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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Friday Philosophy – 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

 

 

 

Friday Philosophy – Presenting Sex January 24, 2020

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

The Evolution Of Sex

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

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

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

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

Stand off.

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

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


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

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

 

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

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

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

In this case, even the lack of sex.

Friday Philosophy – Community Means So Much December 27, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, Private Life, User Groups.
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There have been a few things in the last month that have really brought home to me how much I personally receive from the Community. In my case, my Community is primarily the Oracle User Community – The end users who come together to share knowledge, the Oracle employees who support this, and the companies that support the end users. For most of you reading this, you are part of the Oracle User Community, but most of you will be (I hope) in other communities too through your other interests, be they religious, music, hobbies, sports, charities etc.

My community. I even like some of them 😃

At the start of this month (December 2019) I was at UKOUG’s Techfest2019, our annual December conference which is now focused just on Tech. As “El Presidente” of UKOUG (an unofficial modification of the official title of President, dropped on me by friends with a similar sense of humour as myself). I represent the whole of our membership, be they tech, business applications, or data analytics. But my background is Oracle Technology and so I naturally know more people in that sphere. And I’ve known some of them for over 15 years. There was close to 500 people at the conference on a couple of days and I recognised probably 2/3 of these people, and knew half enough to swap pleasantries. More importantly, a couple of dozen of those people have become good friends.

Conferences, to me, epitomise the community. We exchange knowledge, we learn, but we also have fun and we socialise in a way that I feel you simply can’t via social media. I like nothing more than meeting someone in the flesh that I have only known on-line, having a chat or a coffee or a beer or even a meal. It can really help make that connection that moves acquaintance to friendship (we’ll skip over those rarer occasions when you meet in the flesh and realise they are simply not your cup of tea!).

UKOUG conferences have become a little weird for me over the last few years, due I think to my roles in helping organise parts of the event and now being UKOUG president. I get a lot of positive feedback and personal moral support from people. I’d goes as far as to say I receive genuine affection from some people. I’m told how much they enjoy the event, how much better the coffee is, and sometimes what is not so good about the event (which I need to know), but always in a constructive manner. And people take the piss out of me. Oddly enough, especially with men, you know you are liked when you get good-natured abuse. I get a lot of abuse. In my head it is 95% good-natured 😃.

You had to be there for it to make *any* sense

The downside is I just can’t spend time with all the people I want to spend some time with. I’m getting better at moving about and trying to chat with as many people as I can, but I can only sit down and have a coffee or beer and socially catch up with so many people in the time I have. And not all my time is my own, I have to be President and do things. On that note, I apologise for any mental health issues caused by me taking my clothes off on stage this year…

The care of the community was really brought home to me after Techfest19, when I came down with ‘flu which then ganged up with secondary lung infections and put me in hospital for over a week. I only posted to Facebook (briefly) during this period (I did not want to shout it out over Twitter, which is like talking to the world). For me Facebook is friends & family. Even so, I got so many notes of concern and good wishes. And when I did put up a blog post when I was getting better, I got another burst of support and concern – and that was really nice. If I was not involved in a community, I would not have got that.

But there was another aspect of that show of affection by community that surprised me. My wife Sue is in her own community, that of millinery & hat making. There is not a lot of crossover between that world and the Oracle world! Sue had had the same ‘flu as me but without the extra “fun” I had, and she was having to try and help me in hospital as she struggled to recover herself. And her millinery community gave her so much support and care, which spilled out to include me.  And as Sue has a bit of a foot in the Oracle community also (she has presented at a UKOUG event in her own technical right and has joined me at conferences and met some of my Oracle friends), some of my community reached out to her to check how I was – and how she was coping. That was lovely.

Another aspect of community is the sharing of technical help. I’m a member of the OakTable network and as well as sharing our knowledge with the wider community (we are pretty much all presenters, bloggers, explainers), we help each other. None of us knows the whole Oracle stack or the related tech. During December there were several threads from people you would know as experts going “guys & gals, I’m confused by this” or “I’m seeing X and I suspect Y but I’m just not able to prove it”. And each time people stepped in and helped. Even the big Oracle names need help from the community. So you see, it does not matter if you are brand new to a technical area or lauded as the God of Tuning, everyone at all levels learns from the community.

