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

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

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

And, I feel it is important to say:

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

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

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

Source of Epidemiological information

ICU beds needed per 100,000 people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitigation or Suppression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delayed impact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three choices – or is it four?

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

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

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

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

But this Imperial College paper has a solution 4:

Turning social isolation up and down

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “The hammer and the dance” paper…

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

Context is paramount

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why will social distancing last 18 months?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disclaimer

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

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

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

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

 

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 🙂

Reviving an iPad and On-Premises lesson 2. July 19, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
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<< Introducing I.T. to an Elderly Relative
<<<< Preparing the device
<<<<<< First Lessons, Frustrations, & Funny Stuff

Unlocking it was not so easy

In my previous post we finished with my mother having bricked her iPad – that is, having turned it onto a useless lump. So I drove up to see her again to sort it out. {BTW if you think I am being a bit mean to my mum – yes I am. But I do love her and in the end the iPad has resulted in us being much more in touch. But I think it helps to share the frustrations of getting someone utterly unused to technology on line}.

The first thing I did was to get Mum to turn it on and put in the password. Martin with an I (not a Y – “as some people spell it like that!”). Mum was, very slowly, putting in the password correctly. And then staring at the screen until it flashed up an error. She had forgotten about pressing DONE. Now, if she’d called me when she had started having trouble… The thing is, that is so true across all of IT support. If only people called up when they first had a problem or did something wrong (like deleted all those rows…). If you call up quickly, there is much more chance the problem will be solved quickly. Anyway, I digress. I now knew what had gone wrong, she may or may not type the password correctly but it was timing out each time. Of course, by this point the iPad would no longer respond to the correct password, it was locked out.

You may not know this but if an iPad is locked out as it thinks it might be stolen (password put in wrongly too many times), you can’t just factory reset it. At least, I could not and google-fu mostly confirmed this. You have to plug it into another device with iTunes on it. And you can’t just plug it into the device you set it up on and refresh it, even if you backed it up to this device. At least, I could not. Maybe I am not very good at this tech lark. You have to download the latest version of the OS to your device, plug the switched off iPad into your device, turn the iPad on and then press certain buttons on it in a given way within a 0.731 second window that occurs at an unspecified time after turning the device on. I don’t know how often I tried to get the sodding iPad into recovery mode and recognised by iTunes, but it sure as hell amused my Mum to watch me try. I then re-set-up the iPad to be the same, simple set-up I had done so before. See post 2 for some hints on that. All the time Mum was making snide comments about “how simple this all is, Martyn!”. I think she was having revenge. Sue was keeping out the way.

After all the issues with “Martin with a Y or I”, I set the pass code to be a number. Yes, it’s less secure but I have the Apple ID details for her account – if she loses the iPad I can either track it or wipe it remotely. But we were up and running again, we had a working iPad and on-premises lesson 2 could begin. I’m not sure either of us was 100% happy about this…

Mum wants 2 main things from “the interweb”. She wants to be able to contact me (and, I presume, her other Son and her daughter-in-law) and she wants to be able to look things up. If she can do the former than I can help, remotely, with the latter.

You need the patience of this person…

So I showed her how to use messenger to contact us again. It’s been a week or so since the last lesson so I knew she would need a reminder. I pointed at one of the various icons and asked her what it looked like “It’s a phone!” So what will it do? “I don’t know, you are supposed to tell me!”. If it looks like a phone, it’s probably… “{blank look}”. You pressed this by accident last week and it made you scream? “Oh, it’s a phone!”. Excellent, we gave it a quick go.

What about this one next to it? What does it look like? “A box and a little box”. Fair point, but it looks a but like a tv camera? She agreed. So, what will it do? “blank look”. You know this one, we tested this with Sue in the kitchen last week… “the kettle?!?”. It was like Star-Trek… “Oh yes, she appeared on the iPad and I could talk to her. It’s just like Star Trek!”. We tried that one too. All good.

OK, let’s re-visit sending messages and using the keyboard. I show her me sending her a couple of messages again. Enter some text, any text. Press the icon to send the message. “Which one”. The one next to the message, it looks like a plane. “Which message?” The one you just typed. “So I press this one {points to the enter key}” No! No, the blue plane one. “This one!” No!!! that is a phone symbol, I explained that one 5 minutes ago and you seem to have no trouble hitting that one despite that it is in utterly the wrong place and no where near the message. “What message?” THE ONE…..The one you just typed, there, the one that says ‘GFRYTSB’. “So I click on your name?” NO! NO! THE FUCKING PLANE! TAP THE FUCKING PLANE!!!!

She taps the plane.

It sends the message “Oh. It did that before. How do I know who it sent it to?” It sent it to the Pope. “Why did it send it to the Pope?” {sigh}. How many people did we set this up for? Me, Sue, Steve, no Pope. But you see my name at the top of the conversation? You know, third child your bore? The name right above all the other messages? It sent it to me.

