Gcat says Yes

Well, here it is. The post I’ve tried to stop myself writing for weeks. Probably no good can come of it… talking about politics on social media does tend to generate division and ill will, and I can see why many people don’t like it, but I’m now angry enough that I don’t much care.

I still find it almost unbelievable that it’s come to this. For most of my life I hated the idea of Scottish independence and was suspicious of the SNP and their motives. Yet now I find myself desperately wanting Indyref2 to go ahead, looking forward to casting my vote for “Yes” this time, and hoping that a majority of Scots do the same.

You might reasonably ask why. Conventional wisdom seems to be that independence was a bad idea in 2014 and is a terrible idea in 2017, what with the collapse of the oil price, and the release of GERS figures that show Scotland has a worse defecit than Greece. We’re constantly told it would be foolish to turn our backs on the UK in a misguided attempt to get back in the EU, because the UK is a much more important market for Scotland than the rest of the EU is, and because there’s no guarantee that an independent Scotland would get back in the EU anyway.

I can’t help noticing that those are all basically economic arguments. And I have to say, I think anyone who supports Brexit or who is happy to go along with what the UK government is doing now has got some bloody nerve to be lecturing anyone else about what’s economically sensible. There may have been some justification back in 2014 for describing a Yes vote as “a leap in the dark”, but as far as I’m concerned, now that the rest of the UK has thrown itself off the Brexit cliff, it’s forfeited the right to use that argument against Scotland for a very long time to come.

I also don’t accept that the economic arguments are necessarily valid anyway. The GERS figures, for example, are not particularly relevant here because they describe Scotland’s finances in its current situation as part of the UK rather than as an independent country. Surely the whole point of independence would be to run things differently from how they are now? “You must stay in this union because under the union’s management you have a huge gaping black hole in your finances!” doesn’t strike me as an especially strong argument in favour of the union, to be honest.

And no, there’s no guarantee that becoming independent would get us back in the EU. But at least there’d be a chance, and even if we didn’t get back in straight away, we would likely be on much more friendly terms with them. Staying in the UK now looks a sure fire way to have our ties with Europe drastically cut.

But in any case, economics isn’t my primary motivation for supporting independence. For me, it’s more about what sort of country I want to live in and what I fear Brexit Britain is going to look like. Specifically, I fear that we are going to become isolated from our neighbours, making it more difficult to travel in and work with Europe; that immigrants and other minorities are going to be made to feel increasingly unwelcome, no matter how much of a positive contribution they make; that the Tories will use the turmoil of Brexit as an excuse to cosy up to Trump’s America as they busily dismantle the welfare state, the NHS, employment rights and hard-won social and environmental protections; that policies that were until recently considered as pretty far right (like bringing back the death penalty) will become mainstream.

Now, I don’t want that. And I don’t want it strongly enough that I would rather break up the UK and risk further economic harm than live in that country. In fact, I would go so far as to say I’d rather Scotland dropped down to an average Eastern European standard of living and had to work its way back up from there than be dragged down the hellish ultra-right road I described above. (Though I don’t believe the economic impact of independence would actually be anywhere near as severe as that).

Of course, people will ask “But if you say you hate isolation so much, how can you advocate breaking away from your closest neighbour? Do you really want to risk a hard border between England and Scotland? Do you really want your friends and family down south to become foreigners?”. Ordinarily I would say no, and that’s why I ultimately voted No in the last referendum. But we’re not in an ordinary situation anymore. The status quo as it existed in 2014 is gone and it’s not coming back. I feel like I’m now being forced to choose between two options, neither of which would have been my first choice. I can either stay with the rest of the UK, which appears hell bent on shutting itself off from the world and reversing much of the progress of the last 60 years, or I can attempt to stay with the rest of Europe and build on that progress instead of throwing it away. I’d much rather I didn’t have to make that choice. But given that choice, I have to choose Europe and progress.

“Oh, stop being so over dramatic”, some will say. “Leaving the EU isn’t the end of the world”. I actually agree with that, in that it needn’t be the end of the world. If we were likely to be moving to a status similar to Norway’s or Iceland’s or Switzerland’s, I wouldn’t be anywhere near so concerned. It’s the manner in which Brexit is being implemented that I’m finding so alarming… the determination to go for the most extreme separation possible no matter what the cost, the absolute refusal to compromise an inch with the very nearly half of us who voted Remain, the total disregard for the promises made during the referendum campaign, the constant pandering to people whose opinions are based on tabloid scare stories rather than facts, the cavalier attitude to crucial questions like the Irish border, the growing anti-intellectualism, the open admissions that we’ll probably have to pursue significantly more right wing, free market oriented policies than we’re used to in order to survive outside the single market and secure the trade deals we’ll need. That is what I’m most worried about, not the simple fact that we’re leaving the EU.

To the unionist politicians: if you want me to change my mind and vote No again, you’re going to have to give me something positive to vote for. Just bad mouthing the SNP and threatening Scotland with economic disaster isn’t going to cut it this time. I will only vote to stay in the UK if you can convince me that the UK is still a place where open minded, tolerant people who want to engage with the modern world and try to improve it rather than running away and hiding from it are in charge. If you’re going to continue to steamroller uncompromisingly over the wishes of the 48% who voted Remain (and most likely a significant proportion of those who voted Leave as well), if you’re just going to keep imploring me to “unite” behind what I believe is the worst decision this country has taken in my lifetime, if you’re not able to reassure me that my European friends and colleagues aren’t going to be deported, then sorry… I’m out of here as soon as I get the chance.

To my non-independence-supporting friends and family: I know a lot of you sympathise with some of what I’m feeling and aren’t keen on Brexit or on the direction the UK appears to be heading in, but will tell me “More division isn’t the answer”. I have a question for you then: what is the answer? If Scotland stays in the UK, how can we avoid the outcomes I described above? Vote for a Labour party that cravenly rolled over and gave the Tories everything they wanted, and that’s now polling 15 points behind the Tories on a good day? Vote for the Lib Dems who completely abandoned all their principals the last time they got a slight sniff of power? Wring our hands a bit and go on some protest marches that no-one will take any notice of?

Yes, the pendulum of political opinion in the UK as a whole will probably swing back in a more moderate direction at some point. My worry is that by then it’ll be too late to reverse what our current government are likely to do in the next few years. If they burn our bridges with the rest of Europe and gut the regulations that protect people and planet from the worst excesses of capitalism, it’s not going to be easy for a future government to rebuild all that. Most likely they will, to some extent, have to make the best of the bad situation rather than reverse it. And that’s just not good enough, I’m afraid.

To the people who think it’s outrageous that the SNP are even trying to hold another Indyref and that they have no mandate for it: Yes, they have a mandate for it. It was right there in their 2016 manifesto, you know, the one they got elected on. I’ve heard people (even politicians who should really know better) try to argue that they have no mandate to implement it because they didn’t win a majority, but come on… seriously? Unlike in Westminster, majorities are rare in the Scottish Parliament (by design). If you’re going to argue that the SNP shouldn’t do the things they promised in their manifesto because they don’t hold a majority, you’re effectively saying that the vast majority of Scottish governments shouldn’t attempt to carry out any of the promises they were elected on, even if there’s a cross-party majority in favour of them in parliament. In which case what the hell do you expect the Scottish government to actually do?

“But most of the people of Scotland don’t want another referendum!” I hear you cry. And how do you know that, since we haven’t had a referendum on whether we want a referendum… ah yes, it’s opinion polls isn’t it? I should hardly need to remind people that if we relied on opinion polls rather than properly conducted votes, we wouldn’t have Brexit, we wouldn’t have a majority Tory government in Westminster, and Hillary Clinton would be in the White House.