The Oracle ACEs at Techfest19, core to supporting the Oracle user community

I’m not happy with a lot of things going on in the world at the moment. The UK is becoming more nationalistic, more jingoistic, fundamentally more tribal and distrusting of “them” – foreigners. I hate it. Our right-wing, Conservative government is milking this, encouraging this attitude. You also see it in the US & Trump with his MAGA and his talk of beating other countries with trade embargoes or military might. I know other European countries are seeing a rise in the worst aspects of nationalism and tribal distrust or even hate of “not our tribe”. It really upsets me and makes me worried about where our nations are going.

I think none-tribal communities like the Oracle one, the Millinery one, like most hobby ones, can help dispel this. It’s harder to dislike people from other parts of the world when you engage with them and know, on a personal level, they are the same as “us”, whatever “us” is.

And on my own personal level? I get out of my community five times what I put in.  This month I have received in plenty.

I’d encourage you all to get more involved in your communities and consider joining new ones.  And if you get the chance to physically meet members of your community you only know through screen & smart phone, put the effort in to do so. It can convert acquaintances into real friends and I think most of us would benefit from more friends.

I’m not sure I’ll post again this year, so Happy New Year everyone. And thank you.

 

Philosophy – Treating Illness As A Performance Issue December 24, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
4 comments

Firstly, I’m on the mend. This is not a post about “oh woe is me, I am so ill”. But I have been rather ill.  I’ll just give you the highlights: The highs of UKOUG Techfest19 at the start of the month were followed very quickly by me developing full-blown influenza (Type A). After about 5 days of being ill in bed I realised I was fighting for breath just laying there. I analysed the problem and came to the conclusion “something else is very wrong and paracetamol is not the answer”. I was taken into hospital and put on increasingly powerful ventilating machines until they could get enough oxygen into me to keep me (sort of) functioning. I’d developed secondary infections & pneumonia, seriously reducing my lungs’ capacity to exchange oxygen & carbon dioxide. {Update – no, I was not an early, uncrecognised COVID-19 case. If that was so my type of influenza would have almost certainly come up as unknown – the two viruses are quite different}.

Wearing this thing was like being up a hill in a force 8 gale!

A normal oxygen (O2) blood saturation level is 100. Below 90 is a cause for concern. A constant level below 85% is medically deeply worrying as 80% and less is harmful to several organs and confusion/unconsciousness are likely. Below 75% and you are almost certainly unconscious. I do know that when I first got to hospital they could not get me up to 85% and they could not understand how I could still talk and be (mostly) rational. I went from nasal O2 to a face mask to a machine that blew damp, warm O2 up my nose and finally a pressurised face mask. Next step was sedation and full mechanical ventilation – but they did not want to do that. My blood O2 became my main metric and I followed it like a hawk.

So I’m in hospital, very unwell (but not dying {update – at least they didn’t tell me at the time. They told Sue I was seriously ill and would probably be put into a medical coma} ), under excellent care. And I’m almost, but not quite, totally incapacitated. To me it was a bit like I was a computer system with a serious deficiency of CPU power. Or a toy robot with failing batteries. Energy conservation is paramount. So what do you do in this extreme situation? Turn off everything you don’t need turned on, and save energy for things you have to do.

Turning things off was relatively easy. After all, I was connected to a load of monitoring technology and breathing kit so I was not going wandering about. I didn’t move much. If I needed to sit up I was not going to use those stomach muscles, the bed was powered and would move me about. If I wanted something from the table besides me (like a drink) I’d relax, breath deep, get my Blood O2 up –  and then get it. A little rest and then I’d e.g drink or look at the phone.

Some things I had to do (or insisted on doing) and I realised how much energy they took:

Having a poo

It takes a lot more energy to have a poo than you think. I was just about mobile so I was allowed to look after my toilet needs. They would bring me a commode, position it so I could get there still attached to the ventilator keeping me going, remove some of the monitoring (but not all, heart monitor and blood 02 had to stay on) and get me ready to swap to the commode. And then leave me alone for 10 mins. I think at first they hung about by the door listening for a thud, and I had a call button. Getting onto the commode was OK (breath-breath-breath, move, pant for a minute like you just sprinted 100m… relax), but the actual job itself uses more abdominal muscles than you probably every realised. Tiring.

