Covid: what do we do now?

By Jebulon (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

(I need to start this by saying I have no medical or epidemiological qualifications and I’m not a statistician, though I do have some knowledge there – so if anyone who is any of these things spots an error, let me know.)

Around this time last year I was telling people that I thought Covid-19 was a 50-year problem – as it would take that long (at least) for childhood-acquired immunity to be sufficiently widespread to allow humanity to relax.

By the summer that looked pessimistic. Yes, the Delta variant was more transmissible but we had the weapons to fight back and it was seemingly sufficiently genetically stable to present a hard target that the might of human science was bearing down on a truly impressive manner.

Now, sitting in London, quite possibly the world’s worst-hit city, with local infections (at ward level) heading past 2% of the population and the R number climbing to 1.4 or higher, that all feels pretty hubristic.

We still don’t know what is perhaps the most important thing about Omicron – what its hospitalisation (and ultimately, death) rates will be – the comparison with Guateng so beloved by those ideologically opposed to firm action seems pretty specious given the different histories of infection and population.

Perhaps the infection will be less severe – though there is zero evolutionary biological reason I can see for that: the virus will likely only evolve to be less dangerous if there is an advantage in that, but where is the evolutionary pressure to do that? The fact is that our weaponry (unavoidably) is likely pushing the virus in pretty much towards becoming more dangerous – to multiply faster to spread faster and to evade the vaccines by mutating the protein spike we are are targeting. It’s a war of technology and the virus isn’t suing for peace.

The prospect of our hospitals system collapsing under vast number of ill people (especially in places like London where relatively few have been jabbed) is therefore very real and we won’t know for a few weeks yet if the worst will happen.

But my question here is not about what we do in the next month, but what do we do in the next decade. so here are some thoughts:

Boosters are going to be here to stay, like they are for flu – we need to restructure our health services to handle the task of annually jabbing over 60 million people. And also create the expectation that people will take their booster – both through carrots and sticks.

Related to that we need to have a system that shares the risks and costs of the annual booster updates: given that it will effectively be a guaranteed income stream for the pharma companies the level of risk will have dramatically reduced, but we should be wary of thinking that means we can expect companies and shareholders to tie up capital for no return. As the pandemic has demonstrated that our health security truly has to be global, the expectation must be that the richer countries subsidise this for the less well-off. Nor can we tolerate – globally – health care systems that limit access to vaccines, even in rich countries, by ability to pay.

We need a network of international treaties that cover this – not least because international travel for business or tourism is going to broken for a long time without them (just another reason why Brexit was a stupid idea, but that’s not for this post).

We will need to restructure our economies – not just because a new balance between home and office working is likely to be permanent, but also because an economy that relies on a season of excess in the middle of winter is now broken. There isn’t going to be a “normal Christmas” anytime soon and governments need to face up to that.

And – and this is perhaps the most long-term issue. If vaccines were the Manhattan Project – a massive effort that delivered a working weapon in the face of a pressing need, we are now on to the search for the thermonuclear device, which in this case means something that deals with the cytokine storm that is still killing people even though the infection has been seen off.

That will require a long-term partnership between government and pharma to incentivise the (economically) highly-risky leading-edge research that is needed here. Yes, we could just rely on university medical schools to do this but why shouldn’t we instead ensure private capital is deployed? The benefits of new therapies here are likely to stretch well-beyond Covid-19 but we may not see them for decades.

But that’s the point – we have lots of time.

The missing link and closing schools

London, where I am writing this, is now perhaps the global centre of the covid19 pandemic, thanks to a mutation of the virus that has allowed it to spread more easily. This mutation may not have come into existence in the South East of England but it has certainly taken hold here, and about 2% of London’s population currently have symptomatic covid.

In response all primary and secondary schools, which were due to open tomorrow, will be effectively closed and teaching will go online.

Suddenly the availability of computing resources has become very important – because unlike the Spring lockdown, where online teaching was (generally) pretty limited, this time around the clear intention is to deliver a full curriculum – and means one terminal per pupil. But even now how many homes have multiple computers capable of handling this? If you have two children between the ages of 5 and 18, and two adults working from home it is going to be a struggle for many.

Thus this could have been the moment that low cost diskless client devices came into their own – but (unless we classify mobile phones as such) they essentially don’t exist. The conditions for their use have never been better – wireless connections are the default means of connecting to the internet and connections are fast (those of us who used to use X/Windows over 28kbit dial-up think so anyway).

Why did it not happen? Perhaps because of the fall in storage costs? If the screen and processor costs haven’t fallen as fast as RAM and disk then thin clients get proportionally more expensive. Or perhaps it’s that even the fat clients are thin these days? If you have a £115 Chrome book then it’s probably not able to act realistically as a server in the way a laptop costing six times as much might.