Look at it this way: which is really the most democratic option? Do we (1) say to the 62% of Scots that voted to remain in the EU “Sorry, we’re ignoring your wishes and leaving the EU anyway”. Do we (2) say to the 55% of Scots that voted to remain in the UK “Sorry, we know you voted No, but we’re going to declare independence anyway because it’s the only way we can respect the wishes of the larger majority who want to remain in the EU”. Or do we (3) effectively say “OK Scotland, you voted for two things that turned out to be mutually exclusive, so you’ll have to vote again to decide what we should do now”. Many people seem to be claiming that option (1) is more democratic than option (3), but I’m struggling to see why, myself.

But then I don’t think the unionists are really pissed off because Indyref2 is an affront to democracy, whatever they might bluster. I think they’re pissed off because they’re terrified they might actually lose this time. Last time around, independence started the campaign with about 30% support and ended up with 45%. This time it’s starting from around 50%, and many of the Better Together promises (“Vote No for economic stability”, “Vote No to keep our EU membership”) are going to be a lot harder to argue. It’s certainly going to be interesting, if nothing else.

(While we’re on the subject, I don’t like the implication that the SNP are somehow wrong to be interfering with issues like Brexit and should stick to running the schools and hospitals. They’re running the Scottish Government… surely it’s their job to represent the interests of the people of Scotland? It’s not in my interest to have my EU citizenship rights snatched away against my will, and I’m very grateful that at least one political party is trying to do something about this. If I lived in England or Wales I’d be feeling utterly betrayed by the lot of them right now).

And finally, to the people that saw where all this was going and voted Yes last time: you can say “I told you so” now, if you like ;).

Update (1/4/2017): well, I’m a little overwhelmed by how much attention this post has got! I never expected all this. It seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people. Thank you for all the welcoming comments. I’m sorry I can’t respond to them all individually but there are far too many for that now!

Why would it be so great if “political correctness” was finished?

One theme I’ve noticed cropping up again and again in the aftermath of the Brexit and Trump votes is the idea that people voted that way because they were fed up of “political correctness”. (Others say they were votes against left wing liberalism, but I suspect they mean something similar).

It interests me because I really can’t get my head around it. To be sure, there are plenty of things to be angry about in the world right now, and I can understand people being angry enough that they wanted to give “the establishment” a good hard kick in the balls. But to single out political correctness as the thing they’re most fed up with… that just seems weird to me. I’m trying to understand what it is that people think would be so much better in their lives if political correctness was to die.

Most of the people expressing glee at this “rejection of political correctness” tend to be quite vague about what they actually mean by political correctness, so I’ve had to read between the lines a bit and make assumptions about what they might be talking about. I may have assumed wrongly, but for now, in the absence of anything better, I’m just going to go with it.

It seems to me that most of the things people are talking about when they complain about PC fall into one of three categories:

Category number 1: things that have been massively exaggerated, or outright made up

Many of the stories in the media about political correctness turn out to have very little basis in reality once people investigate them a bit. Here’s a couple of common examples.

Firstly, the idea that Christmas celebrations are somehow being restricted because people of other religions (usually Muslims) find them offensive. This comes up a lot around this time of year. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen any evidence of this whatsoever in real life (as opposed to in the media), and I work in the public sector, which is often viewed as some sort of hotbed of political correctness. At my work we have Christmas trees in the building and a big one outside; our Christmas break is called a Christmas break and our Christmas night out is called a Christmas night out; the director’s Christmas message to staff wishes us Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays; there is a carol service as well. As far as I know no-one has ever got offended by or complained about any of this, and if they did I doubt anyone would take much notice. In my experience people of other faiths often join in the celebrations, in much the same way that I join in despite being an atheist.

Secondly, the idea that organisations (especially in the public sector) are wasting huge amounts of money on employing “diversity co-ordinators” and similar. Again I see very little evidence of this outside beligerent articles in the tabloids and angry comments online – my department at work has around 80 employees, as far as I know only one of them spends any significant amount of time on diversity related work, and even in her case it isn’t her whole job. So it accounts for less than one eightieth of our staff time, not exactly a huge amount even if you do consider it a complete waste (which I don’t, incidentally).

Category number 2: things that are real, but are nothing to do with the government or the EU

Many (in fact, probably most) of the instances of political correctness that people object to are really nothing to do with the government and more to do with social changes affecting individuals’ ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. For example, if someone makes a homophobic joke on Twitter and gets a load of replies condemning them for it, it’s not the government or the EU that sends those replies – it’s individual people exercising their own right to free speech.

Similarly, the much-derided “safe spaces” are simply organisations (usually voluntary ones of some kind) deciding on a code of conduct for their members, as organisations have done probably ever since there were organisations. Nothing to do with the government, and certainly nothing to do with the EU.

Which makes me wonder: since these things are so obviously nothing to do with the government or the EU, why did people decide that national elections and the EU referendum were the place to register their disgust about them? What do they expect President Trump, or the UK government, to do? Do they want people with different opinions to theirs to be banned from responding to them on Twitter? And do they want the government to forbid student and community groups from making their own rules for their members’ behaviour? If so, those are quite bizarre things for people who always claim to value free speech and decry unnecessary government interference to ask for.

My point is that a lot of “PC” behaviour isn’t being dictated from on high. People haven’t decided en mass to start calling out discrimination because they’ve been brainwashed by Tony Blair or David Cameron. It’s being driven by social changes and improved awareness of what life is like for minorities, not by government.

Category number 3: things that are in the government’s control, but that would have almost no positive effect on most people’s lives if they were changed

The final category is perhaps more understandable than the other two. There are some things that people would place under the heading of “political correctness”, or left wing liberalism, that are related to the government. But my gripe with these is that in most cases I can’t see how on earth getting rid of the alleged political correctness would actually do any good.

The legalisation of gay marriage has certainly annoyed a lot of conservatives. But what would be the point of banning it again? What positive effect would that have on anyone’s life? Other than satisfying a few bigots of course, which hardly seems worth risking the huge negative effects that are likely to stem from Trump and Brexit for.

There is also a common narrative pushed by the tabloids that liberalism and human rights laws are allowing terrorism and violent crime to spiral out of control, and we urgently need to clamp down on this in order to protect ourselves. The thing is, by any rational measure, those things aren’t out of control – there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack in the UK for over ten years now, and violent crime has been falling (mostly) for years as well. Don’t get me wrong, of course every terrorist act and violent crime is unacceptable and we should be aiming to stop them altogether. But when they are close to being at an all-time low already and appear to be in long term decline, that doesn’t suggest to me that we need a fundamental change in our approach. When you look at the actual statistics rather than the media distortions, the current approach seems to be working reasonably well.

Other changes that people might class as “lefty liberalism” or political correctness would similarly have minimal effect on most people and a hugely negative effect on a minority if they were reversed – for example, the increasing awareness of mental health problems and improved rights for trans people. What would anyone actually gain by rolling back those? At best it might make some ignorant people feel better… but is that really worth driving the economy off a cliff and pissing off our neighbours for?

I can’t help feeling that most of this antagonism towards political correctness isn’t being driven by logic, but by emotions. A lot of people are feeling left behind and marginalised and out of place because of how society has changed, even if those changes don’t really disadvantage them in any practical sense. And in a way I find that quite ironic, since a lot of those same people would be among the first to be dismissive if a black person or a trans person talked about feeling marginalised and out of place. Ultimately I think people have more in common with those at the opposite end of the political spectrum than most would ever dare to admit.

Refurbishing my brain, one neurosis at a time

Five years ago (to the day in fact!), I posted an entry on this blog including a photo of me holding a tarantula. At the time I remarked that I didn’t mind the tarantula but that you’d never get me to hold a large house spider.

