Tag Archives: health

Why I really am awfully lucky…

A gate in Coton

Two and a half years ago, after a couple of decades living happily in the centre of Cambridge, we moved out to the countryside.

Here, that only meant a move of about two and a half miles, but it made a big difference; we basically did a simple exchange: swapping proximity-to-things for space. We got a much bigger detached house in exchange for a small terrace; fields and woods right outside the door; and some real luxuries like a spacious driveway and a garage: things we’d never owned in any size or shape before! The house was almost exactly the same value as the one we sold, so the only major cost involved in the move was a very hefty whack of Stamp Duty.

The current coronavirus lockdown, though, has made me realise just how fortunate a decision that move was. Having more space, both inside and outside the house, makes such a difference in this current climate.

I can’t imagine living in London at the moment. It’s not something I’ve ever particularly wanted to do, but it must be even worse now, though at least a lot quieter and less polluted than usual!

The people who must really be suffering, I imagine, are those working from home, with kids, in a small London flat. I really take my hat off to anyone in that situation who is managing to keep their sanity intact! I’m grateful once again that we decided not to have kids… though I suppose, by now, they would have grown up, moved out and would probably have little viruses of their own.

And finally, since, for many years, I’ve been working half-time from home, we’re well set up for that, so no real changes have been needed on that front. In fact, having my wonderful wife-and-chef working from home too has made most days a gastronomic delight.

All in all, then, we’re amazingly lucky in our version of the Covid-restricted life.

It’s tempting to put some of it down to good judgement. Our past decisions not to live in a big city, not to have kids, not to have high-pressure office-based jobs, to focus on dog-walking more than income-generation, and (recently) to live in the countryside, have all contributed to a good quality of life in general, and a particularly easy transition to the one we’ll be living for the next few months. If only I could claim to have foreseen the inevitability of a global pandemic, I could actually claim some credit for them!

But I do recommend at least some of them, for anyone considering big life-changing decisions in preparation for when the next virus comes along. Because it is a sobering thought, even here in Arcadia, that this almost certainly won’t be the last.

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”.

Some more Coronastatistics

In a response to my post yesterday, my friend Jonathan pointed me at this excellent article by Tomas Pueyo. It’s long, and I’m not, of course able to check many of his numbers, and there are some places where he has to make estimates and assumptions, and rely on official Chinese figures more than some would think appropriate. But you should read it none the less; the basic model is very useful. I mention some highlights below.

My question yesterday was about when the virus-based health risk of travelling to an event in the UK would actually become more serious than the risks involved in the road travel to get there. Italy has passed that point (and their road-death statistics are much worse than ours!) My own guess while writing was that it would probably be about two or three weeks here, and it hadn’t escaped me that confirmed cases are a week or two behind the dates when those people actually contracted the virus, so probably the real answer was that coronavirus would be more dangerous than driving in the UK in about a week’s time (using my very crude metric). Others have pointed out that the stats suggest that we’re not that far behind Italy, so coronavirus may already be more dangerous than driving.

What I hadn’t fully appreciated, and this is the thrust of the article, was just how effective a lock-down can be. A key graphic is this one:

(Click for a full-size version)

The orange bars show diagnosed cases. The grey bars show when infection must actually have happened; something you can only deduce with hindsight, because it takes a couple of weeks. At the time Wuhan went into lock-down, they had 444 reported cases. There were probably about 12,000 actual cases at the time waiting to appear. And if we believe the official figures, the growth stopped pretty instantly once they imposed a lock-down; the kind of lock-down that perhaps only an authoritarian regime can effectively implement.

At the time, of course, this wouldn’t have been clear; the number of reported cases would have gone on rising for another 10 days or so.

Pueyo then goes on to demonstrate the effect of delaying this kind of lock-down by one day — the very significant impact it can have on the number of cases that actually appear.

This in turn affects the ability of healthcare systems to cope, which then affects the mortality rate, and so once you pass a certain threshold, the impact of each day’s delay is amplified more than you might expect. He posts this graphic by Alexander Radtke – I’ve seen similar ones online recently:

You’ll note that this graph is purely an illustration of a concept without any real data, but it’s a useful one. What’s good about Pueyo’s analysis in general, though, is that he’s trying hard to use real numbers wherever he can. He may be right, he may be wrong, and in particular his analysis may be more or less relevant to the particular situation in the UK, but it’s worth taking seriously.

So, today’s update:

  • Coronavirus in the UK will very soon — probably in a few days — be more dangerous than driving. Maybe even more dangerous than Italian driving. But still not a cause for panic.


  • We’ll know in a couple of weeks just how dangerous it is today.
  • By then it will be a lot more dangerous.
  • Waiting to find that out is the best possible way to ensure that it will be even worse!
  • We’re at the point where each day is very significant.


  • Actions like panic-buying of loo rolls are not a rational response to something that is currently much less dangerous than the drive to the supermarket.
  • Actions like locking down the entire country to restrict movement as much as possible may actually be a perfectly rational response to the same thing.

