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

Posted by mwidlake in COVID-19, Perceptions, Private Life, rant, science.
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7 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Friday Philosophy: The Intersecting Worlds Around Oracle April 24, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, humour, User Groups.
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5 comments

Some of you may have noticed something about the Oracle Community: How certain other aspects of human nature, factors, and outside activities are unusually common.  An abiding love of the works of Douglas Adams (If you have never read “The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy” you should question if you are right for this community – and if you have read it/seen the series/watched the film and disliked it, I’m afraid you have to leave now); Lego was probably an important part of your childhood (and quite possibly your adulthood, though some “project” this fixation on to their kids). A lot of the most talented people, especially presenters, are called “Martin” or similar :-}.

Three Different Worlds Meet

There are two other groups of people that are large within the Oracle community and that I fit into.

  1. Oracle people who have a thing about cats. A positive thing, not those weird people who don’t like cats. It seems to me a lot of people in the Oracle community are happy to serve our feline overlords. This can polarise the community though, so introduce the topic of cats carefully. If the other person mentions how evil or unfriendly cats are, put them on The List Of The Damned and move on to something else.
  2. Making bread, especially of the sourdough variety. This is a growing passion I’ve noticed (quite literally, given the careful tendering of starter mixtures and also expanding waistlines). It seems to be especially common with technical Oracle people. More often than not, when I get together with a flange of Oracle Professionals (or is it a whoop or a herd?) the topic of baking bread will come up. Unlike technical topics, such as what is the fastest way to get a count of all the rows in a table, baking topics are rarely contentious and lead to fights. If you want to put spelt wheat in you mix, that’s just fine.

Mrs Widlake and I were talking about this last night (one of the problems with all this social isolation business is that Mrs Widlake is being forced to spend a lot of time with me – after 27 years of marriage idle conversation was already a challenge for us and now with over a month together all the time, we are getting desperate for topics). She asked how many of my Oracle friends liked both cats AND baking bread?

It struck me that it seemed to be very, very few. Unusually few. I think this is something that needs to be investigated.  This pattern would suggest that bread makers are cat haters. But in my non-Oracle world, this is not the case. The best people are, of course,  Ailurophiles and many of my feline-fixated friends are also bakers of bread. Just not in the Oracle world.

What makes Oracle people so weird?

Does anyone have any ideas? And have you noticed any other common areas of interest (excluding computers of course, that’s just obvious)?

A few that spring to mind are:

  • Terry Pratchett and the Discworld
  • Running
  • Weird science
  • XKCD
  • The Far Side
  • Star bloody Wars.

Let me know. Or don’t.

And for all of you who don’t like cats…

Meow

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

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

My guesses for UK cases & deaths. Do Not Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

COVID-19: What Can We Do to Reduce Social Distancing March 27, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in biology, COVID-19, off-topic, science.
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4 comments

<<<< COVID-19 Basics: What it is & what it does to us
<<…. COVID-19 Outlook for the Month(s) Ahead
The Coming UK Peak and Beyond >>

Summary

The impact of COVID-19 on our society and our economy is going to be long and hard. I hope I am not the first to come up with this idea, but just in case…

Having everyone on lock-down on and off for months will be hard to maintain. But not everyone will need to be in lock-down. You do not need to be locked down if you are immune.

I think we need to look at having a “COVID-19 Immunity Card” – you get the card to prove that you are probably immune to COVID-19 and that you are no longer a danger to others and are not in danger yourself.

Once you have a card you no longer have to abide by social distancing measures in the same way as those not immune. You are also a known “safe” person who can interact with those who are not. This would be particularly reassuring in the “caring” industries.

The number of people with cards will grow over time due to:

  • People being diagnosed with the disease and recovering – not many yet.
  • People being tested and found to have had the disease (possibly without knowing and have recovered) – coming soon?
  • People who have been vaccinated against it – future group.

There are potentially serous drawbacks to this idea. Such a card would be a source of division for as long as we have them and they would be a huge target for criminal activity, but it could help us “sleep with the tiger” of COVID-19.

It could/would allow our economy, health services, and society function more effectively whilst we are living with COVID-19.

