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Sourdough – Creating The “Starter” December 18, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in Baking, off-topic, Private Life.
Tags: ,
1 comment so far

A couple of people have asked me to describe how I create the Sourdough bread that I often tweet about baking. It’s too much for a Facebook post, and waaaay too much for a twitter thread, so I’m putting it here on my blog. This is part one – you need something called a “Sourdough Starter” to make sourdough bread, this is how I create my starter. Part two will describe making an actual loaf of sourdough.

Nothing much beats a sandwich made with home made sourdough

I know this is seriously off-topic for a blog that is supposed to mostly considers Oracle tech & performance, working in Oracle/I.T, and thoughts on IT management & how people work, but let’s face it – the more semi-retired I get the more this blog is becoming somewhere I simply share “stuff”. However, there is a bit of a link. Over the last few years baking bread has been taken up by a surprising number of people in the Oracle Presenting sphere (and this pre-dates the craze for making your own bread that came with Covid-19). One presenter, Jože Senegačnik, even wins national awards for his bread in Slovenia.

What is Sourdough?

Sourdough is a rustic type of bread, usually white, with a dark, thick crust and usually more flavour than a standard loaf of white bread. I know I am biased, but the sourdough bread I make is about the nicest bread I have ever eaten (with perhaps the exception of the bread of some of my other baking friends). It is certainly nicer than your average loaf and better than “normal” bread I have made at home.

Sourdough bread has an open texture (lots of holes), so it is quite light and, at the centre, soft. Sometimes the bread has large voids in it. If you buy sourdough in a shop or it is part of a meal in a cafe/restaurant (it’s almost always the bread used in posh cafes with your smashed avocado and free range egg for breakfast) it seems to me that the posher the place, the larger the voids. Sometimes a slice of sourdough toast can be more void than bread. It does not need the large voids and, in my opinion, they are detrimental to the bread. You can’t make a sandwich or put anything on the bread without the contents falling through the big holes! It’s fine with soup & stews I suppose, where you are dipping chunks in liquid.

Sourdough is a type of wheat-based bread where instead of using dried yeast or fresh yeast that comes in blocks that look like soft cheese, you use an active, growing “porridge” of yeast. This is a fairly thick mixture of strong bread flour and water, with the yeast growing in it, slowly consuming the flour to produce more yeast.

big voids to lose your topping through…

This “porridge” is called the Starter, and you add it to a mixture of more bread flour, water, and a little salt, to make your bread dough for baking. The starter smells quite strongly, distinctly sour, and I suspect (but am not sure) that sourdough bread is named more for the smell of the starter than the final loaf, which only has a hint of the smell if any at all.

The bread itself also has a distinctive tang to it, not as marked as the smell of the starter mixture, but it is a key part of the flavour.

The crust is an important part of a sourdough loaf. It tends to be thicker, stronger, and (when fresh), well… crustier than normal bread.

The key to it all is the starter, so how do you create and keep your starter?



The Jar

You need a sealable jar to hold your starter. I use a Kilner jar, as pictured, but a very large jam jar will probably be fine. The jar needs to be able to hold well over a pint/half litre. My jar can hold a litre, which is large enough to generate enough sourdough starter for a good sized loaf but not so large it won’t fit in my fridge (which is important).

Once you have your jar, make sure you have:

  • a packet of white strong bread flour.
  • either some grapes or apples or, if you can manage it, some starter from a friend.
  • at least a week before you want an actual loaf of your own sourdough bread.

I would recommend you use white bread flour as brown or wholemeal (or even seeded) not only provides bits in your mixture where yeast cells would struggle to get to (so might make it more likely for your starter to get infected and “go off”) but as you add quite a bit of starter to the final dough, it’s always going to be partially wholemeal or brown if that is what your starter is based on, no matter what you want.