All the monitoring kit was on one arm. The one I normally use to “tidy up” with. Using the other hand was very odd. And again, tiring, I had to take it in stages!

My PICC line. patch in armpit, line along vein almost to my heart.

Post event I would need to rest and let the blood O2 lift back above 90% and then I could shuffle back to the bed and press my button. The nurse would come in, congratulate me, and attach any removed monitoring. I’d lay there and wait for the O2 to get back above 90% and the bloody monitoring machine would stop pinging.

For 3 days this was the hardest thing I did, it was my main exercise…

Eating

Actually chewing & swallowing was easy. But to do that you have to get the food into your mouth. Holding your arms up to eat is hard work! I took to cutting up what I had (if it needed cutting up), having a rest, then eating with one arm, mostly balanced on the table with brief bouts of effort to ferry morsels to my mouth. I was incapable of lifting a pint. Even more incredible – I had no desire to lift a pint!

I’d have a little rest after eating and I found I had to listen carefully to my body about how much to eat. Anything more than about what you would feed a cat in one sitting, and I would lay there, 2 or 3 hours later, conscious of the need to move that food out my stomach and into my gut. Who knew the mechanical side of digesting needed effort.

Washing

You can’t have a shower if you are attached to breathing machines. And I was not able to leave my room anyway as I was an infection risk to other patients (I had ‘flu remember). Plus, at first, no way could I do all that waving arms, applying shower gel and the rest of the business. So it was washing with a bowl, cloths, and lots of towels. If I took it steady I could do this myself, except my back and, oddly enough, my legs. lifting them up was exhausting! Nice nurses did those bits.

Weeing

I’m a man, weeing was not an issue. They give you an endless supply of little bottles with a hole towards the top. So long as you tuck the relevant part into the hole (having sat up using the bed) you just “let go” and pressure does the rest. No energy. The first time is worrying – “what if I miss, what if I fill the bottle”. The bottles are designed to be bigger than a human bladder.

This pushed warm, O2 laden air into my lungs and Was My Friend

However, if you do what I did and then drop the bottle of wee on yourself, do not attempt to sort it out! I did, I stared trying to use a towel and get out the wet spot and I nearly went unconscious as my O2 plummeted from the effort.

What you do do is call the nurse and say “Nurse, I just poured my own wee over myself and I’m wet”. Nurse will remove your wee-covered clothing (a hospital smock), un-plumb you from some machines, move you to a chair, plumb you back in, and then clean up the bed, bedding, floor etc. They don’t either laugh at you or grumble. You just sit there feeling like a pillock.

Nurse will then ask how much you had wee’d. Why? I’m on a high dependency ward, they measure everything. A key thing is fluid in (via saline drips and drinks) and fluid out – blood taken for observations and weeing. I knew I was getting better when the weeing increased compared to drinking. This is because my lungs had swollen with fluid and, as they recovered, they released the fluid. A pair of swollen lungs hold a lot of fluid!

It had been a good wee, I guessed 350ml. It certainly was enough to make me and the bed very wet.

Coughing

Having a good cough (which I did a lot of, of course, what with all the lung issues) would send my blood oxygen plummeting. Again, lots of abdominal muscles and the diaphragm (the sheet of muscle between your lungs and stomach) are used in coughing. If I could, I would build up to a good cough, conserving my strength and getting my O2 up in preparation for a real good go. But if it caught me by surprise, it could drop the blood O2 dramatically. But the good thing was, coughing helped expand the lungs and I recovered quickly and was “better” for half an hour.

Thinking

At rest, your brain uses about 20% of your total energy. This is true even for stupid people like Donald Trump :-). Biologically it’s very interesting that humans have such large brains and put so much energy into it – far more than any other animal (in relation to body size). Our brains makes us different to all other animals, ie “intelligent”, but at a significant energy and nutrients cost.

If my blood O2 dropped too low I would start shutting down. This is why people with breathing difficulties pass out, once blood O2 goes below a certain level, your higher brain functions stop to reduce demand and protect the rest, unconsciousness comes quickly.

