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COVID-19: Information And Outlook March 13, 2020

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

Outlook for the months ahead >>
Reducing the need for social distancing by knowing who is immune>>>>
The coming UK Peak and Beyond >>>>>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

{Update 15/4 – I obviously did not move this down as I feel that change of direction was so key}.

 

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

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

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

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

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

However, the fact that this disease is eventually going to kill tens, hundreds of thousands of people {Update 15/3: 127,000 worldwide so far and that will be an under-estimate , so hundreds of thousands. I’m sure it will hit the million by June. UK it is 13,000 including care homes} is why saying “I’m stronger than this” or “I’m not letting it impact ME!” is, in my opinion, a highly arrogant or stupid approach. Just as wrong is making it the focus of your life. Most of us, around 90-95%, will be mildly ill at most, or not noticeably ill at all. {Caveat – by mildly ill, you may well feel terrible and spend a few days in bed, but that’s like a normal dose of ‘flu.  Take it from someone who has spent a week on ventilators recently, a few days in bed is nothing 🙂 }

Thirdly, though COVID-19 is going to kill quite a few people, the main impact is probably going to be what it does to our health services. It is almost certainly going to over-whelm the health services of most countries, as it has in Italy. Preventative actions, 99% of what we can do, is aimed to spread the load on the health services so that as many people can be treated as best as possible. It is absolutely key that we slow down the rate of cases by not getting together as groups and taking the simple precautions of washing hands well with soap, catching coughs in tissues, things like that. {update 15/4 – THe NHS did an amazing job of preparation. The field hospitals built are not being used very much yet, but the NHS has been sorely tested. Any treatment for other conditions that can be delayed seems to have been deleyed}

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

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

Basics

Names and terms

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

 

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

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

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

What COVID-19 does to you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What we need to do to slow the spread

COVID-19 can no longer be stopped. To be frank,  it could not be stopped 3 weeks ago. Once enough people were infected with the disease, it became impossible to track them all down by contacting all the people who someone diagnosed with the disease had interacted with. What we could have done is taken the advice of the WHO and the example/evidence of what was coming set by other European countries and locked down earlier. {Update 15/4 – I strongly feel that the government had clear evidence to take each step it took at least a week earlier and it would have saved thousands of lives}.

Two main factors control how quickly a disease spreads:

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

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

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

Banning large gatherings reduces how many people are in contact.

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

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

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

Why washing with soap is the best protection

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

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

This twitter thread explains in some detail how soap destroys viruses

 

Monitoring (probably what most people are staring at)

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

****

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why certain diseases make things worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

There appears to be no natural immunity

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

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

 

Predictions

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

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

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

(predictions made on 13th March 2020)

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update 15/4 – Death rates did indeed double every three days – actually 3.3.

23/3       54
26/3       115
29/3       209
1/4        563!
4/4        708

Thankfully, the various distancing measures started to slow the rate in the first week of April, as self isolating and then pub etc closures kicked in

As predicated,  the slowdown of new cases predicates the slow down of deaths, but the UK’s poor testing numbers make this connection weaker and weaker

*****

19/3/20

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

Update 15/4 – thankfully I was wrong, but we hit 980 on the 8/4. If we include the 10% of care home deaths missing from the figures, we did hit 1,000

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

 

  • COVID-19 will reach every country by April

Update 15/4 – pretty much true

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

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

Update 15/4 – I’m not sure on this. Their figures are really good at them moment. They have shut down and quarantined another area but there has not been a second large outbreak we know of.

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

This is because:

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

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

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

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

Update 15/4 – The US has been really badly hit and when it took off, it took off large. I think a large part of this is because President Trump was a bloody moron and spent weeks downplaying this. As he likes to say “it’s all on tape” – he claimed this would be finished by Easter, was not as bad as ‘flu etc. The only thing he can claim to have done (and has done so repeatedly) was to stop flights from China. But he was advised then it was not going to have any impact as it had spread. And was already in the US.

I think it will continue to hit the US really hard, not just for the reasons I cited before, but because the president seems determined to do exactly the wrong things to contain this, such  as “opening for business” very soon and sacking anyone who disagrees with him.

I was wrong on the % death rate as they have massively increased testing, which was an amazing achievement.

 

 

Preparing A Device for Someone New To I.T. April 26, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions, Private Life, Uncategorized.
Tags: , , ,
5 comments

In my previous post I covered what I felt were the main considerations on deciding how to get someone with no real experience of I.T. online, for an example an elderly relative like my mum. In this post I’ll cover setting up the device.  Set-up is actually quite complex and there is a lot of assumed knowledge, like how the keyboard works, what spyware you leave turned on (none!) etc. So I am setting it up for her.  First I’ll just recap the main points on why I decided to use an Apple iPad for my Mum:

Keep the main screen as simple as possible

  • A small tablet – but not too small.
  • Simple, intuitive interface.
  • A Smartphone or iPad mini was too small.
  • PC/laptop ruled out as too complex for her.
  • Apple device as her main potential contacts use Apple devices.
  • A lack of remote access by me was less important than the above considerations.