It has to be strong bread flour. Strong bread flour has a higher percentage of protein, gluten, in it. This is vital to support the texture of bread. Cake is lighter than bread and normal flour that you make cakes out of has less gluten in it.

Sterilise your jar before you use it. Either wash it in really hot water or, preferably, but it in an oven at about 120C for 20, 30 minutes. Let it cool to room temperature before you use it though. You want to sterilise it as the idea is to get a yeast colony growing in the jar that will out-compete bacteria and not-yeast fungi and keep the mixture clean and edible and not poisonous. To begin with there will not be a lot of yeast cells and any bacteria or fungus present could make the mixture bad before the yeast takes hold.

Making the starter

This just needs a little more mixing

Put about 300 grams of the strong white bread flour in the jar and add about 300ml of water, stirring it. you might want to add the water in two or three parts, mixing it well as you go but don’t stir it for minutes. You will hopefully end up with a smooth mixture that is a bit thicker than porridge/wallpaper paste/pesto. Now add a little more water until it *is* the consistency of porridge. Thin enough that it would pour, thickly, but thick enough so that a spoon stuck in it will probably stay in place. Don’t forget to take the spoon out…

Now the tricky bit. Getting the yeast in it. Don’t use baker’s yeast or brewer’s yeast or anything you would buy to make a normal loaf of bread, you want something slower growing and, if possible, local. In some places, at least in the UK, you might have enough yeast in the air to get it going, especially if you live in the countryside near orchards. Leave the jar with the lid open for a few hours and then shut it. A more reliable way to get the yeast is to take the skin off a couple of grapes, preferably ones you have had in the house a few days, or some peel (just a couple of stripes) from an apple, either a locally grown one or one that’s been hanging about in the fruit bowl a few days (but is not rotten!!!). The peel from fruits like this are covered in many yeasts. Use only the peel, not the pulp of the fruit. Chop the peel into little bits and throw it in the mixture and stir.

The yeasts on the skin will get it all going

If you are lucky enough to know someone who already makes sourdough who is local (in which case, why are you reading this?!? Go have a cup of tea with them or a glass of wine and get them to show you how to do all this – relevant covid-19 restrictions allowing of course) then get some off them, about 30ml will be more than enough. I got some from a local bakery a couple of years back who specialised in sourdough. You can even use dried out sourdough, as I did once. I’ll put the little story of that in another post.

The advantage of using some existing starter mix is that it gets going quicker and you an be pretty sure it will work. Getting your starter fully active from scratch using peel or the air can take weeks, a dollop of starter in it’s prime will get you a fully active new starter in days. I swap the jar I keep my starter in every few months, as they can get a bit gungy & crusty, I make the bread/water porridge and chuck in about 200ml of my existing mixture – usually what is left when I am making a loaf. I can use the “new” starter created in this way in a couple of days.

Shut the jar. If you were lucky enough to use existing starter, keep it out at cool room temperature if you are making a loaf in a day or two. Otherwise put it in the fridge.

If you really are starting from fresh, with peel, put the jar somewhere that is “cool room temperature”, that is about 16-18C, not near a radiator or source of heat, not somewhere cold. Hopefully, in a few days you will see little bubbles in the mixture. That means the yeast is growing and releasing carbon dioxide! After about 5 days, whether you see little bubbles or not, take out about a third of the mixture and discard, replace with the same volume of flour/water mix that you removed, give it all a good stir and seal the jar again. Do so again in another 5 days. If you do not see any bubbles by now, it has probably failed. Discard and start again.

A starter in it’s prime, a day after being fed

If the mixture develops any colour other than pale cream/oatmeal (so if it goes green or purple or pink or grey) you now have a jar of poison. Bacteria or fungus have won and out-competed the yeast. If there are spots of grey or other colour on the surface, or fluffy spots, again it is poison. Throw the contents away, sterilise the jar, try again.

Once you have a pale cream/maybe very slightly oatmeal coloured gloop that bubbles a bit you have your starter. Well done. You now have a new pet in your life.