Fascinating stuff.

Now, here’s my next question:

You may remember the analysis a few years ago that showed that more people died after the 9/11 attacks than during them. This was because so many people were scared of flying in the following days and weeks that they drove long distances instead. Driving is so much more dangerous than air travel that the resulting death toll was higher than that on the day itself.

Now, one result of coronavirus lock-down, I hope and expect, will be that a lot more people will discover the practicality and benefits of working from home. (I’ve been doing it half-time for many years, using long Skype calls to keep in touch with my colleagues, some of whom are only a few miles away.)

If this continues on any scale after the virus threat has receded, how long will it be before the number of lives saved by the reduction in mileage and air pollution outweighs the lives lost in the epidemic?

Update: please read the comments below as well!

Some Coronastatistics

At the time of writing, the number of deaths in UK as a result of Covid-19 since records began is six. Interestingly, that’s about the same as the number of people who died on UK roads…. yesterday. (The number who sustained serious injuries yesterday is about 11 times as high.)

Now, I don’t want to minimise the virus threat, and I do understand that one of those numbers is likely to increase exponentially while the other isn’t, etc. So I’m also taking appropriate precautions like everyone else. But it also explains why I’m happy to go out to a restaurant for dinner tonight… even a Chinese restaurant! If we manage to survive the journey there and back, any sources of contagion we might encounter in a busy restaurant should be child’s play in comparison.

Ironically, Italy, which is suffering a much more serious viral issue than we are, also has one of the highest rates of road fatalities in Europe. Their death rate from the virus has now reached 631, which is about twice as many as road deaths — even at Italian rates — in the same period. We are still a very long way from that here, for the time being, at least. There’s something to be said for living on an island.

For UK readers, though, I think this is an interesting metric to watch, though, to keep a rational sense of the scale of the problem: How long will it be before letting your kids go to a sporting event at school is actually more dangerous than driving them there and back?

**Update: see the next day’s post. **

Inverse Covid-19 protection?

For the last two or three years, I’ve been getting a ‘flu vaccination in the autumn. In the past, most winters would see me knocked out for at least a few days, maybe a week, at some point by a ‘flu-like bug. But once I discovered how easy it was — for people in the UK who aren’t eligible to get it free on the NHS, you just book an appointment at your local Boots and pay 12 quid — I realised this was a small price and well worth paying! Recommended.

Now, the jab obviously won’t protect you against the current coronavirus. It doesn’t even protect you against all strains of normal ‘flu. But it occurs to me that if everybody had had a recent injection, it would probably stop a lot of false alarms. You’d be much less likely to come down with something ordinary that might cause you unnecessary concern, and when you did start exhibiting ‘flu-like symptoms, you would be able to take them more seriously.

I don’t, however, know anything about the seasonality of this. New vaccinations are usually developed to cover the winter period, and I’m not sure about the value of taking one now that was created that many months ago.

But it seemed to me an idea worth considering. Is it worth doing an updated spring vaccination to help protect you against current bugs that are not Covid-19, just to assist with the detection of the real thing?

Heat Haze Hospital

There are many benefits to living close to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, but, as any Cambridge resident will tell you, its effect on the aesthetics of the region is not one of them. Usually the best way to improve its visual appearance is to go a long way away. And then face in the opposite direction.

Even Addenbrooke’s can have its moments, though. It’s about 4 miles from my house, as the crow flies, so this was taken with a long lens from my kitchen window.

Breaking good

breaktimeI keep hearing about research that shows how your life will be dramatically shorter and more problematic if you spend too much of it sitting in front of a computer.

Some of this, no doubt, is encouraged by the manufacturers of the standing desks, and even treadmill desks, which are to the young entrepreneurs of today what the Aeron chair was to the dot-com startups of yesteryear.

But whether or not you believe the more worrying claims of reduced life expectancy, I think we can agree that it’s not a bad idea to get up and stretch your legs from time to time. Maybe have a bottle of chilled water, if you’re from California, or a nice cup of tea, if you’re British.

So I’ve been rather taken with a little Mac app called BreakTime, which will pop up and nag you when you’ve been working at your computer for too long at a stretch. You can choose the time periods: mine requires me to have a four-minute break after 56 minutes, for example, and you have some control over how persistent it will be: are you allowed to dismiss it before the four minutes are up? It also makes sensible decisions if you leave the machine of your own accord first, and resets the timer when you return.

I find, to my surprise, that I really like it: I’ve put it on all my machines, and what it highlights is just how difficult it is to keep track of time myself. I’m amazed how quickly an hour of sitting still can fly by when I’m deep in concentration. Even if I do little more than stand up and tidy some things off my desk, I’m sure it’s a good discipline.

There are several other similar utilities out there, but BreakTime works well for me. Recommended.

Update: Tim Green, on Facebook, pointed out Workrave, which does something similar for Windows and Linux. I’m linking to it here because, of course, you can’t search Facebook – even your own history (something I still find incomprehensible).

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser