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Friday Philosophy – Solving Simple Problems By Asking The One Key Question. June 17, 2022

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, performance.
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For many of us solving problems is a large part of our working life in IT. This is especially true when it comes to getting features of a product to do what it is supposed to do or even making a bit of hardware work the way it should. And, if it is a printer, work in any way at all! Often the solution is simple but we ask ourselves the wrong question. I’m going to use this pair of garden secateurs as an example of this. Trust me, go with me on this.

My trusty secateurs as a metaphor for almost all IT problems

I’ve had these secateurs for many years. For the first few years these secateurs worked wonderfully, but in the last 2 years they have not been working so well. They just don’t cut all the way through stems & small branches, you have to almost pull the piece off that you want to smoothly cut away. I was having to squeeze the handles harder and harder to complete the cut. And now it seemed to make no difference how hard I squeezed, they would not cut cleanly. This is like steadily increasing the size of the SGA to improve query performance, getting some initial gains and then nothing more.

The trick with any such cutting device is to keep the blade sharp, and I do. A few strokes with a needle file every few months keeps the blade sharp. The other issue with an anvil-type pair of secateurs like this is to keep the anvil, the flat area the blade comes down onto, clean and the little central gap clear. The blade closes down on the anvil and the thin gap allows the blade to *just* drop below the main face of the anvil and cleanly cut the stem. This is like the regular maintenance you do on a computer system, like cycling out redundant data or ensuring there are no accounts for staff who have left or rebuilding all your indexes ( 😀 ).

Only, no matter how much I sharpened the blade or cleaned out the anvil the secateurs would not make a clean cut. Ahh, I know. If you look at the above pictures you will see on the blade that the area closest in to the pivot is silver, it is where most of the wear is. Had the blade worn back into a curve so that the key part of the blade was not cutting all the way through? I used a flat piece of metal and checked the blade. Well, the far end was a little proud so I worked on it with the file and got the whole blade totally flat and sharp along the whole length. It was sharp enough so that when I pulled garden twine over the blade it cut straight through with ease.

But they still would not cleanly cut through a stem. I oiled the pivot, for no reason other than blind hope (just like changing configuration parameters for something when you really know those parameters have nothing to do with the problem). I sharpened the blade again (I rebuilt my indexes again). The blade was wickedly sharp, it was flat, the anvil was clean, these secateurs had always worked so well. So I asked the question. Or, more accurately, shouted it at the offending thing:

Why wasn’t *IT* working?!?!!

And that is the wrong question. But it’s usually our attitude to any piece of software or hardware that is not doing what it should. We beat the desk and swear and shout “why won’t you work you piece of crap!!!”

At this point you need to stop and ask a subtly different question:

What is it I don’t understand?!???

The two questions are similar but the key thing is they come from different directions. When you are screaming at the unresponsive printer or swearing about the SQL hint having no effect, your mind-set is that the thing is broken or has a bug or is in some other way not doing what it should. It’s the printer’s fault. The manual is wrong on setting up the feature. This thing is not doing what it should.

Well, yes it is not doing the required thing – but given other people can get the feature to work or the printer was working last week, the problem is unlikely to be there. The problem is actually that I am not understanding something. And it could be very fundamental, so ask the most basic things first. For the printer to print something it needs to be on and I need to send the file to it. Is it on! OK, maybe not that basic, but are you sending the file to the right printer?

Getting back to my example hardware, the blade is sharp enough to cut, the face it is cutting onto is clean, there is no issue with the pivot. What does it need to *do* to cut? The blade needs to come down on the anvil. I closed the secateurs and held them up to the light.

Note, I slightly emphasised the gap for the sake of the photograph

Ahhh, there is a gap! If I squeezed really hard the gap would shrink, but not completely close. The problem is not the blade, it is not the anvil, it is something else that is stopping the two coming together. The problem is elsewhere. And it is simple. And this is often how it is with software & computers. Yes, sometime the problems are very complex or have several confounding factors, but when you are trying to get something to just work, the problem is usually one of missing something obvious, which is usually being impacted by a component you are not currently swearing at.

