“Attention seeking” is good. Stop shaming people for it

This blog post by my brother is worth a read (in fact his whole blog is, but I’m going to focus on that particular post just now). In the second half he brings up things that I’ve thought about before, related to social media and mental health. He points out that making negative posts online when you’re struggling is sometimes frowned upon, and that people who do so are often labelled as attention seekers, something that I’ve observed as well.

I’ve always thought that the “attention seeking” accusation in particular is an odd one. Surely seeking attention is exactly what we’re trying to encourage depressed people to do when it gets too much to deal with on their own? There are any number of mental health awareness campaigns out there these days, and the core message of pretty much all of them is something along the lines of: don’t suffer in silence, don’t bottle up your feelings, reach out and talk to someone when you feel down. If we’re serious about that message (which we really should be), we’re going to have to accept that it will mean seeing things we might not be comfortable with on social media from time to time.

Some people seem to have a curiously black and white view of mental illness sufferers, as if we can be neatly divided into two groups: on one side the “moaners” who just complain incessantly about their problems and are never going to get any better, and on the other the more positive people who are bravely and quietly putting in the work required to get better. In my experience it doesn’t work like that at all. God knows I’ve done a lot of moaning in my time (mostly on specialist forums but occasionally on regular social media), but I’ve also put a lot of work into trying to get better, even at times when it felt completely hopeless.

Other people I know are the same; there is no great divide. The people who are moaning helplessly one day might be pouring their effort into recovery a few hours or days later when they feel a little better, and even the most dedicated positive thinker needs to vent from time to time. In fact, if anything I’d say the people I’ve known who never expressed their negative feelings are probably less likely to get better, because they seem to be less in touch with what’s going on in their heads and more likely to be in denial about their problems.

Maybe some people are fine with the idea of talking about mental health, but think that social media is the wrong forum, and that those sort of discussions should be kept for family and close friends and professional therapists. That’s all very well, but not everyone has those options. Some people’s families and friends aren’t sympathetic to these issues. Some people have no family or close friends. As for professional therapists, NHS waiting times for them are ridiculous and not everyone can afford to go private. Finally, some people (myself included) might simply find it easier to be open online than they do face-to-face.

The downsides to being too negative in public are often pointed out: you’ll drive people away, you’ll just wallow in your problems and become overwhelmed by negativity, you’ll regret revealing such personal stuff later on. What’s rarely brought up is that there are also significant downsides to not talking about it. The main one, in my experience, is that if you’re going through massive turmoil inside your head, it’s basically impossible to forge any kind of meaningful connection to another person if they don’t know about it.

When I was first suffering from social anxiety and depression, I followed the standard advice of trying to meet people at social events and meetup-type groups. I would dutifully go along to as many of those as I could, then try to pretend as best I could that I was a normal person and didn’t feel like I had a huge aching void inside me. To put it bluntly, it was a total waste of time. I hated every minute, I felt horrifically out of place, and I never succeeded in making a friend that way.

Things changed dramatically when I stopped trying to hide what I was going through and started actually opening up to people instead, regardless of how negative I must have been sounding. Within weeks I had made several good friends, some of whom I was still in touch with a decade later, and within months I had been… ahem… more than friends with a few people as well.

Sure, it’s a lot nicer if mental illness isn’t a huge part of your life, but sometimes it is. And when it is, the only successful way I’ve found of building a meaningful friendship or relationship is to share that part of you along with the rest. Of course given the choice it might have been nicer to base those relationships on something more positive, but at the time there was simply no other choice. All the more positive stuff seemed to pale into insignificance compared with what was going on in my head, and trying to interact with people based on it felt shallow and dishonest. It was a choice between revealing the negative stuff or not having any meaningful interactions with people at all.

(The other option, I guess, is to recover from the mental illness first and only then seek out friendships and relationships. Maybe that would work, though I’m not sure it ever would have for me. It’s a lot more difficult to overcome these sorts of problems when you feel completely alone, and it’s difficult to start feeling like you’re a valid, fully fledged member of the human race when you have no friends and no love life).

