Friday 27 March 2020

On thinking about what I thought about the Coronavirus

On Monday the 16th of March, the government announced that we should “avoid” pubs, restaurants and theatres. For many people, this seemed so blindingly obvious given the threat posed by Covid-19 that they felt the government should have simply banned them even earlier.

Yet the day after, despite the governments warning, I saw people gathering in pubs and cafes. When people act in a way that seems so obviously wrong, it is really hard to understand their line of reasoning. Usually people try and explain away this behaviour as a combination of stupidity or selfishness.

However, I really do not think the vast amount of people who went to the pub last week are either of those things.

So as I was trying to put myself in the shoes of someone that went to the pub last week and see what possible reasons I may go, but the first thing that struck me is how quickly this crisis seemed to occur.

I am not one to always plug psychological explanations but to me a lot of people are experiencing hindsight bias: a lot of us feel that we saw this crisis coming way before everyone else.

So in order to test this I searched my e-mails and chats for any clues to my thoughts on the coronavirus over time and this is what I came up with (I suggest you try it too, it is a sobering experience).

January 31st, 2020
My diary tells me that on this day I played a board game with friends. I remember at the time not being concerned about the coronavirus and thinking everything would likely be fine. Even when travel restrictions were coming in, I still thought optimistically that the virus would still be contained. Perhaps it was because there has never an event like this in my life time or we just have an in built bias towards being optimistic, either way this is how I felt.

Why do I remember thinking this so vividly? Well the board game in question was called Pandemic (we lost by the way).

27th of February-ish, 2020
I remember around this week I talked to some Italian colleagues over lunch. They were telling me about the outbreak in Italy and whole villages acting like ghost towns. Italians I know are really worried about getting sick by what they call “a hit of air”, so I think I thought this was probably an overreaction. I do remember diligently washing my hands but I am pretty sure I remember being optimistic about the situation, even if I was a little worried.

6th of March, 2020
My worry was increasing by the day at this at this point. I remember seminars were getting cancelled because of travel concerns. But it wasn’t until this day that I really got it. I mean, this was the day I really understood the enormity of the problem.

Over whatsapp an Italian friend was telling me she was worried about travelling to the South of Italy as the virus may spread from the North. She told me that she was not worried about getting sick, but there was a lack of hospital beds in the South. I remember seeing the “flatten the curve graph” on twitter which is when things really started to click.

I remember telling people after the 6th of March that it was likely pubs were going to close here. People reacted to the news with disbelief, as if I were a crank holding up an “end is nigh" sign.

So if you were honest with yourself, when did you first understand the enormity of the issue we face? My feeling is it wouldn’t be that much before me or that much afterwards. And if it was way before me then you are either an oracle or most likely misremembering: a lot of epidemiologists were still unsure whether it was going to be a global pandemic up until a few weeks ago.

I am not trying to create a competition here as to who understood the problem first. The purpose is to understand why some people did/do not grasp the scale of the problem.

I am a nerd with Italian friends, whose job involves data, and follows other nerds on twitter. If there was ever someone who should understand the problem surely it would be me and others like me? However, I really only understood the problem a week before the government announced people to avoid going to the pub. This doesn’t sound like a lot of time to me to get the message across to people don't follow the news so closely etc.

I think if we are going to try and understand why people went to the pub despite warnings, we need to do so from a place of humility rather than scorn.

Thursday 26 March 2020

What's in a name? The importance of names in understanding ideas

“What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

 William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

The above quote taken literally is something we could test. If we called a rose, a “putrid shit flower” and asked people to rate the smell of it, would it affect how we experience the smell? Perhaps we would rate the smell of the “putrid shit flower” slightly worse than if we called it a “rose” because our brains are looking for a foul smelling thing and we do not find one. When we smell a “rose”, however, we are looking for a nice smelling thing and find one. I am not suggesting that the putrid shit flower would smell bad but I could theoretically see how it would affect our experience of smell.*

The reason why names are important is because they are the first thing people usually come in contact with before understand ideas. You may hear the name of a concept in passing such as in a conversation or on the radio. Sometimes a name gives us clues to what the thing is about. For example the German word for gloves is handschuhe which directly translated into English means hand shoes. If I know what a hand is and I know what a shoe is, a shoe that goes on your hand is not a bad description for a glove.

Badly named ideas, however, are a problem. To understand this one only has to look at an idea that has only been really around in the UK for the last 20 days or so: social distancing.

The purpose of social distancing is to slow the spread of the pandemic. Not only do people need to comply with social distancing for it to work, they need to understand what it is first before they can act on it.

Now this point is often quite difficult to explain to informed people. My bet is that if you are reading this, you are more than likely aware of what socially distancing is and why it is important. But for a lot of people, they will form their understanding of the phrase “social distancing” from the word itself.