Thinking was hard. I’ve never been one for just sitting there “thinking of nothing” but I did an awful lot of that in hospital. It was my brain saving energy.

Socialising was a real drain. I could do the 2 or 3 mins with the nurses or docs when they came to do observations (oh, so many observations in a high dependency ward!) or put drugs in me, take out my bood (Oi! I wanted that blood! I was using it to ship the small amount of O2 I can absorb!). I had to be really on my game when the docs popped in once or twice a day as this was my opportunity to try and ask smart questions like “so we have a diagnosis, what is the prognosis?”. Don’t worry what it means, medics live by it so asking them makes them think you know some of the secrets… Docs don’t tend to tell you much in my experience, unless you can ask pertinent questions and show you understand the answers. They seem to think ignorance (on the part of the patient) is bliss. If I knew when the docs were going to be in, I’d try and have a pre-visit snooze so I was at the top of my game.

Where it was hard was dealing with Mrs Widlake. Mrs Widlake was wonderful, she would ask me what I wanted and the next day she would bring it in, let me know what was going on, if people had been in touch, who was annoying her. And kept me company. It was very important to me.  But after about 1/2 an hour I would start shutting down, the thinking (and talking) reduced my low energy levels. We worked out a solution. She would come in, give me my new book and the bizarre, random items I asked for and chat to me. After 1/2 an hour she would go have a cup of tea in the visitor’s room whilst I zoned out, then came back for more chat. Resource management and time sharing! Sue did not want to leave me alone but after a few days we both accepted that a daily visit in sections, kept to maybe 3 hours, made the best use of the resources available. It was a bit like my batch processing window!

My Nemesis – The Evil pin-Ping-PING machine!

Monitoring

So I was managing my resources and finding out which ones took effort. But like any good system, you need monitoring, real-time feedback. And boy was I monitored! I was on a high dependency/close observation ward. Every hour, every single damned hour all night too, they would come and do blood pressure, record my heart rate and O2, measure my wee, what I had eaten, temperature etc, steal blood.

But the main thing was the machines I was attached up to. They constantly monitored. And pinged. Oh god, did they all bloody Ping. If a chest sensor fell off or I sat on the connector, that machine would ping. If a drip (drug or fluids) ran out, it would Ping. Breathing machine ran out of water? Ping Ping Ping! The ventilator had to up pressure or I moved too much (I duuno why) – Ping Ping Ping.

But the worst, my nemesis (and also my KPI) was the blood O2 monitor. If I dropped below X, usually 86 or 88, it pinged & pinged & pinged. If I dropped below 85 it would up the volume and multi-ping: “ping-Ping-PING! ping-Ping-PING! ping-Ping-PING!”. You could not even cheat it by taking the monitor off, as then it went ping-bloody-crazy. All those tasks I mentioned above that took effort? They all made this blasted machine ping or ping-Ping-PING!

The one biggest challenge to me during my stay was not boredom, not pain (I was lucky, no pain other than what they inflicted on me putting in drains etc, or headaches due to low O2), not fear – it was trying not to go crazy due to the the pinging. I did everything I could to stop the pinging. The only time I really lost it with the nurses was one night as I improved and they changed the warning levels up to 90 and every time, every time I started to fall asleep it bloody ping-Ping-PING’d. I told the nurse to turn the levels back down else I would rip the damn thing off the wall. She said she could not, as she was not qualified to make the decision. “Well find someone who can as, if it does not let me sleep, I will lose my shit”.  It’s the only time I swore at any of the people looking after me. It got turned down.

This is exactly like having OEM monitoring a database and alerting on a KPI such as CPU usage when usage spikes and is actually OK. Just endless, endless false alarms. What the damn things should have done (in my opinion, for me) was only Ping if I was below a limit for over a minute, or went down to critical. Then it should go absolutely crazy.

And it was not just my machines. Other people in the ward had their own pinging machines. They. All. Pinged.

I’m back home now and recovering. I can breath unaided and slowly, slowly I am able to do more without running out of breath. Like have a shower or make my own cup of tea. Give me a month (I’ve been told it’ll take a month) and I should be back to sort-of normal. I won’t be running marathons or using the axe in the garden for a while. I’m still treating myself like an under-resourced computer and dolling out effort where best used. But each day another core comes on line and I can expand the extra effort. I think it’s called getting better.