This has gone off at a bit of a tangent, but I think it still has relevance to the original point about social media. Basically, sharing how we’re feeling, whether in person or online, is a way of building connections with people, probably the only way of building genuine connections. When we make certain people feel like they can’t share their feelings, we’re excluding them from building those connections, quite likely at a time when they need that more than ever. Worse still, we are invalidating them and likely making them feel as if they shouldn’t even have those feelings, which can be surprisingly destructive. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.

I tried to write some thoughts on 2017 and 2018 in a Facebook status, but it was getting far too long for that so I decided to put it up here instead.

I’m looking forward to 2018 more than I’ve looked forward to most new years, but I think that’s more to do with my state of mind than with anything specific I’ve got planned, or any external circumstances. Over the past few weeks I’ve sorted out a long standing sleep problem (I hope… at the very least it’s a lot better now than it was) and it also feels as if I’ve made a lot of progress with my general mental state as well.

It’s weird… for years (well, decades to be honest) I felt like I was constantly struggling and struggling with it and getting almost nowhere, but recently I seem to have reached the point where it’s improving almost on its own without me having to do much at all. It’s strange but I like it. Of course a part of me is still worried that my mood’s going to crash again and I’ll be back to where it was, but I don’t know if that’s likely. Some of the realisations I’ve come to are things that I don’t think I could ever easily un-realise, so while there will no doubt be more ups and downs in the future, maybe I won’t ever be as down as I was before.

It’s been a good year in other ways, too. After feeling stuck in a bit of a rut with work for a while, 2017 brought me both my first ever promotion and my first paid freelance project, which have been great learning experiences and things I definitely want to build on. Doing the canal app has got me into the habit of working on projects in my spare time in a properly focused way and I’m trying to keep that up. In the past I’ve had lots of ideas but I’ve only worked on them sporadically, or I’ve tried to do too many things at once and failed to really get anywhere with any of them. So now I have picked one project that I want to focus on in 2018 and I’m trying to keep up the momentum on it. I don’t know where it will lead me, but that’s part of the fun.

As well as that, and some domestic things that I won’t bore you with the details of, there’s a few other things I want from 2018:

  • Do some fun stuff! If 2017 had a failing, it’s probably that I wasn’t as sociable as I could have been and didn’t spend a lot of time having fun. So this year I want to do Beltane again, go travelling again, and whatever else takes my fancy.
  • Stop stressing about politics so much. OK, I may not like what’s happening in the world right now, but there’s effectively nothing I can do about it, so there’s no point making myself feel worse by obsessing over it. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped caring, or forgiven the people who caused this mess, just that I’ve realised I’m a happier and healthier person for not thinking about it so much. And if things do go badly wrong, I’ll have a much better chance of surviving it and helping the people I care about if I’m happy and healthy.
  • Get out of the city more often. Towards the end of 2017 I started to go walking in the Pentlands quite a lot, something I hadn’t done for a while. I definitely want to keep that up as much as possible, and maybe even get back to walking in the Highlands.
  • Lose some weight… but only if I can find a way to do it without feeling constantly hungry and miserable (like I did last time I tried).

Happy New Year to anyone who read to the end ūüôā . I hope 2018 will be good to you.

 

Is it undemocratic to oppose Brexit?

It seems that anyone who dares suggest that Brexit might not be a good idea is immediately shouted down as “undemocratic”, and “opposing the will of the people”, as if that should be enough to just end any argument there and then.

Unlike many Remainers, I don’t think parliament could realistically just cancel Brexit because the impact is likely to be bad. Much as I think the referendum should never have been held, and much as I wish the result had gone the other way, it was held, and it did return a Leave victory. Ignoring the result of a direct vote would be setting a terrible precedent.