Then this happened.

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On Sunday I attended a “Fight Your Spider Phobia” workshop at Edinburgh Zoo. I hadn’t been planning to, but when our mum gave Alex a ticket to it for his birthday, I decided I’d like to go too and asked for the same for my birthday.

My spider phobia has always been weirdly specific. I didn’t mind tarantulas, as I mentioned. I was also fine with small spiders, and other things that are very spider-like. (“How can you even need that workshop?” Laura asked me a couple of weeks beforehand as she watched me picking up huge harvestmen from the roof of the caravan awning and putting them outside). But big house spiders always freaked the hell out of me and made my skin crawl, no matter how often I tried to tell myself they couldn’t hurt me.

I wouldn’t say the phobia had a huge impact on my life, but it could get pretty annoying and inconvenient at times. I would avoid tasks like clearing out a dusty corner or an old shed in case there were spiders in there. Back in my days of living alone I would occasionally “lose” entire rooms of the flat to a spider I couldn’t bring myself to catch, sometimes for several days. And plus there was the general humiliation inherent in trying to think of myself as a rational person, yet being uncontrollably terrified of these miniscule, completely harmless creatures. I wasn’t sure if the workshop would help, but I knew it had to be worth a try.

The workshop took up a whole afternoon and there were several parts to it. First there was an introduction to phobias and how they can develop. Second was a talk about spiders from one of the zoo’s experts, including a lot of myth busting. For some reason, spiders seem to provoke a lot hysteria and bad press out of all proportion to the harm they actually cause. There are around 40,000 species of spider in the world and only 12 (none of which live in the UK) are capable of harming humans in any meaningful way. Even in countries like Australia where there are poisonous spiders, it’s very rare for anyone to actually die from a spider bite – bee stings kill far more people, yet there doesn’t seem to be this whole hysteria around bees that there is around spiders.

So far, so theoretical. While I did learn a few new interesting things (for example, those big “fang”-like things on the front of house spiders aren’t actually fangs at all – they’re the male spider’s sex organs!), I already knew that house spiders couldn’t hurt me, but that knowledge didn’t stop me from jumping out of my skin and running into the next room if I suddenly encountered a big one. The second half of the workshop was more geared towards addressing this automatic emotional reaction. This took the form of a very relaxing hypnosis session, then it was time for the part I was most excited, but also most nervous, about – facing our fears in the graded exposure session!

The exposure session started off very gently. The first spider we were exposed to was a furry cuddly toy one, followed by a slightly more realistic plastic toy. Most of the group were OK with this, though one or two did get a bit anxious. After we’d all had a turn of passing the toys around, followed by some preserved spiders in sealed boxes, we were ushered through to another room to meet the live spiders.

There were three of them: two fairly large British house spiders (Tegenaria Domestica is their scientific name, I believe) and one False Widow spider (so called because of its similar appearance to the infamous Black Widow, though the False Widow is harmless). An involuntary shudder went through me as I saw the first house spider sitting at the bottom of its tank – it was exactly the kind I was most scared of.

The staff and volunteers were amazing – very patient, but also encouraging. With their help, we all worked up towards challenging our fears more and more. We started by simply getting comfortable with looking at the spiders in their sealed tanks, and then with the tank lids off. Next, everyone had a go at catching a house spider with the aid of a clear plastic tumbler and a piece of card. I didn’t find that too bad, as I knew the spider couldn’t get out of the tank even if I fumbled and dropped the tumbler.

The next few steps were much more challenging. It took me a while to muster the courage to put my hand in the tank near the spider, even though I wasn’t touching it, but I managed to eventually, and that was the point at which I felt something shift in my brain as if I could feel my unconscious mind saying “Actually, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”. Next step after this was to lay my hand flat on the bottom of the tank while one of the staff gently persuaded the spider to walk across my fingers. I could hardly believe this was happening and I wasn’t freaking out!

The spider that helped me overcome my fear.

The spider that helped me overcome my fear.

Then suddenly, my fear had gone, almost completely. I wanted to actually hold the spider, and I knew I could cope with that now. The keeper lifted it out of the tank and let us each have a go at holding it in our hands. Strangely, it looked smaller to me now, as if I was finally seeing it in its true proportions rather than distorted by the phobia, and I was hit by the realisation of how vulnerable this creature actually was, and how there was nothing to fear from it, nothing at all. All my life I’d lived in terror of a house spider touching me, and now here I was standing calmly while a big one wandered across my bare hands, so lightly I could barely even feel it, as the keepers and other attendees around me applauded.

What amazed me most was that, as far as I could see, every person in the group got to the same stage – they all managed to hold the spider in their hands by the end of the session, even the ones who’d had a much more severe phobia than me to start with, who previously couldn’t even look at a toy spider without getting anxious. I was stunned by how effective the programme was – I would highly recommend anyone to give it a go, whatever their level of arachnophobia!

Of course it’s one thing to be able to handle spiders in a safe, controlled environment where you can go at your own pace. The real test will come the next time I unexpectedly encounter a spider in real life (and it could be a while before that happens – another fact I learned yesterday was that almost all house spiders die off in the autumn so there won’t be many big ones around now until next summer). Will the fear come flooding back at that point? Possibly, but I’m hoping it’ll also die down a lot more quickly and I’ll remember that there really is nothing to be afraid of. At the very least, my experience yesterday has got to have helped a bit.

Beltane Fire Society: my experience so far

Over the five years (oh god, has it really been five years already?) since I set up this blog, I’ve posted about most areas of my life at one time or another. I’ve written entries about my travels, my paid work, my geeky personal projects, my wedding, my slightly mad group of film making friends, my political views, my band, Scottish Country Dancing, mental health, and various other random topics. And I’ve written so much about urban exploration that I created a whole other blog just about that!

But I realised there was one notable omission: I’ve never written about Beltane Fire Society until now. That wasn’t a deliberate decision; it was really just that when I joined the society in 2014, this blog was going through something of an unintended hiatus (looking back, I only made three posts that whole year, and even one of those wasn’t really a proper post!), so I wasn’t in the habit of writing about stuff. I decided that now, having just done my fifth festival with them, would be a good time to put that right.

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Photo by Martin Robertson. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs licence

Beltane Fire Society, for those that don’t know, is something of an institution in Edinburgh. It’s the group that puts on the spectacular Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill at the end of April every year, as well as the Samhuinn parade down the Royal Mile (usually) on Hallowe’en. These events have been running for decades now, but my first encounter with them was when I went to see Beltane a few years ago, because one of my dancing friends was taking part in it. I loved the atmosphere and the spectacle of it right from the start and went back the two following years as well.

(Beltane and Samhuinn are two of the quarter year festivals of the Pagan calendar. Although there are Pagans in the society, there are plenty of people of other religions or no religion as well).

I decided I wanted to take part in Beltane, and in 2014 I finally got around to it. BFS isn’t a monolithic organisation. The tasks of running each festival are delegated to various groups within the society, which are quite fluid and change frequently. In addition to the very visible performance groups (the Reds and Whites and so on), there are also several less visible (but no less important) production groups dedicated to making sure everything runs smoothly and safely. Like a lot of newbies to the society, I started off in one of those groups: the Stewards.

The Beltane 2014 stewards, up on the hill waiting for the excitement to start

The Beltane 2014 stewards, up on the hill waiting for the excitement to start

Stewarding didn’t really come naturally to me, but that was actually one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I thought that learning how to talk to the audience members and deal with whatever situations might arise would be good for my confidence, and I think it was. Although I was still quite nervous when the night came, it all went smoothly and I had a great time. The public were overwhelmingly good natured and the worst that I had to deal with was one man who refused to move out of a performance space until I’d taken one of the After Eight mints he was offering me! I also got a far better view of the whole festival than I’d ever had as an audience member.