On of the first things I did was to ask my friends (via Twitter) what they would suggest or had found worked when they had a similar task. Thank you to everyone who replied. If you have further advice, add a comment or contact me and I can update this post. The main suggestions were:

Keep It Simple

Mum has never used a keyboard, never used a smartphone and is not very technically adept. Everything she is learning is almost new to her, from what the enter key does to what an icon is. The closest reference I can use for her is the menu of options on her TV recorder – and she has some pretty bizarre ways of using that (but if it works for her, that’s just fine). So using the device has to be very, very simple. I want the main screen to be simple and non-threatening:

  • Remove every App that is not for something she needs to use (or I need to help).
  • Move any icons I need but she does not (or at least not at first) off the first screen.
  • Be brutal, delete as much as you can –  you can add back anything you later find you need.
  • Only have one app for a given task. Choice in this case is probably just confusion.
  • Include one or two (and only one or two) key things she will want to use.

I’ll just cover some of those bullet points in more detail:

Remove every app not required. My mum has no interest in stocks & shares, in monitoring her health, in maps of where she is (she knows where she is, she does not go anywhere else!). She certainly has no interest in “iTunes Store”, “Photo Booth” or any of the other “free” apps provided by the vendor. They will just be confusing clutter at first.

If there are 2 dozen icons on the screen, Mum will worry about what they all do or what will happen if she clicks the wrong one. And she will click the wrong one. It is a worry we don’t need.

When she first starts, she will struggle to find the right icon – even from a simplified list (and she did). The fewer choices the better.

So I deleted absolutely everything but the half dozen things she needed. If in the coming weeks, months or years she wants anything a deleted apps provides, they can be added back. When she is comfortable with the first lot, I can introduce more.

The very basic “what the buttons do” help sheet

Move Icons I need to the second page. There are some things I need to get the device all set up for her and then tweak it. Two of them are “Settings” and “App Store”. You could argue that “Settings” will have things that Mum might like to change. But she won’t know how and she could mess up things if she changes her settings. So they are moved to the second page – and I told her to leave that page if she ever gets on it! The chances are she will not find the second page of Icons. (I did show her how to get off it, but stressed she call me if in doubt).

I also put a couple of things on the second page that I think she might want to use soon.

Only One Way.  I was advised to provide Mum with e.g. two ways of getting hold of me, in case one fails. Well, no. I do NOT want to have to show her two messaging apps and teach her the differences, I want one method that she can become confident with. It’s part of keeping it simple. Mum will be challenged to learn one interface, if I try and show her a second she will get confused over what works in which app. She can call me on the phone if the new way of communicating is not working, she is happy using a phone (as in just a phone, one that only makes and receives calls).

If Mum decides she does not like the app I choose (e.g. BBC News for, well, news) we can swap later. But right now I pick what I think she will like. And for the sake of simplicity, I chose a set of apps that are from the same provider, so work the same way.

We in the I.T. profession often love that we can swap between programming languages or have 4 or 5 social media apps to choose from. But we live and breath this stuff. This is all new to Mum. When you learnt to drive a  powered vehicle you learnt to drive a car. Or a motorbike. Or maybe even a tractor. You did not learn to use all three at the same time – and also an articulated lorry at the same time!

One or Two things she wants. I got a lot of advice of things to add to make the device fun or interesting, such as games, picture editing, or puzzles. The principle is good – but the reality is you need to think about the person and what they want from the device. And the keeping it simple aspect.

My mum loves jigsaws – but she loves the physical side of them! She has her tables set up, she talks about the manufacture she likes as the pieces fit together so well, she likes to glue together the occasional jigsaw she really likes. Maybe in the future she will look at Jigsaw apps, but right now she wants to keep her physical jigsaws.

What she wants is (1) a way to communicate with me (2) information on cycling and Formula 1 (3) the weather. So I gave her them. Nothing more, I’m keeping it simple. So that is Messenger, BBC sport and BBC weather. BBC news completes her intro to the web.

(Note, I also tried to introduce searching for things on google, but it did not work well – google does not understand “I want to know about him, that cycling chap, the one who’s not got side-burns”. We will come back to google in a month or so).

Make it Big and Bold

I don’t know about you, but the last time I changed my smartphone I got one with a slightly larger screen as I was having to hold the old one further and further away from me so I could focus on it. And I set my new smartphone to have larger Icons.

Add pictures they will like to their social media and the device. Keep personal information to a minimum to protect them.

If you are new to I.T. and you are starting to have issues with vision or hearing, there are options for any device to make it easier to use. Check out the “Ease of Use” or “accessibility” options of the device. Ironically, they are not always the easiest to find. For iPads they are not a main option but under “General”. That’s not very helpful, Apple!

You maybe don’t want to bring up the topic of failing faculties with an older relative – so don’t. Just set up the device to have large icons, big text. and loud messages. Big and Bold.

Also, think of adding pictures and sounds the person will like. I changed the iPad wallpaper for a picture of our cats and when I created her facebook account (hmmm, I’ve not covered that…) I added a background of myself and my brother up some hills and a picture of our last cat as her image. I would have made it a picture of one of her cats but I did not have one. And that will be a nice thing to do with her sometime. The main thrust is use images the person can relate to.

To make the device easier for Mum to use I considered the following:

  • Increase the text size.
  • Increase the icon size.
  • Bold text & increased contrast can help if vision is poor.
  • Set the volume loud and make sure one of the first things you demonstrate is how to increase (and decrease) volume.
  • When you start messaging, send pictures. It’s more interesting.
  • Show them emojis. My mum seemed to really like emojis. Less Tyoing!
  • Put pictures they will like as their wallpaper and social media images.

