Posts Tagged‘research’

Homeopathic Pills With Not Much In Them

NHMRC Rules Homeopathy “Useless For Human Health”.

You might not think it from reading this blog but I’ve actually been an advocate for some types of complementary medicine in the past. Predominantly this has been related to osteopathy which helped me tremendously with some back issues I had, especially when used in conjunction with more traditional physiotherapy. However that’s where my belief in them ends as whilst many practitioners would have you believe that their treatments can be effective for things other than what they’re directly influencing the science just isn’t there to support it. Indeed even the practitioners I use don’t believe that which is the reason I keep going back to them.

Homeopathic Pills With Not Much In ThemOne of my favourite dead horses to beat in this area is homeopathy, the practice of diluting something that causes the symptoms you’re experiencing in water to the point where none of that substance could remain. It’s practitioners then theorize that the water retains some “memory” of it which you body then recognises and somehow manifests a cure for ailments. Homeopathy has been scientifically proven to be no more effective than a placebo in numerous clinical trials yet it’s still a booming industry seeing on the order of $10 million worth of sales in Australia every year. You’d think that without any solid grounds for efficacy it wouldn’t be long for this world but it’s practitioners are an incredibly stubborn bunch.

Thankfully though the government commissioned the National Health and Medical Research Council to do a report on the efficacy of homeopathy for some 68 different clinical conditions and the results are, unsurprisingly, for the negative. The research was commissioned as part of a larger body of work concerning the government’s 30% rebate on complementary therapies which currently includes things like homeopathy. It’s quite possible that this will lead to the exclusion of such therapies from the rebate scheme, something which I wholly support. This won’t stop them from being sold though, they just won’t be subsidised as a complementary form of medicine.

On the flip side though I’m of the mind that people are more than welcome to put whatever they want in their bodies so long as they don’t harm anyone else. This research makes it clear that homeopathy can not treat clinical conditions and so anyone who advocates it as such is, in my mind, actively doing harm to that person. If you’re taking a homeopathic remedy for “general health reasons” and it seems to be working for you great, but consider that your experience is more than likely due to the nature of you thinking it was going to work rather than some magical properties of water that defies all scientific evidence to the contrary. In that case for it to work for someone else they too have to believe that and if they do they’ll likely find it without your help.

 

 

TranshumanMichelangelo

Australian, US Researchers Dramatically Reverse Aging in Mice.

I’m something of a quiet transhumanist, reveling in the ideas of elevating the human existence through the use of technology but staving off from raving about it whenever I get the chance. Whilst the idea of living longer appeals to many the idea of removing that inevitable end date, the one thing that has proved to be unavoidable for the vast majority of humanity to date, feels abhorrent to many and thus I leave the subject to one side. Still every so often a piece of science will make it into the mainstream media that brings with it some of the implications of transhumanist thinking and I feel compelled to comment on it.

TranshumanMichelangeloA collaborative research effort between scientists in Australia and the USA has discovered a compound which, when administered to 2 year old mice, makes them appear to be as youthful as their 6 month old counterparts. The time line for the dramatic effects was also impressive with the reversal taking just under a week to occur. The compound acts on mitochondria, the energy generators of our cells, and appears to act directly on the muscle tissue of the mice. Whether that extends to other aspects of aging isn’t made clear (at least not that I can see, the article is behind a paywall) but the results have been impressive enough to warrant approval for human trials next year. Of course that means that a proper human model is some years off (with commercial production further still) but we should have some preliminary results in the not too distant future.

If this compound does pretty much exactly as advertised then it could mean a lot for our aging populace. Restoring muscle function is a key aspect in leading a healthier life as we age (which is why regular exercise is so important) and this could go a long way to making our golden years that much more enjoyable. At the same time it could also potentially help keep us in physical peak condition much longer, enabling us to be more active for an extended period of time. Whether this will translate to a bump in life expectancy and, more importantly, total longevity though will be something we won’t know for decades but it does sound promising.

Of course such life extension technologies always beg the question of how we’d deal with a larger population that’s living longer. Currently the world’s population is expected to peak around 2050 at roughly 8.3 billion, about 1.3 billion above what it is today. Technology like this wouldn’t immediately mean everyone suddenly starts living an additional 20~30 years, due to cost and adoption rates, so it’s far more likely that you’d see a gradual increase in average lifespan over the course of a couple decades. Indeed I believe this is true for all life extending technologies and thus their effects would be far more subtle and would be highly unlikely to lead to an unsustainable population of people who live forever.