What if Labour were to win the next general election, but the Tories turned round and said “We know you voted for a Labour government, but we think a Jeremy Corbyn administration would be a disaster for this country, so we’re just going to keep on governing instead”? Or if Scotland voted Yes in a second independence referendum but the UK government responded “We’ve looked into the likely impact of independence and it’s going to be so catastrophic for Scotland that we can’t let you do it”?

However. Having said all that, I still think Brexit can (and should) be opposed democratically. The Leave side are not exactly acting like paragons of democracy themselves: firstly, they’re refusing to allow for the fact that people might change their minds as the impact of Brexit becomes clearer; and secondly, they’re trying to use their referendum win as a mandate for all kinds of things that weren’t mentioned on the ballot paper, and in some cases were barely even mentioned at all during the campaign.

Imagine that by the time we actually come to the point of leaving the EU, things have got so bad that 65% of the public now want to stay. Why would it be somehow more democratic to listen to what 52% of people wanted three years ago than to what 65% want today? OK, so maybe the swing won’t be quite that pronounced, but I can easily imagine a few percent of people thinking “Well, I liked the idea of that extra money for the NHS, but I didn’t think leaving was going to devastate our economy and risk an end to peace in Northern Ireland. I wish I’d voted Remain” – and a few percent is all it would take to mean that Brexit is no longer “the will of the people”. There’s a fairly good chance it’s even already happened.

Brexiters tend to react with fury if anyone suggests that Leave voters didn’t know what they were voting for. Of course people knew what they were voting for, they fume, they’re not stupid. But we’re now 18 months on from the referendum and several months into the negotiations, and unless I’ve missed something pretty major, we STILL don’t have a clue what Brexit is going to look like. It could literally be anything from shutting ourselves off completely and becoming a dysfunctional third world country to a Norway-type deal that’s so similar to EU membership that most people won’t even notice the difference. It seems utterly preposterous to claim that people knew what a Leave vote meant back in early 2016 when we still don’t have answers to some of the most basic, fundamental questions even now.

And then there’s the question of mandates. Yes, the government (unfortunately) have a mandate to take us out of the EU, but that was the ONLY question asked on the ballot paper. They don’t have a mandate for a hard Brexit, whatever they might try to claim, because the referendum never asked us whether we wanted a hard Brexit, it only asked whether we wanted to leave the EU, and a soft Brexit would still be leaving the EU. And they certainly don’t have a mandate to bypass parliament, make new laws and trade deals in secret, and slash our employment rights and food safety standards.

Once again, pointing this out seems to make the Brexiters very angry. Of course people voted for a hard Brexit, they reply. People voted to end free movement and make our own laws, and we can’t do that if we’re still in the single market.

Well I’m sorry, but no, people did not vote for that. People voted to leave the EU and that’s all. If you wanted a mandate for leaving the single market as well, you should have lobbied to have that included on the ballot paper. Furthermore, various prominent Leave politicians are on record before the vote as saying that there was no plan to leave the single market, even that it would be insane to contemplate leaving the single market. Therefore, it is highly likely that many Leave voters thought they were voting for a Norway-type deal rather than a hard separation, and even if it was only 4% of them, that means there was no majority in the referendum for leaving the single market. (Though of course we don’t know that because the referendum didn’t ask that question, which is exactly my point).

And as for claiming “it’s obvious” that people voted to end free movement… no, I’m afraid you can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to get angry when Remainers lump all Leave voters together and claim they all voted Leave because they’re xenophobic or ignorant, you can’t then lump all Leave voters together yourself and claim that they all want exactly the same thing you do. Either Leave voters are one big homogenous Borg-like blob who are incapable of individual thought, or they’re not. You don’t get to claim they are only when it suits your argument.

In summary: the government have a mandate to take us out of the EU, and I don’t think that can be overturned without another referendum, or maybe a general election where the winning party explicitly stands on the platform of reversing Brexit. But they don’t have a mandate for anything beyond that, and certainly not for the sort of hard right coup that senior Tories and parts of the press seem to want. It’s absolutely democratic to oppose that, indeed it would be profoundly undemocratic to let them get away with it.

Hostility to emotions, and the consequences

This post probably falls into the category of “cans of worms I probably shouldn’t open, but need to in order to stop them running round inside my head forever”. (Apologies for the horribly mixed metaphor there).

Not long ago I read an article about the shameful male suicide rate in the UK. I think the article was in the Guardian and I can’t find it now, but there are plenty of similar ones from the last couple of years, and they all make pretty grim reading: suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 45 in Britain, and the rate has been increasing. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to call this a crisis.

It’s not just a male problem, of course, but the suicide rate for men is around 3 times higher than it is for women. Intriguingly there doesn’t seem to be a correspondingly higher rate of mental illness in general in men, so naturally there’s been a lot of speculation about why that might be. Whilst I’m not of course claiming to speak for all men or to understand what all of them might be going through, I do feel that as a man who’s struggled with suicidal feelings quite a lot in the past, as well as spending a lot of time learning about mental health, I may at least be more qualified than most to stick my oar in.

The first thing that strikes me (and I’m aware I’m probably stating the obvious here) is that we have real problems with emotions in our culture. People aren’t just made to feel like they can’t express their emotions, which in itself would be bad enough; they’re often made to feel like they shouldn’t even have¬†them at all.

You can see this attitude in almost any online debate, for example. Those raising concerns about how something might affect people’s emotional wellbeing are routinely ridiculed, dismissed as oversensitive snowflakes. Anyone who admits to experiencing negative emotions, no matter what their circumstances, is seen as weak and is brusquely informed that they just need to “grow up”, “man up”, “get over it”, “deal with it”, etc. (or worse), and that under no circumstances should they expect any help or support from others.

I can sort of see where this comes from, but for reasons I’ll go into shortly I think it’s a very flawed, irrational and destructive way of looking at the world. People defending this position are quick to point out that it wouldn’t be possible to have a world where no-one is ever upset by anything. Since everyone reacts differently to the world around them, we can only be directly responsible for our own words and actions, not for how other people might respond to them.

In this at least they are correct. It isn’t possible to engineer a society where no-one ever upsets anyone else, and attempting to do so would lead to serious problems, such as severe restrictions on freedom of expression. I also agree that it’s better if people have some measure of control over their emotions so that they don’t experience wild mood swings due to external factors they can’t control. But many commentators go much further than this, making various other assertions that don’t actually follow from that first one, and are in fact highly debatable. For example:

  1. That there is no downside whatsoever to upsetting people, so we don’t need to bother considering other people’s feelings before deciding to speak or act.
  2. That it’s possible and desirable for human beings to reach a state where they are no longer emotionally affected by other people’s words or actions.
  3. That when someone claims something has had a negative effect on them emotionally, they’re not genuinely hurt, they’re just being a crybaby and seeking attention, or trying to manipulate others.
  4. That people who are emotionally sensitive could quickly and easily become less sensitive any time they wanted, they just choose not to.
  5. That people who are emotionally sensitive just don’t have enough life experience, and a good dose of cold, hard reality will make them toughen up.
  6. That mental illness is some distant, mysterious, tragic thing that can’t be helped (or can only be helped by specialist treatment), and is not influenced at all by the way people treat each other in normal, day-to-day situations.

All six of these statements appear to be widely held beliefs, but I would dispute all of them. I suspect that many of the people espousing these beliefs are doing it because they want¬†the world to work that way rather than because it actually does. I used to believe a lot of that stuff myself, back when I was badly depressed, and I used to think that attitude would help me get better, but as I described in my Safe Spaces post last year, it didn’t. It was a disaster. I think that’s why I feel so strongly about this… I hate to see vulnerable people being led down a path that might result in them experiencing years of needless misery, like I did.

“But”, I hear you say. “Isn’t your way just as bad, if not worse? Aren’t you just encouraging people to be self-indulgent, to wallow in self pity and demand that others walk on eggshells around them, instead of taking responsibility for their own lives?”.