But it’s also down to software choices and legacies. We live in the Unix age now – Android mobile phones and Mac OSX machines as well as Linux devices are all running some version of an operating system that was born out of an explicit desire to create an effective means to share time and resources across multiple users. But we are also still living in the Microsoft Windows era too – and although Windows has been able to support multiple simultaneous users for many years now, few people recognise that, and even fewer know how to activate it (especially as it has been marketed as an add-on and not the build in feature we see with Unix). We (as in the public at large) just don’t think in terms of getting a single, more powerful, device and running client machines on top of it – indeed most users run away at the very idea of even invoking a command line terminal so encouraging experimentation is also difficult.

Could this ever be fixed? Well, of course, the Chrome books are sort of thin clients but they tie us to the external provider and don’t liberate us to use our own resources (well not easily – there is a Linux under the covers though). Given the low cost of the cheapest Chrome books its hard to see how a challenger could make a true thin-client model work – though maybe a few educational establishments could lead the way – given pupils/students thin clients that connect to both local and central resources from the moment they are switched on?

If you want bad advice, ask a London taxi driver

Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association in London, quoted in the Guardian on the prospect of driverless buses in the capital:

“We don’t have a a lot of confidence in anything that comes out of TfL [Transport for London], to be honest, and the fact that they’re suggesting it means it’s almost certainly likely not to happen.

“Who knows with technology, but some of the simplest things, they still can’t do. The best example is voice recognituion technology.

“If you’ve got it on your car… it’s rubbish. If you’ve got it on your phone, it’s probably worse. They’re all crap, aren’t they? None of them work, and they can’t even get that right. And they expect people to get into driverless cars?”

Where do you begin with this?

Firstly, we should note that the Mayor’s office ran a million miles away from the suggestion – in their own paper – that at some point between now and 2050 driverless buses will be on London’s streets. To make it worse they – plainly less than truthfully – tried to claim that references in their own paper to driverless vehicles were a reference to tube trains.

The disappointing thing is that instead of actually once again pioneering a public transport technology – London gave the world underground railways and once had the world’s most admired bus network too – London’s public admisitrators are not willing to lead.

Before anyone on the left says “what about the jobs”, my reply is “what about them?” Is not the left meant to be about freeing human creativity from the realm of necessity? The issue is the distribution of the opportunities freed by the removal of the need to drive buses – it cannot be about preserving relatively low-skilled jobs that are no longer required.

As for Steve McNamara, I am amused by the fact he thinks speech recognition is the “simplest thing”. Should we reply that  three billion years of evolution produced only one species that can speak so it can’t be that simple? Or perhaps ask McNamara how many languages he can speak given that speech recognition is so simple?

In fact, my guess would be that speech recognition is probably many more times more difficult, computationally speaking, than driving a bus. However the risk of human injury means that speech recognition software is socially more acceptible than driverless vehicles – for now. But I don’t expect that to last.

Two years in the gym

parkrun logo
parkrun logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This morning, running in the regular 5km “Parkrun” in Finsbury Park (just around the corner) I picked up a (rather sore) thigh strain – so it feels like an odd time to write a piece about how great it is to exercise – but I want to write this piece because I feel I have something important to say.

Two years ago this week, on a foreign assignment, I decided to fill some of the time on a quiet afternoon by going to the hotel gym. I discovered I quite liked it, and kept going back. By the time I got back to the UK, some weeks later, I decided I had to join a gym.

I had been in gyms before – in my mid-20s I worked above – quite literally – Camden council’s “Oasis” gym in Covent Garden and used to go to classes there quite regularly with my work colleague Darra Singh (now a partner at Ernst and Young, having been a senior civil servant). But Darra got a new job, the first on his well-deserved rise, my employers moved office and I stopped going. More than that – I started putting on weight.

But even then I found a way of losing it. My employers’ new offices were in Camden Town and I usually got the bus back home. But one winter’s evening the typical London thing happened – there was a little bit of snow and the public transport system fell into chaos. So I walked the four miles back home. And I liked it, so I kept doing it. By the time the weather got better I was walking back over longer, more challenging routes – up Dartmouth Park Hill to Highgate, or even up Swain’s Lane – and I was both fit and (very) thin.

But then I got another job – my dream job, really – working for the Labour Party. Hours were long, stress was high but it was great fun. But the weight came back on. And it never really went off again. In fact it really kept going back on.

