Game Project part 1: Do you think it’s going terrain today?

Last time I talked about the new game project I’m planning to start. I was feeling quite enthusiastic about it and I had a bit of time while I was away in the caravan, so I decided it was time to actually start doing stuff on it!

I won’t say too much about the actual concept of the game yet, and in fact it might still change a bit before it’s finished, but it’s going to be set in a 3D town that you can wander round. So one of the first things to do will be to get the bare bones of a game engine running that can display the 3D world using WebGL, and also get an editing pipeline working so that I can create and edit the environment.

For most of the 3D editing I’m planning to use Blender. It’s free, it’s very powerful, it has a great community, it runs on almost everything and I already know how to use it, so what’s not to like? At some point I might want a more customised editing experience, maybe either writing a plugin or two for Blender or adding an editing mode to the game engine itself, but for the moment vanilla Blender will do.

The first element of the environment that I’m going to focus on is the actual ground, since it’s (literally) the foundation on which everything else will be built. I could model the ground as a standard 3D mesh, but it would be more efficient to treat it as a special case: it’s basically a single plane but with variations in height and texture across it, so we can store it as a 2D array of height values, plus another 2D array of material indices. My plan for the ground was as follows:

  • Add the ground as a “grid” object in Blender, and model the height variations using Blender’s extensive array of modelling tools
  • Export the geometry in OBJ format (a nice simple format for doing further conversions on)
  • Write a converter program in C++ to convert the OBJ file into a compact binary format containing the height values for each point and the material values for each square
  • Create a single texture image containing tiled textures for all the materials used
  • Write JavaScript code to parse the binary file and actually display the terrain!

(We could load and parse the OBJ file directly in JavaScript, but this would be significantly larger, and size matters when working in a browser environment, because every data file has to be downloaded over the internet when running the game).

Editing terrain in Blender

The terrain work went reasonably smoothly once I got started. Editing the heights as a Blender grid worked well, with the proportional editing tool being very useful. Writing the C++ converter tool didn’t take too long, and the binary terrain files it creates are about 10 times smaller than the original OBJ files exported from Blender, so it’s well worth doing the conversion.

Terrain rendered in WebGL

Writing a WebGL renderer for the terrain was a bit more involved. The main problem I ran into was an unexpected one: I could see dark lines appearing along the edges of the terrain “tiles” when they should have joined up with each other seamlessly. I eventually traced this to my decision to store all of the textures for the ground in a single image. This works fine for the most part, but I hadn’t foreseen that it would cause problems with the filtering used by WebGL to make the textures look smoother at different scales. This causes a slight blurring effect and when you have multiple textures side-by-side in a single image, it causes their edges to “bleed” into each other slightly.

I solved this by putting 4 copies of each texture into the image, in a 2×2 layout, and mapping the centre section onto the terrain, so that the blurred edges are never used. This reduces the amount of texture data that can be stored in a single image, but it’s still better than storing each texture in a separate image and having to waste time switching between them when rendering.

Now that it’s done I’m reasonably happy with how it looks. I was a bit worried that the height differences might distort the textures too much, but they actually don’t seem to. I do plan to add some additional texture images for variety, and it should also look a lot better once some of the other elements of the scene (buildings, roads, vegetation, etc.) are in place.

Another shot of the rendered terrain

The WebGL renderer is still in its very early stages; right now all it can do is render a single 3D terrain object with a plain sky blue background, illuminated by a single directional light source, and allow me to move the camera around for testing. Obviously it’ll need a lot of other stuff added to enable it to show everything else required for the game, as well as to make things look a bit nicer and run a bit faster – but we’ll get onto that next time.

(Incidentally, the texture images are all from textures.com, a great resource for anyone doing anything 3D related. You can get loads of textures of all sorts from there and they’re free to use for most purposes).

New game project

I’ve decided it’s time to start a new game project. I haven’t done one (well, not a proper one) in a few years but things now seem to be nudging me back in that direction.