Friday Philosophy – Computer Magazines & Women (Not) In I.T November 29, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
Tags: , ,
2 comments

I often get into discussions about Women In IT (#WIT), even more so in the last 4 or 5 years with my growing involvement in organising and being at conferences. There is no doubting that the I.T industry is generally blighted by a lack of women and other minorities (and I don’t like referring to women as “minorities” as there are more women in the UK than men). Ours is mostly a white, male, middle-class and (especially in the Oracle sphere) “middle aged” world.

Is this part of the problem?

I’ve never been happy with the ratio of men to women in the IT workplace – and I started my career in the UK National Health Service, where the ratio of men to women in technical roles seemed more like 80:20. In all companies since, the ratio I would estimate as been 10-15% women. And I haven’t seen it changing much. And I’m afraid to say, to a certain degree, I have almost given up on trying to correct this imbalance in our current workforce. Note, current workforce.

Why? Well, I’ve tried for years to increase the ratio of women in technical areas or at least to increase female representation. That is, make women more visible:

  • When I’ve hired new staff I’ve given female candidates an extra half point in my head – and part of me hates doing it because it’s sexist, the very thing that is the problem. But the small wrong done to try and right a larger wrong.
  • When allocating pay increases I looked out for imbalance (is Sarah doing the same role as Dave to the same level, but being paid less? Let’s fix that).
  • When I have input to paper selection for conferences, “minorities” get an extra half point. But only half. They have to be good at presenting/have an interesting abstract.
  • When it comes to promotion, it is utterly on merit. I don’t care what’s in your underwear, the colour you are, what clothes you wear that are dictated by religion. If your work is deserving of promotion and I can promote, I promote. No positive or negative discrimination. I take this stance as I know people do not want to be promoted “just because” of filling a quota. Further, if it is perceived that this is happening, it creates a bad backlash.

But, really, it’s had little impact. The problem I keep hitting is that there are simply far fewer women in I.T. We can all try and skew things in the way that I (and many others) do or strive for more women in visible positions to act as role models, which I think is an important thing for our industry to do.

But we can’t magically create more women in I.T. Specifically, we can’t create women who have been doing the job for a long time and so are more likely to be skilled and willing to present. We can only work with what we have. One result of the skewing is a relatively small number of women are constantly asked to present and invariable sit on #WIT panels. We see the same people over and over again.

What we can do is encourage a more mixed group of young people coming into the industry. It won’t help much with something like the database world, or at least the database user community, as you see few young people of any type coming in – we need to fix that as well and I applaud things like the German user group #NextGen efforts – databases do not attract young people, It’s Not Cool. But that’s a whole other topic for another day.

In discussing all this, many times, over the years the idea that we need to go back to pre-work people (that would be kids and teenagers then) and encourage everyone – irrespective of gender,sexuality, ethnicity etc etc etc – to do IT, Science, Art, domestic science, whatever they want and ignore the stereotypes of old – is pretty much agreed to be A Good Thing.

All of this is great but it left me with a question. How did we get into this mess in the first place? Why are there so few women in IT between the ages of 35 and retirement? In the early days a lot of women were in IT compared to the average number of women in scientific areas generally. When I was at school (1980’s) they introduce Computer Studies into the curriculum and there were as many girls as boys in my class. Ability was equally spread. The number of women taking IT at college was admittedly terribly low when I went, but colleges did a lot to encourage women and the numbers were rising. And then stopped. Why? What was stopping girls continuing with computers? Well, a year or two ago I read an article (I think in print as I struggled to find similar online – but if you find one let me know) about the computer press back in the 90’s. And it stuck a chord with me.

The article argued that part (not all, but maybe a big part) of the problem was the computer magazines of the time. I’ve picked on “PC Format” as it was a magazine I bought often and knew, but others were similar. PC Format seemed to me to nearly always have a sexualised image of a woman on the cover, like the one at the top of this article. This was especially true if the image was a bit “science fiction”, say a ray-traced image to promote graphics cards. The image would invariably be of a woman with a, frankly, quite striking and often physiologically unlikely figure. Inside the magazine adverts were liberally decorated with nubile women leaning forward provocatively or with striking make-up & hair and yet wearing nerd glasses. You know, the sort of look you NEVER saw in real life. This was not a style or fashion magazine, it was not an “adult” magazine, it was about mother boards, CPUs, games, programming and general tech.