It’s my hope that this line of research paves the way for more studies into what causes aging and what we can do to treat it. Whilst I will always support people’s decisions to live their lives the way they choose I believe that medical science can do a lot to help improve it and, one day, make death a choice rather than an inevitability. 

 

Creepy Chilli Dude

Does Chilli Really Help With The Common Cold?

After a long weekend of staying up late, drinking merrily and enjoying the company of many close friends I found myself being a little under the weather. This is pretty atypical for me as I’ve only ever had the flu twice and I usually pass through the cold season relatively unscathed. Whilst there’s thousands of possible reasons for this I’ve always found that should I find myself in the beginnings of an infection a strong dose of chilli seems to make it subside, or at least take my mind off it long enough to start feeling better. I realised yesterday that whilst I might have some anecdotal evidence to support this I hadn’t really looked into the science behind it and the stuff I uncovered in my search has been pretty intriguing.

Creepy Chilli Dude

For starters there are some strange experiments out there that have used chilli (well the chemical that gives it the burn, capsaicin) as an apparently reliable method to induce coughing in test subjects. The first one I came across was testing whether or not coughing is a voluntary action and the results seem to indicate that the coughing we get with the common cold is a mixture of both. Other experiments showed that people with an upper respiratory tract infection (which includes things like the common cold) are more prone to coughing when exposed to a capsaicin/citric acid mixture. None of these really helped me in understanding whether or not chilli aids in reducing the symptoms of the common cold or helping to cure it but a couple other studies do provide some potential paths for benefits.

Subjects with perennial rhinitis, a permanent allergic reaction to stimulus that doesn’t vary by season, showed a marked decrease in nasal complaints when treated with a solution of 0.15mg of capsaicin per nostal every 2nd or 3rd day for 7 treatments. The benefits lasted up to 9 months after the treatment and incredibly there were no adverse effects on cellular homeostasis or overall neurogenic staining (which sounds rather impressive but is a little out of my league to explain).  Whilst this doesn’t directly support the idea that consumption helps the common cold it does provide a potential mechanism for it to relieve symptoms. However how much capsaicin ends up in your sinuses while eating it isn’t something I could find any data on.

Other studies have found similar effects when capsaicin solutions have been sprayed into the nasal cavity with the improvements lasting for up to 6 months. That particular study was a little on the small side though with only 10 patients and no controls present but the result do fall in line with the previous study which had much more rigorous controls. The theme appears to resonate through most of the other studies that I could find: topical application in the sinuses is good, inhaling it will cause you to erupt in a coughing fit.

Anecdotally that seems to line up with the experiences I’ve had and it’s good to see it backed up by some proper science. As for consumed chilli helping overall however there doesn’t appear to be any studies that support that idea but there are potential avenues for it to work. So like many scientists I’ll have to say that the results are interesting but require a lot more research to be done. Whether it’s worthy of investigating is something I’ll leave up as an exercise to the reader, but I’m sure we’d find no shortage of spice loving test subjects who’d be willing to participate.

 

The HPV Vaccine is Safe, Don’t Be Shit and Not Vaccinate Your Kids.

Vaccines are the most effective form of disease prevention as they train our bodies to respond to them long before we encounter them in wild. They’re responsible for systemically wiping out several diseases that caused countless numbers of deaths around the world and have saved people from the life long consequences that survivors of said diseases would have to struggle with. You’d think with proven benefits like that the choice to use them, especially for the most vulnerable groups of people (I.E. children and the elderly), would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately it seems that as more time passes the more often I come across articles detailing the increase prevalence of anti-vaxxers and I’m struggling to understand why.

Whilst the anti-vaxxer movement isn’t exactly new, indeed as long as there has been vaccines there have been those who have been opposed to them, this current wave can trace its origins back to Andrew Wakefield’s long since discredited research linking the MMR vaccine to autism spectrum disorders in children. Even though he has since been very publicly shamed over the matter people still seem to link vaccines with all sorts of disorders they are simply incapable of producing. Worse still is the fact that this baseless fear is now spreading to other vaccines, modern ones with impeccable safety and efficacy records.