I stewarded for two more festivals following the first one. Both were more challenging for various reasons (the first because it was on a Saturday night so the crowds were huge, the second because I had to extinguish a stray torch ball, something which thankfully doesn’t happen very often), but I still enjoyed myself.

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Photo by Martin Robertson. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs licence

Being a steward was described to me by an experienced BFS member as a Beltane “gateway drug”, and I can see what he meant… the more I watched the other groups with their colourful costumes and mesmerising flames up close, the more tempted I was to join them. For Beltane this year, I finally made the leap and joined the Torchbearers.

The Torchbearers (Torchies to their friends) are the cloaked figures that walk solemnly alongside the procession at both Beltane and Samhuinn holding burning torches. They seemed a natural group for me to gravitate towards, since looking serious and ignoring everyone is pretty much my default behaviour in public places anyway. But also, I was looking forward to having some involvement with fire other than putting it out when it spread to places it shouldn’t. (Plus, the fact that the torches are fuelled by parafin-soaked balls of cotton gives the potential for all sorts of ball jokes).

The run up to the festival didn’t go quite as I’d planned, since I caught the worst flu I’ve ever had in my life and was stuck in bed for two weeks and could hardly speak for another two. But by Beltane night, all that was forgotten and I think it was probably my favourite BFS event so far – the view of the huge crowd and the other performers down below as I came up onto the Acropolis with my torch was so breathtaking that it was all I could do to stop myself grinning with delight and gazing around in wonder, which wouldn’t have been very in-character.

All painted and costumed up and ready to go for my first time as a Torchbearer

All painted and costumed up and ready to go for my first time as a Torchbearer

I returned to the Torchbearers for the Samhuinn that’s just passed. This time the costumes were more elaborate and, after a few false starts, I learned how to use a sewing machine and made myself a very nice red and green cloak. (Though unfortunately, given the weather on the night, it wasn’t a very waterproof cloak!).

But what really defines the Beltane Fire Society is the amazing, very welcoming community behind it, and that, more than the fire and face paint and cloaks, is what’s made me keep going back. As well as the public festivals there are always numerous social events going on behind the scenes that I wish I had more time and energy for. If you’re thinking about giving it a go yourself, I’d strongly encourage you to just go for it. I’m very glad I did.

Making the Online Botanic Gardens Station Model (Part 2: The Viewer)

Last time, I talked about how the 3D model itself was made. In this post, I’ll discuss how I embedded it into a web page so it can be explored in a web browser.

Not so long ago, it was difficult or impossible to produce real time 3D graphics in a web browser, at least it was if you wanted your page to work in a variety of browsers and not require any special plug-ins. That’s all changed with the advent of WebGL, which allows the powerful OpenGL graphics library to be accessed from JavaScript running in the browser. WebGL is what’s used to render the Botanic Gardens Station model.

The finished WebGL viewer

The finished WebGL viewer

There are already a number of frameworks built on top of WebGL that make it easier to use, but I decided I was going to build on WebGL directly – I would learn more that way, as well as having as much control as possible over how the viewer looked and worked. But before I could get onto displaying any graphics, I needed to somehow get my model out of Blender and into the web environment.

I did this by exporting the model to Wavefront OBJ format (a very standard 3D format that’s easy to work with), then writing a Python script to convert the important bits of this to JSON format. Initially I had the entire model in a single JSON file, but it started to get pretty big, so I had the converter split it over several files. The viewer loads the central model file when it starts up, then starts loading the others in the background while the user is free to explore the central part. This (along with a few other tricks like reducing the number of digits of precision in the file, and omitting the vertex normals from the file and having the viewer calculate them instead) reduces the initial page load time and makes it less likely that people will give up waiting and close the tab before the model even appears.

How not to convert quads to triangles

How not to convert quads to triangles

Once the model is loaded and processed, it can be displayed. One feature of WebGL is that (in common with the OpenGL ES API used on mobile devices) it doesn’t have any built in support for lighting and shading – all of that has to be coded manually, in shader programs that are compiled onto the graphics card at start up. While this does increase the learning curve significantly, it also allows for a lot of control over exactly how the lighting looks. This was useful for the Botanics model – after visiting the station in real life, one of my friends observed that photographing it is tricky due to the high contrast between the daylight pouring in through the roof vents and the dark corners that are in the shade. It turns out that getting the lighting for the model to look realistic is tricky for similar reasons.

The final model uses four distinct shader programs:

  1. A “full brightness” shader that doesn’t actually do any lighting calculations and just displays everything exactly as it is in the texture images. This is only used for the “heads up display” overlay (consisting of the map, the information text, the loading screen, etc.). I tried using it for the outdoor parts of the model as well but it looked rubbish.
  2. A simple directional light shader. This is what I eventually settled on for the outdoor parts of the model. It still doesn’t look great, but it’s a lot better than the full brightness one.
  3. A spotlight shader. This is used in the tunnels and also in some parts of the station itself. The single spotlight is used to simulate a torch beam coming from just below the camera and pointing forwards. There’s also a bit of ambient light so that the area outwith the torch beam isn’t completely black.
  4. A more complex shader that supports the torch beam as above, but also three other “spotlights” in fixed positions to represent the light pouring in through the roof vents. This is only used for elements of the model that are directly under the vents.
The full brightness shader in all its horrible glory

The full brightness shader in all its horrible glory

Although there’s no specular reflection in any of the shaders (I suspect it wouldn’t make a huge difference as there’s not a lot of shiny surfaces in the station), the two with the spotlights are still quite heavyweight – for the torch beam to appear properly circular, almost everything has to be done per-pixel in the fragment shader. I’m not a shader expert so there’s probably scope for making them more efficient, but for now they seem to run acceptably fast on the systems I’ve tested them on.

Can’t see the wood or the trees

In Part 1, I mentioned that the trees weren’t modelled in Blender like the rest of the model was. I considered doing this, but realised it would make the already quite large model files unacceptably huge. (Models of organic things such as plants, animals and humans tend to require far more vertices and polygons to look any good than models of architecture do). Instead I chose to implement a “tree generator” in JavaScript – so instead of having to save all of the bulky geometry for the trees to the model file, I could save a compact set of basic parameters, and the geometry itself would be generated in the browser and never have to be sent over the internet.

A Black Tupelo with no leaves

A Black Tupelo with no leaves

The generator is based on the well-known algorithm described in this paper. It took me weeks to get it working right and by the end I never wanted to see another rotation matrix again as long as I lived. I wouldn’t be surprised if it fails for some obscure cases, but it works now for the example trees in the paper, and produces trees for the Botanics model that are probably better looking than anything I could model by hand. I didn’t mean to spend so much time on it, but hopefully I’ll be able to use it again for future projects so it won’t have been wasted time.

A Black Tupelo with leaves

A Black Tupelo with leaves

(Blender also has its own tree generator based on the same algorithm, called Sapling. I didn’t use it as it would have caused the same file size problem as modelling the trees manually in Blender would).

Spurred on by my success at generating the trees programmatically (eventually!), I decided to apply a similar concept to generating entire regions of woodland for the cutting at the Kirklee end of the tunnel. Given a base geometry to sprout from and some parameters to control the density, the types of trees to include, etc., the woodland generator pseudo-randomly places trees and plants into the 3D world, again only requiring a compact set of parameters to be present in the model file.