Let us try to imagine hearing social distancing for the first time. Social distancing sounds like a wanky thing that Gwyneth Paltrow would say like “self-care” or “conscious uncoupling”. This is especially so if you first heard it from a celebrity rather than a scientist. You may also think that it means to stop hanging out with friends. Being “social” is more frequently used to mean interacting with your mates rather than relating to society as a whole. Even though not interacting with your friends is partly right, you may still continue to gather in crowds when you shop which is wrong.

You may rightly ask, if people were unsure of the concept why do they not ask? Firstly, you need to be aware that you are unsure. You may think you have guessed right from the name alone like handschuhe. Even if you do ask someone else, they have to correctly know what social distancing is or they may give you a wrong answer. Assuming you do find someone that knows the correct definition, there are still a multitude of ways things could go wrong. Maybe you were too embarrassed to ask because you didn’t want to look stupid. Maybe you misheard the explanation. Maybe you didn’t bother asking as you thought it wasn’t important.

Finally, some of you may go so far as to even google it but again there are still loads of problems here: you gave up trying to understand due to conflicting information or got distracted etc. So after all this, you are still stuck with your gleaned understanding from the naming of “socially distancing” itself.

The problem gets worse once someone’s understanding of an idea takes hold. For example, some people will be adamant that social distancing means staying at home all the time. Trying to convince them otherwise can be extremely difficult. To this extent I think the WHO trying to rebrand socially distancing as physically distancing won’t catch on.

So what can we do to solve this problem? Well firstly, when you think of a name for something, be extremely careful! However, most of the time names for these sort of thing are not made up with this in mind. It was probably a couple of epidemiologists in a room  who both understood what the concept meant and needed a quick shorthand for it. But when communicating this idea to the public they really should have thought about the consequences. If you can model for the spread of disease you can a model how people will understand a concept!

*My anecdotal evidence from wine tasting is that people are easily primed. If you say some random fruit, people will start to smell that fruit. It is kind of like saying to someone “don’t think of an elephant”.

Sunday 22 March 2020

Socially Distanced Football: Can you modify football so you can still play while social distancing?

The basics of social distancing is that if you are symptom free, you can meet with people outside but have to be 2m apart. Also passing things to each other with our hands could also potentially spread the virus so this should also be avoided. This makes a lot of sport impossible to play (unless you like golf).
So I have tried to adapt football to adhere to social distance rules and I think the game actually sounds quite good in theory. It definitely teaches more about positional play and avoids you being two-footed by a red-faced centre back.
There is a big disclaimer here, I am not an expert in how the virus spreads and haven’t thought all of the consequences through. Also, our knowledge of how the virus spreads will change by the day so this may change the rules slightly or make the game unplayable. So what I am saying is, if this becomes a massive thing and the virus spreads even more as a result of it, I really do not want to be held responsible for the avoidable deaths of thousands of people.

If you also don’t want to be responsible for thousands of avoidable deaths then I suggest you follow social distancing rules. As I am writing this people are still gathering in crowds and it is likely we will be in lockdown soon.

The Rules

The rules are basically the same as football with a few alterations to the pitch and certain things borrowed from basketball and volleyball. This game is set up for a 5-a-side match but I am pretty sure you can adapt it to how many players you have by moving the boxes around.
The pitch consists of boxes. Each player must stay with within their own box during play. The boxes are all 2m apart and this creates a deadzone which I will call the 2m zone (if I was a kid playing this everyone would call it the coronazone but as I am an adult this is really inappropriate).

The No.1 Rule

You are not allowed within 2m of anybody in any circumstance.  Not your team or the opposition players, not when you score a goal or after the game is over. If anyone doesn’t adhere to these rules, they cannot play.

The Basics

The game starts with one team’s goalkeeper having the ball. Let’s call the team that starts with the ball the offending team, and the team that doesn’t start with the ball, the defensive team.
You must stay inside your box during play. You can dangle a leg into the 2m zone to intercept a pass but you must not place a foot down or it is a foul. 
You are only allowed 7 seconds on the ball before you have to pass or shoot but you can
take as many touches as you want in that time.

The ball cannot be kicked above waist height
Everyone must use their feet, including the goalkeeper*
Teams can swap positions when the ball is out of play.


There are no free kicks, throw-ins or corners. The only way play can restart is giving the opposition goalkeeper the ball.
Restarts occur when:
a) A goal is scored.
b) A rule is broken (e.g. a player enters the 2m zone)
c) The ball goes out of play (this includes the 2m zone). The team that touches the ball last gives the ball to the opposition goalkeeper.

The Max Pass Rule

The GK always starts with the ball and they start play.
The defenders of a team incorporate the goalkeeper and the two closest players to the goalkeeper. The Forwards are the two players that are higher up the pitch and are separated by the opposing team’s players.
The max pass rule means that defenders can each have the ball only once between themselves before passing forward or shooting (if they must).
Forwards can have the ball only once between themselves before shooting or passing backwards to defenders. 