By 2011, many jobs later, I was weighing in at 99 kilos, pretty seriously obese with a BMI of over 33. And fitness was pretty poor – I still liked walking and would regularly walk several miles at a stretch, but if I stopped that for a while then I had to push myself to get back into it. More than that – though I wasn’t fully conscious of doing this at the time – I avoided long or steep staircases and in lots of other ways, reinforced my poor lifestyle.

Today, I am still overweight, but at 79 kilos and a BMI of 26 – 27, it is a lot better. I am pretty fit – I managed that 5k – which involves twice climbing a steep hill – in 25 minutes and 34 seconds, not a personal best, but not awful either. I still have far too big a paunch on the stomach but it is (slowly) reducing: I actually have a “six pack”, it is just that it is floating on top of a lot of subcutaneous fat!

Why am I writing this? Just to show off? OK, I admit I am a little proud of what I have achieved, especially because I have essentially done it by exercise and not through a dieting regime (I eat more healthy now but I am not dieting). But that is not the main reason I am putting this down – instead I want to offer hope and inspiration to others – if I can do it, so can you.

My father died of heart disease when he was 44. For a long time I regarded that as some sort of likely measure of my own lifespan. By 2010 – when I passed it -I began to understand that it need not be that. At the same time, I went back to education, studying for the MSc at Birkbeck and realising that, actually, I wasn’t past it after all.

What was really stopping me was a mental block – nothing physical. Breaking through that because I was bored one afternoon did not feel like much at the time, but it has literally changed my life.

The Art of Scratch, Code Club and the ICT curriculum

Scratch Project

Regular readers will know I have something of a small obsession with Conway’s Game of Life – the classic “game for no players” based on cellular automata, and so, naturally enough, when I decided that I really had to write my own Scratch program from, err, scratch to sharpen up my skills for teaching children via Code Club, that is what I chose to write – the (not very sophisticated) results can be seen above.

My first conclusion is that Scratch is a truly awful tool for most programming tasks. I know it is not meant to be a general programming tool, but I quickly discovered that it is hobbled even when it comes to doing those things that one assumes, at first glance, it is set up to do – like drawing on the screen. Scratch actually has very, very limited functionality/expressive power when it comes to drawing graphics – being only able to handle pre-provided sprites (as first class objects) and using a pen which marks out one pixel at a time – thus one cannot (at least easily) find a way to draw anything beyond dots and lines on the screen in response to events.

If you run the above program using the Flash player provided by the Scratch site you will probably see one of the big downsides of that as outlines of the old crosses are left on the screen (the Java player does not have this problem but it is very slow in comparison).

From a teaching point of view I also find Scratch’s message-based system less helpful than an imperative GOSUB like approach: the children I work with, after many weeks, are still struggling with the idea that messages should drive actions (probably we should blame their instructor!) – I know this event-based style is more common in the real world, but I think teaching the idea of problem decomposition via subroutines or functions is probably more important educationally.

Yesterday I went to the first London Hackntalk and gave an impromptu (and so unprepared) and brief talk on my thoughts about teaching children to program – my experience with Code Club makes me rather less starry-eyed about mass programming education. There were a few responses from the audience which suggested I had not really got my point – that we would struggle to fully replace an ICT curriculum based on usage skills with one based on programming – as the audience continually suggested ways to get motivated and engaged kids into programming (rather than make it a mass participation thing), but one point that was made by a member of the audience was very acute – given what our children see computers do in games that cost many millions to develop, how realistic is it to expect all or many of them to put lots of effort into toy programs that chug out the sort of graphics you can see above? I think that is a really difficult issue we have to consider when overhauling the curriculum and I am not sure the enthusiasts of radical change (of which I was and still am one) have thought it through fully.

(I did also encourage them to be Code Club instructors and was a bit disappointed to see that I appeared to be the only one – we urgently need to teach more programming and so these problems of the early days of the overhaul should not obscure the need for change.)

Raspberry Jam in London

Coming a bit late to this, but if you are a teacher (it seems tickets for 11 – 16 year olds have all gone) and have a Raspberry Pi and can get into London tomorrow (3 January) then this looks interesting…

‘Pizza and Pi’ Raspberry Pi Raspberry Jam meetup for 11-16s in London

Thursday, 3 January 2013 from 13:30 to 16:00 (GMT)

London, United Kingdom

Tickets from here

Reflections on the riots: part two

In the aftermath of the riots a very dangerous, and very silly, idea, has been endorsed from all sorts of people who should (or perhaps should not) know better: namely that we should “switch off” parts of the internet in moments of such social crisis.

How this is to be achieved, short of a nuclear strike on US data centres and a new anti-satellite weapons system is not clear: in fact the obvious conclusion is that those who have dreamt up this policy either are short of clues as to how networks work, companies make money or people use the internet. Either that or they are proposing to shut down all wired and wireless communications and are willing to live with the leaks to those with access to satellites.

