Voicing Opinions

On life, psychology, religion and other matters

I have always been intrigued by the span of the support rigging of some spiders webs. This was kindled further with a web that hung from lines that stretched about 12 feet across my garden. How the hell did the tiny spider engineer this?

Of course, I have seen Spider man films where he throws a long line to jump from building to building, but it kind of did not occur to me that these tiny little spiders in my garden might actually operate in the same way because I had never seen it in operation, until today.

I sat mesmerised under warm blue skies for 2 hours watching this marvel of agility and spatial awareness build a web.

At one point, perched on a high wire 2 feet above the grass between to plants, he threw 2 or 3 strands out and upwards. Now these are desperately fine lines, yet as strong, weight for weight as tensile steel. I watched stunned as these were fabricated from the tiny spider abdomen, rising upwards, across the garden wall to the middle of the next door garden over the head of my bemused neighbour. Ten foot streams of ultra thin material manufactured ultra fast from a spider less than 1% of their length. They actually failed to latch onto the garden wall (or my neighbour), so the spider returned to nearer matters to construct his web.

He used many techniques to construct it, rapidly using all his limbs in a masterly act of construction, somehow aware of all the rigging and the stages of construction of each part. I took some photos, the first shows the thread from the abdomen being added to the web :

2nd October 2012 A diary of a particularly clear-headed day in my life …

08:30 90 minutes writing code for the ‘Key to the City’ (of Cardiff) web site for someone I had been teaching programming to.
10:00 Wrote a blog entry about mental health following recent observations.
10:20 Weekly shopping trip
10:50 Uploaded designs for two postcards to be sold in cafe by the lake here in Cardiff. Ordered 250 of my swans design, and 100 of a new Cardiff Lake design.
11:20 Coffee shop trip where I met a fascinating East Ender who has recently moved to Cardiff. He used to run a 120 man printing company and now is starting out on web based work. We chatted about education, politics and printing, and will stay in touch. Really down to earth but engaging fellow
12:30 Typed up a review on Amazon of a book “Cardiff now and then” I was sent a copy of last week.
12:45 Resumed web site coding
13:15 Sun is out – time to resume my study of education – my preparation for challenging the government control of children’s education.
13:30 Cooked and ate lunch. Washed up and relaxed a little.
14:00 Resumed web site coding. Dull stuff – even though pretty complex.
14:30 Resumed work on Delphi app to create Kindle Go documents. Interesting stuff.
15:00 Took a break to check out a Go server I am helping beta test, and to go for my daily walk as part of an experiment on the effect of such regular exercise, including cafe pause to meet humans and read on education
16:15 Resumed work on Delphi app
17:00 Done for the day, work-wise.

Such admonishments are frequently directed at people suffering with ‘taboo’ mental health problems, especially chronic depression.

But those who are fortunate not to suffer necessarily tend to see the suffering of others as they would suffer themselves. If they were in a downbeat, slightly depressed mood, they could readily ease their way out of the trap, and therefore think that chronic sufferers can do likewise, albeit with a proportionally greater effort to shift a deeper state.

But this proportional assumption is a key misunderstanding, for lack of proportion is one of the signatures of entrenched mental health. The other is displacement in time – a bout of suffering can appear that is disconnected from any current cause.

So, to repeat, a chronic depression sufferer will have symptoms that are an amplification of any causal event on the day. And they can have a general depressed state that bears no relation to their current thinking – it is background feeling of deep discontent that has a long term momentum, and is virtually immune to requests by others to ‘just snap out of it’.

But if you have not experienced either of these enslaving factors of mental ill-health, you will likely fail to understand or empathise with a chronic sufferer. This is part of the taboo perpetuation of mental health issues I feel.

The credit for the main concepts behind this article are due to the superbly insightful book “How children fail” by John Holt, still going strong for nearly 50 years.

Little Jimmy walks to school with a pound coin burning a hole in his pocket. But not for long as he exchanges it for 2 fingers of fudge and 4 atomic blasters.

Sat in his chair in class a little while later, his teacher asks him what 2 + 4 equals. For once, he knows the answer – he bought 2 fingers of fudge and 4 atomic blasters for exactly 1 pound. So he confidently announces ‘one’.

His teacher is ‘teaching’ him arithmetic, and tells him his answer is wrong, and tells him the ‘right’ answer.

This ever common situation creates a cascade of problems, all damaging to the child, most of which are beyond the awareness of the teacher.

First, the teacher has failed to understand why Jimmy gave the answer he did – he fails to understand where Jimmy’s understanding of the world has gotten him to. In a class of 30, this is a very hard matter to resolve, I will readily admit, but that does not stop it being a problem.

Second, the teacher has used abstract symbols without even understanding that they are abstract. They are so familiar to the teacher that he cannot see them as a young child can. In essence, 2 + 4 = 6 is an algebraic equation with the algebraic terms missing (2x + 4x = 6x). It really means 2 of something plus 4 of the same kind of thing equals 6 of that kind of thing. This is implied, and thereby assumed by the teacher without making sure that the child has a matching understanding. Young children are very very flexible thinkers, unrestrained by years of reinforcement of what is correct, so to Jimmy, his answer was actually very correct. His algebraic terms were simply different : 2 of one thing plus 4 of another thing cost 6 of another thing again (2f + 4a = 6p).

This brings me to the third problem – that the clear and correct understanding of the problem from Jimmy’s perspective – was refuted. His world view was said to be wrong – without explanation as to why. This can and does shatter the confidence in children. And because the algebraic nature of the ‘correct’ answer is never explained, the child enters a state of confusion. Rather than embracing and learning about the world, he is propelled backwards.

The fourth problem is that he can grow fearful of the teacher – an authority figure who is apparently the proprietor of what needs to be known, but what is not properly understood by many, whose position cannot be questioned.

This in turn can lead to a fearful parrot-like mimicry of the ‘correct’ way of doing things. This is not learning – this is a transient memorisation of things not understood.

Teaching must only operate, if it is to be effective, on the basis of learning, not a mechanical absorption of ‘facts’. But if we insist on teachers being qualified to degree level, many levels removed from the mindset of the children they will teach, are we not in danger of filtering out the wrong type of teacher?

My personality is largely characterised by my excitable, emotional, sensitive, reactive nature. This is my inheritance – whether I am happy or not with this cocktail, it is there in the background, flavouring my experience of life for good and bad.

In a sense, my experience of life is amplified compared to the average man. The coupling of this with the vulnerable, sensitive, empathic aspect of my personality was always a recipe for mental health problems I feel. Not a mandate, but a formula ready to ignite given the right life events.

When young and free from mental health issues, my life was mostly normal and enjoyable. I would periodically be overwhelmed by things, but was able to cry and survive and move on rather than accumulate hurt.

As example of the kind of problem I experience now after decades of submerging into a sea of mental health problems, most of the ideas for this entry came between 6am and 7am this morning. A steady stream of ideas and connections. My reaction to these was strong – I sensed that there was some insight here – but the point is that I really should have been sleeping. My reactivity – the amplification of feeling about these ideas – relegated sleep into a distant second place. So I now write this in a distinctly tired state.

Impulsivity of ADHD

As another example, the impulsivity that comes with the ADHD that I have seems to be a natural and almost unavoidable consequence of my reactive nature – in conversation I will experience things intensely and will feel a sense of urgency to give my reply. This blocks out my ability to listen further – the urge to respond being so strong. So I fail to listen enough to details since I am reacting too much to the emotional element in the conversation. So, over the years, my short term memory atrophies through underuse – I simply do not pay attention to the details as they are too low in emotional impact to register enough. This short term memory problem then exacerbates the impulsivity – I feel the urge to interrupt as I will simply forget the thing I want to say if I do not say it quickly enough. If I do not get to say it, my over-reactivity to that failure makes me feel bad – and hence creates a greater urge to interrupt and speak next time. This is an example of negative feedback. (This is a theory that came to me in the stream of thoughts this morning – this thought took about 10 seconds to flesh out).

We all experience times of difficulty in life, and the healthy person does so in a proportional way – their reaction is appropriate and not amplified. If your nature, like mine, amplifies experiences, then they become that much harder to manage – you are hot-stepping from one important event to another. This was fine when I was younger, as I was able to live through the experiences and let their effect manifest and dissipate nicely. But if you experience a cascade of overloads, your ability to cope can be overwhelmed, and your mind tags the experiences as ones to avoid. The mere anticipation of a repeat of such an experience creates a physical reaction in the mind and/or body as a defence mechanism. So the likely overreaction if the experience does indeed repeat is mixed in with the anticipatory feelings, and thereby becomes amplified further.

And here we have a feedback mechanism – a previous experience is fed back into the new experience, creating a vicious cycle.