4.0.4

This little bastard is the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which is responsible for nearly all cervical cancers found in women today. Thankfully we have a vaccine for it now and all it requires is 3 shots over the course of 6 months to eliminate the risk of ever getting it. The vaccine is most effective when delivered to children when they’re young or in their early teens but it is still effective in older individuals (my wife had hers when she was in her early twenties). Recent studies show that despite its proven track record of efficacy and safety parents are becoming increasingly worried about it with many stating that they’ll never vaccinate their children for HPV:

A rising percentage of parents say they won’t have their teen daughters vaccinated to protect against the human papilloma virus, even though physicians are increasingly recommending adolescent vaccinations, a study by Mayo Clinic and others shows. More than 2 in 5 parents surveyed believe the HPV vaccine is unnecessary, and a growing number worry about potential side effects, researchers found. The findings are published in the new issue of the journal Pediatrics.


Five years ago, 40 percent of parents surveyed said they wouldn’t vaccinate their girls against HPV. In 2009, that rose to 41 percent, and in 2010, to 44 percent.

Let’s tackle the idea that the vaccine is unnecessary first as this means parent’s believe their children simply don’t need it, something which should be easy to prove by looking up cancer rates. I’d accept that it’d be unnecessary if the incident rates were low but the fact of the matter is that cervical cancer is the second most common form of cancer in women and the fifth most deadly. The rates might look statistically low however if you could eliminate that risk with a simple (and usually free) vaccination course I think you’d do it if it was any other form of cancer. Calling it unnecessary simply shows your ignorance of how prevalent it really is.

The side effects of the HPV vaccine are also well known and for the vast majority (we’re talking 99.9999% here, and I’m not exaggerating) are mild and easily treatable with over the counter analgesics. In those rare cases where there are severe reactions doctors are trained in how to respond to them and patients will fully recover in short order. All of the other reported side effects, everything from waking comas to deaths, can not be casually linked to the vaccine. Indeed in the 20 or so cases of deaths reported as adverse reactions to the vaccines none of them were found to be caused by the vaccine and were explained by other factors. Considering some 40 million people have been vaccinated with it so far and we can’t attribute anything but eradication of cancer and some mild side effects I think its fair to assume its safe.

I know I’ve been beating this horse (which seems to keep reviving itself) for some time now but it does really get to me that people are being wilfully ignorant of the facts behind vaccines about how effective, safe and necessary they really are. Sadly whilst it didn’t take me long to find all this information it was shown right alongside a whole treasure trove of anti-vaxxer bullshit which is why I continue to write things like this. It’s my hope that someone looking for good information on the subject will stumble across my posts like these and hopefully be convinced that vaccines really are worth it.

 

Herd Immunity Demonstration

Visual Representation of The Effects of Herd Immunity (Or Anti-Vaxxers: Listen Up)

Arguing with facts on your side can sometimes feel like a Sisyphean task, especially on the Internet. For the most part when I claim something on this blog I try to back it up with reputable information sources if I haven’t done the research myself and if I’m talking completely out my ass I try to make that known so you can take that information with the required grain of salt. However when people comment on here I feel obliged to reply to them, even if what they’re saying has no basis in any kind of fact or reality. This can feel like a form of asymmetric warfare at times as the amount of time taken to disprove something is usually an order of magnitude more than what it took to write it in the first place.

Now I don’t usually like to pick on people who make comments here, if you’ve taken the time to post here I feel it’s better to respond to you directly on the post, but some of them simply demand more attention than I’ve already given to them. The one I’m thinking of in particular is this comment where they claim that herd immunity has been debunked, something that’s never been brought forth in any research paper that I’ve been able to track down. As far as I can tell it all comes down to the opinion of a one Dr. Blaylock who’s opinions have always been radically different from the scientific norm. He’s not a scientific dissenter either as many of his claims have been thoroughly debunked by other research but the herd immunity claim seems to remain.

Herd Immunity Demonstration

 

Whilst it would be all well and good for me to simply link to research papers which show case this fact quite well I thought it’d be better to point to something that demonstrates the point visually. The picture above is from this simulation tool which shows the results of what happens when a disease moves through a population. The first couple are interesting to get a feel for how an uncontrolled infection can spread even if only a single person is infected. The latter ones deal with some real life situations and demonstrate quite aptly why herd immunity works and why we’ve started to see small epidemics in isolated populations where they don’t vaccinated their children.

Probably the most shocking revelation I got from this simulation was the existence of Waldorf schools who’s official stance on vaccinations is “we have no official stance” but then immediately goes on to recommend parents don’t vaccinate their kids against a wide spectrum of diseases. Apart from the giant hypocrisy of saying one thing but then encouraging the other this kind of behaviour is inherently dangerous because it will mean there’s a cluster of unvaccinated people in constant contact with one another, a hot bed for a potential epidemic. It’s one thing to claim that but it’s already happened once and there was potential for another outbreak to occur due to the incredibly low vaccination rate. Considering that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world where vaccination rates are above a certain threshold it’s a timely reminder that herd immunity is real and when its broken the consequences can be devastating.

I would go on but I think I’m preaching to the choir here as whilst the number of comments I get disagreeing with me out numbers those who do I know that if that reflected reality us humans would be in a far worse state, health wise, than we are today. The fact of the matter is that herd immunity is real and works beautifully for protecting those precious few who can not be vaccinated for one reason or another. Failing to vaccinate is not only a bad decision personally it also puts others at risk and that’s the only reason I need to support the current standard of mandated vaccinations.

I Thought We’d Won (The R18+ Guideline Requiem).

3 years. That’s how long I’ve been writing about the R18+ rating in Australia. I had thought that I was pretty much done with it when the rating sailed through the lower house 6 months ago but a week ago the guidelines for the new rating were released by the Australian Classification Board and the gaming community collectively sighed in dismay at what was presented. Taking a look over the guidelines it’s clear that the idea of a unified classification scheme for all forms of media will never come into reality in Australia as apparently games must be treated differently to all other mediums of expression. Their reasoning for this might look sound on the surface (games are interactive and thus more impactful) but their thinking isn’t based on any science I can find and we all know how angry that makes me.

The guidelines themselves are short and concise which makes them rather easy to compare to their previous iterations. Whilst the R18+ rating does open the doors to games that are adult in nature there are some pretty severe restrictions when compared to it’s sister medium of film. Indeed if you look at the guidelines for film’s version of R18+ and then look at the one for games the number of justifications, limits and “in context” qualifiers the comparison is quite stark which shows that the classification board believes that games are more impactful due to their interactive nature. I’ve heard this line before but never actually did some research into whether it was true or not.

Today I found out that it’s not.

Whilst it’s hard to find causative links between video games and any sort of trend in behaviour due to the impossibility of doing proper control testing there is some decent data out there. However meta-analysis of previous studies can show data trends that we can get correlations from. Before you repeat the “correlation is not causation” mantra at me don’t forget that correlation is required for causation¹ so any time you see it pop up the relationship almost always warrants further investigation. In this case whilst the research suggests that violent media may lead to increased aggression that does not directly translate to increased violence and violent media is never the sole factor responsible.

What the research does show however is that the tendency towards aggressive behaviours is no more influenced by interactive games than it is passive consumption of other forms of media. Indeed more research shows that contextual justification of violence is by far more influential than the interactivity or quantity of violence present. Thus the idea that games have to be somehow held up to a different standard than that of other mediums due to its interactivity is at best an emotional argument and not one we should be basing laws around.

Of course since these are a set of guidelines it ultimately comes down to the reviewers to enforce them and there’s a chance that they won’t do so literally. Indeed many games that got slapped with R18+ ratings in other countries previously were waved through under the MA15+ here in Australia and it’s quite possible that with the introduction of the R18+ rating that many of the games that fell under the NC banner previously will get waved through in much the same way. This is pure speculation on my part however and we shall have to wait for the first lot of R18+ games to come through the ACB before we’ll know if there’s any credence to that theory.

It makes me incredibly angry to see policy based around emotional arguments rather than solid research. If I can find the right articles in the couple hours I spend on researching these things then I’d expect nothing less from public servants who are paid to do the same in order to advise their politicians. I can only hope that the government takes the advice of the ALRC seriously and looks towards unifying the classification scheme so we can abandon these silly schemes of differing levels of classification for different types of media. It’s another long shot for sure but after 3 years of shouting to get to this point I’m not about to give up now.