A screenshot from the first full game I created. Yes, it’s a fan-made Dizzy game for the Spectrum.

Since the Union Canal Unlocked project finished a year or so ago, I’ve been working on a 3D project in my spare time, but I’ve become frustrated that it’s not really going anywhere, at least not very fast. I had very ambitious goals for it and maybe I’m just starting to realise how long it would realistically take for me to achieve them. I may go back to it at some point, but right now I’m getting tired of pouring time and effort into code that may not actually produce any interesting output for several months or even years.

At the same time, a few things have happened that reminded me how much I used to enjoy making games. I read through an old diary from the time when I was making my first one (well, the first one I actually finished), back in 1994, which seems impossibly long ago now. It brought back the feeling of achievement and progress I used to get from making another screen or another graphic. I’ve also recently played through a game that a friend made a few years ago, and another friend started studying game design just a few weeks ago. It feels like the right time to go back to it.

My second game, also for the Spectrum. This was going to have a ridiculously ambitious 56 levels but I only got around to making 6

Of course, it’s going to be challenging to find the time, especially with our new arrival in the household! But in a way that just makes me more determined to use my scarce time more effectively, on something that I’ll actually find rewarding, rather than trying to force myself to work on something I’ve lost interest in.  Even if I only manage to do a little bit each week, I’ll get there eventually.

I have a rough plan for the new game, which will no doubt get refined and altered a lot once I get started on it. It’s going to be my first 3D game (except for a little joke one I made late last year), something I’ve shied away from in the past mainly due to the additional complexity of 3D asset creation, but after actually completing some 3D models in the last few years, I feel a bit more confident that I can do it, and I think it will fit my concept better.

My third game, this time a historical Scottish game for DOS PCs. I only finished one level of this one

I’ve decided to write it to run in a browser, using JavaScript and WebGL. This will have its pros and cons. On the plus side, it’s technology I already have quite a bit of experience of; the game will automatically work on pretty much every platform without much extra effort on my part; people won’t have to install it before playing it; and not using a ready-made game engine will give me freedom to do everything exactly the way I want (plus I find tinkering with the low level parts of the code quite fun!). On the minus side it likely won’t run as fast as it would have as a “native” app, though I don’t see this being a huge problem in practice as what I have in mind shouldn’t be too demanding; and building the engine from scratch will take quite a lot of work.

To begin with I’m just going to target computers rather than tablets and phones. The control system I have in mind will work with keyboards and mice but not so well with touchscreens. At some point later on I might add a touch control scheme since most of the rest of the code should work fine on touch devices.

“Return of the Etirites”, probably the best game I ever made. It’s basically a rip-off of Mystic Quest on the Gameboy

I’m intending to write a series of posts on here to chronicle my progress. Of course, it’s always a bit dangerous to commit to something like this publicly, but that’s part of my reason for wanting to do it… I hope it will encourage me to actually do some stuff and not just think about it! And it will give me something nice and constructive to write blog posts about, instead of Brexit 😉 . It might take me a while to get the first post up, because as anyone who’s used WebGL (or done any OpenGL coding without using the fixed pipeline) knows, it takes quite a lot of code to even display anything at all. But once the basics are done it should be possible to build on it incrementally and progress a bit more rapidly.

Wish me luck!

 

My take on “Codes of Conduct” for software projects

The news that the Linux kernel development project has adopted a new code of conduct has prompted a lot of comment. As someone who’s been a software developer for all my working life and who’s written about vaguely related stuff before, I thought I would stick my oar in as well, at least to address what I think are some widespread misconceptions.

First off, I’ll say a bit about myself and my own experience. I’ve been a software professional for 16 years. During that time I seem to have impressed a lot of the people I’ve worked with. I have more than once “rescued” projects that were previously thought to be doomed and turned them into success stories. Collaborators who have worked with me in the past have frequently requested to work with me specifically when they approach my organisation for further consultancy. Last year I was promoted to a fairly senior technical position, and also last year I did my first paid freelance project, receiving glowing praise from the client for the way I handled it.