This is just like last time my printer would not respond to requests to print from my laptop. I’d checked “everything”, swore at the printer, turned it off and on a few times, kicked the cat, sacrificed a small child to the printer Gods. I stopped and I did the “what do I not understand” thing. It turned out that due to a brief power outage a few days earlier my laptop was connecting to the internet via my neighbour’s router not mine (we have a mutual agreement to share due to the connection issues of living in a field and that we use different service providers). The printer and the laptop were not on the same network.

If you look at the secateurs in full you will notice that between the handles there are two plastic lugs that come together. I’m guessing they stop you squeezing the blade deep into the anvil, potentially damaging both blade and anvil. Over the years of sharpening I had worn away the blade enough that these plastic lugs were now preventing the blade and anvil coming together. Especially as, due to my frustration, I had given the blade a really thorough sharpening. That’s why I had been having to squeeze the handles harder & harder until eventually no effort would get a clean cut. I got that needle file out and reduced those lugs by a millimetre or so. The blade now closes on the anvil and, being about as sharp as it has ever been, they cut wonderfully. The solution was wonderfully simple and it took me all of 2 minutes to implement once I had worked it out.

With my first “increasing SGA” example, I was squeezing hard/giving the database a larger buffer cache, and that helped, but the real issue was the sorts were spilling to disc. I needed to increase the PGA (or process less data).

beautifully closed secateurs

You see, it was not that the secateurs were maliciously working against me or that the components that usually needs some maintenance needed it. It was that I was not understanding something – something very simple & fundamental it turns out. Rather than repeatedly doing the maintenance steps that had worked before but now were not, I needed to stop doing what was no longer working and ask what had changed.

When you are solving problems and it’s got to the swearing stage, it’s time to walk away for 5 minutes, have a cup of tea, and then come back and ask yourself “what do I not understand?”. Best still, do this right at the start. Though to be fair I’m not very good at that, I always get to the swearing stage before I decided to question my understanding.

Especially with printers. I bloody hate printers. Printers are sentient and out to get you.

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Friday Philosophy – On The Return To Physical Gatherings December 3, 2021

Posted by mwidlake in Uncategorized.
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In my last post I talked about why I had decided to return to attending physical events, even while having reservations about it. The event, UKOUG’s annual conference at the Oval cricket ground in London (a wonderful premises to spend time in), happened at the start of the week. So, how was it? Did I feel safe? How did they look after us?

The Event

Sorting out a few technical AV issues before a cracking session on hacking

I’ll just start with a couple of paragraphs on the actual event and then move on to how I found it all.

The conference itself was very, very good. It covered both Tech and Apps over 2 full days, with a speaker/volunteer evening event the day before the conference. The Oval was generally a nice venue but the number of issues I saw with AV… Boy they need to sort that out! As for the evening event on the roof terrace – great for Covid security, terrible for avoiding hypothermia! I heard a few people who said there could have been a bit more technical content and there were some slots where there were too many “Oracle Names” at the same time or two talks on the same topic, but unless you have helped organise the schedule for a large, complex event like this, you have no idea how hard it is! This was not helped this year by a larger-than-usual drop-out of speakers just before the event due to the new Omicron covid-19 variant. The variant itself was not the problem (there are very few cases outside Southern Africa yet), it was how countries were changing their travel and isolation rules. Coming to speak at a conference than then having to spend 10 days locked down when you get back to Switzerland is a big ask. I used to take complaints about there being too many good session clashing as almost a complement – there was just too much good stuff to see.

I have to take my hat off to the board, office, and volunteers who put the conference together. It’s always been a challenge and that was with an office of over a dozen people and a small army of volunteers, with the board having oversight. To survive Covid-19 and the massive drop in revenue, UKOUG has had to par right down to 3 staff and the board have been very, very hands-on. The conference this year was nothing to do with me, I had to step down from the board last year. For the first time in over 10 years I had nothing to do with the event at all, I was there purely as a delegate. I hope I made this clear to all the people who thanked me for the event! It was strange being just a delegate after over 18 years of either presenting, hosting, planning, or fronting.

