee before you present. The caffeine gives you a mild lift, makes you a tad more buzzy.  However, if nerves are a real problem for you, this might not be the best option. But if you want a little more energy, it can help.

Stop Messing With The Content Dave!

A few years ago I was at a conference, the evening before it started, having a drink and a chat with friends. Dave (not his real name, it was Rob) said he was going to tweak his demonstration for tomorrow. An early session tomorrow. I told him to leave it alone, the last thing you need is to stop it working. He agreed.

The next morning I went a little early to Dave’s session as I wanted somewhere quiet to drink my coffee as I was a little …tired from the bar the night before. Dave was already there. He was hunched over his laptop, typing like a crazed chimpanzee with a sugar rush, swearing. “Dave – did you mess with the demo?!?” “It won’t work anymore, I can’t make it work anymore!!!”. And then the audience arrived.

What followed was 45 minutes of high stress for Dave and a somewhat below par session for us.

My advice is change nothing just before you present. People who know me in the presenting sphere know this is advice I don’t always heed myself, I’ve been known to be in a talk before mine, quickly polishing my slides. And it is not a good idea.

The “demo that fails to work” is the worst case, but often you will see people present and suddenly say “oh, I thought there was a different slide there”. Or refer to something they had intend to say, but they dropped or re-ordered a slide. And now they are flustered.

Do yourself a favour: by all means review your slides just before you present, I recommend that. But change nothing of substance. You will be a lot calmer. When you change stuff, a chunk of your brain is now tied up going “you changed the slide on mutating monsters, remember you changed the slide on mutating monsters”

Chat to the Audience/friends just before you start

I find this works for me, maybe it will for you. Hopefully, even if you are a new presenter, some friends will be in the audience. I find there are usually a couple of “dead minutes” before you present, especially at larger conferences. Time is left for people to change rooms and swap over laptops.

I use that time to chat with them (from the stage, I don’t mean go sit next to them and ask about the kids). A bit of light banter or just telling them to shut up and sit down. I might take a couple of pictures of the audience or comment on how early it is/close to lunch it is/too late in the day for this lark it is/did anyone see X talk.

I’m not sure why this seems to help me, maybe it is acting to lower the communication barrier or, like if you are going for a run and jogging for the first minute to wake up the system, it eases you into it.

Post Performance Routine

How does what you do after you present help with your presentation? Well, because it is part of the whole experience. Your enjoyment of presenting is to a large degree down to what you got out of it the last few times. Some of my friends will be at the side of the stage before starting, adamant they are never doing this stupid thing again. But they do so as they know that, despite the fact that the Presentation Monster is currently feasting on their liver, over all they get something out of presenting.

I know some people who really want a quite beer after presenting. I tend not to go to another session directly after I have finished one of mine as I’ve realised I struggle to listen as I am too keyed up. I like to chill & chat to people or check social media, usually with a coffee and also some water.

I recently asked around and it seems to be pretty common for people to have a post-presenting routine and it is usually around calming down and letting the adrenaline that comes with a performance ebb away. One person I know has to go pee a couple of times. Maybe it’s the beer before presenting.

Turning Up The Dial

Sometimes you might have the opposite problem. There are no real nerves or you are feeling flat before you present. That is not good as the adrenaline, the nervousness, that helps make you dynamic when you present. In this case I might turn the dial up a little.

I might talk myself into a little bit of anxiety – “What if they ask me about that bit I never looked into properly, is the relevant product manager going to be in the audience”.

I will probably have a coffee but I find the stuff does not do that much to me, but it might for you.

What I usually do is add in a bit of new jeopardy. I’ll swap my intro slides to something new (or at least different) or slot in a new slide which is sort-of relevant. Or decide to try a joke early on that might not work.

 

The bottom line is you want the Presentation Monster in the room, you want it a little hungry. But you don’t want it to be any larger than you can handle with a good stick and a bit of determination.

Friday Philosophy – Jerks, Plain & Simple November 15, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
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A couple of weeks ago I saw a post on social media by someone who had just encountered a jerk. You know, someone who is an arrogant, bullying, self-important cockwomble (*).

This is a cockwomble, made by Susan Widlake

The offended party had tweeted a link to the thread where the abuse had happened and I went and took a look. It’s not really that important in what manner the jerk was being a jerk, though in this case they were asking for free help that the original poster was giving, and when they did not get as much help as they felt entitled to, they became abusive to the person helping. Sadly, nothing new there.

