Your shout: bird flu warning, IT placements and scientists

Computer Weekly readers have their say

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Computer Weekly readers have their say

Bird flu could be even worse than warnings

Bill Goodwin's article on planning for bird flu disruption (Computer Weekly, 8 November) was a good read, but some of the comments demonstrate the very common "ostrich syndrome" -we do not want to face up to our worst fears, so we do not plan for them.

In particular, the article refers to the Health Protection Agency's estimate that flu might kill 50,000 people, and that absenteeism might be "in the worst case scenario 10% to 15%". I lived through a flu epidemic at school: it got maybe 80% of the students.

H5N1 appears to be killing one victim in two at the moment. While I do not wish to scaremonger, and stress that this is a worst-case scenario, our company plans assume that the worst case is "50% of employees absent through death", and this could be optimistic.

The problem we have is that there are too many unknown variables to plan effectively. However, if we do get the not unlikely combination of a true bird flu (and not a human/bird flu hybrid), and Tamiflu inoculations prove to be useless, then I think the alternative official estimate of 750,000 UK fatalities is likely to prove optimistic.

It is based on the fact that the 1919 flu epidemic killed 250,000, when our population was one third of what it is today. Anybody with a basic knowledge of statistics and medicine will instantly know that this is a dangerously simplistic assumption, very prone to underestimation.

In the absence of a viable treatment, about the only sensible advice that can be given is to tell all your staff to avoid possible infection.

Do not let them come into work. This will both increase their chances of avoiding catching it, and of surviving if they get it. To do anything else leaves a company at risk of not having a workforce at the end of the pandemic.

Anthony Youngman

IT placement students get grounding in business

I was struck by the comments from government CIO Ian Watmore that "the university system is producing the wrong sort of graduates"(Computer Weekly, 1 November). In fact, there are many positive stories coming out of university departments in the UK. In my own department we are engaged in introducing students to the industrial world in two ways.

One mechanism, which has been tried over the years, and which we find particularly successful, is the one-year sandwich placement. We currently send more than half our students - this year 75 - out on a one-year placement in industry. They come back not only with improved technical skills but also with a much greater awareness of business and how to operate in that environment.

A remarkable result for us is that they come back as better students too: prior to going out, the two cohorts of placement and non-placement students perform equally well; on their return, the placement students perform substantially better.

We attribute this to a combination of improved general skills (such as time management), enhanced motivation, and a much greater business awareness as a context for their study.

A more recent, and more radical, innovation is the Kent IT Clinic. This has been set up with support from the Higher Education Innovation Fund in the computing lab at the University of Kent. The aim of the clinic is to provide consultancy, service and development support to local businesses. These are predominantly SMEs or micro-businesses.

The novelty of the clinic is that the consultants are students, who work under the mentorship of an experienced consultant. Students earn academic credit for their work in the clinic, and are trained in consultancy methods as a part of their programme. We have been running the clinic for just over a year now, and have a number of successful engagements under our belt.

Simon Thompson, director and professor of logic and computation, University of Kent

Why scientists know what they are doing in IT

Mike Follows makes an interesting point about maths A-level and success in computer science (Letters, 8 November). However, I would go even further than he does and suggest that studying a natural science such as chemistry or, better yet, physics is probably the very best preparation.

Quite apart from the required numeracy, the explanation of experiment and application of methodical investigation, empiricism and discovery works wonders for working in IT.

I look around at many of the people I know working in the sector, and many of them (myself included) are "lapsed" physicists of some description. Of course, there are some out there who would suspect that physicists are just cunningly disguised applied mathematicians, but I still think the idea has some mileage.

In many cases in my own experience, students having an IT A-level of some description have sometimes been at a distinct disadvantage when entering higher education to study computer science, generally because the shortage of good IT teaching has traumatised many students and taught them bad habits before they get there.

Darren Stephens, Centre for internet computing, University of Hull

A degree of scepticism is best route to IT success

With reference to "Maths A-levels give a headstart for IT studies" (Letters, 8 November), in almost four decades in this industry, I have found history graduates to be far superior.

They acquire a healthy scepticism toward all of their sources, which is a superb grounding for dealing with system specifications and suppliers' promises.

The most effective implementor I ever met had studied ancient Greek, and his deputy team leader studied classical history.

The quality of the degree is much more important than its subject.

Phil Payne, Sheffield

ISPs hold the key to anti-spyware campaign

The campaign to bring the industry together to combat spyware is a good first step in increasing awareness and educating consumers (Computer weekly.com, 27 October).

However, merely raising the issue will not completely stop the problem from escalating. The question is, now that the campaign has been launched, how will this initiative practically bring about a change?

What concerns me is that ISPs don't seem to be taking part in this campaign, when they are the gateway to the internet and hold consumers' safety in their hands. ISPs should certainly play a central role in educating consumers about spyware and other internet threats, and provide them with the tools they need to protect themselves.

Paul Goossens, Preventon

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