Feedback loops

This concept of feedback loops seems to me a common thread to many mental illnesses.

The mental illness state can be nourished by further feedback paths, for example :

  • You experience incapacity that is new to you, so you dwell on the matter in the hope of understanding and resolving it. This tends to feed back negatively.
  • The incapacity withdraws you from certain situations in life, so your life experience dwindles and the illness becomes a bigger matter proportionally.
  • Your friends and family feel uncomfortable with you, and this feeds back negatively.
  • If the condition becomes severe enough, you become increasingly isolated, which gives you much greater time to dwell on your condition, and hence amplify it.
  • The mind and body are tightly interlinked, so the body’s manifestation of the illness feeds back to the mind – the symptoms are generated by the mind and separately experienced – if you sense doom in this experience, the mind will create more symptoms.

The symptoms of an overload – this mental illness – can disassociate from the cause and continue unabated via one or more feedback loops. Chronic anxiety and chronic depression are examples of this. The ongoing prevalence of symptoms creates feelings of hopelessness that in turn generates further negative feedback.

Wave-like nature

When you have a toothache, in most cases, the pain will not be constant. It will fade in and out. So it is with mental illness – the mind generate the symptoms in an ebb and flow manner. This flux in a panic attack, for example, is relatively fast. You can be going about your daily life before a scene will trigger an attack that rapidly overwhelms you. The experience is so enormous that it cries out its own importance so we think the worse and it enflames even further.

But if we do not participate in its affairs, it will fade after a few minute. But it will then return – at reduced intensity – in a series of subsequent waves.

Tackling the feedback loops

They key to releasing the effect of panic attacks is to stay calm and thereby avoid the worry feedback that sustains the attacks.

It occurred to me that other mental health conditions could also have a wave like nature. So I looked at my own current mental health issue – headaches, excessive tiredness and foggy head. To awake with a foggy head, headache and extreme tiredness of mind (not body, strangely), that generally lasts all day is tough to take. So an anticipatory mechanism builds up, which almost certainly makes repeat occurrences more rather than less likely.

I have noticed, however, that the blanket day-long nature is not actually the case. It can fade – so slowly that I barely notice.

Why not, I decided, to treat this condition as I have successfully done with panic attacks (which were criminally bad, but are now extremely rare for me). Rather than feel encumbered by my ‘day-long’ plight, try to recognise when my symptoms faded in and out, and let them flow without judgement rather than feed back and amplify.

But the key, I feel, is also to tackle the real root of this and many mental health conditions – the anticipatory fear feedback mechanism. So for the past few days, I have been engaged in these twin activities. Last night I went to a board games meetup. Such occasions at the tired part of the day, with many strangers, and intense game rules to learn, for me generally trigger a tension headache. This is indeed what happened last night. And here I will digress a little.

If someone last night asked my why I was tensing up, he would in effect be asking the wrong question. I was in a relaxed state of mind – or rather, I was consciously cultivating a relaxed, unreactive mind state – as was my plan. I was mindful of any sign of fear, (mostly anticipatory, I noticed, since the people were friendly), and defusing it. But I was nevertheless tensing up (albeit much less than normal, thanks to my fear defusion). But I was not in fact tensing up – I was not making myself tense – it was happening to me.

And this is key to many who misunderstand mental illness. They tell a depressed person to snap out of their depression even though on that day the sufferer most certainly did not create the depressed state – it was imposed upon them by their subconscious in a feedback loop. Saying this to a depressed person is like telling a person to stop beating themselves up when someone else is punching them – they are addressing the wrong cause.

The net effect of my exercise last night was, alas, a headache that lasted into the small hours of the night. But maybe not as bad as I might have expected. But by disengaging with the sense of fear that my headache was trying to instil, I relaxed into the company around me in a way that I rarely do when I have tensed up before. I let the headache continue without buying into its false, historic message.

And I started experiencing the relaxed wandering mind that I now remember was how I behaved normally when younger. The key to the fear, it felt, was that I had learnt to dread people saying or doing things I would react adversely to. (So we go back to the original reactivity issue). This time, I stopped dreading that, and just experienced my reaction – the natural way to behave. And as a result, I started feeling the urge to do what I used to do as a way of dissipating the resulting ill-feeling when younger – I started challenging things. I had stopped doing this for years in order to please people – to tolerate discomfort to maintain harmony. We were playing a complex game and I was tensing up trying to understand the rules. So I broke the ice to say I thought the game was too involved (after all, I had asked the organiser for an easy game to pick up). Straight away, the young lady to the next of me then aired the same concern and I relaxed further. By challenging the underlying habits, I am hoping that I am now setting up a positive feedback loop!

