Tag Archives: coronavirus

One man and his vlog

Yesterday I realised I was looking particularly suave and debonair, so decided it would be the right time to point a camera at myself. Mmm…

If you want to try using a decent digital camera for videoconferencing, you normally either need:

  • something which will capture an HDMI output signal from your camera and feed it into your computer over USB, like the Elgato Cam Link,

  • or you need some software which can capture the live preview output and make it available to your operating system as if it were a locally-connected camera. On the Mac, I do this with a combination of Camera Live – which makes it avaliable as a ‘Syphon’ server – and CamTwist, which can take a variety of inputs, including Syphon, and blend them into a ‘virtual camera’ output. There are various tutorials online on how to do this. OBS is a similar popular app, but doesn’t yet support virtual camera output on the Mac.

  • Finally, for some versions of some Mac apps, you may need to remove the app’s signature (which identifies it with a certain set of permissions), to enable it to see virtual cameras as well as physical ones. At the time of writing, Zoom needs:

$ codesign --remove-signature /Applications/zoom.us.app/

P.S. Sadly, various other people have used the phrase ‘One man and his vlog’, so I can’t pinch it on any kind of long-term basis 🙂

Passing the buck the right distance

Here’s something I don’t quite understand. It’s the responsibility of the National Health Service to provide a health service to the nation. Presumably, things like the sourcing of PPE, the purchasing of ventilators, the arranging of tests, and even, to some degree, the deployment of diagnostic phone apps, is their area of expertise. It’s what they do.

Now, these are not normal times, of course, and there’s always the complaint about insufficient funding, past and present. But I doubt that’s valid now since, presumably, the government would now happily write bigger cheques for the provision of these things. So I’m slightly intrigued that the NHS is complaining that the government isn’t providing them, rather than the other way around! Intrigued, though not surprised.

Now, clearly I’m missing something, because everybody else seems to think the government is responsible for medical supplies too. It could be that PPE supplies are primarily delayed because of something like customs and excise rules, in which case, yes, clearly the government is culpable.

Or it could be that the NHS is saying, in effect, “you underfunded us for years, so now that we have a big problem, it’s actually your problem! So there!” Government departments are presumed to be more competent at logistics than the NHS, when both are given sufficient funding, so we’d better hand it over to you, even though we’re the ones with the contacts and the contracts.

But I think it’s probably that the boundary between the government and public services is a sufficiently blurred one that, if you are senior enough in the NHS, your job title begins with ‘Minister’ or ‘Secretary of State’. This is very convenient, because it means that anyone who wants to complain about how things are going — to increase the ad sales in their newspaper, for example — can make it a political complaint, which is acceptable and even popular, rather than be seen in any way to be criticising the NHS, which would be suicidal.

So that raises the interesting question of where the boundary of blame can sensibly be drawn, while maintaining political correctness. Everyone is allowed to blame the Prime Minister and nobody is allowed to blame a nurse; so where does, and where should, the buck stop between the two?

To the extent that some people believe the UK Covid response has been badly handled, how do we hold the correct public institutions, or individuals, accountable when it comes to be reviewed? When the next health crisis comes along, should we expect the health service to handle the provision of health-related services, or the political party currently in power at that time?

I don’t know anything about the management hierarchy involved, but I’m guessing that, as you ascend it, you reach a point where the payslips no longer have an NHS logo on them; where NHS administrators become civil servants. A bit higher, civil servants become short-term political appointees. Are either of these the correct point for rational people to start assigning blame in the case of unforeseen medical emergencies? Should it be higher or lower?

More good analysis tools from the FT

I’ve talked before about some of the nice statistics the Financial Times is gathering about the epidemic, and the clear dispassionate way it’s presenting them.

Their latest tool gets more interactive, and lets you compare, in various ways, how your country is doing against others. I like three things about this in particular.

  • Firstly, you can choose a linear scale. Log scales are handy for scientific visualisation but are harder to grasp intuitively.

  • Secondly, you can get the numbers per capita, which I think is much more useful than absolute figures, though it doesn’t of course take into account population density, which is also important.

  • Thirdly, when you get the analysis in a form you like, you can capture that in the URL and send it to others: the inability to do that is a common problem in today’s over-Javascripty pages!

So you can do your own investigation and see that by some measures, your country is doing fairly well (cumulative cases compared to Spain):

And by other measures not so well (daily new cases compared to France):

You don’t have to switch countries to get different viewpoints, though. Suppose you wanted to make the case that the UK and France were pretty much neck-and-neck, you’d plot the absolute cumulative deaths on a log scale:

(Neither of these capture the fact that France has less than half the population density of the UK, but they’re still useful illustrations.)