I don’t know. And the point is I don’t think they do either. But what I do know is that this all sounds deeply worrying. Or at least it would be if I really thought the government were likely to act on it.

It is, of course, the way of British policy makers to float radical ideas such as this and then back-off when they start to consider the practicalities – I do not think we are on the slippery slope to dictatorship, rather in the “Something Must Be Done” phase.

Reflections on the riots: part one

AddRoundKey operation for AES
Image via Wikipedia

This is a blog about computing (along with some maths and science) – and not about politics, and having disciplined myself to stick to that for the last nine months, I intend to keep it that way, even as I write about the biggest political event of the year.

But I will allow myself two short political observations: firstly, that disrespect for the law and contempt for order are not new things in London. If you read Albion’s Fatal Tree you will see that there have long been many in the capital who have made their at least part of their livelihoods from criminality and who celebrated their fellows. Pretending that recent events represent some terrible breakdown in ancient respect for authority is ahistorical.

And, before people start to say it is the fault of rap music or other “alien” influences, do they remember this? Perhaps the Fast Show is the real cause of the disorder?

So, that over, what is the science point? Well, it was consistently reported during last week’s disturbances that the looters were sharing their intelligence through BlackBerry smart phones, specifically through “BlackBerry Messenger” (BBM). Given that the UK has one of the most sophisticated signals intelligence set-ups in the world at GCHQ, the fact that the police were clearly left in the halfpenny seats by the looters suggests to me that nobody there has yet proved that P=NP or developed an algorithm to crack the one way functions used to  encrypt the BBMs.

According to Wikipedia Blackberry encrypt everything with “Advanced Encryption Standard” (AES). A brute force attack on this would, on average, require 2^{255} attempts (for the 256 bit encryption), so that is not a practical option (eg the universe is very roughly 4^{17} seconds old).

Now, it could be that the US government has cracked this thing and just refuses to tell even its closest ally (I dare say the name Kim Philby is still spat out in various places), but my guess is that AES is safe, for now.

As I have said before that is probably a pity: while a world where P=NP would be one where internet commerce was broken, it would also be one with many compensatory benefits.

Buying a telescope

Telescope shoot out
Image by Kaustav Bhattacharya via Flickr

Astronomy was my first scientific love, sadly neglected since I got my astrophysics degree a quarter of a century ago – but I am seriously considering buying a telescope – especially as they are so cheap.

I think I can get a 5″ (I don’t think in metric in these cases) Maksutov for about £400 – around the cash price my parents paid to get me a 6″ Newtonian 35 years ago. I have not done the maths but surely that means a superior/more complex design is available for perhaps 1/5th or 1/6th of the price in the 1970s: why is that? Robots making the mirrors/lenses?

I want a Maksutov or similar because setting this thing up in London is not going to be much use except for looking at the Moon – need to take it away on holiday to make the best of it.

It’s total self-indulgence, but what the hell.

Changes at Foyles

The venerable Foyles bookshop on the west side...
Image via Wikipedia

I remember Foyles bookshop in London when, perhaps twenty years ago, it was a warren of books seemingly piled one on top of another and with little order beyond the basic categorisation by subject (that is how it felt anyway).

Buying a book was a rigmarole – you got a chit for the book at one counter, paid at another and then went back to collect the book.

That contributed to the sense that the owners treated their staff abysmally – they seemingly could not trust most of them to run a cash register. I did not like the place and stayed away for many years.

When I did go back, some years ago now, the place was transformed – it really is the best bookshop in London and it is always hard to resist going in there when I pass.

But, I have to be honest. While I maybe buy a book or two there on four or five times a year, more often than not I seem to use its computer section as a sort of glorified library – checking which books look good before ordering them online from Amazon.

Ordering online is not always cheaper in fact – for low volume books Foyles can even turn out cheaper or at least faster at no extra cost as no postage has to be paid. But anything with any sort of volume is usually 50 pence or more cheaper and ordering a few makes the saving worthwhile.

So what to make of the fact they have moved the computer section downstairs to the basement seemingly because more and more computer book buyers do the same and so the computer books cannot be given the more valued retail space upstairs? Should I purchase a book or two just to keep the library open?

Maybe. Because one good thing that has seemingly come from the move to the basement is that there is more shelf space available and, so it seems anyway, more stock to browse.

That is very useful – I was thinking of buying The Little Schemer but having been able to give it a quick browse I can see it does not really fulfil any need for me (I was hoping for a book that would look at the history/thinking behind this dialect of Lisp rather than a cookbook type presentation).

So, what should I plough that saving into?