Being With People Again

As anyone who regularly reads my sporadic blog output or follows me on social media knows, I’ve been very cautious about Covid-19 from the outset. I’ve kept away from people, followed all the guidance, and actually gone beyond the official rules as I’ve kept abreast of what professional epidemiologists, medics, and virologists have to say. But as I covered in my previous blog I had made the decision to go to the conference despite my general caution. I’m double vaccinated, had my ‘flu jab, I know the majority transmission is via aerosol droplets so I can do some things to reduce the risks. I love the community and conferences, it’s pretty much what I have focused on for 5 or 6 years, so for me I decided it was worth the risk. I utterly respect anyone who comes to the opposite conclusion.

As I said in that post, the part of attending the conference I was most anxious about was getting there. I ended up travelling into London with a friend, Erik van Roon. He had been amazed at how few people on the London Underground were wearing masks, often sat under signs saying it was mandatory. That’s what happens when you have a government that does not lead by example, ignores their own rules, and no one enforces any restrictions. I hate being on UK public transport at the moment. We both wore our masks. The trip in on the train was OK as it had come from the airport. Most of the other people were from other countries and were happy to wear masks. None of them passed out or spontaneously died… On the London Underground is was about 50/50 mask wearing but, thank goodness, it was remarkably quiet and quick. I’ve never done that route so quickly and quietly except at 10pm at night. Despite the pleasant company I had, I really disliked the trip and I was glad when it was over.

We had a gentle introduction to “crowds” on Sunday night when we had a speaker/volunteer gathering at a club in central London, just off Leicester Square. I have to confess that for the first few minutes, as more people arrived, I got a little anxious and had to concentrate on not showing it {standing in a room screaming “get away from me you plague-ridden vermin!!!!” is likely to dent the atmosphere}.

However, the room was waaaay bigger than it needed to be for the numbers there and there was a wide open doorway out onto an outside balcony. I would have preferred more mask wearing but I noticed people were standing in looser circles than normal. Most people avoided physical contact. After the first half hour I found the experience easier than I thought I might, partly I think as I knew most of these people and (utterly wrongly) thus unconsciously felt they were “safe”. That’s an oddity of human behaviour, we tend to treat people we know as safer than strangers, even when logically we know it is not true. Also, of the people I actually knew, I was sure they were vaccinated. I don’t personally know many people who are Covid-19 denialists. One thing I did do is not go for food when it came out. It was platers of stuff with people crowed around them. No thanks. But later on more food came out and people had wandered off, so I had some of that. This might sounds a bit “off” but I’m probably at more risk from Covid-19 than most. If I get a bad spell of it, it’s probably hospital time again and I don’t like the idea…

As the evening wore on and alcohol was consumed, people did relax more and distances shrank, but then so did the number of people there. I confess that when, at the end of the night we moved on to shorts, I totally stopped worrying about how many SARS-CoV-2 particles there might be. The lesson there is that increasing alcohol consumption decreases bio security. Who knew? (sarcasm).

The Big Crowd

Next day came the real test. Would I find being in crowds worth it for the event?

Martin Klier explaining why PDBs can impact each other

I should say at this juncture that everyone at the event was double vaccinated or had had a negative test prior to the event (or at least should have) and I know checks were made. I could not guarantee to you that everyone was checked, but that was the intent. {update – see the comment by Neil Chandler for more details on the steps taken to keep us all safe}. I had personally also taken lateral flow tests for 2 days before attending and did more during the event. I didn’t want to be Typhoid Mary All foreign speakers/attendees had had to do tests as part of their trip here (though ask me some time how well all of that was handled!!!) so I knew I was safest with my overseas friends.

Even so, walking into the keynote talk I found unnerving. But also really welcome. People, “my” community, lots of men and women with a shared interest and a desire to learn or teach. And not via (excuse my French) bloody Zoom or MS Teams or some other sodding screen.

I noticed that the crowd was spread out far more than normal, people were sat with spare seats by them or between their little group and the next one. The windows were open. The turnout for the conference had been higher than the organisers had feared, especially given the hype of Omicron variant for the prior 2 or 3 days, but we were well below 50% capacity for the venue, I would say 30%. It helped that, unlike most conference venues, all the rooms were in a long row with windows/doors outside on at least one side. Thinking back, it was also nice to be at a conference where there was natural light in every room.

As the conference progressed it remained the case that people kept a little extra distance (though I moved away from some people who got too close) and everyone seemed relieved to be having a fairly normal conference experience. We had coloured badges on to indicate how hands-on we wanted to be. Green was “touch me if you want”, yellow was “I’m happy to be in your presence but no tongues” and red “Keep the hell away from me!”. I can’t remember meeting any reds (well, they should have been keeping the hell away from me) and I was yellow. A few people said they were surprised I was yellow – they can’t know me that well! I hope the colours were different enough for anyone colour blind to work it out as there was no text on the button (kiss me quick/I’m terribly British so no touching/bugger off).

The only times when there were a lot of people together where breaks and the evening event. All the catering staff were masked & gloved, generally they were putting your food on a plate and giving it to you at the end, no finger food or standing coughing over sandwiches. Even the tea/coffee was prepared for you and handed over. Having said that, on the first day I decided not to join in (helped by the fact it was all dry, brown food) and I went out and got something. Again, my lungs are shot so I take extra precautions.

The evening event was, as I said above, in the open air and with lots of space. I did not feel anxious about it at all. The venue was originally booked for June when the terrace would have been stunning. At the very end of November during a cold snap, you were in more danger from the cold than any virus.

The final thing I’ll cover is masks. Very few people wore masks. It’s the one aspect of the whole experience I was not happy with – and yet I was not wearing my mask. Trying to talk with people when you have a mask on is harder. I also personally find wearing a mask for long difficult. I was strapped to ventilation machines for a week, unable to breath enough on my own to keep me alive, and as a result I sometimes get very anxious wearing a mask. I’ve still got poor lung function and, though I am generally OK wandering around or going for a walk on the flat, any incline is a challenge and forget trotting or running at the moment. A set of stairs can leave me gasping on a bad day. A mask makes me breath that little bit harder so it’s tiring. But I always wear one on public transport or in shops. I find people who claim masks “poison you” farcical, given how many people in medical or dirty jobs wear them all day just fine. If I can wear one with my problems, they can. But at the conference I didn’t wear a mask and I am not really sure why.

Something a friends said to me during the conference was that if he heard of someone going off to a big party, especially now with the new variant in everyone’s mind, he’d think they were mad. But we came to this conference. It’s called cognitive dissonance, hold two opposing opinions at once. OK, it was not a party, it was something we do as part of our careers (or in my case my hobby), but really it was something we did not NEED to do.

Was I glad I went? Yes. Was it sensible? Probably not. Would I do it again next week? Absolutely not. For one thing, I count myself as a risk to others for the next week or so. Would I do it next Spring? Depending on unknowns with the pandemic and whether I can manage the flight (or go by land) probably.

I love conferences and other meetings. I don’t take part in the community for my career anymore as my career is over, I do it as I like many of the people I meet in the Oracle sphere and I love the sharing of knowledge. It’s important to me and I will take some risk, if I feel that those around me are going to also be sensible. I would not go on a holiday to the costa del sol at the moment as I know what the average UK tourist over there is like, and I would not go to a night club (but then, I don’t like them!). But another conference? Yeah….

All rooms opened out onto the famous Oval cricket grounds. Don’t ask me to explain the rules of cricket.

Friday Philosophy – To Physically Meet Or Not? October 29, 2021

Posted by mwidlake in Uncategorized.
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We are seeing a slow return to user groups having physical events, or hybrid ones where some people stay at home and use zoom (other remote networking solutions are available) and other people physically come along along to the venue. Some people are now happy to meet physically, some would like to but their company will not support it, and some people don’t want to come within spitting distance (quite literally, given it is now pretty much established that SARS_CoV_2 is primarily spread in airborne droplets of saliva) of other humans.