Looking After The Starter

Once you have created the starter you have actually created a living colony – and you have to feed and care for it. If the yeast runs out of food it will go dormant and that opens the door to bacteria or moulds getting a foothold and growing. You have to keep the yeast active and reproducing. To do this you feed it.

Professional bakers who are making a lot of sourdough bread are constantly taking out part of the starter mixture and using it in the dough. An 800 gram loaf will use between 150 and 250 grams of starter depending on how they make the dough. This is replaced with the same volume of flour/water mixture they take out. You can do this yourself, if you are going to make a new loaf every few days you can keep the starter at room temperature and replace what you take out with flour/water mix. The yeast in the remaining starter quickly works through the added mix and new yeast cells grow.

If you are going to make a loaf once a week you can extend this process by putting the starter in the fridge. You take the starter out the fridge a day before you are going to use it. This is so it warms up and becomes more active. If you have space in the jar, you might want to add a bit of extra flour/water mix for the yeast’s breakfast (about 100 grams flour) when you take it out the fridge – I do. You take out about a third of the starter when you make the loaf the next day and replace it with flour/water mix. I leave my jar out for a few hours/overnight after this to let it get going and then you put it back in the fridge.

If you keep your starter for more than a week in the fridge, or 3 or 4 days at room temperature, without using it, you have to feed it. Take out a third of the mixture and discard, replace with water/flour mix that you stir into the starter. So long as you regularly feed the starter it will last pretty much forever, but of course you are simply throwing away flour all the time.

If you are a bad starter owner and you forget about it, it won’t be happy. A layer of fluid will separate out at the top of the mixture and it will go grey. Grey is bad. If this happens, if the fluid and only the very surface of the starter are a light grey, no fluff, you can pour off the fluid and the top third of the starter, feed it, and it might be OK. I’ve brought back starters from grey gloom a few times. However, the starter won’t make a good loaf again until you have fed it a couple of times. If the grey comes back straight away, you best put the poor thing down.

If your starter or anything in the jar goes pink, orange, purple, green, or fluffy, you have let the yeast get too weak and you have grown something new. It might be useful to a microbiologist, it could even contain a new antibiotic unknown to man, but it is far, far more likely to be poison. Throw it away, start again.

When you feed the starter, make sure there is space for it to expand. I keep my jar about half full. When I feed it, the contents expand with the CO2 and then subside. If the jar is too full, there is no space to expand. Also, I suspect my jar leaks every so slightly so no pressure builds up. If your jar is totally sealed you might have issues with it spraying out when you open it. Let me know if you do, photographs of the mess would be appreciated.

The more regularly you use the starter, the better will be the bread you make. When I’ve kept my starter out of the fridge for a week or two and either made a loaf or simply fed the starter every 3 or 4 days, it gets more active and the dough rises more readily when I make a loaf. If I leave the mixture in the fridge for a month, only occasionally feeding it, the first loaf I make from it struggles to rise.

Starters Vary

I’ve occasionally had two starters running at the same time. I once had my home-grown starter and also one seeded from some starter given to me by Jože. I’ve also had a starter that was initiated from a sample from a local baker’s, as I have said, and I’ve created a new starter from scratch when I already had one going. The bread made from different starters have slightly different tastes. And the one I got from Jože was more active than my home grown one. I have to say, I did not notice much difference between the two home grown starters I had. I am sure this is down to a difference in the actual yeasts in the mixture (or not, in the case of my two home-grown ones).

Hmmmmm…. Tasty

I discussed this with a fellow Oracle Presenter Baker and we decided it was highly likely that the actual yeasts in there not only vary with where the seed material came from but also how you keep it. If you keep it in the fridge, yeasts that are more tolerant of cold conditions will survive better, keep the starter at room temperature and those yeasts that reproduce faster in warmer conditions will take over.