¹And for those smart asses out there who will then tell me that you can have causation without correlation I’ll tell you to go back to your data and have a good hard look at it. If SPSS tells you that there’s no correlation in the data when you somehow know there is then there’s a problem with your data or hypothesis.

Seriously, Exercise Is Awesome.

Even though I’ve dedicated a whole category on this blog to Fitness I’ve only ever posted a couple things directly relating to it. For the uninitiated I’m not what you’d call an expert on these matters, I know many more people more qualified than myself to give proper health advice, but would consider myself an informed individual. I’ve read countless numbers of journals, scientific news sites and rafts of forum posts to figure out the secrets to getting fit and staying that way. Of course in my research I’ll also come across some of the lesser known benefits of exercise and to me they make for some of the most compelling reasons to start exercising regularly.

I mentioned at the end of last year that you can see some pretty amazing benefits if you just stopped sitting for half an hour a day. This came hand in hand with another study that showed as little as 15 minutes worth of moderate exercise per day could add another 3 years to your life with the benefits apparently scaling linearly with more exercise. The effects of exercise appear to get even better if you manage to stay fit between your 30s and 50s, significantly reducing the incident rate of chronic illnesses as you age:

For decades, research has shown that higher cardiorespiratory fitness levels lessen the risk of death, but it previously had been unknown just how much fitness might affect the burden of chronic disease in the most senior years — a concept known as morbidity compression.

“We’ve determined that being fit is not just delaying the inevitable, but it is actually lowering the onset of chronic disease in the final years of life,” said Dr. Jarett Berry, assistant professor of internal medicine and senior author of the study available online in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

In essence this means you can push back the clock on these age related diseases significantly should you keep your fitness level up during mid-life. Their recommendation is a paltry 2.5 hours per week of moderate to intense aerobic activity, something that can be achieved in well under 30 mins per day. This leads to an incredibly increase in your quality of life in later years meaning you’ll spend much less time having to deal with a chronic affliction later in life.

For me it just reinforces the notion that the “slowing down” everyone feels when they get older really is just a perception and not a physical constraint. Indeed all you need to do is to look at the MRIs comparing a 40 and 70 year old triathlete to that of a sedentary individual which shows that lean muscle mass can be preserved as long as you continue your exercise program. The benefits are not only under the skin either as this 75 year old demonstrates:

YouTube Preview Image

I remember one of my friends a while ago saying to me that now they were getting close to 30 they could start to feel parts of their body wearing out on them. To put it bluntly I lost my shit at them saying that I’d never been more active or physically fit in my life and put it to them that they were just perceiving that they were slowing down because they weren’t trying to be more active. If a 75 year old can look that good and still be working out at that age then us young whipper snappers who aren’t even half her age really have no excuses.

I could go on but realistically if these kinds of benefits, which can be had with very little time invested, aren’t enough to motivate you then I’m not really sure what will. Sure I’ll give you that it isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do but it’s very much a thing of habit and once you start doing it regularly you’ll find it incredibly hard to stop. Then later in life when you’re still feeling as awesome at 50 as you did at 30 you’ll know it was worth all the effort.

Why Plain Packaging Legislation is Bad Policy.

I’ve never been a smoker but I did live with one for the better part of 20 years. My father smoked for about 30 years up until he had a heart attack over a decade ago and that’s a pretty good thing to set everyone straight on the risks of smoking. However I don’t believe it’s my, or anyone else’s business, if people who are fully aware of the risks involved choose to engage that behaviour anyway so long as they’re not harming anyone else in the process. This is why I supported legislation that banned smoking in clubs and in outdoor areas of restaurants as the risk was real and provable then. What I don’t support however is the idea that plain packaging, I.E. olive green packages with bigger warning labels on them, will do anything to lower smoking rates in Australia.

Now I’m fully aware that some people may write me off as a corporate apologist in this regard, I do have a rather lengthy track record of defending certain company’s actions from time to time, but my concerns aren’t the ones that the tobacco companies have brought forward. Whilst I do believe there needed to be some more discussion surrounding the loss of branding potential and the real risk of product counterfeiting my concerns come from the research backing the legislation which, as far as I can tell, don’t really match up with the line that’s being marketed to Australia.

For reference the research I’m referring to are the Cancer Council’s Position Statement and the University of Sterling’s systemic review of plain packaging research.