The covers I found online for this article are not as bad as many I remember (and perhaps I should not be using the worst anyway), but you get the idea. And it was not just PC Format, but that particular publication seemed to style itself as more a lifestyle magazine than just Tech or just Games. Games magazines also had a fair amount of “Dungeons & Dragons” images of women wearing clothes you would freeze to death in and be totally unsuitable for a bit of sword fighting. Why all the women?

When I read the article about this sexism I remembered a letter that had been published in, probably, PC Format. That and the response utterly summed it up. The letter asked why the magazine kept using sexy images of women on the front of a computer magazine. It wasn’t very Women’s Lib. The answer by the magazine was basically “If we put a sexy picture of a woman on the front it sells more. The more copies we sell the more money we make. We are simply giving you what you want; it’s not our problem, it’s actually yours”.

At the time I liked that letter as it said “you the public are in the wrong” and I rather liked stuff that put two fingers up at the majority and I mentally supported the magazine’s position. Looking back now, what strikes me is the abject shirking of responsibility and blatant putting profit before morality. Which I think is the biggest blight on society. Now I’m angry that the magazine just shrugged it’s shoulders and kept on.

When you added the magazines to the depictions of women in science fiction films & TV, and then once you were in the industry the use of booth babes and that nearly all women in sales & PR looked more like models than average (which still is true today) then the whole message was “women – you can be OK in IT if you are able to look like and act like this”. It’s not very inclusive.

The odd thing is, If you look further back at the old Sinclair User or Commodore User magazines, they had nothing like the same level of sexualised imagery of women on the front – they mostly had screen shots of the games in them or art work based on the games. The sexism grew through the end of the 80’s and into the 90’s I think.

So what is my point? We see less of this stuff these days, isn’t it more historical? Well, I think we need to keep an eye on history as it informs. I think it also explains (partly) the lack of mature women in I.T and that it’s almost impossible to change now. But also, it’s not so much “don’t repeat the mistakes of the past”  but “what mistakes are we currently making that in 20 years will be as obvious as that old mistake”. It’s not avoiding the same mistakes but similar ones.

I’ve been talking to Abigail Giles-Haigh recently about her presenting at our (UKOUG’s) #WIT event at Techfest 2019.  Abi is an expert on Artificial Intelligence and we were chatting about the dangers of training systems on historic data, as they can perpetuate historical bias. Also, any system we train now can bake in current bias. It might not even be conscious bias, it can be a bias due to an absence of training data. Some face recognition systems struggle to recognise people with dark skin tones for example. It’s not beyond reason that if we were training AI systems back in the 90’s as to what makes a computer magazine popular, it might have picked up on not just the sexualised lady images but also other aspects of an overtly male-oriented magazine, such as the type of adverts or the language used. Adjustements in light of the data would be made, sales would have gone up even further, and locked in the white-male bias. Only now it would be AI driving it and would we question the underlying, unconscious biases? I do think it’s a danger.

I think it’s going to continue to be a real struggle to encourage more non-white-male-old people into the industry, especially if we try and change the mature workforce. I’m not going to stop trying but I honestly don’t think we can make much difference to the here-and-now.

But we can work more to remove bias for the in-coming generation. And for that we need role models. From the current generation.

 

Presenting Well – Tell Your Story November 28, 2019

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

Coming to a Conference Near You Soon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s already a story

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

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

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

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

Flow

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

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

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

Added colour

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

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

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

Interaction

All engaged, no phones being looked at…

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

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

Danger Will Robinson!

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

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

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

 

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

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

Presentation Monster Gonna Get You

Embrace the Emotion

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

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

Practice, practice…. practice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just One!

A Little Glass…

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

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

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

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

Stop Messing With The Content Dave!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chat to the Audience/friends just before you start

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

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

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

Post Performance Routine

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

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

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

Turning Up The Dial

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

This is a cockwomble, made by Susan Widlake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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