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Expert computers? Perhaps

There's a significant balance to be struck between structure and novelty in one's life. Nevermore so, when social distancing means that the provocation to action that might come from the remarks of a colleague, friend or opponent is virtually absent.

I have previously written about my having populated my calendar with regular activities that get me started each day and set me on the path to a productive day. The target for writing my diary is for publication at 1000.

But first comes breakfast and reading the day's media stories. That's scheduled for 0600 to 0700. Fits with my natural wake time and requires no alarm. However, with Parliament now adopting a new pattern and method of working, two days next week already have a new start time of 0500. And the need to set the alarm on my phone. Done.

Domestic issues arise too. We go shopping about every ten days. And a quick look in the fridge shows the need. Still some cheese, the last of the milk and a few well-depleted jars of this and that. Not that we are starving, the cupboards have a reasonable supply of long term staples, and the freezer is far from empty. But less fresh produce is eaten. We bridge some of that gap with a daily vitamin C tablet.

The rules for us "vulnerable" 8th decaders allow for a daily shop. As country-dwellers, we never have done that. But more to the point, when there is over a week between any external contact, we know if that we are well, we are free from COVID-19 and won't infect anyone.

Speaking of which, I also check in daily with the COVID-19 app recommended by NHS24 to say I am still well. The reminder's in my diary for 0830 each day. You can download the app from and support the folks at Guy's and St Thomas's Biomedical Research Centre who are coordinating the data collection and analysis on behalf of our NHS and others across these islands.

So the first early start is Monday. Partly personal, partly Parliamentary. The shops mostly have their "older customers only" hour at the start of the day. We shall leave the house to restock the fridge well before 0800. And I also have to be sure to be back for two Parliamentary video-conference meetings.

Wednesday sees another early start with four online meetings. A clash means that one of my staff will attend the external one on my behalf.

Yesterday rounded off a successful week of "onlines", eleven in all. And this afternoon I will hook up for another briefing by Darcey, my eight-year-old god-daughter and assorted lesser persons, of whom I am so categorised, of course. Social contact, albeit now at a distance, remains an important need, for us and for those we call. This week I should catch up with my siblings too.

The home "studio", that's my study and my home computer equipment, which were not designed to look good on TV. Adjustments include drawing the curtains to reduce harsh lighting contrasts, but creating the need for additional lighting.

There are five fairly thick books sitting on my desk to ensure that the table lamp that illuminates the right of my face is high enough up to leave the area under my chin in relative shade (a case of the "wrinkled neck" that comes as a fellow-traveller with age). The room light provides a wee bit of backlighting, creating a suitable mild "halo" through its contre jour effect so beloved of art photographers, and lights the left side of my face.

The desk places the camera in my laptop computer at the correct height and behind it, and slightly above it, is one of the screens of my main computer from which I can read from my notes if I need to.

The selection of books was random, based more on size than content. But as it happens one, in particular, is still very relevant to some of the scientific challenges arising from COVID-19. Artificial Intelligence (AI) applied to "crunch" large volumes of data is held out as an important part of work to understand and respond to the crisis. But we need to be cautious about the limitations too.

In an international video conference, I participated in this week, I suggested that the first application of AI should be to move options down the list. The fewer options left, the better our decision-making is likely to be. It may be less good at directly finding the answer.

One of the books holding up the light on my desk was edited by an Edinburgh-based AI pioneer, Professor Donald Michie, and published in 1979 by Edinburgh University Press. It contains papers from a range of researchers produced mainly for a conference on the subject. AI has been around for a long time, from the mid-1960s in fact, and only now is it finally becoming mainstream. An extract from a paper in the book, by J R Quinlan of the University of Sydney, illustrates a problem in data analysis in a way understandable to most people. Here goes:

"I like curried chicken, chilli con carne, Szechwan pork, Mongolian lamb, satay, pepperoni, tabasco sauce .. [that] suggests I like all spicy foods."

He says that provides a coherent conclusion. And he's correct. But he had not been asked for a list of foods he did not like. There might be spicy foods on that list which would invalidate the first conclusion. At our peril do we forget that the choice of questions has a strong influence on the answers.

With a novel disease, we are short of data, don't have all the questions, and will have to make decisions, yes - led by science, that will have to be refined at a later date because they have been based on incomplete understanding, albeit the best available at the time.

So a week of novelty, but within a formal structure created by me and for me, is keeping me alert and interested. And serendipity is causing me to pick things up, such as books, that have been lying neglected on the bottom shelf of one of our many bookcases, that I find relevant and interesting.

Exercise beckons now - my diary says now. An exciting weekend ahead in that regard. Have walked 189.45 miles since lockdown started. Will cross the 200-mile barrier tomorrow. But careful with numbers. Would I be as excited if I noticed that I would exceed 321.86 kilometres on Sunday? It's the same distance.

The numbers are not what is important. It's what they tell us.

And crossing 200 miles tells me that I have invested a proper part of my social isolation getting fitter.


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After one hundred and seventy-four days, I resumed sitting in our Parliament's debating chamber. It was the first time I have seen how members dialling in by video-link look and sound at the "business end".

I found that I was a bit rusty. My only oral contribution this week was to ask a question. As I approached the end of it, a sound from a mobile phone totally distracted me. Worried that it was my own phone, I paused and for about a second, lost the thread of what I was saying. I wasn't that pleased with my neighbour when they returned to their seat. Their phone, not mine.

It just shows that one can travel backwards in one's abilities. Like an athlete who has had an extended layoff and loses muscle tone, my brain had retreated from its previous peak of perfection.

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