But what did make me pause was that the original tweet that linked to this tale of the toss-pot ended with the line “Welcome to my world as a woman in I.T.” And I paused – but not for the obvious reason.

I went back and checked the thread to make sure I was right, that I had not missed anything. I hadn’t, not that I could see on the thread anyway.

At no point in this woman’s dealings with this jerk had anything been said about sex, gender, male, female, anything. This person asking for help was undoubtedly not a nice person, the speed with which they swapped from “please help me” through “You have to do more for me” and then on to a tirade of abuse was rapid. And it was nasty abuse – but none of it was sexist.

The woman had made a point that they received this sort of treatment because of their gender – but there was no sign of gender being part of this at all.  And that bothered me. It bothered me for three reasons.

  • I keep coming across people who immediately assume that if someone treats them badly, is offensive, does not like them, or is in any way a jerk towards them, it is because of whatever minority group they are part of. Sometimes sadly that is the case. However, in others it is not – but the offended person has stopped being able to discern that difference. At times I’ve suffered from bullying and being ignored in my own little way but I realized that I was being over sensitive and sometimes I was being ignored just because the person ignoring me ignored pretty much everyone, or was derogatory to everyone. It was nothing to do with my height.
  • Maybe because of that first point, where any issue is perceived as being due to an “..ism”, some people have developed an attitude that all people not in their minority group are against them. For example, I regularly come across the attitude of “all men are….”. I’ve been told to my face that all men think that women are not as good at programming as men. Well, you’re wrong. Not all men think like that. I told the person in question I did not hold that opinion and the reply was something like “well you’re about the only exception then!”. They were determined to hold a point of view in which it was not that there are still some sexist men about – but that all men were sexist, and rabidly so. That’s pretty annoying and it risks making people not want to help fight your corner.
  • I’ve had people say to me “I can’t say anything about X doing this wrong as I’ll only get accused of …ism” – and It’s occasionally been a worry for me. This can lead to a backlash where people get away with poor work or bad behaviour as no one wants to be labelled with an “…ism”

What worries me about this “cry wolf” scenario and the attitudes of “they are all going to be out to get you” is that it actually perpetuates the very thing we need to stand against. When I come across someone who is constantly, always citing all their interpersonal problems as being due to the minority they associate themselves with, I confess I thinking to myself “well, perhaps I’ll be a little wary of you, you seem to have issues here”. It’s like a chap I met who was adamant that every boss he had ever had was “a moron”. He’d had a lot of bosses and he could not accept that maybe, just maybe, at times perhaps the boss was not the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely should challenge behaviour that treats a group of people as inferior, just for being part of that group. We should not condone any “..ism”. We should all ask ourselves if we are being unconsciously prejudiced and, if so, work to stop that. But we should be wary of citing bigotry as a knee-jerk reaction or falling into the error of challenging sexism, racism etc with exactly the same attitude but just from the other side of the fence.

And I think part of this is recognising that sometimes, often, jerks are just jerks. There is no …ism. Let’s just call them out for being jerks. And if there is an …ism, we call them out for being absolute, utter jerks.

 

(*) cockwomble is a term that seems to be becoming more universally recognised. It just means someone who is a bit of an idiot, someone you don’t want to spend any more time with that you need. A Womble is a creature from UK kids TV in the 70’s and 80’s. They are made-up animals that wander around Wimbledon Common (a large park in London), tidying it up and making things out of the rubbish they find. Sue made this cockwomble out of a beany-bag womble and a beany-bag cockerel.

Friday Philosophy – Top Ten Influencers in my Technical Career October 18, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions.
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Earlier this week I was sipping wine late at night and cogitating on what led me to where I am now. Part of that was the more specific topic of what, or rather who, influenced my technical development and career, especially early on. As a little game for myself, I decided to jot down the 10 first names I came up with and did not discard within 5 seconds. And then excluded those who’s influence had been negative!

The ones you will know…

It’s OK, don’t get your hopes up, you are not on the list.