Whatever, a loaf of sourdough bread you make from your own starter is a real treat. I’ll describe my baking process in the next post.


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

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
Tags: , , , ,
1 comment so far

This is the first ever computer I 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 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 ran at 3.5MHz, and it could make a sound. A beep basically (from a wide variation from too few hertz to hear to too many hertz to hear, 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. It even tried to make out it was superior to it’s rivals as it was simpler and had fewer chips inside it. The Spectrum and the C64 were probably the most common home computers in the UK. They might not have been the best but they ended up having a huge number of games you could play on them, and that’s what counted.

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 – he 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 strong opinion that, except when Dad wanted to watch the news, he could use the family TV whenever he wanted, as he was a genius. 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. 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.

But Simon had a back-up plan. I had a portable TV 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 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. 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 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 fine… 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?

Sinclair User Magazine

Well, sort of. 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 picking on the cat). I was not allowed to play it until he got back. Yeah, like I paid any attention to THAT rule…

These games you typed in often had bugs in, especially if they had a lot of code. And, to give him his due, Simon was really 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 (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 about 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 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 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…

I could beat the Tyrant at Attic Attack

After about a year 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 tape recorder. After all, as he kept telling me, his computer was the more expensive item. Only, 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 that he had and I was not going to accept this shit. 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 and I would absolutely play on it out of spite (and also to keep my edge in Attic Attack) – and it would repeat. One time he made my nose bleed – and it dripped on the computer. That was, of course, my fault…

It was now warfare. I banned him from using my equipment. Which he 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. He tried to work around it, one day I came home from friends to find he had plugged the Spectrum into the family TV and he’d got hold of a spare power cable for the tape recorder and he was using it, despite me banning him from it. I went 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 games, 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 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 started it or acted unfairly or attacked him first (his usual stance), as his mates backed me up. Yeah, his mates dobbed him in it!

This led to a full judicial review and this time the voice of the Plaintive was heard (after all, I had witnesses and I must have been pretty mad at him to be taking the plug off my TV!). Simon was told to play fairly or else… have his precious Spectrum removed.

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 it would be mine.

Then I got my own computer, an Amstrad CPC464, which I bought 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.

And I was now strong enough that it would be a more equal fight if he tried his old tricks (manual labour will do that for you), so he decided against that. He could keep his crappy Spectrum.

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. Well, 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?

Well, I can.

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*!

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

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: , , , ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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’s Going To Happen Now March 24, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in biology, COVID-19, off-topic, Perceptions, Private Life, science.
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<< COVID-19 Basics. What it is & what it does to us

  COVID-19: What can we do to Reduce Social Distancing >>

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

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

And, I feel it is important to say:

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

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

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

Source of Epidemiological information

ICU beds needed per 100,000 people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitigation or Suppression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delayed impact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three choices – or is it four?

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

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

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

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

But this Imperial College paper has a solution 4:

Turning social isolation up and down

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “The hammer and the dance” paper…

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

Context is paramount

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why will social distancing last 18 months?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


COVID-19: Information And Outlook March 13, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Names and terms

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


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

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

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

What COVID-19 does to you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What we need to do to slow the spread

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

Two main factors control how quickly a disease spreads:

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

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

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

Banning large gatherings reduces how many people are in contact.

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

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

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

Why washing with soap is the best protection

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

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

This twitter thread explains in some detail how soap destroys viruses


Monitoring (probably what most people are staring at)

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Why certain diseases make things worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

There appears to be no natural immunity

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

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



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

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

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

(predictions made on 13th March 2020)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


  • COVID-19 will reach every country by April

Update 15/4 – pretty much true

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

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

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

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

This is because:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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…


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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 – Brexit July 26, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Private Life.
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I don’t really do politics on this blog, it’s often just too damned divisive. But not only am I angry (and vicariously ashamed) of Brexit but I have a strong suspicion of how things are going to go from now…