I think I could have done more in this respect. What I should have done was got pictures from her and scanned them, or looked back in my old photo collection. I could have set the wallpaper to a picture of my Dad (long gone) or of all us kids or something. And any social media you set up for the person, think what pictures you can use for backgrounds and avatars.

 

Reference Material

The online help on tablets etc is pretty good – once you are able to look for it and learn what you can ignore.

For anyone who is really new to technology, reference material is going to need to be a lot more basic.

Keyboards Confuse the Uninitiated

I prepared several sheets of information for my mum, like how to use a keyboard, which I show here. I also did some pictures of the iPad and annotated it – and left space for Mum to add her own notes!

My Mum found these really helpful, especially being able to scribble on them herself (which sometimes was replacing my helpful text with her weird description on what a key did!).

As well as this, I got her one of those “a senior citizen’s guide to the iPad” magazines. They are a good place to go to once the real basics of how to turn the device off and on and how a keyboard works have been learnt. BUT, they have a big drawback – they try and show lots of things in order to address a wide audience, and they usually have a long section at the start about “setting up your device”. I already set it up, Mum does not need it. So, edit the magazine!

I went through the magazine and crossed out in big, thick, black lines the bits she did not need. I also crossed out those sections on an app I had not given her but did a similar thing, and wrote at the start of it “do not read, Mum! Yours works differently!”

 

Random Other Advice

“Tell her not to clean the screen with a brillo pad! :)”
Well, it was a bit of a joke but it leads to a serious point. Explain how to look after the thing. I made the point that she should not get the iPad wet and to dry it immediately if she does spill things on it. And, if she drops it down the loo, take it out immediately, turn it off if it is on and put it somewhere warm – and call me!

“Yes, you can leave it plugged in, it will work for several days between charges. No you can’t damage the screen by tapping it with your finger, but do not use a screwdriver. Hitting it harder will not make it work more.”

We should (and will) get a cover for it so Mum can hold it more easily. Her house is carpeted throughout so dropping it (which she does, but she is close to the ground) is not such an issue.

“tell her how to get rid of Siri when she accidentally starts Siri up.”
I have turned off Siri as much as I can. And this leads on to the general topic of telling the person what they can and should ignore.

I told Mum to ignore prompts she will get (“You have not backed up your device for a week, kittens will die!”) or requests for feedback or surveys; how to shut down advertising boxes; do not respond to anything that ask you to provide information or download anything. And, just because you now have a “computer”, you should still ignore any telephone calls you get offering to help you with your computer problem. They were a hoax before you had a computer, they still are – keep telling them you don’t have a computer.

“Be patient…”
That last one is key. This is all new to them and if you are a regular visitor to my blog you are probably an I.T. expert. It can be very hard for us to understand how new this is for non-I.T. people and we assume knowledge. Like, what the enter key does in different situations and using the shift key (a single press of the shift key is different to a double press – and undoing the ALL CAPS of a double press only take a single press, which my Mum rightly pointed out is not logical!).

My mum really, really did not understand the keyboard very well to start. But touching the screen and dragging things around she took to straight away. I guess different people take to different parts more easily.

Be prepared to be very patient (*) and do not be surprised if some things take them an age to understand and yet other things they seem to get immediately. At some point, probably very early on, they will find out how to do something you don’t know!

(*) as my wife comments (in the comments section) alcohol may be required for post-training de-stress!

Learning About Oracle in Belgium February 11, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Uncategorized.
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It’s always so good to see a user community growing. Last week was the first ever technical conference for obug (or is it OBUG) – the Oracle Benelux User Group. It was an excellent couple of days, packed with a fantastic range of presenting talent and an enthusiastic audience. I was honoured to be asked to be one of the presenters.

A smorgasbord of talking
technical talent

The event was held in a cinema, which lends itself well to a conference. Riga Dev Days use a cinema also and it works because every seat in the room has a great view of the screen. the screen is large, the projector is (of course) pretty good, and if you want sound it is top quality sound. The icing on the cake is that the seats are padded and comfortable. Poor seating is a real pain (literally) at an event where you are sitting most of the day. One potential drawback of a cinema is ensuring you have areas for catering and coffee, but the chosen venue was able to provide that as well.

Belgium Speakers

I have to tip my hat in deep admiration to Philippe Fierens, Pieter Van Puymbroeck, and Janny Ekelson for the organisation of the event and how well they looked after all the speakers. I don’t think most people have any idea how much hard work, stress and energy is involved in organising these things. I certainly didn’t until I started helping helping organise conferences for the UK Oracle User Group and we have the support of staff who have done this a dozen times. These guys were doing the whole thing and doing it for the first time. Well done!

As this was obug’s first technical conference, Pieter & Philippe followed the example of the Polish User Group when they organised their first conference – they went and asked lots of speakers they knew if they would present. (That’s a nice thing about User Groups too, you learn how to run your own group better). It helps that they are both accomplished presenters themselves and part of the speaker circuit. It’s an odd thing, if you ask one us attention-seeking, self-opinionated, egotistical speakers to present – we are inclined to say yes :-). (I should point out, some speakers are not egotistical or self opinionated. Some). I did hear the odd muttering about a call for papers not happening but, if I was organising my first conference, I would not want the hassle and risk of C4P. I would be pestering my friends and contacts in the same way.