The viewer also contains a texture overlay system, which is capable of adding graffiti, dirt, mineral deposits or whatever to a texture after it’s been downloaded. This is achieved by having a second hidden HTML 5 canvas on the page on which the textures are composited before being sent to the GPU. (The same hidden canvas is also used for rendering text before it’s overlaid onto the main 3D view canvas, since the 2D text printing functions can’t be used directly on a 3D canvas).

Why not just have pre-overlaid versions of the textures and download them along with the other textures? That would work, but would increase the size of the data needing to be downloaded: if you transferred both graffiti’d and non-graffiti’d versions of a brick wall texture (for example), you’d be transferring all of the detail of the bricks themselves twice. Whereas if you create the graffiti’d version in the browser, you can get away with transferring the brick texture once, along with a mostly transparent (and therefore much more compressible) file containing the graffiti image. You also gain flexibility as you can move the overlays around much more easily.

A selection of the station model's many items of graffiti

A selection of the station model’s many items of graffiti

The rest of the code is reasonably straightforward. Input is captured using standard HTML event handlers, and the viewpoint moves through the model along the same curve used to apply the curve modifier in Blender. Other data in addition to the model geometry (for example the information text, the parameters and positions for the trees, etc.) is incorporated into the first JSON model file by the converter script so that it can be modified without changing the viewer code.

So that’s the viewer. Having never used WebGL and never coded anything of this level of complexity in JavaScript before, I’m impressed at how well it actually works. I certainly learned a lot in the process of making it, and I’m hoping to re-use as much of the code as possible for some future projects.

 

Making the Online Botanic Gardens Station Model (Part 1: The Model)

One of my “fun projects” this year has been to make an interactive model of the abandoned Botanic Gardens Station in Glasgow. Although I’ve dabbled in 3D modelling before, including making a documentary video about Scotland Street Tunnel last year, the Botanics project turned out to be by far the most complicated 3D thing I’ve made, as well as by far the most complicated bit of web coding to make a viewer for it. It’s been a lot of fun as well as a hell of a learning experience, so I thought I’d write it up here in case anyone is interested.

The finished model, viewed in Chrome for Linux

The finished model, viewed in Chrome for Linux

In Part 1, I’ll talk about making the actual 3D model. Part 2 will cover the viewer code that actually makes it possible to explore the model from the comfort of your web browser.

I made the station model using Blender, a very capable free, open source 3D package. While various software and hardware now exists that allows you to generate a 3D model automatically from photographs or video, I didn’t have access to or knowledge of it, and I’m not sure how well it would work in a confined and oddly shaped space like the Botanic Gardens Station anyway. So I did it the old fashioned way instead, using the photos I took when I explored the station as a reference and crafting the 3D model to match using Blender’s extensive modelling tools.

The whole model in Blender

The whole model in Blender

I tried to keep the dimensions as close to reality as I could, using one grid square in Blender per metre, referring to the published sizes of the station and tunnels where possible, and estimating the scale of everything else as best I could.

It was actually surprisingly easy and quick to throw together a rough model of the station itself – most of the elements (the platforms, stairs, walls, roof, etc.) are made up of fairly simple geometric shapes and I had the basic structure there within a couple of hours. But as with a lot of these things, the devil is in the details and I spent countless more hours refining it and adding the trickier bits.

The beginnings of the station model

The beginnings of the station model

Because there’s quite a lot of repetition and symmetry in the station design, I was able to make use of some of Blender’s modifiers to massively simplify the task. The mirror modifier can be used for items that are symmetrical, allowing you to model only one side of something and have the mirror image of it magically appear for the other side. (In fact, apart from the roof the station is almost completely symmetrical, which saved me a lot of modelling time and effort). The array modifier is even more powerful: it can replicate a single model any number of times in any direction, which allowed me to model a single short section of roof or tunnel or wall and then have it stretch away into the distance with just a few clicks.

Tunnel, modelled with array modifier

Tunnel, modelled with array modifier

Finally, the curve modifier was very valuable. The entire station (and much of the surrounding tunnel) is built on a slight curve, which would be a nightmare to model directly. But thanks to the curve modifier, I was able to model the station and tunnels as if they were completely straight, and then add the curve as a final step, which was much easier. (I still don’t find the curve modifier very intuitive; it took quite a lot of playing around and reading tutorials online to get the effect I wanted, and even now I don’t fully understand how I did it. But the important thing is, it works!).

Tunnel + curve modifier = curving tunnel

Tunnel + curve modifier = curving tunnel

Texturing the model (that is, applying the images that are “pasted onto” the 3D surfaces to add details and make them look more realistic) turned out to be at least as tricky as getting the actual geometry right. The textures had been a major weak point of my Scotland Street model and I wanted much better ones for the Botanics. Eventually I discovered the great texture resource at textures.com, which had high quality images for almost everything I needed, and under a license that allowed me to do what I wanted with them – this is where most of the textures for the model came from. The remainder are either hand drawn (the graffiti), extracted from my photos (the tunnel portal exteriors and the calcite), or generated by a program I wrote a while ago when I was experimenting with Perlin Noise (some of the rusted metal).

The fiddly part was assigning texture co-ordinates to all the vertices in the model. I quickly discovered that it would have been much easier to do this as I went along, rather than completing all the geometry first and then going back to add textures later on (especially where I’d “applied” array modifiers, meaning that I now had to assign texture co-ordinates individually for each copy of the geometry instead of just doing it once). Lesson learned for next time. At first I found this stage of the process really difficult, but by the time I’d textured most of the model I was getting a much better feel for how it should be done.

The model in Blender, with textures applied

The model in Blender, with textures applied

(The trees and bushes weren’t in fact modelled using Blender… more about them next time!).

 

The scary state of UK politics

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so depressed, and frankly scared, about the state of UK politics as I do right now… and that’s coming from someone who’s always found it pretty depressing ever since I started taking an interest in it about 20 years ago.

It’s clear that a lot of people are very angry with the political classes right now, and many of them vented that anger by voting to leave the EU. Although I’m not going to pretend I think that was a smart move, I do think they have legitimate reasons to be angry. A recent study shows that the UK is almost the only developed country other than Greece that’s seen ordinary people’s incomes fall in real terms over the past decade. Inequality continues to increase, with the people at the top (in some cases the same ones who were most responsible for the financial crash) getting even richer while the poorest areas are left to stagnate. Property prices have spiralled out of reach of the young, and insecure, badly paid jobs are becoming more and more the norm, making it impossible for them to plan their futures in the way their parents’ generation could. Health and education systems are being restructured so that their primary purpose is to generate profits for the companies that run them rather than providing a public service. Right wing politicians and media have been blaming immigrants and poor people for all this and, to top it all, there seemed little hope of anything changing because for years neither of the two main political parties (Tories or New Labour) had any inclination to do anything about it.

So yes. There’s a lot to be angry about, it’s true. Perhaps not surprisingly for a middle-class lefty, I blame Thatcher and Blair for much of the current mess. Thatcher because huge swathes of the country have never properly recovered from her destroying their livelihoods, and Blair because instead of doing anything much about this he decided to continue in much the same vein as the Tory governments before him. I also hold him responsible for teaching an entire generation that there’s no real point in voting because whichever party wins, you get policies that pander to the super-rich while the poor get shafted.

What scares me most is what’s going to happen when all those angry people start to realise that leaving the EU hasn’t solved their problems, and that if anything it’s just further empowered the right wingers who caused most of the problems in the first place. That anger isn’t just going to go away… they’re not just going to meekly shrug and say “OK, things got even worse then, fair enough”… but there’s no way the populist politicians and their cheerleaders in the press are going to let that anger turn on them, no matter how much they deserve it. I’m sure they’re already busily coming up with the next scapegoat, and that’s what worries me.