Here’s another example:

Let’s display the same data about the UK and Italy in two different ways.

Do you want to make the UK (or its government, healthcare system, population, whatever) look reasonably good? Plot the cumulative cases.

Does your editorial policy or personal preference dictate that you want to make the UK government, healthcare system or population look bad? Then plot the same data as a daily rate (roughly the gradient of the above graph).

That’s the same data over the same period on the same kind of axes.

All of which illustrates why it’s good to have a tool where you can explore the data yourself. As long as you really do explore it and don’t just stop when you get the conclusion you want!

In the above examples, the images are links to larger versions: the links in the text take to the FT site where you can experiment to your heart’s content.

Spare a thought for the politicians

I am constantly bemused by the number of naïve people who want to blame politicians for all the evils of the world, and especially those medical evils that are besetting us at the moment. As I pointed out in an earlier post, this is happening in many, if not most, countries — which should immediately give any critical thinkers pause for thought — but let’s focus for the moment on the UK.

The NHS is, as the Guardian so nicely put it recently, “the UK’s unofficial religion”, so to question any aspect of its operation is blasphemy. If the health service were given free rein, clearly everything would be fine and sunny, so, as Epicurus would have wondered, “whence cometh evil?” Other religions usually deal with this problem by inventing the idea of devils, who exist to take the blame for the difficult problems raised by the belief system. Also to blame are heretics, who consort with them, don’t pay sufficient tithes to the gods, and should therefore be burned at the stake. In the modern world, we group these problematic actors together and call them politicians. (Oh, not the ones you voted for, of course. They are the priests.)

Anyway, since we don’t just have a two-party system, and not everybody votes, the majority of the population will probably disapprove of whichever party is currently in power. That party is therefore always an easy scapegoat for significant frustration. And the minister in charge of the particular challenge du jour is probably Beelzebub himself in human form. Certainly, any media outlet suggesting that is going to get higher advertising revenues than one that suggests the opposite, so it’s a meme that propagates by simple Darwinian processes.

But is that really fair?

Now, just to set the scene, let me emphasise that I’m no particular fan of our current government, and I didn’t vote for them. And yes, with hindsight, there are some things that they could have been done better. It’s easy to say that now. We must never forget that they are fallible humans, after all, with fallible advisors, and voted for by fallible people.

But if, like me, you didn’t vote for them, then try assuming, as a thought experiment, that the people you did vote for came to power in the election just a few weeks ago, and had this dumped on them. They would, I hope, if they were smart, have taken broadly the same decisions. Yes, they would. They would have had the same health service, the same civil servants, the same scientific advice from the same scientific advisors and, hopefully, would have followed it roughly as the current government have done. So they would have had the same outcomes.

There might have been variations — the advice they’re given by the experts isn’t unanimous, after all — which might have moved the infection curve forward or back by a week or two. But it probably wouldn’t have been a significant change (unless your politicians chose to ignore the scientific advice completely like a certain transatlantic President I could mention!)

This graph from the FT is a good way to see that most comparable countries to the UK are following a pretty similar trajectory; the UK peak is higher than most, but our numbers are dominated by London’s population size & density, and its transport infrastructure; neither of which are replicated in many otherwise comparable places. If you restrict your view to urban centres, Paris followed a pretty similar curve to London. France, however, has half the population density of the UK overall, and that’s probably a significant factor in limiting the spread on a national scale. And so on.

Anyway, let’s assume that your favourite party is in power and hasn’t done a significantly worse or better job, because they don’t have that many parameters to tweak. Where they might have made different decisions, these would have had other costs of their own: damage to the economy, significantly higher future taxes, closure of businesses leading to higher unemployment, etc. The best choice wasn’t necessarily obvious back then; managing this is almost always about having to choose the lesser of two evils. And now they’re being blamed by the media and everyone on Twitter for the shortage of PPE, tests, and ventilators.

I assume that those who are complaining have never actually set up a vast manufacturing and supply chain combined with an instant nationwide distribution network. You have? OK, well done. But let’s imagine, instead, that you’re a young guy — we’ll call you Matt — and you have no particular expertise in this area but have been put in charge of everything and suddenly had the world’s most difficult supply-chain problem for some time dropped in your lap. You have to try and sort out in days and weeks what would normally take those who do have lots of experience weeks and months.

Assuming you’re up to this superhuman task, let’s compound it with a few problems:

  • You work for a large, bureaucratic, inefficient and slow-moving organisation. You’re trying to organise this on behalf of and with the help of another large, bureaucratic, inefficient and slow-moving organisation.

