The Santa Delusion

I don’t remember ever believing in Santa, although I was willing to play along with adults bent on perpetuating the myth in order to get the resulting treats. I know that on one occasion I asked to visit Santa at the shopping centre in the full knowledge that it was just some random dude in a silly suit. But hey, free stuff is free stuff.

As an adult I’ve been accused of having no soul, being too logical and questioning the magic. As a child I remember the idea of Santa’s simultaneous worldwide delivery system just didn’t really fly. The incidence of many different people presenting themselves as Santa (including my own father at a seasonal church event) really undermined the idea of him being one special entity. Also, if his powers extend to knowing whether children have been good or bad then surely he shouldn’t need them to write down their wish lists?

I don’t think my childhood lacked magic just because I didn’t subscribe to the Santa Delusion. I remember being fascinated by motes of dust dancing in sunlight, and sitting staring at wood chip wallpaper until the random texture changed into faces. I was a voracious reader, so spent a lot of time in the various dream worlds conjured by books. I created my own fantasy worlds to inhabit between being sent to bed and going to sleep, which was far more entertaining than listening to my parents’ arguments echoing up through the walls.

I never understood why adults, and particularly parents, think it’s a great idea to teach children to believe in Santa. I’m sure it’s a lot of fun for everyone when the kids still believe, but it doesn’t last. It sets children up to learn that the people they are meant to trust most will happily mislead them, and in many cases use a false belief system as leverage to manipulate their behaviour. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly healthy lesson in relating to others, but then again maybe it’s a good way for children to begin to learn that their parents are fallible.

Everybody lies, at least if Dr. House is to be believed. At any rate, it appears that lies-to-children is a standard and respectable educational tool for simplifying complex concepts enough for them to become accessible to children and laypeople. I first became aware of the concept by reading the works of the late, great Terry Pratchett:

“A lie-to-children is a statement that is false, but which nevertheless leads the child’s mind towards a more accurate explanation, one that the child will only be able to appreciate if it has been primed with the lie” The Science of Discworld

If I put aside my misgivings about setting children up to have their bubbles burst and re-examine the Santa Delusion as a lie-to-children then alternate interpretations begin to appear such as:

  • A simplification of the Christian judgement concept in which the abstract concepts of heaven and hell are replaced with tangible consequences of gifts and coal.
  • A way to teach children that being nice to others leads to nice things happening to them and reinforcing the lesson with tangible rewards.
  • A behavioural tool to help children learn to seek delayed gratification, which was linked to improved academic performance and other positive outcomes by follow ups to the Stanford marshmallow experiment.

Then again it could all just be a conspiracy to get the kids to go to bed and let the adults relax with the booze and mince pies that were left out for Santa.

 

 

The Cake Science is Not a Lie

Yorkshire has a tradition of eating cheese with Christmas cake. I recently mentioned it to an American friend who was interested in how holiday foods vary between our nations and she was horrified. In fact she was even more appalled than Americans usually are when I try to explain how utterly scrumptious a rich fruit cake is. Apparently over there giving someone a fruit cake is considered to be about as friendly as leaving a horse’s head in their bed. Oh well, that just leaves more fruit cake for me!

Yesterday I was talking about Christmas cake with a local friend, and she asked me if I had ever tried heating it and serving with custard. She claims this treatment makes it taste like Christmas pudding. I’ve never tried this, but considering the similarity of the ingredients I’m inclined to believe her. I wouldn’t pour custard over it though. While developing a method of reducing aversions I used my lifelong aversion to custard as a test subject, with the result that I can now eat and enjoy several foodstuffs involving it. The thought of the hot runny variant poured all over a perfectly good pudding still gives me the creeps, but I would definitely try hot Christmas cake with brandy butter.

Naturally I responded to the hot cake query (having established earlier that the questioner sometimes partakes of cheese with Christmas cake) by weaving the conversational threads together into the idea of serving hot Christmas cake with melted cheese on top. I imagine something like cheese on toast, but much stickier. I fully intend to try it out next time I get my hands on some Christmas cake, just for science, as does the friend I suggested it to.

So there you have it – I will be conducting some cake science in the next few weeks. Everything is better with cake science.

Science reminds me of testing.

Testing and cake remind me of GLaDOS, and therefore Portal and Portal 2. I hear my Xbox calling…

Pulling Myself Clear

In a world of social media  it seems like everything we share should be a shiny mixture of success and smiles. Being the person with crap like depression, anxiety and unemployment to report makes me feel like I’m proffering a tray of turds while those around me share chocolates. Turds may not be tasty but they can be composted to feed plants that turn into beautiful flowers. There’s a creativity metaphor in there somewhere…

Life hasn’t been good for a while, but I’m getting better. The lights inside still flicker on and off, but they stay on enough that I’m beginning to write again. Some days I can almost remember how to organise my limbs well enough to play the drums. I have moments when the drive to write music is incredibly painful, which is unpleasant but better than feeling dead inside.

“Horses in my dreams” by PJ Harvey reminds me of the surreal crawl from illness towards being well. The lyrics are in the past tense, but I feel like I am living them in the present. I’m pulling myself clear in silence, setting myself free again. One of these days I might even throw my bad fortune off the top of a tall building… 

Stop Motion Animation on a Shoestring

For a while now I’ve felt a strong desire to find ways to merge telling stories, making music and making art. It’s an urge that points towards game development, animation or film making, areas in which I lack knowledge, ability, experience and access to equipment. I started out with a fairly defeatist attitude about it, just unable to see how I could get past my limitations and achieve any kind of satisfactory result. Luckily I’m pretty tenacious in the face of despair, so I eventually decided to work out what I could do with what I have and give it a try.

Makeshift stop motion animation rostrum

One of the avenues I want to explore is using stop motion animation to capture the creation of an image, and then look at setting music to it afterwards. My first experiments involved using a free iPhone app to capture quick sketches. I don’t have a tripod so the results were very shaky, but they were enough to show me that watching an image take shape can be quite magical.

My grandiose ambitions demand something more than five second wobbly video clips, so I needed to come up with a way of working on longer projects and deal with stability and lighting issues. The obvious answer is to spend a little money – for around £70 I could pick up a HD webcam with a tripod and capture pad, or for £250 I could get a set up with a rostrum and lights instead of the tripod. However money is tight right now, and I can’t bring myself to throw cash at the problem until I prove to myself that I can do something worthwhile with this idea.

It was time to look around my home and find some way of approximating a stop motion animation studio using everyday items, and it turned out surprisingly well. I’m using my LCD daylight desk lamp (for treating my Seasonal Affective Disorder) to supplement natural light, a miniature easel to suspend my iPhone over my sketchbook, and a kitchen stepladder to support everything. I’m using an app called iMotion to capture the images, and running its companion app iMotion Remote on my iPad as a remote capture pad.

My crappy home made animation rostrum is a major step forward for me, but it’s far from ideal. Set up on the floor it makes for a very uncomfortable work position. I have the alternative of setting it up on my desk, but would have to rearrange my study furniture if I wanted to get it positioned close to the window for maximum natural light. I have no control over camera height, which means I am limited to drawing on a very small area of the page. All in all I’m happy though, as I can now do more in the way of experimenting and working on longer projects.

Check Out My Melons

Strange things happen when you stay up until 3am playing video games with strange people. You may share theories of life, the universe and everything. You may confess to something weird. You may get talked into trying Snapchat. You may develop urges to send pictures of your melons over social media just to try and get a cheap laugh.

IMG_0310

Can they take away your Responsible Adult Card? I’m asking for a friend…

One Password to Rule Them All

I was afraid of forgetting all my passwords until I got Lastpass. Now I’m afraid of forgetting my master password and losing access to everything.

Three passwords so email messages can fly, 

Seven social profiles are never alone, 

Nine shopping carts ready to buy,

One more for Lastpass on its dark throne 

In the land of memory where the shadows lie.

One word to rule them all, one word to find them,

One word to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

In the land of memory where the shadows lie.

Apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien for twisting his words from Lord of the Rings.

Happiness is a Warm Spreadsheet

Picture a battleground on which armies of circus performers and accountants are locked in eternal combat, one side wanting to release flocks of brightly coloured balloons into the sky just to see what happens as they are caught in the wind while the other side has Definite Views on the irresponsibility of balloon release and insists that all balloons be thoroughly shredded, weighed and measured before possibly considering a controlled release scenario involving safety nets and machine guns to shoot down any balloons that get out of control. It’s a war y’all, and it’s good for absolutely nothing.

Welcome to my world, where the circus and accountants represent the two sides of my brain and their tendency to fight each other while I stand in the middle pleading with them to stop hurting me and just try to play nicely with one another. When they pull together life feels great and I do outstanding work. But when they fight? Well, I’ll just say my productivity is compromised and life does not feel good and leave the rest to your imagination.

Brains are not meant to fight like this, I’m sure. In normal neurotypical brain development one side will gain a permanent upper hand, but I don’t seem to have developed in that way. I got extra helpings of limb independence and flexible handedness, but I also got brain fights and I’ve had to do a lot of work learning to manage conflicts that seem to particularly impact self-expression. I am both the accountants and the circus, but I had to learn to step outside myself to play diplomat and get the brain factions to appreciate and negotiate with one another.

Hey circus, wouldn’t it be great if you had someone to help you work out how to break down your project ideas into steps so that you can get on with them instead of getting stuck in a muddle? The accountants are good at that kind of thing.

Hey accountants, wouldn’t it be great if you had an interesting pile of data to sort through and analyse to keep you from getting bored? Those project ideas over on the circus side look like they’re full of juicy data.

Hey circus, wouldn’t it be great if you had someone to help you stay focused so that the thing your idea becomes has a stronger relationship to what you wanted it to be? Accountants can be great at that.

Hey accountants, you know how you’re really rigid and get fixated on things then every so often feel awful because you realise you’ve been stuck on something completely pointless? What if you could use that rigidity to help the circus achieve something wonderful and feel good instead?

Hey circus, I know that for you just making something beautiful is a good enough reason to make something. But what if you set out to make something that’s useful as well as beautiful? It might be even more satisfying for you, and it would get the accountants interested because they love functionality.

Hey accountants, you know how you hate things not working even more than you hate change? I hear the circus is coming up with some ideas for useful things and could use your input on functionality. I bet if you worked together you could create something really useful, and what could be more beautiful than utility?

Beauty and utility; that’s the compromise that gets the circus and the accountants willing to work together. The conference room where they hash out their differences on any given project is the humble spreadsheet. It’s painful for the circus to hand an idea full of love and fireworks to the accountants and watch them rip it to shreds. But then the accountants honour the idea and say “working on task x now will help you move on to tasks y and z so you can meet goal a” or make practical suggestions for getting things done without spending loads of time, money or energy. And then I have a ceasefire on a spreadsheet instead of a battle in my brain, and I can feel happy about ideas turning up instead of dreading dealing with them.