I miss this

Most of us have taken part in virtual conferences or meet-ups since Covid-19 first arose. Let’s face it, though they are better than nothing, remote events are not exactly a proper replacement for being in the same place, chatting with old friends, making new contacts, and seeing people talk about topics in the flesh. And presenting remotely is a very different experience (as I covered in this post on training remotely) and takes a different skill set to live presenting, and many presenters really do not enjoy. I’ll do it but I am not keen and I have mostly stopped presenting remotely at user group events. I know some people prefer virtual events but the majority don’t – which is fine, we are all different.

So what to do? Keep home and keep safer but continue to miss out on what a physical event brings, or take an increased risk of contracting or spreading Covid-19 and go? It’s a difficult choice for many people.

I’m returning to physical events. But I fully understand anyone who does not want to, especially if they live with (or are themselves) at higher risk, such as having a relative who cannot be vaccinated.

For a different opinion you can go look at this post by Brent Ozar. He sums up a few reasons for still keeping away from physical events.

I really miss this

I’m double vaccinated, I have a good understanding of Covid-19 (as anyone who was reading my blog last year will know), both how it is transmitted and what it does to you. I’m going to return to going to physical events but I am going to take precautions – not just to protect me from the infected hordes but also to help prevent me from infecting the hordes. I will be attending the UKOUG tech 21 conference at the end of November and I am really, really looking forward to it.

The UKOUG Tech 21 conference organisers will be taking many precautions themselves over ventilation, number of attendees etc. I was still on the board of UKOUG in the spring of 2020 and we were the first user group to deem physical events too risky and cancel one, the first I think to make a solid call of having no physical events in 2020 at all, one of the first (if not the first) to organise a proper multi-stream virtual conference. UKOUG have demonstrated a real focus on the safety of it’s membership and yet try to keep the oracle community breathing (see what I did there). I was really proud that UKOUG listened to myself & Neil Chandler, looked at the science, and made decisions that protected the membership to the cost of the user group itself.

I’ll be wearing my mask when I travel to the event. I know, in some countries it would be deemed madness to not wear a mask on public transport but, despite all the signs saying it is mandatory, the UK government have not attempted to enforce such rules at all. And when they sit in parliament in a crowded room, not a mask is to be seen usually. They have failed to govern or lead effectively on Covid-19 since day one. I was not a fan of masks initially, if you asked me 2 years ago I would have laughed at the general public using them as viruses & bacteria are massively smaller than the pores in non-medical-grade masks, most people have not been shown how to wear them (and still don’t know), are useless at not touching the mask or keeping them clean, and often just wear them as a pointless chin warmer. But it’s been demonstrated that masks are very good at catching the droplets of saliva that we expel and so greatly reduce the wearer transmitting SARS-CoV-2, and somewhat mitigate against breathing in tainted droplets. They help.

Once I am there I am staying at a local hotel (I could have done the trip in and out from home each day), walking to the event, basically minimising my public transport usage.

If there is any finger or buffet food offered, I ain’t touching it. It only takes one infected person coughing when serving themselves to massively increase risk.

I won’t be shaking hands (or bumping elbows, a practice I have always thought was bloody ludicrous, especially when we were told to cough into our arm to contain it – “Hey, touch my plague infested arm!!!”) or hugging people unless it seems very important to them. So pretty much no one I know in the IT sphere. Licking other delegates and wild sex is definitely out this year

If anyone is coughing, spluttering, looking flushed, complaining they feel hot but “it’s just a cold” I am not staying near them. If Covid-19 taught us anything it is that we should not regard people who go to work/meet people even when they are ill as heroes but as lunatics. And employers who encourage or force such behaviour are not only abusive but mad. You want all your staff to get ‘flu?.

I’ll probably wear a mask quite a lot as I cough a lot these days, as a result of having crappy lungs. I don’t want to make people feel unsafe and there is always a chance I could be carrying SARS-CoV-2 and not realise.

I’ll be taking a lateral flow test every day and for a few days before the event. They are not desperately good at detecting the virus when you first have it but it’s some indication. If one says you DO have Covid-19 you almost certainly do. If I can I’ll get a proper PCR test a few days before.