Will it be the EU’s fault for not giving us a decent deal when we left? Or maybe the fault of the immigrants that are still here despite Brexit? Maybe it’ll be the fault of lefty Remain voters (like me) for being unpatriotic traitors who won’t rally together for the good of the country (even though we voted against this madness)? Will it be the fault of the unemployed and disabled for bleeding the country dry? Or the public sector workers for being part of a bloated, lumbering bureaucracy that’s like a millstone around the neck of the sainted “wealth creators” in the private sector? Or even those pesky Scots for causing trouble and trying to de-stabilise the United Kingdom?

Most likely, it will be all of the above. The one thing we can be sure of, though, is that no matter how bad things get, none of it will ever be the fault of UKIP, or the Tory party, or their voters, or their supporters in the media, or their rich donors.

I fear things are going to have to get a lot worse before they get better. The Leave campaign, assisted by the tabloid press, have unleashed a force that no-one’s going to be able to control… they’ve stoked up people’s (rightful) anger and skillfully channeled it to exactly where they wanted it… but worse than that, they’ve encouraged anti-intellectualism to the point where I can’t see what, other than a disaster so massive that no-one in their right mind can possibly deny it, is ever going to stop this tide of anger now.

After all, how can you argue with someone who’s effectively rejected the entire concept of rational argument? It doesn’t matter how much evidence you can produce to support your viewpoint if your opponent is just going to dismiss all evidence as part of some elitist conspiracy against them and use it as an excuse to hold onto their opinion even more strongly and angrily than they were before. Of course, behaviour like this has always been pretty widespread, but the Leave campaign have now legitimised it on a huge scale.

I think the only thing that might defuse some of this anger would be if the politicians started addressing people’s real concerns, if they actually made some changes to re-balance the economy back towards benefiting ordinary people. Ultimately, offering to be tough on foreigners and criminals and the unemployed might be an appealing lightning rod for attracting some of that anger I was talking about, but it’s not going to actually satisfy anyone for long; what’s really needed is a fairer distribution of wealth, more secure employment, more affordable housing, etc., because those are the things that really make a difference to people’s lives. But the chances of that have never seemed more remote: look what happened when someone who seemed to genuinely believe in that won the Labour leadership last year. His party have thrown a huge hissy fit and been trying to force him out ever since, and the media have gone into overdrive trying to discredit him as an extremist, dangerous, out-dated, Marxist, terrorist sympathiser.

It worries me how many Labour members and supporters seem to think that if only they can get rid of Corbyn and install a nice, safe, media-friendly Blairite clone back into the leadership, everything will be just like it was back in 1997 again. It’s as if they haven’t learned anything at all from the Brexit vote, from Corbyn’s landslide win in the last leadership contest, from losing 40 of their 41 Scottish MPs last year. I’m not saying Corbyn is perfect; my feelings are that although his heart’s definitely in the right place, he possibly doesn’t have the temperament or the pragmatism required for leadership. But if Labour go to the other extreme and go back to being almost indistinguishable from the Tories again, that’s not going to do anything to solve the underlying problems that caused this current mess.

(Eagle-eyed readers will notice that despite living in Scotland, I barely mentioned the very different political situation north of the border. That’s because this post was getting long enough already… I might write more about Scotland specifically in a future post though).

To try to pre-empt some of the inevitable objections that people will have to the above…

“It’s people like you, calling Leave voters stupid and assuming you know what they think, that caused this result”.

I never said that all Leave voters were stupid, or that I know why they all voted the way they did. The EU isn’t perfect, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to object to it, and many people will have voted leave after considering those reasons. I just don’t happen to agree that those reasons outweigh the positives. However, it seems almost indisputable that a large number of people voted leave because they were furiously angry about feeling ignored by politicians for a long time, that many of them were disaffected Labour voters who on the face of it had little to gain and potentially a lot to lose from Brexit, and it seems reasonable to speculate about why this might have happened.

“Your side lost the referendum. Just get over it and shut up about it”.

What, like the Leave side would have done if Remain had won? Oh wait… Nigel Farage said before the referendum that he wouldn’t accept 52-48 as a large enough margin for a Remain victory, but now that it’s turned out to be a 52-48 victory for Leave, we’re all just supposed to quietly accept that and not even talk about one of the most momentous changes to our country in decades?

In any case, this isn’t just about the referendum… these problems have been brewing for a long time, the referendum just brought them to the surface.

“You just hate Blair because he was successful and got elected, and you lefties are much more at home in permanent opposition”.

Nope. I hate Blair because he squandered a great opportunity to undo some of the damage of the Thatcher years, because he removed any meaningful choice for voters in the UK, and most of all because he started an unnecessary and pointless war that cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives and destabilised the Middle East with disastrous consequences. The fact that he got elected doesn’t even figure in my hatred at all… I would have been over the moon if a Labour leader with genuine social democratic principles had got elected instead.

Anyway, by that logic I ought to hate Nicola Sturgeon even more, since she got elected, and she’s probably more popular in Scotland right now than Blair was in the UK even at his peak. But I don’t hate her at all, in fact I like her.

“Saying that Blair’s Labour party were no different to the Tories just shows how ignorant and biased you are”.

I never said there was no difference at all, and New Labour did do a few good things that the Tories probably never would have, like introducing the minimum wage, and devolving some power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it’s surely beyond dispute that Blair moved the Labour party much closer to the Tories than they’d ever been before. It was his government that introduced tuition fees; it was them that first introduced the Work Capability Assessments and benefit sanctions that are still causing so much misery for people who have to depend on benefits today; they funnelled huge amounts of taxpayers’ money to the private sector via scandalously wasteful PFI schemes (which in many cases didn’t even work properly). Whatever your opinion of those policies, they’re certainly not things anyone would have expected a Labour government to do prior to Blair. They are much more in traditional Tory territory.

“A fairer distribution of wealth isn’t possible in today’s globalised world. Any government that tried it would strangle growth and leave everyone worse off, so it’s not going to happen. That’s why neither main party will do it”.

I don’t accept that. As I said near the start, the only developed countries that have experienced such a large decline in real-terms wages since 2007 are the UK and Greece. Other comparable countries, like France and Germany and even the notoriously pro-corporate USA, all experienced significant wage growth over the same period, so it obviously isn’t impossible.

Positive Reasons to Stay in the EU

Even as a staunch Remainer from the start, I have to admit that the official Remain campaign has been pretty lacklustre. Not as bad as the borderline racist and almost entirely fact-free Leave campaign, thankfully, but just dull and uninspiring. Most of what they’ve put forward (at least, most of what I’ve seen) has been about the likely economic impact of leaving, and its effects on the cost of living.

Personally I think that, important though the economy is, it was a mistake for them to base their campaign on that. I doubt it will have convinced many potential Leave voters to switch sides, because it’s far too easily countered. When being told that the economy might be damaged or the cost of their weekly shop might go up, people can respond with “It’s a price worth paying to get back control of our country”, or “Well, people like me haven’t been benefiting from economic growth anyway, so why should I care about it now?”, which is an understandable sentiment considering that both main UK parties have spent the last few decades making sure that most of the proceeds from growth get siphoned up to a tiny minority of already rich people.

Some would argue that it had to be this way: that the Remain side was never going to be able to come up with anything very inspiring, because they’re tasked with defending a status quo that people are already accustomed to, and because even those who on balance support the EU find it hard to get very enthusiastic about it. It’s common to hear people say resignedly “My heart says leave, but my head says remain”.

I don’t agree with this. In my opinion there are far more inspiring and positive reasons to stay in the EU than the danger that GDP might drop by 2% or that your cornflakes might cost 12p more if we left. They just aren’t being put forward as much as they should be. In my case, my head certainly says “remain”, but my heart also says “remain”, if anything even more strongly.