Background – Once we “stop” COVID-19 this time, we have a problem…

The UK, like a growing number of countries, is now in a strong, country-wide, social shut-down. The aim is to suppress COVID-19 (see COVID-19: What’s Going To Happen Now ) i.e. drop the levels of person-to-person transmission (The “R” number) below 1. If each person with COVID_19 infects fewer than 1 other person on average, the spread stops. Quickly. It will take another 2-3 weeks for those already infected or sick (as of the date I am writing this, 27/3/20) to develop the symptoms and possibly need hospital treatment, so between now and mid-April we will see cases continuing to rise rapidly, followed by the number of deaths.

Then, something like Mid-April onwards, new cases will drop and, less slowly, the number of deaths.

COVID-19 will have been stopped. However, it will not have gone away, it will still be in the population. If we relax the social isolation we are currently living under, it will start spreading again and we will have another outbreak. Why? As only a small percentage of the population will be immune to the SARS-COV-2 virus. Governments are giving the impression that we will have “beaten COVID-19!” at this point, when the first peak of cases has come and gone, but the scientific consensus is clear that it will return if we all start living normally again. There are several studies going on at present to model what we can do and how. For example, China is relaxing restrictions and the world-wide epidemiological community is watching. For example, this Imperial College Paper on how China is coming out of strict social distancing is interesting.

I think of this as sleeping with a tiger that we don’t want to wake up.

The Imperial/WHO/MRC paper does cover all of this and suggests a way of relaxing social isolation steps and re-introducing them, over a 2 year period. The chances are, this is all going to go on far longer than most people realise and way longer than any of us want!

Reasoning on why COVID-19 will be with us “until something changes”.

The rest of this post is me being an “Armchair Epidemiologist” – proposing untested ideas with only a tenuous grasp of the true facts. But I thought I would put this out there. Note, there will be a lack of links to any solid references from this point. When you see this in articles discussing scientific ideas, it usually indicates it is a thought experiment.

There is general scientific consensus that, if we had better testing, the Case Fatality Rate would be about 1-2%. Case Fatality Rate (CFR) is the percentage of diagnosed cases that die. What we actually need is the Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) of COVID-19:- Taking into account all people who get the disease (whether they show symptoms or not or were tested or not) what is the percentage of people who die. See the Wikipedia entry on CFR for more details of CFR and IFR.

IFR is being argued about by the scientific community as you have to test a large, random set of people to see how common the disease is and testing by most countries is limited to suspected cases. Thus estimates are being made. The really good news is that the estimates of IFR are a lot lower than CFR. numbers seem to vary from 0.2% to 0.6%. See this pre-print of an article on CFR/IFR  and this paper by Nuffield Primary Care Health Sciences  at Oxford University. I’ll be pessimistic and take 0.5%

I am assuming the  Infection Fatality Rate is 0.5%

The reason we need the Infection Fatality Rate is that we can then calculate the number of infected people from the number of people who died – ONCE number of infection and deaths have reduced to low numbers again. You can’t do this (well, I can’t) when the number of new cases or deaths is increasing.

If 10,000 people die in the peak of cases we are currently enduring, if it is killing 0.5% of people and ICU limits are NOT exceeded, that means 2 million people will be immune once the peak has passed (as 99.5% of that 2 million have it and survive).

However, 64 Million will not be immune.

As has been described, we could now relax social distancing and let businesses and the economy start up to some degree again – but then tighten up social distancing again when cases or ICU admissions rise. We have a series of mini-outbreaks.

We have a population of 66 million. At 2 Million becoming immune in each “Outbreak”, we would need 20 outbreaks to get to a level of people who have had the disease where herd immunity is stopping the disease spreading – 60% or 44 or so million people (but we would still have 22 million susceptible to the disease).

With a peak every 2 months (so no single one exceeds the expanded capabilities of our NHS) getting to 60% immunity would take… several years. This is why all those discussions about getting herd immunity in weeks or months is, frankly, naive. We could only have that happen if we did not control the outbreak.

It might be that we can work out a level of social distancing that allows the economy to keep some semblance of normality and the COVID-19 cases at a level the NHS can keep up with, but that is a very, very fine tightrope to walk.