If the defenders receive the ball from forwards then the max pass rule is reset: each defender can only have the ball once before passing forward and shooting.
If the defending team intercepts the ball, they become the offending team and the offensive rules apply to them.
For example, the goalkeeper passes to the right-side defender who then passes to the left-side defender. They then pass the ball to the left-side forward who then passes to the right-side forward. The right-side forward can either shoot or pass back to any defender, but they can’t pass back to the other forward again until it has been passed back to a defender first.
This rule (although a little complicated on paper) avoids teams just passing it back between themselves like England defenders at a major tournament. Allowing forwards to pass the ball back to defenders is designed to make for more interesting styles of play. Also, the opposing team’s forwards can try and intercept the ball if the ball is passed back to defenders. Basically, if you didn’t have this rule, the ball would always have to go forward and play wouldn’t last very long.


I originally started this as something to do on a Sunday with no football on the tele. But worryingly, I have convinced myself that this game doesn’t sound all that bad. It would be good if someone could make a FIFA mod of it to see how it would work.
I have never written anything like this before so comments from referees, football tacticians, and most importantly, virologists and epidemiologists, are most welcome.
Finally, If you end up playing it in the park you are going to need a lot of jumpers.

*Perhaps when information changes about Covid19 you could have the GK using their hands and allow the ball above head height, but I am erring on the side of caution on this one and I want to encourage position swapping. You also now have a legitimate reason to pretend you’re RenĂ© Higuita.

Friday 20 March 2020

The Media and Panic Buying

The problem with seeing pictures of empty shelves is that it just makes panic buying worse. The media have an important role to play in this but first let's try and understand why panic buying is a problem. In short: panic buying means resources are not allocated to those who need them.

Imagine if there were only two people in a village, Helen and Jack. Every week they go to the village shop and on the shelf there are 6 cans of soup.

Each week, Helen goes in and usually buys 1 can of soup and Jack goes in and buys 2 cans of soup. Sometimes they may buy more or sometimes a bit less. However, the important thing is the shopkeeper roughly knows how many cans of soup she needs on her shelf. Each week she will replace the ones that got bought and keep the shelves full with 6 cans.

Now let us say suddenly something happens like the coronavirus, people are worried that they may need to stay indoors. Jack is concerned and decides to buy 6 cans of soup so he has enough soup for 3 weeks. Helen comes into the shop afterwards to find the shelves completely empty.

So the problem is not that there isn’t enough soup, it is that Jack has enough soup for 3 weeks and Helen does not have any soup at all.

But there is an important psychological effect here that is not demonstrated in the above example. When we go to the shops, we take visual clues in order to estimate how large the total supply of the soup is.

Consider the case if Helen comes into the shop first and sees the usual 6 cans on the shelf. In this example, she is worried about the virus and Jack is not. As Helen is worried, she buys 3 cans rather than her usual 1.

Jack comes in after Helen, he isn’t worried about the virus but the shelf is looking a bit empty. Usually there are about 5 or 6 cans on the shelf when he comes in but now there are only 3! So he is now concerned something may have happened to the total amount of soup and so decides to buy the 3 remaining soup cans that are left on the shelf rather than his usual 2. As there is now no soup on the shelves, if anyone else comes into the shop looking for soup they will have no soup!

So what can we do to stop this? Well let’s say the shop keeper had some spare cans of soup in the back, as soon as Helen bought 3 she could have restocked the shelf before Jack came in. As Jack isn’t so worried about the virus when he comes in, he sees a shelf full of soup and only buys his usual 2. Even if he has heard a rumour that people are panic buying soup, seeing a full shelf will mean he is still less likely to buy more soup. Seeing a full shelf shelf makes him question the rumour as he has no need to believe otherwise.

Although supermarkets do have some spares in the back, most of their cans are in warehouses where there are giant stacks of soup cans that go on for miles. The problem with panic buying is not that there isn’t enough soup to go round, but it is that the delivery drivers can’t get the soup to the stores quick enough to restock the shelves. When we see empty shelves we wrongly assume that soup is running out. The only thing that is running low is the soup on the shelves, not the soup the total amount of soup the super markets have.

So what can the media do? Well the media have a duty to cover important events like when people panic buy. But they also have a duty to cover it responsibly. By showing empty shelves this triggers the same psychological response as Jack had in the previous example, it makes us think that something is in short supply. 

So rather than showing empty shelves and having a random guy in a high-vis vest saying “don’t panic buy”, it would be better so show pictures of these giant warehouses full of stuff and explain how their supply chain works.

So if by seeing these gigantic warehouses full of stuff on the news and enough people believe* (correctly!) that there is enough supply of food, then the problem of empty shelves will go away!

*A similar problem happens sometimes when people are worried a bank is going to run out of money. This causes a bank run and people start queuing to take their cash out. One way to solve this bankrun is for the government to come in and back the bank and say they will supply all the short-term cash they need. As a result, people no longer think the bank will run out of money and so stop queuing up at cashpoints. Amazingly, by the government SIMPLY announcing this decision solves this problem, they may not even have to act!

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