I would have already started going to physical events if I felt safe to fly. This is nothing to do with Covid-19 though. I was supposed to be at POUG2021 last September (they had much lower Covid-19 levels than the UK so I would have been safer there than the UK!) but my lungs have never really recovered from my fun with ‘flu a couple of years ago and any demands on them above a steady walk and I can’t do it for long. I might be fine in a plane, but taking a four hour flight and finding out I’m not is not a clever idea. I could get tested to see how I would cope with the reduced pressure and O2 levels of a flight but the UK NHS has been under extreme pressure for most of this year and I see my getting the test as a frivolous waste of their resources, even if they would agree to do it.

Another aspect of remote events is a lot of them have been put on free to the delegates or considerably cheaper than a physical event. This makes physical events look expensive and introduces the complexity of do the organisers have two fee structures, for physical and virtual attendance. You can reduce the costs of your venue by having fewer people actually there but it’s not really proportional. Many user groups, especially those that have any sort of organisation behind them (like most of the big ones such as DOAG, UKOUG, POUG) incur costs just by existing and the drop in income caused by Covid-19 has been crippling. Conferences that delegates pay for, and membership fees for user groups, keep these groups going and if people (or more often companies) stop paying for them… You are going to lose your user groups.

A final consideration is how the UK is doing Covid-19 wise. The UK is doing bloody awfully and has done so for most of the year. The one thing we did, that the government pretty much left our National Health Service to sort out, was immunising everyone who would and could do so. Our case rates are, excuse my language but I am a little vexed by this, fucking awful, about the worst in the world compared to our population size (poor Ukraine and Romania win there as the moment). The vaccines and steadily improving treatment methods are keeping death rates at only terrible. But if we get another large spike, UKOUG will cancel and I would not go anyway.

I MISS THIS!!!!

Community is Communication – #JoelKallmanDay October 11, 2021

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, UKOUG, User Groups.
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My life is not just Oracle and the Oracle community. I’m part of a couple of other communities as, I hope are we all – be they your hobby, an interest or pastime, the church, your friends. And the key to community is, I feel, communication.

2 days old

I was thinking of this a few weeks ago in another, important (to me) part of my life, which is fostering cats for a local pet charity. I’ve had cats for most of the last 40 years of my life and I’ve missed them since our last one died about 6 years ago. For a mixture of reasons we decide that rather then get another “forever” cat we would temporarily look after cats that needed care before being rehomed permanently.

We’ve had several cats now and it’s something we enjoy doing. What has not been so good, at times, has been interacting with the staff at the charity. There have been several situations where we have tried to contact them and either the reply is slow to come or does not happen at all. We do understand that they are often dealing with a fast moving or unclear situation and, especially with Covid-19 at times effectively removing most of their volunteer staff, more things to do than they have hours to do it in. But when you are asked if you can take on a new cat in an emergency and you drop your plans to do so – and then hear nothing for 3 days before being told “Oh! No, we organised to support the current owner in keeping it”, it’s… vexing. Especially the third time in a row it happens.

It nearly made us give up on them, the communication was just so lacking and poor.

2 weeks old

But to balance that, there is an online facebook-type group for all the fosterers and they are much better. We put up pictures of our fosterlings, swap tips, and generally support each other. It’s good communication. I say this despite a lot of the communication having a tone that just is not me (“Ohhh, isn’t paddy pooky so *cuuuuute*! It makes my hearty warty ache!”). However, that’s more my problem than theirs and in fact I modify how I say things a little to suit the general tone (Mrs W looks at some of the things I put on there and says “YOU wrote that?!?!” – yeah, it’s the style they like).

Similarly communication is vital in our Oracle communities. From organising an event to letting people know what your user group is doing, communication is at the heart of it all. Part of it is simply having some communication. If you never hear from a group you are involved with it is, just like with a friend who never gets in touch, hard to maintain the interest. Lack of communication can kill a community really quickly.

On the other side of the coin, over-communication is not good. When I was president of UKOUG one thing I pushed for was for us to communicate with the membership a little less. We used to send out monthly updates and also lots of emails about events and other things. It was too much, I knew people who simply ignored any email from UKOUG as it was endless. I don’t think we got it quite right when I was there, but we altered things so that fewer emails went out and they were more varied. Instead of a monthly update there was an update from the CEO one month and one from me as the president on the other month, with a different flavour and a modified focus.

3 weeks old

The final killer is empty communication. Saying stuff people are not interested in or saying “great things are coming” but nothing substantial about what that great stuff is. Teasers are OK but only if the tease gives a hint of what the new, cool thing is (and it actually is new and cool – so many commercial things are decidedly not cool, let alone interesting, and telling us you are excited about it makes me question how vacuous your life is…). Repeatedly saying “great things are coming” but not what they are sends a clear message of “we have no idea what we are going to do but don’t want to admit that”. There have been a lot of issues with that until recently with one particular Oracle Community area. It’s improving but they have a lot of work to do to make people reconnect with them again.

I love the communities I am in. I am passionate about the Oracle communities I am part of. If I want to help keep those communities vital and active, I need to help with the communication. I can’t think of a single community I am in that I am enjoying where communication is not at the core of it.

This post is part of the #JoelKallmanDay and, if you knew (or even just knew of) Joel , you will know why I chose this topic. Joel was a passionate, effective communicator and a rock within the APEX community.

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

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

Picture of a Spectrum home computer

The actual first computer I ever used

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

The Spectrum was initially a rival in the UK for the Commodore VIC 20, BBC Micro, Atari 400 and, later, the Commodore 64 (C64). They all had their advantages, the Spectrum’s was it was cheap! Even the more expensive 48K version (as opposed to the basic 16K) was cheaper than most rivals. Sinclair Research even tried to make out it was superior to it’s rivals as it was simpler and had fewer chips inside it. That was pure marketing BS of course. But the Spectrum and the C64 were probably the most common home computers in the UK in the early 80’s and they remainder popular even when more capable machines came out. They might not have been the best machines technically, but they both ended up having a huge number of games you could play on them, and that’s what counted. In my local computer games shop most games were for the Spectrum, then the C64, and all other machines got lumped together in a corner at the back.

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

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

Spectrum with games and tape recorder

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

So the Spectrum arrived. Back then, home computers almost never came with everything needed to use them. The Spectrum, like several rival computers, needed a cassette tape record to save and load programs from tapes, and a TV on which to show the image. Simon had his own tape recorder and he was of the firm belief that, except when Dad wanted to watch the news, he could use the family TV whenever he wanted. As he was a genius after all.

He quickly lost the TV argument, the last thing our parents wanted was to lose the power of distraction that the TV provided for the other two kids – especially me as I watched a lot of TV and was a right PIA when I wasn’t. Steve did not watch a lot of TV but as he wanted nothing to do with the computer, it would have been really unfair on him to not get to see the few things he wanted.

However, Simon had a back-up plan. I had a portable black & white TV (so much for those 8 colours) and Simon was older & bigger than me. So he took possession of my TV. I complained to the court of Mum & Dad but the Tyrant justified his acquisition of the resource on the grounds that he was going to have to share his Spectrum, a far more valuable resource, with me – so it was only fair?!? “Yes” I agreed, but only when I was not using MY TV for MY watching of what ever (probably crap) I was wanting to watch. The court came down on the side of the Tyrant, but with caveat of the plaintive upheld. Tyrant could use the TV when Plaintive was not watching it. It turned out that the reality of the situation was that Simon was still bigger than me and to my considerable surprise “I didn’t want to watch anything” whenever Simon wanted to use his – err, sorry, “our” – Spectrum.