  • Many of your key decision-makers are not in the office. Some of them are sick. Some are in intensive care. Including your boss.

  • Many of your lower-level staff are also off sick or have child-care issues to deal with because all the schools are closed. It’s a bit like trying to organise this during a Bank Holiday.

  • This is true of every single organisation you’re dealing with. And there are hundreds.

  • There’s a global shortage of materials needed to make your products. Many of those suppliers are just not operating at the moment. Sometimes their governments wouldn’t even let them sell it to you if they could.

  • There’s a global demand for the product itself. Everybody else is trying to buy it, as well as you. Not just everybody nearby. Everybody in the world.

  • You don’t actually work for or have any real authority in most of the companies concerned.

  • All of this is costing you way, way more than it normally would.

  • If you do manage to manufacture this product, then all the delivery drivers who might eventually distribute it for you are busy delivering other things.

  • Sorry, did I say this product? You’re actually trying to do this many times over, for a whole range of different products.

  • And every day, journalists are badgering you with questions about why you haven’t finished it yet – don’t you know people are dying out there?

Now, given all that, I don’t know about you, but I’m not 100% certain that, even if I were Secretary of State for Health, I’d actually be able to sort this out in the next couple of weeks so we can all go back to work.

Would you? OK, make sure you stand for parliament next time around, so we can elect you before the next crisis hits, and it can then be your name in the papers. Personally, I fancy that role even less than I fancy being a health worker with insufficient PPE!

Clapping to a different beat?

There have been a couple of evenings recently when UK residents have been encouraged to go outside and clap and cheer for all our wonderful health workers who are doing such a great job. This is, in many ways, a good idea, and I would have joined in, had I known about them in advance! (We’re a little bit isolated out here and so didn’t hear about them until the following morning.) It’s all rather cringe-worthy, but a significant proportion of my family work for the NHS, and a large number of friends, and they’re working very hard in difficult circumstances. Some of them have come down with coronavirus themselves. So, yes, I probably would have overcome my natural reserve and clapped, at least if anybody other than passing rabbits would have heard me!

I was interested, though, today, to come across this thread on Twitter where a large number of people, mostly who work for the NHS or in healthcare, were expressing their discomfort with the idea, for a variety of reasons.

They had various motives, but the key one seems to be that politicians who have voted against increasing NHS funding have no right to praise those who are now having to be heroes as a result, and certainly not to lead the public in praising them in this low-cost way.

Others say that anyone who voted for those politicians should also not be outside clapping.

My view is that anyone who is not willing to pay a substantially increased personal tax burden should also have pause for thought. I’m guessing that, to have the service we’d all like, we should be thinking of paying about £1000 per year more per family member. (And yes, people who choose to have children would, and of course should, pay more.) However, the country as a whole has been given the opportunity to make rather more modest contributions than that on more than one occasion, explicitly earmarked for such things as health and education, and has turned it down.

I base that £1000 figure, by the way, on the fact that Rose and I have to pay rather more than that for a basic level of private health insurance, on top of what we currently pay for the NHS. We are fortunate to be able to do that, but it’s not because we’re particularly wealthy. We’re clearly a very long way from being poor, but we work for a university and are still, most years, basic-rate taxpayers, not high-rate. So this is a significant chunk of our income, and it’s a luxury but also a kind of voluntary taxation: yes, we get much better service, but in exchange we don’t have some other luxuries, and it doesn’t free us from paying for the NHS: we do that too. But we’ve placed much less burden on it, over the years, than we would have done otherwise.

If, by paying that amount to the NHS, I could be confident of all of us getting the improved level of service, I’d be happy to do so! Instead, at present, we pay so that thing are a lot nicer for us, and a little bit nicer for others.

The problem is that under-resourcing, though clearly a significant challenge, is certainly not the whole story.

On all three of the last three times I’ve had to go to NHS hospitals because friends or family have been there, I have been struck by the many wonderful, cheery, helpful workers… but also by the quite extraordinary levels of administrative incompetence. I encounter employees who would never be able to keep a job if this were a commercial enterprise. I experience procedures which, if they were followed so poorly in a business, would quickly result in that business no longer existing. (Though to be fair, that’s often true of many public bodies.)

And this, I’m sad to say, has been my almost constant experience. On both of the last two occasions I’ve had friends or family staying overnight in hospitals, they have occupied a bed for a whole day longer than necessary. Why? Not because they were still sick, but because the doctor literally forgot to come and discharge them before going home at the end of his shift. Two different hospitals. Two different doctors. Two different patients. Same problem. Actually three doctors, because one friend was forgotten twice in a row, though I think one of them might have been the nurse’s fault. They are not just short of hospital beds for lack of funds!