In any case, if we do not simply let COVID-19 rip through our society (killing more people than it would if controlled, as it vastly overwhelms the health services) we have to sleep with the tiger until we we have another option. But I think there is a way to make sleeping with the tiger more comfortable.

People will become immune to SARS-COV-2

A reliable, widely available test for seeing if someone has had COVID-19 and is now resistant to the  SARS-COV-2 is desperately needed and, I think, will become available soon – in a couple of months, long before a vaccine arrives.

We will then have 2 ways of knowing someone is immune:

  • Those who were tested positive for COVID and survived. They are immune.
  • Those that pass an antibody test. They are probably immune – depending on the reliability of the test. There could be several tests that have different levels of reliability.

These people can be given an “I am immune” card and they will not be limited (at least not so much) in lock downs.

Initially there will only be a hundred thousand people who can have the card, as they have been identified by testing to have had COVID_19,  have got better, and are now immune . But, crucially, a disproportionately high percentage of them will be NHS and first responder workers. This is because those groups are suffering very high exposure to COVID-19, by the very nature of what they do. The ranks of these groups are (and will continue to be) literally decimated by COVID-19. Lots and lots and lots of nurses, doctors, lab staff, cleaners, police, paramedics, GPs are going to be in the first wave getting ill.

Once we have the cheap, reliable antibody test , we can look for the rest of the 2 million.

As you can see, the more testing we do, both for having COVID-19 or for having antibodies against SARS-COV-2, the more people we can give an immunity card.

Over time, especially if we have further outbreaks, the number of people who are immune and are found via the above will increase.

Later, when vaccines are developed, there will be a third group of people we can count as immune:

  • Those who are vaccinated
  • Better still, those who are vaccinated and are latter tested for (and pass) an antibody test.

The first vaccines are likely to not be very effective – think the low end of the level of protection the annul ‘flu vaccines achieve, 20-40%. The antibody tests to confirm you have immune to SARS-COV-2 might also vary. But the details on the card will give which tests and vaccines you have had.

The card will hold details of why the person is immune, what test(s) were used to identify they had the disease, what vaccine(s) they had had, and when these events occurred. Minimal details would be held on the card itself.

A central database would hold the details of vaccination & test efficacy, corroborative information about the person etc.

If the reliability of historical tests or vaccinations change, then the immunity status of the individual may change.

The database of information would of course need to be well secured, kept in more than one place (so that a single IT disaster does not destroy all this key information) and protected. These are technical problems that can be solved.

Drawbacks off the COVID-19 Immunity Card

The cards will need to be very reliable, trusted, and protected from abuse.

Both the data they hold (or link to) and the information about the person the card is for needs to be highly dependable. The data needs to specify which sort of immunity this person has, when they were ill (if they have been) or tested, when any vaccine(s) were administered and when. It may turn out that immunity to SARS-COV-2 will reduce over time (that is, our immune systems “forget” about the disease) and the virus may mutate over time such that it avoids our immune response (whether natural or via vaccine).

The link to the person will need to be reliable, so no one can use a stolen or fake card. Obviously pictures, basic information, etc need to be on the card for a quick check, and information on the card links to a data source that can be used to further check identity and give more detailed information about immunity, such as may be needed if the person is in a medical situation.

It strikes me that this is a perfect use for blockchain. Each card, the data associated with it, when & how it is updates, can be accurately tracked in a way that is very, very hard to fake.

The data and the card should link to nothing else. There would be a temptation to be able cross reference the medical data with socioeconomic data, geographic information, even information about shopping habits to see if there are any correlations between between these factors and how people respond to COVID-19. This would be a nightmare as it introduces questions of consent, privacy, abuse of the data, fear of being spied upon.  Ensuring this card is for one purpose alone, with no link to anything else, would reduce the next drawback.

ID cards by the back door.

This will effectively be introducing ID cards, which some people object to strongly on moral or philosophical grounds. I’m not going to do more than note that this is an issue and observe that many societies have ID cards already. If these cards are kept to this one purpose, it would help make them more acceptable.