“But there are three names {moves finger} over here”. THAT IS OVER THERE!!!!!!! You have spent 10 minutes calling me, star- treking me, seeing messages from me, who the hell do you think it sent the message to?!? “Susan?” {I’m losing it…}

OK, send me another message. You know it’s me, my picture and name is above the conversation. Here, look at my screen your picture and name is above *my* conversation and those are the messages you have sent me.

She types something.
and stares at the screen.
And stares at the screen…
And looks at my screen…
And back at her screen…
“It’s not sent! Has it gone to someone else?”
The. Plane. Tap the Plane.
‘Ping’ – “Ohh! you got the message! How does it know where you are?” The bloody computer pixies know. They track everyone in the world. “Can I message anyone in the world?” I lie a little and say no. only the people in the list. “Does it know Steve is in Wales?” Yes. Look, do you ask the phone how it knows where I am? “No, but this is not the phone”.

We exchange a few more messages for practice and then I get her to tap on the other names, to change conversations. She swaps to Sue and Mum sends her a couple of messages. Once again Mum is asking how the computer knows where Sue is. I point out that as Sue is in the room, the iPad can see her – and then realise that was a really stupid thing to say as Mum did not get the joke. “So it CAN’T message Steve if it can’t see him?” No, it can, it can message anyone on her list.”Shall I message him?” No, he lives in Wales, life is hard enough for him already.

It’s time to go home. I make mum turn the iPad off, turn it on, put in the code and send me a message. She’s got it. “What about the internet?” The internet is not ready for you yet Mum, that will be lesson three. Read the book I got you and give it a go if you like. You can’t break… Actually, just wait until I come back over.

I have to say, since then Mum has been able to message me without issue and can turn the iPad on and off with no trouble, so you do get there eventually.

But I do seem to be buying a lot more wine these days…

First Lessons, Frustrations, & Funny Stuff – Introducing the iPad To My Mum July 12, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Knowledge, off-topic, Perceptions, Private Life.
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<< Introducing I.T. to an Elderly Relative
<<<< Preparing the device

So, you are are helping an elderly relative or someone else who knows nothing at all about keyboards, icons, internet, or web browsing to get going with I.T. You have set up the device for them, now you need to introduce them to it. This is where it gets… interesting.

As I describe in earlier posts, I bought an iPad for my mum and set it up in a nice, simple way for her. I knew there was nothing she could do to actually break the iPad, it would just be a little confusing and possibly quite a frustrating process showing her how to use it. I was wrong. On all counts.

To do this I drove up to see my mum for the day, taking along the current Mrs Widlake for emotional support. Having arrived and set up the new router we had got from British Telecom (that’s a whole other story of woe) I sat Mum down and showed her the iPad, the on/off button, the volume buttons and the Home button. I got her to turn the device off and on, I pulled up some things on the internet to show her videos & music and got her to turn the volume up and down, and showed her how you touch the screen to do things. I told Mum about plugging it in and the icon that shows how much charge it has. All was going OK. I showed her the keyboard…

“Ohh, that’s complex!” No it’s not, there is one key per letter and some special keys. “Why can’t it have 9 numbered buttons and you just press 3 twice for H?” Because it is not 1995 anymore and this is much easier. I open Messenger for her, start a conversation to me and get her to type, yes you guessed it, ‘Hello World’. “I can’t find the ‘L'”. That’s OK, just take your time…

Mum is punching her finger on the screen as if she is killing cockroaches. You just need to tap it mother “I am!”. More softly (bash bash bash). No, gently (bash bash). If I poked your cat that hard she’d bite me, imagine you are touching the cat (bash bash bash). Mum, the screen is glass – if you hit it like that it will break and cut your finger off! That worked.. sort of (thud thud thud). 2 minutes and liberal use of the delete key later (her aim is poor) we get ‘Hello World’. Great! Well, you are sending the message to me, look that’s my name and a little picture of me! Say ‘Hello Martin’ – “Hello Martin” says Mum. Nooo, type it. “Where’s the L key?” Same place as before, just take your time…

When Mum is looking for a key she hovers her finger over the keyboard, waves it over one area, goes to another area and waves it over that – and then back to the first area… and repeats. Half of the keyboard has some sort of exclusion field around it. Mum, just look along each row until you find the letter you want. “I was!” No, you looked there and then there, 3 times. Trust me, just work along each row. She does.. “There it is! I knew it was there!”. Hmmm

After about 10 minutes of this random messaging (it felt like an hour but my wife, sniggering on the sofa, said it was 10 minutes) I get Mum to practice logging into the device. This, after all, is a vital step.