That list was:

  • Cary Millsap
  • Craig Shallahamer
  • Mike Cox
  • Jonathan Lewis
  • Barry
  • Maria Colgan
  • Steven Feuerstein
  • Rachael Carmichael
  • Tim (OracleBase) Hall
  • Dominic Giles.
  • Richard Foote

I really hope you have heard of most of them. I’d be amazed if you know all of them. And yes, there are 11. I was, if you remember, sipping wine late at night. In the morning I looked at the list and thought about refining it or expanding it (and boy, I could expand it to 50 people plus in 10 minutes) but that was not my game. First 10, with very little analysis.

You know what is coming, I’m going to step through the list. I’m so obvious. But the reasons are not always so obvious (though some are, sorry). Remember, I was slightly drunk.

Cary Millsap. I detest Cary Millsap.

I’m joking of course! But a tiny little bit of me always goes “Grrrr” when I think of this man who is fundamentally a really nice person, very bright, and a wonderful presenter. Why? Well, he came up with OFA, the Optimal Flexible Architecture. This specified a logical, sensible way to lay out an Oracle database, it’s files and the directories they went in, file naming conventions etc such that the database was performant, easy to navigate, and you could have multiple databases on a server without confusion. And that could have been me! I came up with almost the exact same thing and I was damn proud of it. And 6 months after I came up with it and thought “I need to make a big thing of this and get some credit for my genius” – I came across OFA. I was gutted.

Optimal Flexible Architecture 8.1.5 style

The thing is, Cary was one of the first people I came across who was putting out stuff to help all us DBA types back in the 1990’s.  I am sure I must have seen stuff he did that became the OFA and it influenced me. His OFA was first published a couple of years before I came up with my design, but I had not seen it. We did not really have the internet back then!

Cary did not influence me simply by producing great stuff, he made me realise that several people can come up with similar ideas and, actually, being “first” is nice – but really the key thing is to spread the knowledge. Making our jobs easier for everyone around you is really doing something for the community. Cary also came up with Method R for performance tuning which is great, but time to move on.

I sometimes mention I have a decent dose of dyslexia. In my mind Craig is Craig “Shalamar”. His last name is too long for me and I “spin” in the middle of his surname “Shallahamer”. Too many repeated letters (in my mind there are 2 m’s too). Thus when I only knew him from printed materials my brain would stick with the wrong name. Few people were putting out stuff in the early 90’s and because his stuff was so good he was a key, early source of received wisdom for me. Then in the late 90’s he disappeared, or at least from my view he did. But now he’s back and I’ve met him. He is about the only person (him and Kerry Osbourne, sorry Kerry) who I have been a little hem-touchy with  (go right to the end of that post). ie went “Oh wow! You are blah blah!” when meeting them (follow the link if you want to know what I mean). It’s OK, Craig let me off. I got him a beer. It was a free beer, it was at DOAG! One day I’ll actually buy him a beer to say thank you for all the help he gave me early on. I might even buy him two, but let’s not get too giddy.

Mike Cox is fundamentally a brilliant developer & incredibly smart and he will never, ever present. It’s not for him. He represents the huge number of very talented I.T people you never hear about as they just get on with the job. I worked with Mike when I was at Oracle in the early 90’s and again at the end of the 90’s when he {grudgingly} told his boss I was not totally useless. His boss knew that was high praise. I remember someone telling Mike his code did not work. Mike replied “Yes it does! I’ve checked it. Twice!”. His code worked. He is one of the few people I know who can write a page of PL/SQL and execute it and it does what he wants, first execution. But that is not what he taught me. He taught me that what we do is create solutions and the absolute one thing you have to do as a developer is create something the user wants to use. I.E. it makes their working life easier. Everything else is secondary. Thanks Mike.

Sharp tools – everyone here is one

If you are in the technical core Oracle RDBMS sphere and you do not know who Jonathan Lewis is, I’m stunned. His approach to methodically understanding problems and how Oracle works is second to none. I think there are one or two people as good as Jonathan is but personally I know of no one better. So that is why he influenced me? Well, yes and no. Oracle Names, those top people (and this is true in all disciplines) are people, just like all of us. Very talented but, fundamentally, normal people. Jonathan is a friend, I like chatting to him in the pub and we will discuss bread and chainsaws on twitter. And he has given me advice and help over the years, as a friend, and I very much appreciate that. And if it is not Oracle, sometimes I’m teaching him. If you meet those presenters and writers of good stuff then yes, of course, respect their skill. But don’t hero worship them. Most of them don’t actually like it. Treat them like regular people (because they ARE regular people) and you might make a friend.