Criminality

Of course, as soon as such a valuable thing as a card that allows you to avoid social limitations is available, some people will want one, even though they know they are not immune. Criminals will want to create and sell them, so we need something, probably several things, (again, like a blockchain identifier on the card) to help guard against this. I would also suggest we would want to see strong punishment of individuals who try to use a fake card or get one by deceit. After all, these are probably the same selfish gits who bought all the toilet paper. As for criminals trying to make and sell fake cards, the punishments would be draconian – they would be putting a lot of people at risk.

Two-Tier Society

The cards would by their nature split society. Those who have a card would have more freedom. Those who do not would not.

Some people would never be able to get a card as they are immunocompromised  or similarly unable to be vaccinated.

Human nature says some people would discriminate or persecute people who are not immune if there was a way to identify this. I actually see this as the main reason to not have such a card.

Laws would be required to back up a repeated and strong message about why such discrimination is utterly wrong.

SARS-COV-2 Could Change

We do not yet know how the virus underlying COVID-19 will change over time. It is mutating – but ALL life mutates. We use the mutation to track how SARS-COV-2 has spread across the globe and the mutations, so far, are not known to alter it’s infection rate or how it impacts people (though I think I have seen some suggestions about this on social media that are more trustworthy than general scuttle).

However if it turns out that C-19 becomes C-23 and C-28 etc like Influenzela A, the card scheme still works but you are now stuck with identity cards and potential discrimination against those who are not immune etc.

End Life of the cards

I would want to see an agreed termination point for the cards stated when they are brought in. They or the data they link to will be deleted utterly in 3 years time. This can only be changed by a cross-political-party agreement.

 

That’s my idea. If you have any comments – for, against, highlight things I have wrong – I would love to hear.

COVID-19: Information And Outlook March 13, 2020

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

 

 

Postponing Ireland Conference – & Maybe Myself? March 5, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Presenting, Private Life, science, UKOUG, User Groups.
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As I tweeted a couple of days ago, I never thought I would write something announcing cancelling an event due to a worldwide pandemic. And yet that was what I was asked to do earlier this week (first week of March 2020). It will be interesting to look back at this in the future and judge if it was a wise decision or an over-reaction. At present, I am 100% for Wise Decision.

This week UKOUG decided that, in light of the impacts & concerns around the COVID-19 coronavirus, to postpone this year’s annual Irish conference we hold in Dublin. I thought it would be interesting to some of you to know a little of how we came to that decision.

Firstly, this was a joint decision made by the event committee, the UKOUG board, and the UKOUG senior management. Discussions around the topic of COVID-19 and  had taken place between some of us over the prior 24 hours and the event committee had decided that, in their opinion, there was a strong case to not hold the event at this time. They discussed this with the UKOUG senior management and our CEO decided this deserved an emergency board call. This board call would not just consider the event in Ireland but also our future events, our staff, and our members. (In this post I’m only talking about the Irish event, but enough to say that we are taking steps to protect our staff and consider future events and how they might impact our members & the public, plus how we may replace physical events with remote ones).

Secondly, as you can see above, this was a considered decision and not a knee-jerk reaction.  We had people who live in Ireland involved, we considered feedback we had received from partners/sponsors and also delegates. We talked with the venue. We looked at factual information about COVID-19, it’s communicability & mortality rate (how easily you can be infected and how likely you are to die respectively). In the end the decision was easy as we were all in agreement, we needed to postpone the event.

Thirdly, there were several factors behind the decision to postpone OUG Ireland.

Public Concern

We had several presenters pull out from the event. For most their employing company had banned non-essential (or even all) travel, and some had decided that they personally did not want to risk exposure. A couple of sponsors were in the same situation of being told they could not attend. Further, we had concerned delegates contacting us asking if the event was still on or what steps we were taking. Some cancelled coming, again a mixture of diktat from employer or a personal decision not to attend.

Interestingly, we were getting as many new delegates signing up for the event as dropping out, so obviously some people felt COVID-19 was not an issue.

We knew we had enough speakers in reserve that we could call on to fill agenda holes but we also could see that more and more events were being cancelled across Europe and more companies were announcing travel limitations, so the cancellations were likely to escalate on the run-up to the event. What happens months ahead, no one knows, but for now the public concern is very, very high.