I’m not saying this to brag. I’m normally a pretty modest person and believe me, talking about myself in those terms doesn’t come easily. I’m saying it because it’s going to be relevant to what I say next.

I’m also, by pretty much any definition, a snowflake. (That’s the term these days, isn’t it?). I don’t like confrontation and I tend to avoid it as much as I can. I find it hurtful being on the receiving end of harsh words or blunt criticism and I also tend to avoid situations where this is likely to happen. When it does happen I find I need to retreat and lick my wounds for a while before I feel ready to face the world again.

I didn’t choose to be this way, and if I’d been given the choice I wouldn’t have chosen it, because to be honest it’s pretty damned inconvenient. But it’s the way I am, the way I’ve always been for as long as I can remember. (Again, this may not seem relevant yet, but trust me, I’m bringing it up for a reason).

It’s maybe not surprising, then, that I’m broadly supportive of any initiative that tries to make software development a friendlier place. I don’t follow Linux kernel development closely enough to have a strong opinion on it, but some open source communities certainly have acquired reputations for being quite harsh and unpleasant working environments. This probably is a factor in my choosing not to contribute to them – although I have contributed a bit to open source in the past, these days if I want to code for fun I prefer to just tinker with my own solo projects and avoid all that potential drama and discomfort.

Not everyone agrees, of course, and sites like Slashdot are awash with comments about how this is a disaster, how it’s going to destroy software quality, and how it’s the beginning of the end of Linux now that the Social Justice Warriors have started to take over. I’m not going to attempt to address every point made, but I would like to pick up on a few common themes that jumped out at me from reading people’s reactions.

Fear of harsh criticism makes people deliver

The main justification put forward for keeping the status quo seems to be that people will up their game and produce better code if they’re afraid of being flamed or ridiculed. I don’t believe this works in practice, at least not for everyone.

I remember years ago when I was learning to drive, my first instructor started acting increasingly like a bully. When I made mistakes (as everyone does when they’re learning something new), he would shout at me, swear at me and taunt me by bringing up mistakes I’d made weeks before. But far from spurring me on to improve my driving, this just wound me up and made me stressed and flustered, causing me to make even more mistakes, in turn causing him to throw more abuse my way, and so on. It got so bad that I started to dread my driving lessons and when I was out in the car with him I lost all confidence and became terrified of making even the tiniest mistake.

After a few weeks I got fed up with this so I phoned the driving school and told them I wanted a different instructor, someone who would build up my confidence rather than destroy it. They assigned me to a great instructor, an experienced and patient older man who I got on very well with, and the contrast was dramatic. My driving improved straight away and I started to actually look forward to my lessons. Within a few weeks I was ready to take my test, which I passed on the first attempt. I always remember this experience when I hear someone express the opinion that abuse will make people perform better.

Of course, everyone responds differently to these situations. I knew someone who said he was glad his driving instructor shouted at him because, after all, it was potentially a life-or-death situation and this would help him to take it seriously. So I’m not saying everyone’s experience will be the same as mine, just pointing out that not everyone responds positively under that sort of pressure.

Furthermore, someone who goes to pieces in the face of abuse might still be perfectly capable in other circumstances. I was able to drive just fine once I got away from that first instructor, and since then I’ve driven all over the country, driven minibuses and towed caravans without incident.

People will use the code of conduct to blow grievances out of all proportion and seek attention

Personally, as someone who hates conflict and hates being the centre of attention, I can’t imagine anything I’d be less likely to do than go out of my way to draw attention and publicity to myself. If anything I think I’d more likely be far too reticent about seeking help if someone was violating a code of conduct, and I imagine it would be the same for most of the people who would actually benefit the most from the code.

That’s not to say everyone would be the same, of course. There might well be a vocal minority who would act in this way, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to improve things for people who genuinely do need it. In any case, whether a given behaviour really constitutes gratuitous “attention seeking” or whether it’s out of proportion is very much a subjective judgement.