The key, I believe, to much of my mental health is decades of amplification and feedback of the strain from the desire to please other people, which in turn was a response to an often rebellious, childish or inappropriate natural response by myself to uncomfortable social situations.

So my next step is to allow my natural reaction to manifest in difficult situations rather than to suppress is. To express the reaction may be a step too far for now. I will take the Buddhist approach first – to be mindful without judgement.

In conclusion

The conclusion here is a sad one in my eyes. It is like the proverbial flapping of a butterfly wing eventually effecting the global weather patterns – the suppression of my initial relatively innocuous tendency to say and do socially inappropriate or silly things snowballed into decades of extremely disproportionate symptoms, amplified and fed-back into a self-sustaining miasma.

The turning point was my marriage. I had grown used to tolerating the annoying ways of my wife-to-be as they were small compared to her virtues – I rightly reasoned that no marriage was perfect. But the anticipation of the continued suppression of them made confinement with the same person for the rest of my life a forecast that freaked my mind out. This happened just too late, a few days before the wedding, so I did not pull out – I did not have enough time to reflect on events to cancel the marriage. And the habit to suppress became entrenched – I had set a precedent in a marriage I really wanted to make work. The suppression snowballed to eventually generate the headaches and other problems I have now. I believe.

It has parallels to the often life-long effect of the callous words of a parent who repeatedly tells his daughter that she will never amount to anything. Something plausible and innocuous enough not to cause undue alarm as a child at the start becomes embedded internally and negatively dictates a restraining outlook on her whole life, the source unknown to the conscious mind. The belief manifested – she acted out her beliefs that she was useless – and this failure enacted fed back to reinforce the belief.

The mind, it seems, in conjunction with the body’s part in the expression of the mind’s thoughts, can spiral out of balance very quickly via the feedback mechanism.

(2,000 words written and checked in 2 hours – not bad going!).

© Neil Moffatt 2012

Usability basics

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My new Kindle was amazingly cheap and is proving to be really useful. No wonder e-book sales are soaring.

Amazon has sold millions of these devices. This is a 4th generation device I believe. So why on earth does it have two basic usability faults? Can Amazon not employ testers able to detect what I discovered in the first 2 or 3 days?

First is the user guide. A pre-installed document that is the first thing I read. What better device than an e-reader to hold within it a primer! No printed manual needed.

But it falls breathtakingly short in helping a new Kindle owner. It totally omits instruction on highlighting passages, looking up definitions, how to cancel subscriptions, how to share document sections via Facebook, and so on. You are obliged to discover these things by accident or experimentation. What logic is there in failing to finish that document? Any fledgling graphic designer could have done so in few days.

Maybe I have yet to discover something it does, but how will I know?

On a more serious matter, there is no guidance on the management of the battery. Should the first charge be run right down? Should the device always be run right down? Or should it be handled like an iPad and rarely allowed to fully discharge?

The other bug is so basic that I find it staggering that no one spotted it. My Kindle is a non-touch device; you use buttons to make selections. When I select, for example, the 5th book in the book list page, and then return back to the book list, the book correctly moves to the top of the page. But the marker stays on the 5th book. So if I press the selection button to return to my book, I started reading a different book – I have to move the cursor to the top of the screen to return to the book I was reading. This is ridiculously fundamental to have been missed in product testing.

These are simple omissions to correct. But in a 4th generation product they should categorically not be there.

In the UK, and across much of the world, there is an obsession with paper qualifications. As I have said before, they often merely supply just a snapshot-in-time measure of a narrow band of capabilities of a person. Yet they are promoted to be the vital components of education required to compete with others. The quote I offer below shows that someone without decent qualifications but with job and life skills may sail into jobs that the qualified flunk.

It is from “Among the Hoodies” by Harriet Seargent, referring to a business start-up guru called Scott :

The year before, Scott had interviewed 52 graduates. On paper they looked ‘brilliant students’. Each had three A’s at A level and a 2:1 degree. He shook his head. ‘There’s a big difference between people passing exams and being ready for work’.