I tell her the password is my name. I decided on my name as she (probably) won’t forget it and it is more secure than a number that she will remember. “With a Y or an I?” Huh? “Martin with a Y or an I?” What did you name me? “Martin”. With a Y or an I? “Well, an I of course.” Well it’s with a bloody I then! “Some people spell it different…”. Why would I set your password to my name but spelt the wrong way? It’s an I you silly old Moo. (yes, it’s getting to me).

She types Marti.. “There is no N key”. It’s there. “Oh yes”. I tell her to press DONE. She does, the home screen comes on. I get her to turn it off and put in her password again. “What is my password?” Martin. “I just typed that”. Yes, we are practising. “OK – (thud thud thud… thud….)”. The N key is there, Mum (thud). And DONE… (thud) “I’m in!”. Excellent. Now do it again so you have done it without any help.

(thud thud thud….thud…..) “The N key has gone!” – It’s…  {breathes a little…} there! “Oh yes! I knew that!” But she does press DONE on her own.

Now do it again. “Why?” Because I need to know you can do it easily. (thud thud…thud thud…….) “Where…” It’s there! There! THERE!!! You’ve pressed it 4 times in the last 2 minutes, it’s ALWAYS there, it does not bloody move!!! IT’S THERE!!!! I can feel veins throbbing at my temples…

Sue pipes up “Shall I make us all a cup of tea and we can go look at the fish in the pond?” She’s a saint.

After a break and some calming down, we go through it all again (with fewer issues and less swearing) and I show Mum ‘Messenger’ again and how she can communicate with me. I show her how to type a message and send it and how to call me and we do a few trials and she seems OK with that. She keeps forgetting to press the plane icon “why is it a blue arrow?” It’s like a plane, you send the message. “It looks like an arrow”. OK, it’s an arrow, you are firing the message to me wherever I am. “How does it know where you are?” Magic Pixies.

By now we are both getting really annoyed with each other but she can turn the device on, log in, use the keyboard (well, sort of) and she can message me. That is enough for day one – and I need alcohol in a way that is slightly worrying.

We drive home and later that evening we get a message off my mum. It’s almost indecipherable as she has forgotten where the delete key is, and she does not seem to understand that she can check what she has typed, but it’s sort-of a success. I started to reply about where the delete key is, but something in my head steps in and quietly suggests to me that remote support for my confused mother after all the wine I consumed is probably a poor idea. I send a brief “we got home” message – and a picture of a cat.

Next day she calls me on Messenger. Hi Mum, how are you? “{small scream} – is that you, Martin?” Yes, you called me. “No I didn’t!” Err, yes you did. “I didn’t, I sent you a message”. Did you press the blue arrow. “Yes!”. The one next to the text you typed “No, the one at the top of the screen”…. At the top of the screen?… Does it look a bit like a telephone? “Yes!” That would be the telephone then. “Oh! How do I send this message?” After I end the call mother, press the blue arrow. 30 seconds later my phone rings. Hi Mum… “(smaller scream) – it did it again!” So, why do you think it did it again? “I pressed the wrong key?” Yes.

Over the next few hours I get a few messages (no more calls) and slowly the random strings slowly become things I can understand. We are getting there.

She Bricked the iPad

Next day she calls me on Messenger… Hi Mum? “{small scream…}”  We repeat the previous day. Typing is better.

Next day, no call, no messages.

Next day, no call, no messages.

Next day, the phone (real phone) goes “I’ve broken it, it won’t work!” Hello Mum. OK, what is broken. “It’s broken, it won’t let me in! It won’t accept my password”. OK pick up the device tell me what you are doing… We work through it, she is entering the password (with an I not a Y, I checked) and “it’s not working” is actually she is getting a message saying the device is disabled. I ask Mum if maybe, perhaps, she got the password wrong a few times and it asked her to wait 5 minutes before trying again? “No, I got my password right – but it would not let me in and after a few times it said that!”. OK… So, leave it alone for an hour and try again. “I did that yesterday!” I’m getting a bad feeling about this… ” And after I tried it, it told me to wait again… and it still could not remember my password and then I left it all day and now it says it’s disabled and needs to be plugged in. I plugged it in!”

I explain that she has actually done the one thing that can brick(*) an iPad. She has repeatedly got the password wrong enough times and persistently enough to cause it to believe it is stolen. It is useless to her. It needs to be plugged into a computer and reset. *sigh*. I asked her why she did not call me when “it forgot her password”. She did not want to bother me…

So now I had to organise a day to drive over there, factory reset the damned thing, and set it up again. And I was going to change her password to a simple number.

It had not been a little confusing, it had been utterly baffling.  I had not found it quite frustrating, I had been turned into a swearing lunatic. And she had indeed broken the iPad.

I rang my Brother. I told him the inheritance is all his – I am adopted.

(*) Brick – turn an electronic device into something as responsive and useful as a house brick.