"Being black, I worry about the rise of the anti-immigration Right. I'm also concerned about the effect of Brexit on the value of my house". #CatsAgainstBrexit

“Being black, I worry about the rise of the anti-immigration Right. I’m also concerned about the effect of Brexit on the value of my house”. #CatsAgainstBrexit

The continent of Europe certainly has its problems, and if you only look at what’s right there in front of you right now, some of those problems can look serious enough that it might make sense to bail out. But I think you need to look beyond that. If you look at the context, at the entirety of human history, and at what things are still like in much of the rest of the world, it’s hard to deny that (relatively speaking at least) present day Europe is an incredible success story, a beacon of prosperity, democracy, tolerance and peace in a world that seems desperately short of all those qualities.

We live in a continent that only a few decades ago, still within living memory, was tearing itself apart with war. Now its major member countries live in peace, co-operating on trade, science, solving environmental problems, and almost every other area of life. Even more recently, large swathes of Europe were still under totalitarian rule. Now those countries are starting to thrive as free, modern democracies.

For all the talk you hear of defending British values, I think Europe shares our most important values with us. The EU is made up of countries where (in general) you don’t need to worry about going bankrupt if you fall ill; where the poor and vulnerable are looked after rather than left to starve; where violence is seen as something abhorrent and shocking rather than as a normal, everyday occurrence; where people can think and say and believe whatever they want without fear of oppression; where workers are protected from the worst kinds of exploitation; where people’s opportunities aren’t limited by their gender or sexuality or skin colour; where everyone, no matter how poor, gets an education; where those accused of crimes will get a fair trial and won’t be tortured or executed by the state under any circumstances. Of course, not all of that works perfectly all the time, but by and large we are much closer to those ideals in Europe in the present than most of the world has been throughout the vast majority of human history, and I don’t think we should be taking them for granted and assuming that they’re all going to continue indefinitely no matter what we do in the future.

I’m not saying that all of this is going to be reversed straight away if we leave the EU. Clearly if there’s a Leave majority on Thursday, it’s not going to spark off World War III on Friday. But it seems to me that turning our back on the institution that’s presided over such a progressive group of countries for so long, pushing away our neighbours with whom we have so much in common, is fundamentally the wrong direction to be moving in. Last week, with the tragic murder of an MP by a far right “activist”, we’ve already had an example of what can happen when people are led down the path of hatred and division instead of friendship and co-operation. Let’s not go down that path as a nation.

I believe it’s going to be essential to have some sort of close international co-operation in order to solve the problems of the future. Issues such as climate change, tax avoidance and terrorism don’t stop at national borders. I would rather have a strong super-national body like the EU to help deal with those things than let them run rampant and unchecked; and I would rather it was a relatively democratic body with an elected parliament as well. The world has changed, and the challenges of today aren’t the challenges of 50 or 100 years ago. If we shut ourselves off from the world, those challenges aren’t going to go away, we’re just going to damage our ability to overcome them.

 

Common Sense Is Overrated

I won’t be popular for saying this, but what the hell. I don’t write these articles to make myself popular.

Right now it appears a lot of people believe that what this country really needs is a good dose of common sense. We should stop getting entangled in the nitty gritty details of things, stop listening to so-called “experts” with their big words and their complicated arguments, and just trust ourselves to know what we should do. After all, the answer is obvious, isn’t it? Politicians have kept it from us all these years, tried to pull the wool over our eyes and confuse us, tried to make sure that only the elite have a voice, but not anymore. This time we’re going to do what should have been done years ago, and to hell with all of them!

It’s an appealing sentiment in a lot of ways. But it’s also, I would argue, badly wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. Common sense is certainly useful in a lot of situations, and I’m not arguing that it’s a bad thing in itself. I could do with a bit more of it myself, I think. It’s great for getting you through the grind of day-to-day life with the minimum of fuss, and for solving problems that are similar to ones you’ve encountered before. But for deciding how to (for example) run a country, for making the really big decisions and looking beyond the obvious, it’s pretty lousy.

Let’s put one thing to rest before we go any further: people need to stop taking it so personally whenever anyone dares to suggest that someone who’s devoted their life to working in a particular field might know more about it than the people who haven’t. That isn’t elitism or snobbery, that’s just stating a fact. The reality is that many areas of life are so complicated these days that it takes a lot of time and a lot of research to properly get to grips with them. That’s just the way it is. Stating that most people aren’t realistically going to put in that time and effort for any given subject isn’t an insult, it’s simply a recognition that people have lives and don’t usually have time to learn about more than a handful of topics in real depth, no matter how intelligent they might be.

It’s undeniably true that human civilisation has got far more complex over the past decades, to the point where even experts in a certain field can’t realistically know everything there is to know about that field anymore. I remember years ago my girlfriend at the time was complaining about Microsoft Word behaving weirdly and wrecking the formatting of one of her assignments. It amused her greatly when I dismissively said “Yeah, Microsoft Word just does whatever the hell it wants”. She imagined that being a computer professional myself, I ought to have a perfect understanding of Word’s behaviour… but the truth is, that version of Word was probably made up of hundreds of thousands or even millions of lines of code, code which I’d never seen since it wasn’t relevant to my own work. Even the programmers who originally wrote it probably won’t be able to remember the reasons behind all of its behaviour without going back and looking at the code again.

Computer software and hardware is just mind-bogglingly, unbelievably complex these days, and it’s the same in many other fields as well. It wasn’t always this way though. Back in the early days of civilisation’s progress, new inventions and discoveries tended to be simpler and more intuitive. Even if not everyone could have had the spark of inspiration required to invent the wheel, almost everyone would be able to see how it worked, how to use it and why it was such a good idea once it was there in front of them. This was also true to an extent with early industrial technology such as steam engines: although it took a genius to envisage them before they existed, the concepts that make them work are relatively simple and understandable. Not so today: how many people really understand how a nuclear reactor works, or how a computer processor works, or for that matter how the global financial system works?

It’s easy to see all this complexity as a bad, intimidating thing, but is it really? I would argue that no, it’s actually a good thing… the reason we have so much complexity now is largely because we’ve solved most of the simple problems at this stage, so naturally what’s left is the more complicated problems. If anything, the fact that we as a civilisation have come this far should be cause for celebration, not lamentation.

It’s true that there are downsides to complexity, of course. Some fields (economics comes to mind) have got so complicated that even their best experts struggle to understand them, and any field that’s too complicated for most ordinary people to understand is liable to be viewed with suspicion (whether deserved or not). But to me, that isn’t a reason to throw away all our progress and go back to making decisions on the most shallow, simplistic grounds instead. It’s a reason to come up with better ways of dealing with the complexity. That goal isn’t necessarily as hopeless as it may sound: going back to computers, they may be vastly more complex than they were thirty years ago, but they’re also vastly easier to use, thanks to software engineers using some of the computers’ power to hide most of the complexity when possible.

“Common sense” would never have got us to where we are now. If everyone had always lived their lives by common sense, we’d still be living in caves. Before aviation existed, common sense would have told you that it was impossible for humans to fly, but it obviously isn’t. Before the era of modern medicine, common sense would have said that we couldn’t cure diseases by swallowing tiny little pills, or prevent other diseases by sticking needles in our arms, but we do those things every day now. What’s more, common sense would have said it was a waste of time to work towards any of that stuff, and that people should spend their time on something useful instead, like hunting enough animals to feed the tribe for another day.