I considered titling this section as FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, & Doubt. But FUD is usually a derogatory term indicating a baseless over-reaction. I think there is a lot of FUD going on in the general public, but people in IT tend to be smarter than average and more balanced. I think it is very reasonable to be concerned to some degree and, as you will see at the end of this piece, the concern will vary depending on your personal circumstances. For some people (e.g those with Asthma or similar decreased lung capacity) there is a significant increased personal risk from this specific illness, it is not always a case of a simple “I’m worried about a pandemic”.

Financial Considerations

With the best will in the world, user groups needs money to put on events. There is a commercial aspect to this. Putting on an event that fails and loses money is a danger. We at UKOUG do insure our major events against Force Majeure, basically events beyond our control, but we are like all user groups in that we walk a tightrope of finance.

Cancelling an event does not always save any money as it has already been paid out. But if a sponsor gets a poor experience in return for their sponsorship £/€/$ they are not happy (and neither are we as the organisers). If delegates come and the event feels like an empty room or the agenda is not what they want, they may not come again. As you can see, it is complex

I have to say that for Ireland we benefit from an excellent relationship with our venue, we have held the event at the Gresham in Dublin for several years and our committee & office know them well. They reduced the potential financial impact on us by offering us flexibility in re-arranging this event.

I make this point as some user groups (and of course, other companies) putting on public events in the near future may find that they have no such flexibility. For them cancelling a conference could actually kill the user group financially or result in individuals losing a lot of money. Did you know that sometimes it is individuals or a very small company that is bank-rolling your usergroup events?

For some user groups the financial consideration will be far more acute than it is for UKOUG.

Public Health

This is not the same as public concern. Public concern is about the actions people take in response to a danger or threat. Public Health is about the actual, real threat.

At present you (yes, you reading this) are almost certainly in more danger of being murdered, killed in a road accident, or dying of normal ‘flu than of dying from COVID-19. And have been all year. And yet none of you stopped living your normal life because of those threats. Most people who will think they have COVID-19 over the next month will actually have either a standard cold or normal influenza. And in fact 90% or so of those who catch COVID-19 will not be that ill. Medical testing is the only sure way of knowing which disease you have had.

But COVID-19 spreads relatively easily via fluid contact – droplets in the air through coughs & sneezes but, more commonly, similar dampness on hard surfaces by people touching their mucous membranes (think eyes, nose, and mouth) and then door handles, surfaces, smart devices. You then touch these surfaces and then your face and you have transmitted the disease to yourself.  Prevention methods are all about constant washing of hands and avoiding touching things. Face masks do diddly squit except if you are in the situation where people might cough in your direction (so medical staff) or to help prevent you coughing the virus out and infecting others. I find it somewhat ironic that in some places so many people have rushed to wear face masks to protect themselves from others but actually it will be doing more to protect others from them.

COVID-19 also has a higher degree or mortality than ‘flu. It stands at about 3.4% at present, compared to 0.1% for standard influenza. I’ve seen arguments that “the real rate is lower as it kills mostly old people or those with underlying conditions”. Well, of COURSE it kills those groups more, that is true for all other diseases. Influenza mostly kills the old, the very young, and the at-risk. That 0.1% is measuring a similar spread of deadliness as the 3.4%. If you get COVID-19 you are something like 30-40 times more likely to die of it than if you get typical influenza. An oddity of COVID-19 is that it does not seem to affect babies and toddlers as much as influenza does. So this new disease is overall more dangerous to adults, especially older adults, than flu than the basic figures indicate…

The mortality rate has increased from around 2% to 3.4% over the last month. Why? Mostly as people are now aware of COVID-19 and deaths will be correctly attributed to it rather than wrongly to other, similar things (like ‘flu). It’s almost certainly not getting more potent. In fact, we might expect the mortality rate to drop as people with a mild version of the disease were probably not being recorded or were being wrongly diagnosed, so the total number of cases would be a lot higher. I expect this figure to drop below 2% for countries with a good health service and no unusually high elderly population.

So what are the chances of holding a user group event and someone infected with the disease coming to the event? Very, very low. The number of known cases outside China are, as a percentage of the population, sod all. But if someone infectious does come to the event? Catching COVID-19 (and in fact a lot of people catching it and it becoming a new source or widespread infection) is quite high.

For those of use who look at project risks it is a very low likelihood/very high impact risk. Something like a hard disk overheating and setting fire to the server. I’ve had that, by the way.