It was a very sociable conference. I mean, we were in Belgium which is renowned for beer and chocolate, it would have been wrong not to partake in them. I’m of the opinion that the social side of user groups is as important as the presentations and workshops. There seems to be a strong correlation to me between those who socialise during a conference and those that get the most out of it. You can learn a lot by spending time with people who have suffered the same issues with tech as you, or who know more about some aspect of Oracle. I got into an interesting chat about potentially pre-checking the second table in a join before you bother scanning the first table, as a cheap – if -rare – optimisation. And I met a guy who’s partner was thinking about making hats, just like my wife does. Oh, and the obligatory discussion about making bread.

As well as the excellent talks and socialising there was also the access to Oracle product managers and experts. There were several at the conference, a couple of whom who I had never met or only briefly. I can’t tell you how much it can help to be able to contact the person in charge of SQL Developer or Exadata and ask “can you find me someone I can chat to about ‘Blargh'”.

There was one final highlight of obug. We had the classic “4 I.T. experts clustered around a laptop that simply won’t run the presentation”. It’s one of those eternal truths of working in the industry that, no matter how good you are in your chosen field, presentations make it all break and you can’t fix it quickly :-). We got there.

It was an excellent conference and I really, *really* hope they do it again next year.

{Oh, I should add – I do not know who took the photo of Roger, Flora, Frits and Ricardo, I stole it off the whatsapp stream we speakers used. Thank you to whoever and let me know if you want crediting}

OUG Scotland – Why to Come & Survival Guide June 12, 2018

Posted by mwidlake in Meeting notes, UKOUG, Uncategorized, User Groups.
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The UKOUG’s Scottish conference is on the 21st June in the centre of Edinburgh, at the Sheraton Grand Hotel, not far from Edinburgh Castle in the centre of the city.

Picture from viator.com, who do tours etc

 

The Event

There is a six-stream agenda covering Database, Apex & Development, Platform & Services, Coud Apps, EBS Apps tech, and Business Analytics/systems & EPM, so pretty much the whole breadth of Oracle Tech, Apps and BI. We have a keynote by Oracle’s Caroline Apsey on the Bloodhound Project, the UK-based group trying to smash the world land-speed record with a 1,000mph rocket car – and solve lots of engineering challenges on the way. And uses the Oracle Cloud. I’ll be sure to see that one.

With 6 all-day streams there are a lot of presentations to choose from, but as a taste of what is on offer I’ll mention Jonathan Lewis talking about stats, Heli Helskyaho explaining the basics of machine learning, and from Oracle we have Grant Ronald on AI-driven chatbots, Hilary Farrell on the new features of APEX 18.1, and Keith Laker on JSON & SQL. The talks are a nice mixture of end-user experiences, recognised experts and Oracle themselves. UKOUG is independent of Oracle so although we are very happy to have Oracle support us, we have talks that are not just what Oracle are currently pushing. This is what I love about user group meetings, you get the whole story.

As a member of the UKOUG this event is free, counting as one of your SIG places. If you have run out of SIG places, you can buy an extra one at £85 – or upgrade your membership of course 🙂

If you are not a member you can pay £170 to attend the event, which is pretty cheap for a day of Oracle conference when compare to many other events of the same size around Europe. However, if you become a bronze member of the UKOUG – which comes with a SIG place, so you can come to the event – that will only cost you £165! Contact the UKOUG office for any help.

(note, all prices do not include VAT, which is 20%. A UK company can usually claim this back).

 

Social

I’m sure there will be a good few people travelling up the day before the event so there is a social being organised. This will be in the Shakespeare Pub from 19:00, which is not far at all from the Sheraton hotel. I’m afraid that you will have to buy your own drinks etc, but I’ll be buying a round at some point.

I have to run away back home before the event itself ends, but there is a social event in the hotel after the presentations, in the exhibition area, starting at 17:25.

 

Edinburgh

Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities in the UK – and actually in the world. I’ll be turning up Wednesday afternoon so I can have a wander about the city before joining the meetup the evening before the conference and, if I had the time, I’d be going up sooner or coming back later. If you have time, a wander up Royal Mile to the Esplanade gives fine views over the city. Having looked at the nest of roads and alleys of the old town in front of the castle, it is only a few minutes to the New Town with it’s contrasting, rectangularly laid out, Victorian grandeur. In the old town I love the camera obscura just off the Esplanade, the  Dynamic Earth museum at the bottom of the Royal Mile/Holyrood road and, if I have a couple of hours, I’ll wander up Arthur’s seat – a small “mountain” (the remains of an ancient volcano),180+meters of ascent in the centre of Edinburgh. Views are spectacular. Unless it rains.

Getting There

Train

The venue is about a mile from Waverley train station in the centre of Edinburgh, half a mile or so from Haymarket. Intercity services go to Waverley.

It is not as expensive or as far away to get to Edinburgh from London as you might think. At the time of writing trains from London Kings Cross are 4-5 hours from about £42 each way. And the route is gorgeous, running up the East coast with views out to sea. Sit on the right side of the train on the way up! To get travel at that cost you do need to pick your exact train and book ASAP. You will end up at Waverley station right in the centre of Edinburgh.