No, I’m not. I’m encouraging people to face reality instead of denying it. In this case, the reality that human beings have emotions, that they’re an essential part of our existence, that we cannot live life to the full without them and that the things we do and say affect others whether we want them to or not. I know a lot of people are uncomfortable with emotions; they see them as troublesome, or childish, or mushy, or irrelevant, or effeminate, or whatever; but pretending they’re not there or pretending we don’t need them simply doesn’t work.

Whenever I think of someone trying to deny their emotions or bottle them up, I’m reminded of my old next door neighbour, whose solution to his water tank overflowing was to stuff plastic bags into the overflow pipe until the water stopped coming out. I never actually saw the end result of his endeavour since it would have played out inside his house, but I can’t imagine it ended well. Bottling up emotions tends to result in similarly bad consequences.

I think this is what a lot of people fail to understand. They present a false dichotomy between thoughts and feelings, with logical, rational, sensible thoughts on one side and hysterical, irrational, sentimental feelings on the other. They talk disparagingly about emotional people while seeing themselves as superior, rational beings driven by logical thoughts alone. But in reality, as Dr Jonice Webb puts it in Running on Empty¬†(a brilliant book which I would totally recommend to anyone who’s struggling with their emotions, or even just finds this stuff interesting), the happiest and most successful people tend to be the ones who are comfortable with both their thoughts and¬†their feelings, who have found a way to make both work in harmony, helping them towards achieving their goals rather than getting in the way.

I have read a lot of self help and psychology books over the years, some good and some bad, but Running on Empty puts forward one of the most helpful models for how emotions work and how to solve emotional problems that I have ever seen, and does it in a very clear and readable way. Here are some of the main points that I took away from it:

  1. Human beings evolved as emotional creatures, and there’s no getting away from that. Our emotions will always be there and trying to get rid of them isn’t a healthy or useful goal.
  2. Emotions are incredibly useful, indeed essential, for navigating the world. Every emotion is actually a signal trying to tell you something. Life works much better when you are able to listen to those signals and respond appropriately.
  3. Emotions are important and every emotion you feel is valid and acceptable. There are no “bad” emotions, only bad actions.
  4. Emotions that are expressed and out in the open are far less likely to cause problems, both for you and for those around you, than ones that are bottled up and denied.
  5. Many people do not learn good strategies for dealing with their emotions during childhood, for various reasons. This can lead to a range of problems later on in life: depression, anxiety, feelings of emptiness or not fitting in, even suicidal feelings in some cases.
  6. Being made to feel that your emotions don’t matter or that you somehow shouldn’t be feeling them can be particularly destructive.
  7. These problems can be overcome in adulthood by learning how to deal with emotions effectively, as well as other related life skills. Contrary to popular belief it is not “too late” if you didn’t learn this as a child. However, it can be difficult and time consuming, and some people may need external help to be able to do it.

This, to me, is a far healthier, more constructive and balanced set of beliefs than the ones I listed several paragraphs back.

This post is getting much longer than I intended, so I’ll try and wrap it up now. Getting back to my original point, I believe that at least one reason for the high suicide rate is the hostility towards emotions that’s unfortunately often displayed in our culture – especially if you’ve had bad experiences in the past, it’s difficult to cling to the belief that your feelings are important and that you’re entitled to feel the way you do when you’re bombarded with the opposite message several times a day. And I think the reason males seem to be more at risk is the old macho stereotype that men are supposed to be strong and stoic and not show emotion (and especially not “negative” emotions like sadness and fear).

If I’m right, though, what’s the answer? I don’t know. But I do think it would be a good start to at least acknowledge that emotions are, and always will be, central to our lives, and that living in a culture that’s hostile to them does have adverse consequences.

And we need to stop letting those who would have us do the psychological equivalent of sealing a dripping overflow pipe with plastic bags get away with claiming they’re the sensible, rational ones.

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!).