Emotionally fragile people have nothing to offer anyway

I hope my description above of my own working life has shown that we do have something to offer. I think this belief is due to confusion between “people who are good at software development” and “people who are good at being loud and obnoxious”. If you create a working environment so toxic that 70% of people can’t cope with it and leave, that doesn’t mean you’ve retained the 30% best developers, it means you’ve retained the 30% of people best equipped to thrive in an abusive environment. I see no reason to think there’s going to be much correlation there.

I think a similar argument can be made about the contentious “safe spaces” I’ve written about before. Many of their opponents argue that it’s healthier to be exposed to a diverse range of different points of view rather than living in a bubble. I completely agree, but I disagree about how best to achieve that. A complete free-for-all isn’t necessarily a reliable way to foster open debate – you can easily end up with a situation where the loudest, most abrasive people come to dominate and everyone else is reluctant to express a contrary opinion for fear of being abused and ridiculed. If you genuinely want (and I’m not convinced many of the detractors actually do want this) to hear as wide range a of opinions as possible, you need an environment where everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves.

Maybe if there were unlimited good software developers in the world you could make a case for only working with the emotionally hardy ones and avoiding the possible difficulties of dealing with us “snowflakes”. But there aren’t. In most places developers are highly in demand, so it makes no sense to dismiss people who might actually be able to make a valuable contribution.

It’s not up to us to accommodate your emotional frailties, it’s up to you to get over them

Of all the views expressed in these discussions, I think this is the one that irks me the most. It implies that anyone who reacts badly to harsh words and insults could easily “get over it” if they chose to do so, and that just doesn’t tally with my experience at all.

I’ve spent many decades trying to “get over” the problems I’ve had. I’ve spent a five figure sum of money on therapy. I’ve read more self help books than I care to remember and filled notebooks cover-to-cover with the exercises from them. I’ve forced myself into numerous situations that terrified me in the hope that they would be good for me. I’ve practised mindfulness, attended support groups, taken medication, taken up exercise, talked things over with friends and family, spent long hours in painful introspection. You name it, I’ve probably tried it.

And you know what? I’m a lot better than I was. At the start of the process I could barely even hold a conversation with someone unless I knew them well, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to hold down a job. Now I function reasonably well most days, I do pretty well at work and I have a decent social life as well. But despite all this progress, I’m still pretty emotionally sensitive, and I still don’t cope well with insults and intimidation. Maybe I’ll get even better in the future (I certainly hope to and intend to), but I suspect I will always find that kind of situation unpleasant enough to want to avoid it when possible, even if I no longer find it as debilitating as I once did.

So it makes me pretty angry when people who don’t even know me assume that, because I still get upset more easily than most, I obviously just haven’t tried hard enough. It’s noticable that these people almost never mention how you should “get over it”. Some of them seem to just assume that if you keep putting yourself in the situation that upsets you then you’ll eventually adjust and be OK with it, but this has never worked particularly well for me – as with the driving lessons example I gave above, it typically just leads to me feeling more stressed and harassed.

Basically, I think this one is an example of the just-world fallacy. It’s uncomfortable to realise that some people might struggle with certain situations through no fault of their own and that there might not be any easy solution open to them. It raises all kinds of awkward questions about whether we should be making adjustments to help them and so on, not to mention the fear of “maybe this could happen to me too some day”. It’s much neater to pretend that those people must have done something to deserve their problems, or at the very least that they must be “choosing” to forego a perfectly good solution.

Whilst I do have a tiny bit of sympathy for some of the objections to the way things are going (I wouldn’t personally relish software development becoming yet another field where social skills and confidence are valued over actual technical ability, for example), overall I find it really hard to take most of the objectors seriously. They moan and whinge about what a disaster it would be to have to treat others with basic civility, then go on to accuse the other side of being over-sensitive and blowing things out of proportion. They heap disdain on people for having problems they never asked for and almost certainly don’t want, but fail to put forward any useful suggestions on how to deal with those problems.