Travel from other cities in the UK will be similar, but cheaper. Apart from Birmingham maybe. I don’t know why but there seems to be a “tax” on leaving Birmingham!

Getting to the Sheraton from Waverley is still easy, there are buses and trams. If you have time, you come out of Waverley, cross North Bridge, go up the Royal Mile and down Johnston Terrace. It’s a one mile walk and you can take in the view from the Castle Esplanade on the way.

Tram

If you are heading to the Sheraton hotel by tram, you should get off at West End stop, take Canning Street then bear left onto Rutland Square. Walk past the horse statue and across the footbridge to turn left on Exchange Square. The hotel entrance is on the right.

Car

Even though I live in the South of England, if I had a day to do it I’d drive up to Edinburgh and stop off at places along the way. If you are local-ish to Edinburgh and the trains do not work for you, I’m told it may be best to head for the multi-storey carparks at Castle Terrace or Semple Street. But driving into Edinburgh can be a bit of a pain.

Plane.

I’ll be coming in by plane as I live very close to Stansted Airport. It is costing me £21 each way with Ryanair (Ack!) and there are several flights a day to chose from. You can also fly from Luton (£48), Gatwick (£60) or Birmingham (£70).

The Edinburgh tram system now runs out to the airport so getting in by tram is quick and easy, in shiny, modern trams. If my memory of the roads is still accurate, a taxi will take a lot longer, as well as being more expensive.

 

 

I hope some of you can join me at this great event in this lovely city.

Friday Philosophy – If Only I Was As Good a Programmer As I Thought I Was Aged 22 January 29, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Programming, Uncategorized.
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I saw a tweet that made me smile a few days ago:

programmer quote

Like many of you, I started out my working life in IT as a computer programmer. Like some of you, I still am a computer programmer from time to time. I don’t think I’ve had a year of my working life when I did not do either some application development programming or some database infrastructure programming. I am constantly writing small (or not so small) SQL or PL/SQL programs to do what I do in Oracle.

I started programming in school, I did an “O” level in computer studies (the exams we sat in the UK aged 16, up until 1988!), and I was pretty good at the programming as compared to my fellow class mates. My first “real” program played Noughts and Crosses (tic-tac-toe to our American cousins and maybe others) and version 2 was unbeatable. Which at the time I thought was pretty cool.
but Wikipedia now tells me is pretty easy :-). I also remember someone in the year above me unrolling some huge printout of the role-playing game he was writing (you know, the old textual “you have walked into a room where there is a lion, a bar of soap and a chandelier, what do you want to do?” sort of thing) and telling me I would never be able to do it. I just looked at the code and thought: Why have you hard-coded every decision and used all those GOTOs? Some sort of loop and a data block to look up question, answers and consequences would be much smaller and easy to extend? I don’t think he liked me voicing that opinion…

I did not do any programming of any consequence as part of my college course but after that I started work as a computer programmer (sorry “analyst programmer”) in the National Health Service. Again, I seemed better at it than most of those around me, fixing bugs that others had given up on and coding the tricky stuff no one else wanted to touch. And after a year or so, I was convinced I was a programming god!

I wasn’t of course. Part of it was my juvenile, naive ego and the other part was that, fundamentally, many of those around me were bad programmers. Anybody decent either did not join in the first place or got a better job elsewhere that paid more than the NHS did. I eventually did that myself and joined Oracle. Where I realised that (a) SQL confused the hell out of me and (b) when I started using PL/SQL there were plenty of people around me who were better at traditional programming than I.

I think it took me about a year to feel I was damned good at both of them. Guess what? I was wrong. I was simply competent. But after a year or two more I did two things that, for me, finally did make me into a good programmer:

  • I went contracting so I worked in a lot of places, saw a lot more examples of good and bad code and I met a lot more programmers.
  • I think I hit mental puberty and woke up to the fact that I needed to listen and learn more.

Since then, I think my own opinion of my coding skills has generally dropped year on year, even though I would like to think I continue to get better at actually constructing computer programs and suites of programs.

So yes, I wish I was as good a programmer now as I thought I was aged 22. And after 25 years at it (actually, pretty much 35 years at it on and off!) just like Rich Rogers (or is it John D Cook? I can’t quite decide if it is a quotation or not) I think I am finally getting moderately good at writing programs. If I continue to follow this trend, on my 65th birthday I will be convinced I can’t program for toffee and yet will finally be a Good Programmer.

I wonder if  anyone would still employ me to do it by then?

Friday Philosophy – The Small Issue of Planes, Trains and…Coaches. October 21, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Uncategorized.
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Today I get on a plane. It is a long flight, 10+ hours, and throughout all of it, some people will hate me. I even expect some Hard Stares. Why? Because I’ll be sitting in a seat with a large space in front of it – and my legs dangling off the front of the seat. Those over 6 foot will be fuming I have that extra leg room. See me sitting there. See me smiling:-) .