This was obvious even before the interviews began. Out of the 52 applicants, half arrived late. Only 3 of the 52 walked up to Scott, looked him in the eye, shook his hand and said good morning. The rest ‘ambled in’. When he asked them to solve a problem, only 12 had come equipped with a pad and pencil.

The 3 who had greeted him proved the strongest candidates and he hired them. Within a year they were out due to their ‘lackadaisical’ attitude. ‘They did not turn up on time in the morning. For the first 6 months, a manager had to check every one of their emails for spelling and grammar. They did not know how to learn. Their ability to ‘engage in business’ was ‘incredibly’ disappointing and ‘At 5:30 on the dot they left the office.’”

It would seem to me that the highly rated school and University grades should come with good English skills be default.

But it is evidently not the case.

By teaching to the test, and allowing students to use spell checkers to aid their English, they failed to acquire the basic skills.

Where was their education for interviews and a working environment?

The only 3 seen fit to be given a job then failed to turn up on time, as if the ‘education’ they received was a passport to a salary and an easy life. As if they had done the hard work already.

One of the dictionary definitions of the word ‘incite’ is to “Urge or persuade (someone) to act in a violent or unlawful way”. The wholly misguided anti-Mohammed video may be seen by many as something that would incite a violent reaction. But can an attack on beliefs about a person in history really be said to engender a violent reaction?

If I was to punch you on the face, this would be a better cause for a violent reaction.

If I was to threaten to kill a member of your family, then even more so.

But the implication in the case of the video is that a violent reaction is somehow the only legitimate response.

Islam is supposed to be a peaceful religion, yet its leaders fail to address the extremists who react violently to slurs on their Islamist values.

It would appear to be that the hair trigger urge to be violent was something waiting for an excuse much more than the appropriate response to a deeply felt attack on their religious values. By acting violently, they have abandoned peace – they have attacked a foundational value of their own religion.

This is hypocrisy in action.

It is easy to criticise the youth of today – it has been done throughout the centuries. And such criticism is often proffered from older people, who tend to have a more balanced view on life, but who forget that young people do not have their years of experience.

But it seems to me today that there is an underlying problem with younger people that was not so prevalent when I was young, but which is counter-productive for them. I refer to a perceived growing loss of responsibility.

A very simple example is the common disinclination to take home cans and food rubbish from ad-hoc barbecues held in parks. After a hot sunny day, the nearby park is strewn with litter. The guilty parties presumably see everyone else leaving stuff behind so do the same. They fail to both think and act responsibly.

If someone lends a book to someone else, it is rare for the book to be returned. I know as I have over a dozen lent out. The recipients fail to act responsibly and see the giver’s perspective.

People promise to send me emails, but rarely actually do so.

People fail to meet up and then fail to see the need to apologise, or lie to cover their tracks.

The sad thing is that these people are actually missing out on a benefit for themselves. By adopting a sense of responsibility, their self esteem flourishes. If they promise to do something, and know that, come hell or high water that they will do it, then they will be happy to make that promise. They acquire greater integrity and this can lead to greater happiness.

A side effect of this sense of responsibility is that you will not promise to do something if you know you will not do it. So others know where they stand with you. And they feel happier being able to trust you.

Many, I would guess, would fail to adopt this concept because it requires discipline – something else that seems perennially lacking in the young (at least in the UK – certainly much less so in the East). Discipline is viewed in a negative light, as if it is only ever going to put a dampener on life. A hedonistic life is not the only way to happiness (and is generally a bad way in fact). You can see why, for example, if you helped an old lady across the road – it creates an enduring sense of pleasure or self esteem that indulgences do not offer.

I try to think critically, but my emotions frequently derail my efforts.

I decided that it was about time I bought a padlock for my bicycle. The local shop had two medium chunky ones, and a relatively small one (10mm diameter cable). I decided that the weight of the chunky padlocks was to be avoided. And that the small one was good enough.

‘Good enough’ seems hardly like critical thinking. But it was – my reasoning being that I would padlock the bike at places frequented by others – such as coffee shops. It would stop casual thieves – in a well populated place, a wire-cutter wielding thief would be easy to spot.

And if I parked in a quiet area, the medium chunky chains would probably not be up to the cutting equipment of a serious criminal.

But what about the weight matter? Was that critical thinking?

I had reasoned that the padlock would add a fair percentage to the weight of the bicycle. This was wrong – I needed to relate it’s weight to the combination of myself and the bicycle.

This shows how our thinking can easily choose the wrong paths.