So far the steps taken to keep this disease from spreading are proving effective at slowing it down. But it is spreading. I personally think it is going to get worse before it gets better. Maybe a lot worse, and I am pretty cynical about most “we are doomed” news stories.

Large Oracle user group events are more of a risk than say a big party. Why? A lot of speakers and exhibitors come from geographically distant places, so you are bringing people together from a large area. These people travel a lot and meet a lot of people. It increases the risk. At a party everyone is probably local and if there is no one local with the disease, you are safe. Safer.

This is partly why I was very much in favour of postponing the Irish conference, it had an enhanced risk associated with it as we had an international contingent coming.

What makes me feel qualified to think this? I am not a medic and I am certainly not an epidemiologist (someone who studies disease spread), but I have the advantage of a degree in genetics & zoology and many years of working with the National Health Service and biological academia (some of it on disease and immunology). I am not an expert, but by accident of my history I am better informed than most.

These factors made Ireland too much of a risk, even if the likelihood of something bad happening was actually very low.

Smaller events are less risky and, at present, will go ahead. But all will be reviewed.

 

People want the event

The final factor is that people want the event. Either they do not think the risk is real or they feel that they will be OK anyway as they are young(ish) and healthy or “fate” or whatever. So they will come to the event anyway and cancelling it is “giving in”. Lots of large sporting events are now being cancelled (such as come 5 nations rugby matches) and I am sure a lot of fans are not happy about this. But these are exactly the mass gatherings of disparate people that will really help to spread COVID-19 and create a true epidemic.

In some ways, cancelling a large event could be seen as protecting the ignorant 🙂

 

Maybe Myself?

In the title I mentioned I might need to postpone myself. Why?

At the moment I am an At Risk person. 3 months ago I was in intensive care attached to the most powerful ventilator the NHS uses which does not need the patient to be knocked unconscious and a tube put down into the lungs. In fact, shortly after I was admitted and I was deteriorating, it was expected that I would probably be put into a medical coma and mechanically ventilated. I’m generally fine now – but my lungs are still damaged and recovering. I had influenza & pneumonia. I’ve been asked by a couple of people if I could have actually been a very early COVID-19 case? No. It was not known outside China at the time and lab tests identified the exact strain of influenza I had. If I had been diagnosed with an unknown strain I’d expect the sample would have been re-tested, but this is not the case.

I’m no more likely to catch COVID-19 than any of you, but if I do catch it I am more likely to be at the 3.4% end of things due to the slowly healing lung damage. This is another reason I have paid extra attention to the science behind COVID-19.

I probably should have cancelled my trip to Ireland before the event was postponed, but I was in that last area of consideration. I was not thinking it would effect me and I wanted to go to the event. In the last few days I’ve been advised by people who are clinically qualified that airports & public transport are not a good idea for me. My wife has expressed a desire for me to not give the whole intensive-care-kept-going-by-machines thing a second go as it stressed her. And the cat.

Smaller events I will probably still go to as the risk is lower. And events where everyone is local and there is no signs of the disease there. I really want to go to a meeting in Poland where this will be the case. But to get there I have to go through airports. Full of people from all over the globe. Hmmm.

Personally I am expecting more events, both user groups and generally, to be cancelled. Part of me thinks they should be, the very small risk of a very bad impact is not worth learning a bit more about some software – and you all know how passionate I am about learning.

I think I should be more mindful of the risks myself, but then am I over-reacting?

And I think COVID-19 is going to spread more and kill more people before prevention steps and, eventually, treatment is developed to keep it in check. But I really hope I am wrong on that.

Friday Philosophy – Presenting Sex January 24, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Presenting.
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These slides are from the first ever presentation I did. And yes, the presentation was at work.

The Evolution Of Sex

My first real job after college was as a trainee analyst programmer for the National Health Service and, as part of the “graduate training program”, we attended a short course on presentation skills. As you would expect, we all had to do a presentation at the end. As most of us had never had a job before and we were dull with no interesting hobbies, most of the presentations I could see being put together around me were a little… boring. I decided to try something different.