The research from both articles is quite similar so I’ll focus on the systemic review since that’s a much more sound piece of scientific literature. Below is an excerpt showing the review’s aims:

The primary aim of this review is to assess the impact of plain tobacco packaging on the:
1. appeal of the packaging or product;
2. salience and effectiveness of health warnings; and
3. perceptions of product strength and harm.

I’m not going to judge the validity of these research goals, indeed they are interesting points to note, however I feel it’s something of a leap to translate those particular goals into a reduction in of the current rate of smoking. Indeed the main point that the Australian government hammered home with the plain packaging idea was that it would help stop our younger generation from taking up the habit. Looking deeper into the research there’s really nothing in it to support that idea as there was no investigation into the vectors by which youths (and adults) are introduced to tobacco.

The research is also heavily qualitative in nature, which isn’t technically a bad thing, but for the most part it’s also quite comparative. Take for instance the following paragraph relating to product strength and harm:

Perceptions of harmfulness and strength  were assessed in several ways, by asking respondents which packs: would deliver the most tar and/or nicotine or would be ‘lighter’ in tar; were a greater risk to health compared to other brands;  would be associated with greater or lesser harm; would trigger discussions on harmfulness; inform the smoker about the health effects; and would be more likely to make you think that the cigarettes inside were dangerous.

Whilst this might have shown that people would believe that plain packaged cigarettes were more dangerous to their health than branded ones the research doesn’t show how this would translate into lower smoker incident rates. Indeed much of the research is done in the same manner, with the results being that people found the branded packages more appealing (is that really a surprise?) and that people were more likely to remember the health warnings if they were displayed on a plain package. I’m not disputing these findings, indeed I’m inclined to agree with them, what I’m not getting is how they make the leap to reducing our smoker population.

The argument can be made that if the packaging is less appealing, the health warnings more remembered and the product is thought to be more damaging to their health that these pressures will lead to smokers dropping the habit. You could also argue that it may have some impact on uptake rates as well however the small amount of research into that very idea doesn’t support it. From the systemic analysis again:

Four studies examined the potential impact of plain packs on participants’ own smoking behaviour.
Again the overall pattern is mixed but tends to be supportive of plain packaging having a deterrent
effect on smoking.

It’s statements like the above that really get to me as you can not conclude from mixed results that something is in support of your hypothesis. The only thing you can draw from that is that more research is required to make a proper conclusion, not that it supports your idea. If the conclusion of the study was in fact “we need more research done into this” I’d be much more supportive but instead we’ve got legislation, which is the real issue here.

We’ve had a lot of successful schemes that have helped reduce the number of new and old smokers. Both the health warnings and the ad campaigns on free to air television have a long history of being effective and had good supporting research behind them. Plain packaging on the other hand doesn’t have the same level of evidence to support the conclusion that’s currently being made and fails to investigate critical things like the origins of people’s habits. I would have fully supported a year long trial in order to judge the effectiveness of it and then should the evidence support our hypothesis then we could legislate. However the current approach of taking tangentially related research and then creating policy around that isn’t something I can support and neither should you.

Just Say No To Homeopathy.

Most of the time with alternative medicine I take the stance that as long as you’re not hurting anyone else and it works for you then you’re free to do whatever the heck you want. I do this as I’ve been in more than a couple situations where I’ve caused serious offence to people when I’ve started heavily questioning their beliefs and I’m not the kind of person who takes joy in getting people angry at me. Thankfully its pretty much a non-issue for the company I regularly keep as we’re all well aware of what topics are potential minefields for arguments that’ll lead down a rabbit hole from which no winner will ever emerge.

However I have in the past made my stance known on several pseudo-science issues before and I’m saddling up to do so again. This time I’ve got my sights set on homeopathy because it seems to be the last little bastion of woo I’ve yet to tackle seriously.

I haven’t really had much to do with homeopathy since I firs heard about it 5 years or so ago but I can remember clearly reading up on it to figure out what it was. Whilst at first I was intrigued by the notion that dilution increase potency (because anything that posits something that crazy has  to have some fun stuff backing it up) when I read about the actual process required to prepare homeopathic remedies I instantly twigged that it was nothing more than water and any effects people were ascribing to it were just a simple function of the placebo effect. Surely, I thought, given enough time people would come to realise this and the movement would fade back into the obscurity from whence it came and I’d never hear about it again.

It would never be that simple, of course.

Cue my honeymoon trip to Turtle Island off the northern coast of Fiji. The beautiful temperate weather dulling the more harsh sides of personality with the great food and plentiful booze ensuring that I was in no mood to go on a sceptical rampage. What else would happen but a conversation about homeopathic remedies where a surgeon was looking for something to ease his nagging shoulder injuries. I fobbed it off, enduring the conversation for as long as it lasted, and instead focused my attention to other, more pleasurable endeavours (read: the booze). Thankfully it seemed that the only people that really believed in it were a singular couple as the surgeon friend said it did nothing for him.

I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that factually we can’t put any more faith in homeopathy than we do in sugar pills. The research clearly shows that homeopathy is ineffectual in treating the ailments it claims to be able to and any effect is simply the placebo effect in action. If a remedy seems to work for you fine but don’t let me catch you trying to peddle that nonsense to anyone else as you’re far more likely to do someone harm than any amount of good. If the treatment is as good as you think it is then they will find it on their own and I have no problems with consenting adults putting whatever rubbish they want into their bodies (just not other people’s bodies).

Transitioning From an IT Admin to a Cloud Admin.

I’ve gone on record saying that whilst the cloud won’t kill the IT admin there is a very real (and highly likely) possibility that the skills required to be a general IT administrator will change significantly over the next decade. Realistically this is no different from any other 10 year span in technology as you’d struggle to find many skills that were as relevant today as they were 10 years ago. Still the cloud does represent some fairly unique paradigm shifts and challenges to regular IT admins, some of which will require significant investment in re-skilling in order to stay relevant in a cloud augmented future.

The most important skill that IT admins will need to develop is their skills in programming. Now most IT admins have some level of experience with this already, usually with automation scripts based in VBScript, PowerShell or even (shudder) batch. Whilst these provide some of the necessary foundations for working in a cloud future they’re not the greatest for developing (or customizing) production level programs that will be used on a daily basis. The best option then is to learn some kind of formal programming language, preferably one that has reference libraries for all cloud platforms. My personal bias would be towards C# (and should be yours if your platform is Microsoft) as it’s a great language and you get the world’s best development environment to work in: Visual Studio.

IT admins should also look to gaining a deep understanding of virtualization concepts, principles and implementations as these are what underpins nearly all cloud services today. Failing to understand these concepts means that you won’t be able to take advantage of many of the benefits that a cloud platform can provide as they function very differently to the traditional 3 tier application model.

The best way to explain this is to use Microsoft’s Azure platform as an example. Whilst you can still get the 3 tier paradigm working in the Azure environment (using a Web Role, Worker Role and SQL Azure) this negates the benefits of using things like Azure Table Storage, Blob Storage and Azure Cache. The difference comes down to having to manually scale an application like you would do normally instead of enabling the application to scale itself in response to demand. In essence there’s another level of autonomy you take advantage of, one that makes capacity planning a thing of the past¹.

It’s also worth your time to develop a lot of product knowledge in the area of cloud services. As I mentioned in my previous blog cloud services are extremely good at some things and wildly inappropriate for others. However in my experience most cloud initiatives attempt to be too ambitious, looking to migrate as many services into the cloud as possible whether there are benefits to be had or not. It’s your job then to advise management as to where cloud services will be most appropriate and you can’t do this without a deep knowledge of the products on offer. A good rule of thumb is that cloud services are great at replacing commodity services (email, ERP, CRM etc.) but aren’t so great at replacing custom systems or commodity systems that have had heavy modifications to them. Still it’s worth researching the options out there to ensure you know how the cloud provider’s capabilities match up with your requirements, hopefully prior to attempting to implement them.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and realistically your strategy will have to be custom made to your company and your potential career path. However I do believe that investing in the skills I mentioned above will give you a good footing for transition from just a regular IT admin to a cloud admin. For me I find it exciting as whilst I don’t believe the cloud will overtake anything and everything in the corporate IT environment it will provide us with some amazing new capabilities.

¹Well technically it just moves the problem from you to the cloud service provider. There’s still some capacity planning to be done on your end although it comes down financial rather than computational, so that’s usually left to the finance department of your organisation. They’re traditionally much better at financial planning than IT admins are at capacity planning.

Many thanks to Derek Singleton of Software Advice for inspiring this post with his blog on Cloud Career Plans.