I’ve written about Barry before (and no, I can’t for the life of me remember his last name). Barry taught me that you don’t need to be technically the best to be great at what you do. You need to care and you need to be willing to try and you need to be willing to learn. It’s all about attitude. In the little team we were in we had a guy who was technically superb. And no one liked him, as he was an arrogant and unhelpful bugger. Everyone liked Barry and asked him to help. Be like Barry. I try to be like Barry.

SQL Maria (She’ll probably never lose that nick name in the Oracle sphere) used to the product manager for the optimizer and I was a performance nerd, so of course I knew of Maria Colgan. The number of times she said to the audience “I’m not technical, I don’t understand this stuff…” and then gave a really good description of that stuff. She was a little liar! She knew her stuff (and still does), you can’t present like that and not know your topic. She was also one of the first product managers in Oracle I started chatting to, both about technical topics and as a friendly face. Oracle Names are just normal people and Oracle Names From Oracle are just normal people too. Who knew? Maria now looks after In Memory and stuff like that, but if you google her, the top hit is still “Maria Colgan Oracle Optimizer”. I wonder if Nigel Bayliss, who has been the PM for the optimizer for a few years now (and very good he is at it too) has a doll in a drawer with pins in it…

Well worn indeed

Steven Feurestein. I can’t spell his last name best out of three due to the aforementioned dyslexia. Anyone, and I mean ANYone, who was coding in PL/SQL in the mid 90’s onward probably had/has the Ant Book on their desk, Oracle PL/SQL Programming by Steven. I consumed the first edition of that book, pretty much working it to ruin as I referred to it over the years. I still have it and boy it is tatty. Thanks for that book Steven, and the ones that came after it. However, Steven has influenced me twice. He now works for Oracle, leading the Oracle Developer Advocates team which includes the Ask Tom team. And that’s sort of what I do now, advocate Oracle and the community. Only I don’t really get paid for it. Can I have a job Steven?

{Why did I not pick Tom Kyte? Looking back now he was a massive influence on me as he was on many others, he should be in the list. But he isn’t. So aren’t a lot of excellent people like Arup Nanda, Chris Antognini, Kevin Closson, Uwe Hess…}

I thought I had written a blog about Rachael Carmichael but it seems I have not. Rachel was really active in the Oracle presenting circuit back in the 90’s and early 2000’s and wrote/contributed to several books. I met her at one of my first UKOUG conferences when I was a presenting newbie. Rachael sort of took me under her wing and not only gave me good advice but also introduced me to several of the really well know presenters, a lot of who were in the Oak Table. Both of those things had a big influence on my career.

Rachael then decided she’d had enough of technology and followed a different path and swapped to working with animals. Because she wanted to. You can change career totally – if the current one has lost it’s sparkle, go find something else to do. I did not leave the Oracle sphere (I thought about it) but I decided to stop being mostly a technician and more an enabler, encouraged by Rachael’s example.

 

Tim blogs as well as writing articles

ORACLE_BASE must be one of the most visited and highest quality sources of Oracle technical information on the web. If you did not know, Tim Hall writes it all (I think he writes it all. Maybe he has a team held captive in his basement. I’ll ask him). If I need to check syntax or how a feature works, I google it and if an ORACLE-BASE page comes up I go there. Tim’s a great guy and a very good presenter – but don’t let him near an Oracle panel session. And oh boy don’t let him sit on one! Like me he is a biologist really, so an absolute top, fantastic bloke :-). Tim also has a very philosophical outlook on this Oracle technology bollocks, which I am sure encouraged me to do my Friday Philosophies.

Dominic Giles is a Master Product Manager for the Oracle Database here in the UK. I don’t know what you do to become a Master product manager, maybe just get old? For years Dom has been a real friend to the UKOUG and the conference circuit in general, doing great talks about the core RDBMS, what is new, what can and cannot be done. But the reason he really influenced me is he came to help us when I was working on the human genome project. Most consultants going on-site for a company would never tell the client to “just grow a pair and do it Martin”. Dom did. Bloody brilliant. We did know each other quite well at this point and it was a kick up the arse I needed. Be real with people, it’s so much more effective (if perhaps a little more risky?)