King of all I see

King of all I see

Well, I picked that seat for reasons that the tall (and average) do not appreciate. On flights I generally have leg and arm room others may wish they had. It is one of the few, very few, benefits of being small. Relatively speaking I have more space in my allocated seat to place my body parts in comfort. But, unlike most of you, all I see for the whole flight is a wall of seat-back. And I can’t sit straight as my thighs are slightly shorter than the seat base, so I sink even lower with an unsupported back, staring at that seat back. Just that seat back. Nothing but that seat back. Unlike you I can only see ceiling if I tip my head back, I can’t take a long look down the aeroplane above the seats; the angle is too steep. And now the seat back has moved closer to me as the person in front has reclined their seat. On short flights this is a pain, on long flights it might mean the film I was watching, on a screen slightly above my eyeline, is now well above my eyeline and the colours have gone weird. The bottom line is, I spend the whole flight in a box that ends THERE, 14.2 inches in front of my face. The whole flight, in a seat too long for my legs, going slowly batshit due to mild agoraphobia that becomes major after 5 hours. I can sit cross-legged in my seat to solve many of the issues but (a) the flight attendants don’t like it (b) I lose blood supply to my left foot and (c) I start thinking I’m a Ninja. An evil Ninja.

There is another reason I pick such a seat. Looking out the window from time to time helps keep me sane from the Box I am in, so I like to be by the window. But those people in funny costumes, way too much makeup and with the fixed smiles keep offering me these big drinks (big to me) and I soon need a pee. A pint in a half-pint can only lead to one event. Asking 2 or 3 people to let me out every hour soon gets trying for all, so a seat where I can just step front and go find the loo is good.

At least on a plane the person next to me is likely to be normal (or my wife). On normal public transport, they often are not. This next consideration has been an aspect of my life for as long as I have traveled on my own. When I was a student almost no students had their own cars, including me. Which means I often had to get to and from my parental home and college home by public transport. In my case coach (bus, large vehicle driving down roads). I would get on, sit down, watch others file in and fill the classic “I want a double seat to myself so I will spread out my shit” pattern. Until each double seat was full with coats, bags and handbags strategically placed to warn others to sod off. And I knew what was coming. It always did. Normal sized people would generally get on and choose to sit somewhere near the door, forcing someone on their own in a double seat to move their defensive stuff. I always sat towards the back. But then some massive, often fat but sometimes just hulking, person would appear (usually a man) and would look gloomily at all the single spots left. And spot “The Small Guy” way back down there. They would be over to me in a shot – lord knows how quick given how much blubber they had to drag along with them – and into the seat next to me. And then they would Sppprreeeaaaadddd. First the thigh would come over my side, followed by the rest of the leg. And the arm would push up against my am and then over the arm rest (if there was one) and shove me to one side. Soon a torso would be shoving into me. Within minutes they would by laying claim to 25% of my seat, my space. One of my few benefits of being small was being taken from me.

I was young, I was brash and I’d learnt over the years to take none of this crap. I clearly remember one trip, I think in my final year when I was tired and annoyed, when one massive chap sat next to me and started to spread and I just shouted “Oi! Get out of my seat! Get your fat arse and your fat arm out of my space! I have few benefits in my life from being small and my space on public transport is a rare one of them! Keep to your bloody side!”. I did not hold back at all on mentioning his massive blubbery state or his encroachment into my space. Oh, he was full of “Oh I did not realise, I’m not taking your space, how could you insult me for being larger” that I knew from experience was really “I chose the small guy to sit next to so I could have more space.” I’d watched him scan the seats, spot me and come over. I let rip and said “well move and sit next to someone normal size! Go on! MOVE!” He didn’t. He knew he needed some of my space. It was not a comfortable journey for either of us from then on and I suspect he did not need to get off at Sheffield, but for f***s sake, I get few benefits in life from being small. At least we were the entertainment for the other passangers for a while.

It is an aspect that has not gone away. For many years I’ve commuted into London and watched the pathetic games played by other commuters. Get on, put your stuff in the seat next to you (exactly how hard would it have been to put that coat and that little bag in the rack above your head? About the same as to spread it evenly over the seat by you) and look busy or angry. If you are lucky you can sit opposite someone by the window who has already played the double-seat-claim-game and can sit in the isle seat and put your crap on the inner seat – any new player will see it is easier to make someone move stuff from the isle seat than move stuff from the inner seat AND then climb past them to the spare window seat. Utterly selfish evil people will get on an empty coach, sit in the isle seat and then fill the window seat with their stuff that could so easily go in the overhead racks. They know how the game works and they have no sense of shame in being so selfish.

When I get on I often look at the pattern of seating in front of me and pick one of the buggers in the isle seat to move. Almost no one else does.

When I get on a train and sit down, I usually put my stuff under the seat or in the overhead racks. And given my height, if I can do it all you buggers can. And I sit. I try to sit forward-facing, I hate facing back as it make me feel a little sick, but other than that I have no rules. If I am in the isle, I will stand as soon as you ask to let you in. This is my little play to show I am nicer than all you other commuting buggers. Anyway, this train will get packed, I might as well get someone to the side of me so I can relax. Others get on and I often get someone next to me pretty soon as I am not playing silly buggers. It’s fine, soon all seats will be taken unless someone is being especially obnoxious about double seat protection. But I have to say, if someone massive (and usually a man) gets on and I see them scan the carriage and eyes fall in relief on me… I pat the seat next to me and smile. Sometimes I wave. It’s the only defense I know that works 95% of the time.

As a social commuter I hate the games the antisocial ones play, but as a small person, I bloody hate my space being bloody stolen by fat/large people. You could lose weight you know, I can’t grow! I paid for my seat, you paid for yours, for once in my short life, I bloody well want the benefit of my short stature. Now bugger off over to your side of the double seat.