If you think the photographs with this article are a little poor with odd reflections, that is because the original images are printed on transparent acetate sheets and were displayed by putting them on an overhead projector – a large box-thing with a blindingly bright light that shone through the acetate sheet and cast the image onto a screen or wall via a mirror/lens bit. Laptops had not been invented back then and I’m not even sure a PC (if you could afford a PC 386SX) could drive a projector. This was all manual – you had to change sheets by hand. At least you never had problems with connecting the overhead projector to the acetate sheet, you simply put the sheet on upside down and back-to-front and had to re position it 3 times before you got it right. This is important, I could not quickly flick between images.

When I put up my first sheet, with the cute little couple holding hands, our tutor screeched and said to one of the other delegates “Oh God! I thought you were kidding when you said what he was presenting on!”. Before I could even take this opening image off the projector sh had stepped forward and told me I could not present this.

“Why not?” I asked, “we are all adults!”. She refused to let me swap to my first proper slide, “This is not the sort of topic that is suitable at work.”

Stand off.

“Well, what do you think I am going to talk about?”. Our tutor was now quite flustered. “I think we all know what you are presenting on – and I shudder to think what the next slide is going to be of!” (or something like that, this was a long time ago). I had no choice. I got her to come closer and look at my next couple of slides…

Her relief was visible. She could immediately see the next slides were not based on “The Joy of Sex” or similar publications and after she’d looked at each of my acetate sheets carefully (just to make sure) I was allowed to continue.


Of course, this had somewhat diluted the tension & expectation that had been building up, but I felt I had milked the initial surprise as much as I was going to be able to. I moved onto the next slide and most of the audience was disappointed by the lack of limbs, bodies and appendages to be seen. As you can see to the left, the next slide was an odd set of little diagram of dots & letters and what many of us would now recognise as a sort-of family tree diagram. As some of you know, my degree had been in genetics (and zoology but that is bye-the-bye).

There is a very interesting thing about sex, as in sexual reproduction. What is the point? Well, apart from the immediate pleasure for animals like us that seem to enjoy the initial act, why do we mix the genomes of two organisms to produce new offspring? It is not mandatory, many organisms (especially plants and bacteria) employ asexual reproduction. All the children are effectively clones of the adult. There is no finding a mate or the need for pollen to arrive, the actual process biologically is a lot simpler & more reliable, and you don’t need males running around using up resources for, let’s face it, a pretty small contribution to the effort. Asexual reproduction is a lot quicker, simpler, needs less energy. A species that does away with sex can out-compete sexy competition.

 

My little talk was all about that, about why you have male and female, why mixing the genes from two individuals and, over time, across the gene pool of your species, is beneficial. I won’t bore you with the details here.

That first presentation of mine went down very well and it was remembered by everyone there. A lot of people (who had not even been there for the premier of that talk) mentioned it to me when I left the company. It made an impression on me too – if you can grab people’s attention at the start of a presentation, it really helps make it a success.

And, of course, as anyone in marketing will tell you – Sex Sells.

In this case, even the lack of sex.

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.

 

Presenting Well – Tell Your Story November 28, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Presenting, User Groups.
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I don’t think the key to a really good presentation is the content, the structure, the delivery method, or even the main message. It’s The Story.

Coming to a Conference Near You Soon!

Actually, I’d go as far as to say that there is no one, single key to presenting well – but The Story seems to be at the heart of many of the best presentations I have seen and I think that some of the best presenters I know use The Story.

More and more I strive to present by Telling A Story. It works for me and since I started doing this, I think my presentations have got a lot better.

When you read (or watch) a story, it is about something – a person, an event, how change occurred, overcoming an obstacle. It might be hard to totally define what a story is, but when you read a book and it does not really go anywhere, it’s usually not satisfying and you know it has not really told the story. Some presentations are like that: They have some great content and there is knowledge being passed on but, just as when characters are poorly developed or the plot is disjointed, the presentation feels like it’s made of bits and you come away feeling you can’t join all the dots. With a book lacking a good story you may feel you did not get the whole thing; with a technical presentation you might feel you don’t really understand how you do something – or why.