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

So Simon used my stuff as and when he wanted, but did he share? Well, sort of…

Sinclair User Magazine

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

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

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

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

I could beat the Tyrant at Attic Attack

After maybe a year, 18 months, things came to a head. Simon was never going to play fair, in his mind it really was his Spectrum and also now his TV and his tape recorder. After all, as he kept telling me, his computer was the more expensive item. Only, in reality, it was less expensive than my contribution combined. I started playing on the Spectrum when he was not in, as far as I was concerned I’d put more into this pot than he had and I was not going to accept this shit. I could not use it against his will when he was there but once he was out, I damned well was going to get some of my fair share. As you can guess, this did not go down well with him when he found out and the Tyrant did what all bullying, older brothers did and he physically asserted his authority. He’d hit me. I was not really pleased about that, so when he’d go out I would absolutely bloody well would play on it if I wanted to or not, out of spite & defiance (and also to keep my edge in Attic Attack) – and it would repeat. It came to a head when he made my nose bleed – and it dripped on the computer. That was, of course, my fault… “If you’ve damaged the Spectrum I’ll kill you!” Oh, I’m so sorry for bleeding on things after you hit me. Maybe that should teach you something…

It was now warfare.  Screw you, I said, you’ve never shared as agreed, keep your Spectrum, it’s useless without my bits. I banned him from using my equipment. A ban which he now ignored of course. I went to the court of Mum & Dad, but not only was Simon “the genius” but he was, back in reality, a lying & manipulative sod and he made out he was sharing and I was being a spoilt child and I was told I had to share as he was (!!!!). So I took things into my own hands – and I started hiding the cables to my tape recorder and taking the plug off my TV. Yes, I physically removed the plug from the cable and hid it. He tried to work around my sabotage, one day I came home from somewhere to find he had plugged the Spectrum into the family TV and he’d got hold of a spare power cable for my tape recorder and he was using it, despite me banning him from it, playing games with his mates.

I went utterly, lost-the-plot nuts. I demanded my stuff back and an apology or something or let me play too and he was having none of it. So I tried to take my tape recorded back and he tried to stop me, but I was so mad I got hold of it (I think I was finally getting strong enough to fight back a bit) and, shouting something like “and you used it to load that game, so I’m taking THAT as well!” I kicked the power plug out the Spectrum. Game gone, no tape player to load one up, games afternoon with his friends was over and there was nothing he could do about it. He went BERZERK, trying to wrench the tape drive back off me and hitting me but I was so furious I held my own and I think I even kicked his computer again. He was straight off to Mum saying I was trying to break his computer. And this time, the Court of Mum & Dad finally realised Simon was being a little shit. He could not deny he had used my things, even though I had told him he could not, and he could not claim I attacked him first (his usual stance), as his mates backed me up and said Simon had hit me first. Yeah, his mates dobbed him in it!  I think they found it all hilarious.

This led to a full judicial review and this time the voice of the Plaintive was heard. I might have been a little sod but I had never tried to break stuff before and I utterly refused to accept it when The Tyrant lied that he shared at all – why would I be this mad and and even taking the plug off my TV? Simon had not helped himself in other ways as he’d been caught bullying me by Mum recently and been in trouble at school. Timing was on my side. He was told to play fairly or else… have his precious Spectrum removed. Dad would monitor.

Amstrad CPC 464

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

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

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

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

Yes, he could Fuck Right Off. He had his Spectrum.

And if he tried his old tricks of hitting me, it would be a more equal fight (he was still taller and older than me but manual labour had made me a hell of a lot stronger), so he decided against that. He could keep his crappy Spectrum.

The irony was that, even though my Amstrad was a much more advanced and capable piece of kit, the Spectrum and it’s vast library of games was still the best option for fun.

Well, the Spectrum is now mine. I picked it up from Mum’s house this week. Simon passed away many years ago, so it’s been sitting in a drawer for almost 2 decades. Being a Friday Philosophy I guess I should now tell you what the Spectrum now means to me, the healing process, what we can learn from this? How family, in the end, is more important than mere possessions? Stuff like that?

Well, I can.

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

And the Spectrum is now mine I guess.

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

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

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

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

Well, it’s not MY problem!

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

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

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

I know, you would have done the same.

Only no. No, you would not have.

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

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

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

But reality shows that nearly all of you would not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one will thank you.

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

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

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

 

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

Posted by mwidlake in COVID-19, Perceptions, Private Life, rant, science.
Tags: , , , ,
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.
Tags: , , ,
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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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.