Unfortunately, Richard does not look like this anymore

Finally, and well done for reading this far, is Richard Foote. Actually, I reckon almost no one will have got through this whole list, my wife keeps telling me to split this post into 2 or 3 parts. But Richard will get this far, he wants to know what I say about him and if it includes anything about David Bowie. Richard is a bit of a Bowie fan, as am I. Bowie’s “Black Tie, White Noise” is playing as I type this. What Richard does not know about indexing you don’t need to know. I learnt a lot from him. But then I learnt a lot from many people, so why Richard?
This blog. I stole his layout for mine. In fact, before I changed the graphics for the banner and stretched the format it looked EXACTLY like Richard’s blog. Also, I liked Richard’s presenting style – Relaxed, jokey, but with good technical content. I sort of nicked that too. Part of me just want to be Richard, except for the being Australian bit 🙂

Well done, that’s the lot.

 

OGB Appreciation Day: It’s All About ME! October 10, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in ACED, Knowledge, Perceptions, Presenting, UKOUG, User Groups.
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The Oracle Groundbreakers program, and it’s previous incarnations going back to OTN and beyond, are all about me. Yes – Me!

What a great bunch of people

Well, having hopefully got you hooked in with the ego-laden title and first line, let me explain.

As OracleBase (Dr Tim Hall) describes in this post on Oracle Groundbreakers Appreciation day, today we are celebrating what OTN/ODC/Groundbreakers means to many of us. For me it is quite simple, Groundbreakers, as part of the larger Oracle community, gave me the career and roles I currently have. The knowledge, support, and community they promote made me into the President of the UK Oracle user group. Why do I say this?

Let’s go back in time a little, to the last millennium. When I was first navigating my Oracle career the user community sort-of existed back then. You had big, flappy, paper things called “books” that you could buy and put on your desk. They held loads of information and stuff you did not know. And those of us who were keen to learn would swap white papers and articles by email, which you would also print out and put on your desk, in an ever-growing couple of towers. Why all the paper? We had 14-16 inch screens with terrible resolution, you had no screen space back then, so you programmed on that and had your help on the desk. As for googling things – didn’t exist. At this time I was utterly on the receiving end of community. I was being taught. I did teach back then, but only face-to-face for whichever company was employing me at the time.

Step into the new millennium and I landed a job with the Sanger Institute and the Human Genome Project. The Sanger have a culture of sharing – data, techniques, information, discoveries. As a result I was not just allowed but encouraged to go and talk at conferences. So I did. My first presentations were at Oracle Open World, the Oracle Life Sciences User Group (OLSUG), and the UKOUG conference. Very soon I was helping run the OLSUG events and volunteering at UKOUG events. I just got sucked in. I was still of course on the receiving side of the community, learning from all those great people who present, write, chat etc. But now I was giving to the community too. And there was something about being part of the “giving” community that I had not expected. You learn even more. And you have more fun! I got to meet a lot of fellow presenters, event organisers, and product managers – especially when I was made an Oracle ACE and joined what is by far the largest part of the Oracle community.

The ACE/Groundbreaker program recognises not necessarily the smartest and best people in any given field. It recognises those who put time and effort into sharing, in helping others (which was lucky for me!). You have to know your stuff to teach others (so be technically or business good), but you also need to be willing to, well, teach! To interact with people. So the vast majority of people who are in the program are also friendly & supportive people. Being dropped into that group really helped me.

Not only did I meet all these people from around the globe, I’ve been able to go around several parts of the globe to conferences and meetings. Groundbreakers does a lot to support people going around the world to present and share knowledge. The great thing about travelling is you see other perspectives and cultures. I don’t think we realise how parochial our viewpoint can be until we meet people with different perspectives and experiences.

As a result of my being part of the community and being an ACE/ACED, I’ve continued to learn technically, I’ve got a lot better at interacting with people, my communication skills have developed, and I now know a lot of skilled people in the community. All of these things have of course helped my working career. But where it all comes together is in my role as UKOUG president. I would never have considered putting myself forward for this role if I had not had all this experience with the Oracle community. And I don’t think I’d be very good in the role if I had not learnt all the “soft skills” that I have, and made the contacts that I have.

So Groundbreakers, you made me President of the UKOUG.

I *think* I thank you 🙂