When people design a talk they usually focus on “what facts do I need to tell, what details must I include”. The aim is to put information in other people’s heads. But facts and code and details are hard to absorb. For many a story helps it all go in more smoothly. You absolutely need the facts and details, but if you start gently, setting the pace – but maybe hinting of things to come or an early nugget of detail maybe  (as you do with story) – then expand the scope and go into the details you stand a better chance of carrying the crowd with you.

If you are now thinking “It’s hard enough to come up with a presentation topic, design the talk and then deliver it, and now you want me to do all that and in the form of a story?!? – that’s going to be so much harder!” well, let me explain why I think it is actually easier.

This man is telling a story of Violence, Despair and… APEX

It’s already a story

First of all, what you want to talk about could be, by it’s very nature, already a story.

If the presentation is about using a software technique or product to solve a business problem – that’s a story about how you did it (or, even better, how you tried to do it and it failed – most people present on successes but presentations on failures are often fantastic!).

If it is about learning about a feature of a language or of the database, your story is something like:

“how do I get going with this, what do I need to learn, the things that went wrong, my overcoming adversity {my ignorance}, and finally reaching the sunny uphills of expertise”.

Flow

A story has a flow. It’s a lot easier to learn a story than a set of facts. Some talks are just facts. In fact {see what I did there} many techniques for remembering lists of things are to make them into a story.

Rather than making it harder to remember, having a story makes it easier to remember your talk and move through it. Each part of the presentation leads to (and reminds you of, up on that scary stage where your brain might burp) the next part. The Story helps remove the fear of forgetting parts of your material, and thus helps Control the Presentation Monster.

For the audience it gives them a progression, a narrative. I find that if a talk does not so much leap from points but more segues into them, it is easier to listen and focus. As I design my talks and add more facts and details, I keep in mind how can I preserve the flow. If I am going to talk about some of the things that can go wrong, putting them all in 4 slides together is easy for me and I have a chunk of “things to avoid” – but it may well break the flow, so I try to mention the things to avoid as I came across them or as I expand my theme. I fit them into the flow of the story.

Added colour

I’m not at all suggesting you invent characters or plot devices for your talk. That really would be hard! I also suspect that, unless you were a brilliant story teller, it would be pretty awful! But you can add in little aspects of this.

If I mention someone in my presentation, I usually give a couple of bits of information about them. Not a biography, just something like “Dave was the systems admin – wonderful collection of Rick & Morty t-shirts and no sense of smell”. There is no need for me to do this, it does not help understand the technical content, but now people have a mental (and possibly even nasal) image of Dave.

Side plots – if in learning about some aspect of say Virtual Private Database I discovered something about PL/SQL functions, I’ll divert from My Core Story and give 3 or 4 minutes on that (as a mini story). The great thing about side stories is that, depending on your time management, you can drop or include them as your talk progresses. If I get asked questions during my talk and it has slowed me down (which is NOT a problem – I love the interaction) I can drop a side plot.

Interaction

All engaged, no phones being looked at…

Finally, when you tell a story you talk to your audience. You are not talking AT an audience. You are explaining to them the background, taking them through the narrative of the topic and leading them, possibly via some side stories, to the conclusion. It is far more like communicating with your audience than dictating to them. And, if you are brave enough to do so, you can look at your audience and engage with them, try to judge if they are following the story and have any feedback or response to it. Mostly any feedback is quite passive (no one shouts out to hear more about PL/SQL functions) but you will catch people’s eye, get a smile, get some indication that they are listening.

For me, discovering that last bit about The Story was when I finally felt I had a way of presenting that worked for me. If I am talking with my audience and I feel there is an engagement, a rapport, that is when I do my best job of it. That’s when I come off the stage buzzing and happy.

Danger Will Robinson!

There is a danger to Telling a Story and that is time. Most good stories build to a satisfying end. Most technical presentations also generally have a main point. But if you are progressing through a Story you might run out of time, in which case you do not get to your Big Expose or you have to suddenly blurt out the ending. It’s like those TV programs where they obviously run out of steam and some kludge is used to end it  – “And then the side character from an hour ago appears, distracts the dragon and you nick the golden egg! Hurr…ah?”.

You can modify the run time with side plots as I say above, but if you are going to Tell a Story, you need to practice the run time more than normal.

You can finish early, it’s better than not finishing at all. But being on time is best.