My Bucket List

I’ve been going through a rough patch again lately and I feel like I could easily end up losing sight of what’s important, as well as forgetting the progress I’ve already made. So, inspired by seeing a friend’s bucket list on Facebook, I decided to make one of my own.

I’ve included a lot of stuff that I have already achieved, but that’s deliberate, to remind me of how good the last few years have actually been and what I can do if I put my mind to it. Conversely the stuff that’s not yet ticked off is a little sparse right now, but I’m sure more stuff will come to mind to flesh it out with now that I’ve got this list.

So, without further ado, on with the things! They’re not in any particular order, I couldn’t be bothered sorting them by importance or anything, and in any case my idea of their relative importance probably changes with my mood. I also haven’t set myself an end date of a particular significant birthday like some people do; my next “significant” birthday is uncomfortably close already and so wouldn’t give me much time to make progress.

First the ones I’ve already achieved:

Get marrieddone 05/2016

Buy housedone 05/2014
Take part in Beltane – done 04/2014, and every year since

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

Release a smartphone app – done 2014
Learn 3D modelling – done 2016
Learn to code in JavaScript – done 2015
See my favourite bands live – done 06/2016
Do a paid freelance project – done 2017
Create a blog – done 09/2011
Get promoted at work – done 07/2017
Go on all the big rides at Alton Towers – done 09/2015

I know it’s blurred, but that gives you a better impression of what it actually looks like.

Go hostelling around Europedone 2012-2017
Go skinny dipping – done 08/2014
Run 5kmdone 09/2015
Run 10km – done 09/2016
Explore Scotland Street Tunnel – done 07/2014
Old toilet blocks in Scotland Street Tunnel

Explore Botanic Gardens Station – done 11/2014
Explore East Fortune Hospital – done 08/2013
DSC_3600

Explore Barnton Quarry bunker – done 02/2005 and 06/2014
Visit a disused tube station – done 12/2016
Learn to play the complete Moonlight Sonata – done 1997
Learn to play Chopin’s “Black Keys” Etude – done 2013
Learn to play Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu – done 2013
Learn to play Bach’s Fugue no. 20 – done 2013
Learn to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue – done 2015
Visit Croatia – done 05/2013
Visit Tropical Islands Resort – done 07/2017
Handle a large house spider – done 11/2016

Now the ones still to come:

Have a child – due 09/2018!
Climb the main hills of the Pentlands
Visit Italy
Go to a ghost hunting night
Play a pipe organ
Learn to speak German
Finish writing my 3D software
Make some 3D environments with my software
Get weight down to 80kg (and keep it there)
Learn Chilly Gonzales “Solo Piano II”
Write a book

Should keep me busy for a while 🙂 .

I’m struggling this year

In my last post I talked about how I thought it should be OK to share more about your mental health issues on social media and that there should be less stigma attached to it. I’m starting to realise, though, that I haven’t really been practising what I preached, and maybe it would help if I did.

The truth is that so far, I’m not doing so well this year. Over the course of my adult life I’ve had a lot of years (the large majority in fact) in which I haven’t done well in this respect, but 2018 is a bit different in that it’s come after a run of comparatively good years. Up until about Christmas last year I really thought I was starting to get this under control, but now I don’t know anymore.

(I should preface this entry by saying that I’m not about to do anything daft and irreversible, so please don’t worry about that. I’ve been through far worse than this for far longer in the past and I’m still here, so I doubt this latest down period is going to finish me off).

I’m not entirely sure what has made the depression start to come back, though I have a few ideas of what might have contributed. Being ill three times already this year certainly hasn’t helped; I feel like I’ve spent half of January and February either suffering from the cold or flu, or trying to recover and catch up on everything, and by the time the third virus hit I was getting seriously fed up with living that way. I also feel I haven’t been doing enough in the way of socialising or fun stuff lately, which usually doesn’t help either.