I’ll lay my cards on the table first. I did not vote for Brexit. Like the vast majority of people I get on well with in the UK, I wanted to remain part of Europe. Half of my anger with Brexit is that I feel there should never have been a public vote in the first place, for three main reasons:

  1. It has been heavily speculated that the issue of us remaining part of Europe was offered as a public vote as the Conservative party wanted to shut down the growing popularity of the more right-wing, xenophobic parties such as UKIP. Thus it was a waste of time, money, and effort to prove a point that I think could have been done in other ways. There was never any expectation by the people who instigated the referendum that a large percentage of the population would vote for leaving…
  2. Whether we are better off being within the EU and what we lose/gain from it is a very complex issue. I’d say 99% of the population knew nothing like enough about it to make a sensible decision. I think I understood more about the influence of the EU on us than the majority of people in the UK. This comes from me having an interest in environmental matters, workers rights, health & safety, and control of big business. An awful lot of our legislation in these areas came from the EU and were good for the majority and poor for the rich and powerful. However, I don’t think I had enough knowledge to make an informed decision, it was more a gut decision. And the political fight over the vote was almost devoid of sense, reason, even honesty, and was more a campaign based on fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It was a vote by the ill-informed on the ill-defined.
  3. The final reason is that our media and politicians have used the EU as a “distant enemy” to blame or ridicule for decades. It’s almost a national hobby. We had stupid stuff like claims the EU said we had to sell straight bananas or that barmaids would have to completely cover their bosoms. Neither were true. But there has been a consistent blaming of the EU for things that UK politicians thought would be unpopular or that the tabloids felt they could sell copy on due to outrage. It’s just like how businesses blame “the computer system” for anything that goes wrong (“Computer says No! – *cough* “) whereas in fact it’s often nothing to do with the computer system. Thus the EU already had an unfair bad press due to all this political cowardice and media tripe. In many respects, we reaped the crop grown from the seeds of our own stupidity.

Anyway, we had the vote, it was really tight, it gave “the wrong” result. And it seems that far more people have swap from “let’s leave” to “let’s stay” than the other way around, when they got a better understanding of the impact – but we are not getting a second vote. That is despite 6 million plus people signing a petition for a second vote and the biggest public protest march we have ever had in this country.

So what do I think will happen from here on in?

Something I have expected to happen for a couple of years now, but has not really, is an attempt by UK politicians to start trying to blame the EU itself for the mess the UK are in. Basically to start saying “Well, we could leave the EU and it would all be fine – but the EU are being mean to us! The EU won’t let us do X or let us have Y! Because they hate us now and they are not being fair!!!”. We are going to see an escalating number of occurrences where the Conservatives will tell us that the EU negotiators have blocked an utterly reasonable suggestion or are making demands that threaten our sovereignty, or are trying to control us. They will announce that the EU is trying to stop us being the great nation we know we are. I fear that Boris will start turning to Trump to be our best friend in the playground.  

From what I have seen so far, I think the rest of the EU have basically been “You want to leave? Are you mad? OK, if you wish, off you go. But I’m sorry, if you are leaving the club you no longer get the club discount at the shops, you no longer have access to the club house, and you don’t get any say in the club rules. And yes, you do have to pay your outstanding club membership until you actually leave.” Which is all very, very reasonable and, if tables were turned, it is what we in the UK would be doing.

I predict that from here until Boris and the Tories do whatever they do in respect of our fundamentally xenophobic “we are still a mighty empire and are too good for you” walking off in a huff, more and more they are going to try and blame the innocent party, the EU. We are going to hear endless stuff about how they won’t be reasonable in negotiations and are bullying us. I don’t think the EU will do that, but really it’s what we actually deserve for our childish behaviour.

End of Rant

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

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Private Life.
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<<<<<< First Lessons, Frustrations, & Funny Stuff

Unlocking it was not so easy

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

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

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

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

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

You need the patience of this person…

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

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

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

She taps the plane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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