And this malaise is not just in the area of patient care. I remember when, as a struggling startup company, we were trying to sell a product to our local NHS hospital. They liked it, they wanted to buy it almost immediately, the cost was trivial, but it still took them more than a year to go through their procurement procedures and write us a modest cheque. Even then — and this was explicitly explained to me — they only managed to get it to us because somebody persuaded the person responsible for the relevant account to stay for a meeting which finished after 5pm. He was annoyed, and made it clear, because he normally went home soon after tea-time, at around 4.30pm. For those of us working long hours and weekends to produce the product, we just had to laugh. I know from talking to other technology providers that our experience was certainly not unique. But that was then – what about now? Well, now, remember this story when you hear that they can’t get the supplies they need.

These are just anecdotes, of course – I have no knowledge of the bigger picture on any statistically-valid level. I speak only of what I’ve experienced. But I have certainly not exhausted my stories: those are just a couple of the more worrying examples.

So yes, I love the NHS. I’m enormously grateful for what they’re doing now. And yes, I wish it were better resourced.

But anyone who thinks that somebody else will pay for a better service for them is living in cloud-cuckoo land; we all need to be willing to stump up significant amounts of cash. How many of those people out there clapping think that the problems now being experienced are all somebody else’s fault?

Anyone who thinks that money is the only problem, or that the politicians are the only problem, is similarly deluded. In this country it is very unpopular to talk about any degree of commercialisation of the NHS, and clearly that’s not a silver bullet: one only has to look at the costs of drugs in the USA for an example of how commercialisation can get out of hand.

But so far, nobody seems to have come up with a good way of instilling the disciplines and efficiency and levels of accountability that govern the commercial world into the public sector. And until they do that, it seems to me, we will continue to have some situations where we just have to rely on some people being heroes.

Keeping active during a lockdown

As a result of the virus, and its effect on my consultancy clients, my ‘work’ has fallen to about half its normal level. I hope this doesn’t carry on for too long, because my income has also fallen by about two-thirds. But, just at present, I’m rather enjoying it, and, as people usually say when they retire, “I’m busier than ever”.

The fact that it’s been sunny here at the same time is just icing on the cake. I’ve even been doing some serious lawn maintenance, which perhaps indicates that I’m closer to retirement than I had previously thought. (I used to joke that I knew I was getting old when I voluntarily went to a garden centre as a weekend activity. But in recent times it’s been even worse: I’ve noticed that I’m not even the youngest person in the garden centre! Sigh.)

Anyway, since I have no kids to home-school, the lockdown’s giving me an excuse at least to start catching up with the huge backlog of tasks that I’ve been putting off for months. There are the important ones, which I’m sure we all attend to first: tweaking the configuration scripts in our home automation systems, for example. Making sure our lightbulbs have up-to-date firmware. Redeploying our web services using the container orchestration framework du jour. That kind of thing.

But eventually we get to the more mundane but essential tasks of daily modern life. You’re probably considering some of these too:

  • Is my home and off-site backup system working reliably?
  • Are all my family members using a good password manager? (And can they get access to mine if anything should happen to me?)
  • Do I still have any remaining email accounts with so-called ‘free’ providers, who read it in order to sell me things?
  • Have I merged all the photo and video projects from my laptop onto my main desktop machine?
  • Is my blog properly backed up, and where?
  • Are there any rooms in the house which don’t have proper ethernet cabling yet?
  • What do I still need to scan in my filing cabinet before I can be truly paperless?

Fortunately, I have plenty of other projects to distract me before I can get down to these, which means that we may need to be in lockdown for some months before I actually do old-fashioned things like descaling the coffee machine or looking through the piles of dead trees in my in-tray.

And this is good, because it’s important for people to be able to stay active in their old age.

Especially when the garden centre is closed.

A Network for the Un-networked?

Suppose you’re an older person who has been told you should really stay at home. You have no symptoms, but you decide to go into voluntary total self-isolation.

It’s not easy and you get pretty lonesome, but presumably, after 14 or perhaps 21 days, you have proven yourself to be safe. You could then walk, drive or cycle over to visit any friend who had been through the same purification ceremony, without risking either of you.

There could be a society for those who choose to do this proactively, for those who have sworn an oath to forego all human contact for a short period now in order to have a restricted amount of it thereafter. First of all, though, it needs a name.

I suggest “The Lone Rangers”.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser