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…

Floundering Around with WordPress Themes

I think we all know how important it is to judge a book by its cover. No wait, we know we’re not meant to do that but if we’re honest we know we do it anyway because our minds are just teeming with 57 varieties of cognitive bias. A website may have great content, but if its appearance is a turnoff then visitors are more likely to move on than stick around. That, my friends, is why it’s important to pick the right theme for your new blog.

For the uninitiated, a theme is just a set of rules governing how things appear on your website. For example there are layout rules covering the size and position of blocks on the page, and formatting rules covering things like fonts and colour schemes. Changing themes is like changing clothes – it doesn’t affect how things work but it can make a huge difference to the impression you make.

WordPress offers an extensive range of both free and premium themes. If you’re using a free WordPress blog (with an insertblognamehere.wordpress.com type URL) then there’s little you can do to customise your theme, so it’s all the more important to choose one that looks good and does what you need it to do.

I’ve gone with a premium WordPress package that includes the custom domain and advanced customisation options. It gives me some straightforward menus for tweaking colours and fonts and a CSS editor that will allow me to completely ditch and replace the CSS code should I so desire. I learned HTML a while back and had no problem picking it up, but I haven’t played with CSS before so need to do a little bit of learning before swimming towards the deep end of the customisation pool.

After spending a few hours looking through themes I ended up with two clear favourites, Flounder and Collections. Flounder is free, but Collections would add another £59 to my set up costs. I don’t mind paying if Collections turns out to be Mr Righttheme, but I could buy a new video game on launch day for that money! As I have access to a lot of customisation powers I’m trying Flounder first, and these are my initial thoughts on its strengths and weaknesses.

Pros

  • I find the way posts have well-defined blocks makes it easier to focus on the content without getting distracted by other stuff on the page.
  • It’s a colourful theme. I love colour longtime. Did I mention that I really, really, really love colour?
  • This theme is a good reflection of my personal style. I tend to gravitate towards clothes with strong colours and simple shapes, so looking at this is a little like looking in a mirror.
  • I like that the header image is round rather than rectangular. I just like curves and circles, okay? It took me about three seconds to come up with a great idea for a round header image that fits what I’m about, but I’m not going to sit down and do custom art work until I’ve at least taken Flounder out on a few dates and made sure there’s potential for a long term relationship.
  • You can throw all the widgets you want in the sidebar without them becoming intrusive and distracting because the blocks with the posts are so IN YOUR FACE.
  • I like that the different post formats have their own colour schemes and ideograms. As a strong visual thinker I find this far more intuitive than words.

Cons

  • I dislike the way tags, categories etc are capitalised by default, and I think it makes it harder to read them.
  • I find the Flounder menu weird setup weird. You can’t see the weirdness here right now because I haven’t set up any static pages yet, but you can see it on the Flounder demo site I linked to above.
  • Text on a coloured background is problematic for many people, myself included, so tweaking the colour scheme is essential.
  • Coloured backgrounds can enhance images, but they can also clash with them. Again, colour experimentation is necessary.

My first priority for customisation is to sort out my colour scheme. Flounder supports a range of post formats, and different post types publish in different colours. Therefore I need to publish posts in a range of formats before I begin playing with the colour scheme. The easy way to do it would just be to throw up some filler content then delete it when I’m done experimenting. I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m going to find ways to use the full range of post types using content I would want to share here anyway. Along the way I may as well put something on my About page and maybe even create a few static pages so I can deal with my menu issues. That should keep me busy for a week or two!