But in truth, while those things obviously haven’t helped, I think the problems run much deeper. I’m starting to question whether the progress I thought I’d made since about 2012 is really progress, or at the very least whether it might be built on much shakier foundations than I thought.

You see, the only thing that was ever really effective in making my depression go away was to find activities that excited me and do as much of them as possible. These included taking up Scottish Country Dancing, going hostelling in Europe and, probably most of all, urban exploration (which for a time was such a large part of my life that I made a second blog completely dedicated to it). At the time, doing all this stuff felt amazing and I didn’t waste much time worrying that it might not be the right approach to solving my psychological problems. For the first time since 1997 I wasn’t feeling dragged down by depression at every turn, and that was more than good enough.

The best antidepressant I’ve found so far

The trouble with using excitement to combat depression, though, is that for it to keep working, you need to keep on doing exciting things, and that’s not always easy. Life intervenes and the time, energy and money required are not always plentiful. More than that, no matter how amazing any activity seems at first, the novelty just tends to wear off a bit after a while. Take the urban exploration, for example. The places I loved exploring the most were the disused urban tunnels… but there really aren’t that many of them in Scotland. Once you’ve explored Scotland Street, Botanic Gardens and a handful of others, you’re left with ones that are either far too difficult or risky to get into, are a huge anti-climax compared to what you’ve already explored, or both.

I’m now wondering whether all I really did for the last few years was try to outrun my real problems, but now they’re catching up with me and I don’t think I’ve got the strength to run any further. “What real problems?” you might ask, and that’s understandable. After all, I’ve got a good job, a happy marriage and a nice house, and I haven’t suffered horrific abuse on a par with what some people go through. What right do I have to feel so depressed?

Well, the biggest problem is a constant feeling of being out of place, disconnected, and different from other people. It’s bothered me pretty much my whole adult life, other than fading into the background a bit during the last few good years. I experience it with almost everyone (I think I can literally count the exceptions on one hand), almost all the time, and it can get intense enough to make me just not want to be around people anymore. And I really don’t have a clue what to do about it 🙁 .

Over the years I’ve already exhausted the obvious potential solutions. Most people seem to think (and I used to as well) that if I just pushed myself to be sociable despite my discomfort, I would then realise that actually there’s no reason for me to feel out of place and the feeling would go away. But unfortunately it doesn’t, not even when I spend quite a lot of time around people and get used to them.

The worst thing about this is that it becomes a sort of vicious circle. The more I keep myself apart from other people, the more I don’t just feel different from them, but actually am different. For example, whenever any group of people around my age socialise together, it seems to be only a matter of time before the conversation turns to reminiscing about the great times they had at uni or in their teens. I don’t have any great times from that part of my life to reminisce about (the depression and social awkwardness was at its worst back then) so it makes me feel utterly alienated and depressed. So then I avoid that group, I miss out on yet more life experiences, and I feel even more out of place in the next group.

(Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with them reminiscing about that stuff. It’s obviously enjoyable for them and I’m certainly not going to ask anyone to stop it for my benefit. I’m just observing that it inevitably puts up a barrier between me and everyone else, one that I haven’t yet found a way to get past).

I suppose, since the simple and practical solution failed, all that’s left is to dive into the murky waters of my emotional mind and try to work out what the hell’s gone wrong down there. I have tried this in the past (in fact I once calculated roughly how much I must have spent on private therapy sessions over the course of my life, and it was quite jaw-dropping), but I think for various reasons I shied away from doing it properly. There are certain upsetting facts about my life, and more generally about how the world works, that I didn’t feel ready to fully accept, but I probably need to accept them if I’m ever going to conquer this.

Do I feel ready now? Frankly, no, and I strongly doubt I ever will. But maybe realising that’s what I need to do is the first step.

Thanks for reading.

“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 🙂 . I hope 2018 will be good to you.

 

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.

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.