And this is why I’m so suspicious of the “common sense” solutions put forward in politics. There are certainly a lot of them around these days, mostly put forward by loudmouth right wing types: we should leave the EU to save money, because it’s just common sense that paying them all that money leaves us with less. We should send home all the immigrants, because it’s just common sense that life would be better for British people then. We should stop doing anything about climate change, because it’s just common sense that it’s not really happening. We should stop paying benefits to the mentally ill and force them to work, because it’s just common sense that they’re faking it. We should stop pandering to transgender people, because it’s just common sense that they’re really attention seekers or perverts and don’t deserve our help. We should bring back the death penalty, because it’s just common sense that it must be cheaper and a better deterrent than jail.

No thanks. I’d rather listen to the experts (who incidentally disagree which pretty much all of that last paragraph), flawed as they may be. Then there’d be at least a chance of not dragging my country back into the dark ages.

I also think it’s interesting that the politicians who apparently want to listen to “common sense” are very selective about which common sense policies they’ll support. For example, I could suggest that it would be common sense to tax the rich more and give the money to the poor to eliminate poverty. Or that it would be common sense to prioritise the environment over the economy, since we can’t even survive without a healthy environment. As far as I can see those more left wing suggestions are at least as much “common sense” as the right wing ones I listed above. But try suggesting them to Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson, and I think you’d find they’re quite happy to go down the “Well, it may sound like a good idea, but it’s not really as simple as that…” route when it suits them.

The truth is, the Brexit supporters are appealing to “common sense” not because they believe it’s a good idea, but because it’s all they have left at this point. They know their arguments don’t hold any water with people who actually understand the realities of the situation, so instead they’re attacking the very concept of understanding, trying to make out that knowledge and insight are somehow elitist and undemocratic.

And sadly, judging from the recent polls, it looks as if they’re succeeding 🙁 .

Casual ageism… and why it’s bad

This is another thing I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, and something I saw posted by a couple of friends on Facebook has spurred me on to finally do it.

I’ve always found it slightly curious that ageism often doesn’t seem to be taken very seriously compared to the other -isms. There are countless articles online about things you shouldn’t do once you’re over 30*, for example, and although many people do find them annoying, they rarely provoke more of a reaction than that. Yet just imagine the uproar if there were breezy lifestyle articles on popular sites entitled “20 Things Black People Shouldn’t Do”, or “10 Things Gay People Need To Stop Wearing”.

The difference in response just seems odd to me… after all, you can’t choose your age any more than you can choose your skin colour or your sexuality, so why should it be considered more acceptable to judge and pigeonhole people according to age?

(* Full disclosure: the specific article that got me thinking about all this again was actually entitled something like “30 Things Women Over 30 Should Stop Wearing”. Now, I’m not a woman so I don’t really feel qualified to talk about the sexist aspect of the article – why “women over 30” and not just “people over 30”? – but I still feel entitled to stick my oar in when it comes to the ageism. In any case, I’m not really going to focus on that particular article much, it was more just a catalyst that got me back to thinking about the whole issue).

The underlying message of that kind of article always seems to be the same: you’re 30 now, so your life is over. Stop pathetically trying to enjoy yourself and get in the box we’ve made for you.

Let’s be honest: I’m the sort of person who probably gives those article authors nightmares. I’m nearer 40 than 30 now, but I still go to gigs; most days I still dress pretty much the same way I’ve dressed since I started high school (jeans, trainers, T-shirt); I love going on roller coasters; I explore abandoned structures that I’m not supposed to be in, just for fun; I had a massive buffet of Haribo sweets at my wedding reception; I still go to dance events where most of the attendees are students; I hang out with people for whom a good party is one that involves stripping naked and running into the nearest body of water; I called my largely pointless blog “Gcat’s World of Stuff”; when I go travelling I stay in cheap hostels like a gap year student, not because I desperately need to save money (though that is a nice side effect), but because I feel more at home in places like that. In short, “acting my age” is not really a concept that exists for me.

Front row on Nemesis

Front row on Nemesis

I have zero intention of stopping doing those things any time soon. If and when I do stop, it’ll be because that’s what feels right for me at the time, not because I happen to have been alive for some arbitrary, meaningless period of time. Hell, I didn’t even start doing about half of that stuff until I was already over 30!

At this point you may be thinking “Hang on, it’s not fair to compare ageism with racism and sexism. It’s different, because everyone gets the chance to be young once, so it’s reasonable to judge people who failed to get the ‘young person stuff’ out of their system at an appropriate age, people who refuse to grow up and move on”.

And I, in turn, could respond by pointing out that not everyone does get the same chances when they’re young. Many people’s childhood and adolescence are blighted by abuse, mental illness, physical illness, or any number of other circumstances that might make it difficult for them to spend time on enjoyable activites. In my own case those circumstances included bullying as well as very long lasting depression and anxiety… and now that I’m finally making real progress on getting over all that, I’m damned if I’m going to miss out on having some fun at long last, just because it makes some judgemental idiots squeamish to see over 30s enjoying themselves.

But I think to go down that line of argument would be to miss the more fundamental point. I’d be trying to justify something that should require no justification, buying into the underlying assumption that I should somehow be ashamed of what I’m doing, that I should feel I have to make excuses for my behaviour. I don’t have to make excuses, because there is nothing to excuse: I’m not hurting anyone.

DSC_6428

I suppose people might argue that I’m hurting myself, though, and missing out on proper adult experiences by not acting my age. I disagree. I’m married, I work in a fulfilling and highly skilled job, I own a nice house and a nice car. I don’t think I’m missing out on anything… and I think the people who believe you need to stop doing what you love and start putting on some dull, soul-destroying act of “maturity” in order to succeed in the fields of dating and career are utterly, utterly wrong. You have a MUCH better chance of finding a partner or a job that’s right for you if you’re happy, relaxed and enjoying life than you do if you’re uptight, repressed and wasting all your energy on putting up a front to the world. Believe me, I know this from bitter experience!

It seems highly ironic to me that people who claim to value maturity so much are often the ones who judge others based on trivialities like what clothes they choose to wear or what activities they enjoy in their spare time. That doesn’t look much like mature behaviour to me… in fact that looks very much like someone who’s desperate to appear grown up to cover up the insecurities underneath, but lacks any understanding of what being grown up actually means. I’m reminded of the famous C.S.Lewis quote, “When I became a man, I put away childish things… like the fear of childishness, and the desire to be very grown up”.

But why does it matter?

You’re probably wondering why I chose to write a blog entry about this. After all, I could have just ignored it… I could have rolled my eyes, muttered “idiots” under my breath and moved on. And that is what I usually do these days, because if I let every ignorant comment get to me the way I used to, there wouldn’t be enough bandwidth on the internet to convey all the things I wanted to say back.

But this issue, I thought, merited a response, because I think it could easily turn into more than just an annoyance, to some people at least. I mentioned above that I was clinically depressed for a long time. There were a number of factors that helped me to get better a few years ago, but by far the most important one was re-learning to listen to my feelings and do things that would make me happy, regardless of what I felt I “should” be doing. In other words, it was mainly starting to do all of those supposedly age-inappropriate activities I listed above that finally lifted me out of the depression I’d been mired in for well over a decade.

Mattresses

In light of my experience, I think it’s downright irresponsible for anyone to be dishing out “advice” that amounts to telling people to give up on the things that make them happy. I’m sure the article authors would retort that they’re not forcing anyone to take their advice, and that’s true; but knowing what it’s like to be in a deeply depressed and vulnerable state, I suspect that the people who are least likely to be able to brush off things like this are also the most likely to be damaged by them. Of course some vapid, click-bait list that even the person who wrote it probably doesn’t really believe isn’t going to ruin someone’s life in itself, but I can easily see it pushing someone over the edge if they’re already in a precarious state. So I stand by what I said: it is irresponsible.

But then I’m 36 and I still wear trainers, so I suppose that disqualifies me from talking about responsibility anyway.