Time for Bed, said Zebedee November 15, 2013

Posted by mwidlake in Private Life, Uncategorized.
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Zebedee has just boinged onto my TV screen on his big-spring lower body and told us all that it is “time for bed”. I concur Zebedee. Good night everyone!

zebedee

For those of you who are not of UK origin and of “a certain age”, Zebedee was a character on the BBC Children’s TV Program The Magic Roundabout. At the end of the program (5 minutes of oddly surreal kids entertainment) more often than not Zebedee would arrive (if not already present as part of the narrative arc) and announce “Time for Bed” and that would be the end of the program. I won’t go into the rest of the details but for those of us who grew up with it, Dougal, Florence, Brian, Zebedee and Ermintrude the cow were large in our childhood. Dylan though was odd… {for anyone wanting a nostalgia trip, try this episode}

Well, for me it is “Time for Bed” children. I started working in IT almost exactly 24 years ago on the 13th November 1989, arriving wearing my new (cheap) suit with (shiny) briefcase clutched in my hand at a (tatty) office block in Bristol owned by the NHS. It housed their regional computer department for the South West of England.
And on the 15th November 2013, I will exit a much plusher office, no suit on, no briefcase, and I will go home and, for many complex reasons, I will “retire”. This does not mean I will stop working in IT and it *may* result in me being a more regular blogger and more of a teacher than I have been for 2 years, but let’s just see, Boys and Girls.

What it does mean is I am stopping doing the 2 hour commute into and out of London every day, wasting my life. It means I am not signing up for 6 months on a single project on the basis of a couple of 30 minute interviews. I am also not signing up for 4 weeks and then finding it becomes six months – as when that happens it is *always* 6 months of misery trying to undo the work of a dedicated hoard of hopeful but under-skilled youngsters being forced to do a job they lack the training for by people who should not be allowed anywhere near management positions (as they see “management” as a way to gauge their importance, polish their egos and garner more cash – rather than as a role that should encompass “nurturing, developing, admonishing and making the most of your team(s)”.). It means I won’t have to play by corporate rules any more, which is good as I am finding it harder and harder and harder to do that without coming home and being really quite mean to my cat, and she does not deserve that as she is friendly and quite forgiving really. Neither does my wife deserve it, but if I am mean to her, she punches me.

What I do hope will happen is that, after a couple of months to get a few things sorted, I will continue to get the odd call I seem to get about once a month where someone would like me to just help out with a specific problem. Occasionally I have been able to say “yes” and it has been interesting and enjoyable, but usually I have been in the middle of one of the situations that resulted in my rant above and have had to say no. If I do get the calls, it will be great. I would like to earn enough so I can still do the conferences and present and meet people and talk about interesting problems and drink beer. If not, I have a lot of other things I want to have a crack at.

So I am not sure what awaits me now. But I am “retired”. I have calculated that from now to my demise I can afford to buy a tin of beans every day until I die. Plus some bread, so beans on toast is possible. That is enough. I did not retire 9 months ago (as was my original plan) so, as a result, now I can afford once a week to buy a very cheap bottle of wine. Something better than Blue Nun. If I get more work, I could step up to beans and cheese on toast. Hmmmm!

Hey Mum, I’m Famous!!! April 28, 2013

Posted by mwidlake in Private Life, Uncategorized.
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I got a mail this week from Richard Harrison:

“Hi Martin
See you made it in to oracle magazine this month.That’s the pinnacle of any oracle professionals career – all downhill from here on in :-)”

I was not aware of my sudden raise to fame, but Richard is right – I’m in this month’s “peer to peer” section, which just gives some details about recent Oracle Ace’s I think. I’d forgotten that I had done a form they sent me before Christmas, answering a set of questions. It is interesting to see what they picked out of all my answers to include.

I think most of us would feel it is nice to see something about ourselves in print (so long as it is not derogatory or critical, of course!), though when I come to think of it, I don’t really know why it is nice – other than the rather self-serving feeling of having our egos polished. And as my friends I drink with would (and probably will) comment, my ego certainly does not need much polishing :-). I’ve of course made it worse by blogging about how famous I now am. Polish, polish, polish.

Don’t worry, my wife stepped in to put me back in my place. “You could tell your mum when you next ring her – not that she’ll be impressed at all!”. Thanks wife. She’s right. My mum will just say “that’s nice” in a tone that in no way convinces me she means it, and will then proceed to talk at me about her new cats, what’s on TV and all the terrible things going on in the world, according to the “Daily Mail” (An utterly horrible and vacuous daily tabloid paper her in the UK).

So thank you for the heads-up Richard. I’m looking forward to the rapid decline of my career as you predict… 🙂

Re-forming the Martin Cluster in Norway April 5, 2013

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Meeting notes, Presenting, Uncategorized.
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Later this month, on April 17-20th, I am presenting again at the Norwegian Oracle user group (OUGN) spring conference {modern browsers will allow you to translate any Norwegian if you need to} . I loved it last year, as you can see from my third-day post on it. I’ve been lucky to attend some very good conferences over the last few years but those three days at the OUGN conference last year were, I think, my favourite single event to date. If you are within striking distance of Oslo and can negotiate the time out of the office, I would strongly recommend the event. If you can’t negotiate the time, heck, take a holiday and go anyway 🙂

Part of what I really enjoyed about the event was the fact that two of the days are spent on a ferry/cruise ship from Oslo to Kiel and back. And oddly enough, that is what initially put me off going to the conference – I am very susceptible to Sea Sickness. I had no problems though, partly due to the large quantities of travel calm pills I swallowed, partly due to the good weather, but mostly because the talks were excellent and the atmosphere was fantastic. I don’t mean “hey, it was a bit like a holiday” {though in some ways it was as it was such fun} but because the speakers and the attendees can’t escape, at least not without a long swim, everyone is around all day and all evening. It just adds to the whole event. I spoke to more “new” people during that conference than I ever have before.

At most conferences the presentations at the end of the day tend to be less well attended and there can be a feeling of wind-down, especially on the last day. A fair number of people feel the need to make an early exit to get home before the worst of the traffic or are under pressure to get back to the office and just sort out some issue that is pressing. The people around in the evening tend to be the presenters and the conference die-hards and so are usually the same sad old bunch of geezers and gals 🙂 . However, on the OUGN Boat this is not the case. All sessions tend to be well attended and in the evening nearly everyone is out having something to eat, a few drinks (those North Europeans sure do like the odd drink, but in a relaxed and affable way) and just being sociable.

Over the last few years the conference has developed a reputation for being technically strong too. This is of course partly due to the excellent atmosphere attracting good presenters and the good presenters in turn help make the conference better. popular and well attended – and that in turn attracts presenters. A nice positive feedback loop. I certainly learnt a lot of stuff last year and I cannot think of a poor presentation that I attended. Hmm, maybe one of mine was a little weak 😐 . The organisers do an excellent job of helping the presenters feel relaxed and appreciated too. For example, I was nervous about the boat part of the trip to they gave me one slot on the mainland the day before we sailed and suggested I could bail out at Kiel if I was suffering. As a presenter, that sort of consideration counts for a lot. I don’t want or expect to be treated like some minor celebrity and I was not, but for the whole conference I just felt like the organisers appreciated my taking time out from work and flying out to come and present.

The final reason I am looking forward to the event (and thus the odd title) is the re-forming of the Martin Oracle Cluster 🙂 – this is myself, Martin Nash and Martin Bach. We all do several conferences a year, we all used to go along to the London Oracle Beers and we have become good friends. Other Oracle Martin’s are welcome to join us – At the OUGN last year there was also Martin Büchi, who I had not met before, but this year I think we are the only Martins presenting. We just don’t seem to have managed to re-from the cluster for many months now, partly as Mr Bach returned to Germany.

Martins_1

Martin Nash – Martin Büchi – Martin Bach – Martin Widlake
Thanks to Øyvind Isene for the picture.

I suppose I should mention what I am presenting on? Well, as I mentioned in my last Friday Philosophy, I am concentrating more on introductory presentations. You can see my official agenda here. I am doing:

  • an introductory presentation on Row Level Security, VPD and hiding rows or columns of data {it will be interesting to see how large the audience is for that one!}
  • an introduction to SQL tuning where I cover the absolute basics, but hopefully in a way that allows those new to it (or maybe even not so new) to treat tuning as a logical and sensible process, as opposed to Black Magic of favourite hints and arcane practices
  • my disasters talk. I love giving my disasters talk. I’ve “been in the vicinity” of a lot of disasters and I only ever talk about things I have seen first hand, so no urban myths.

And so the evenings start drawing out (honest!) December 13, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Uncategorized.
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I know I’ve blogged about this before, but it was early on when very few people read my ramblings, so I am mentioning it again…

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, today, 13th December, (or tomorrow, depends on the number of years since the last leap year) is the day when the evenings start drawing out, which personally I find a relief as going home in the dark depresses me. Sunset tomorrow will be later than today – by all of a few seconds but, heck, later is later. I cannot say for sure I suffer from Seasonal Adjustment Disorder (SAD), I just know I hate spending all the daylight part of the day in  a freeking office.

However, as many of you are probably thinking, shortest day in the Northern hemisphere is not until the 22nd December (it’s the 21st or 22nd, depending on how long ago the last leap year was – again). Mornings continue to get later until around the 3rd January but evenings are already stretching out. Why?

It is because the length of the astronomical day is shorter in our winter than in our summer as, oddly enough, planet Earth is closer to the sun when the majority of humanity, ie those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, have our winter. Our clock day is fixed at 24 hours as that is the average over the year. But during December our solar day (sun-at-highest-point to sun -at-highest-point) is shortest. I explain more in This post here . Added to this, the earth is not “standing totally upright” in its orbit. If you think of the plane in which the earth circles around the sun as a flat surface, the north pole is at the top of the planet and there is a pole sticking though the earth that it spins around every day. that pole is leaning back away from the sun today and slightly to one side, like a staggering drunk. Because of that we see this odd wobble of closest-to-the-sun and mid-winter and a few other things. Go back to my original post, linked above, as I added some clarification there.

For the timing of sunrise and sunset for the city nearest you, check out this nice website here. This link will show London but you can change that.

The original post is here. It does not say any more but there are a couple of pretty sunset pictures on it.

Of course, if you are in the Southern Hemisphere {say Perth, Australia} then your sunrises have just started getting later by today. But time for the Barby in the evening is still drawing out for a week or two. We can all be happy 🙂