Food for Thought

Food for Thought

I have never been a particularly fussy eater, but there are some things I don’t like and avoid. Raw tomatoes used to make me gag: it was a combination of the texture – mouth feel – and the taste. As I’ve aged I find I generally enjoy them, but if the tomato is under-ripe I still find myself gagging on it. Cooked tomato has never been a problem. I can’t eat mussels or clams because of the texture and flavor but enjoy calamari and prawns.

I’ve never enjoyed dealing with meat, such as chicken portions, or fish that contains bones. I find the painstaking picking through in search of the bones so they can be removed before I take a mouthful to be tedious and I usually give up after a while, leaving the rest untouched. This is at odds with my strong inclination to finish whatever is put in front of me.

That inclination causes me problems with my weight: rather than just eating enough at a sitting I will continue to eat as long as food is available until I cannot physically consume any more. I don’t feel hunger to any great degree and can generally eat a full dinner regardless of the hour or whether I have already eaten. Buffets are a particular problem for me – I feel obliged to try to eat everything that has been laid out, as if it had been served to me alone. I feel that I’m breaking a rule – committing some transgression – if I leave food. I guess this is a result of being brought up to clean my plate – I subsumed this as an almost-inviolable unconscious behavioral rule.

The only ways I have found to deal with this are avoidance and strict portion control. Despite knowing that it is not the best option from a health point of view I will skip meals, often eating just one meal a day. I figure that it is better to do this than to overeat. The second way, controlling the size of portions, requires the cooperation of others such as my wife who prepare my meals. Even though I remind her from time to time, I find that the size of my dinners creeps up. The first sign I usually get is that my clothes are starting to become tighter and less comfortable.

I do enjoy food. I derive a lot of pleasure from eating foods that I enjoy and do not get bored eating one of my favorite dishes day after day. As an example, I have eaten home-cooked spaghetti bolognese with garlic bread on more than half the days of the past month and enjoyed it equally on each occasion. If it weren’t for my wife getting bored preparing the same dish repeatedly I would happily eat it every day.

Peer Pressure

Peer Pressure

I’m the first to admit I can be a stubborn character. Once I decide on a course I can dig my heels in and pursue it come hell or high water. For the most part I choose to do things I enjoy – that includes being helpful because that makes me feel good as a result. But I don’t do anything because I feel I ought, because I want to conform, because everybody does it.

I really don’t care be pressured by people into doing something I don’t want to do. Any time I get that kind of pressure I start to feel irritated and I can quickly get angry and snappish. I’m not a naturally rebellious type. I don’t take stands to make a point or to be contrary. I do it for purely personal reasons, not to fit in with some group of people.

I’m the eternal outsider; I never feel fully part of any group: I don’t get that involved. And to a large degree that leaves me immune to the pressures that social groups can bring to bear on their members to conform. I feel no need to think, speak or act the same way as others. I have enough confidence these days not to worry if people don’t like what I do. I’m comfortable in my own company, doing my own thing.

I keep trying to understand peer pressure; to work out why so many people have a need to be part of a social circle. I find it all very confusing. Are these people’s values really so malleable that they may be changed to match the group norm? My values are deeply ingrained and have been consistent throughout most of my life. Do these people go against some of their natural inclinations to follow a stronger urge to conform and be accepted by the group? If so, wouldn’t this cause an internal conflict, some feelings of discomfort or even guilt?

I’ve seen people act in certain ways when in a group that they would never consider doing when alone. This can include being critical of and putting down people who are not members of the group, and even bullying. There appears to be a suspension of personal responsibility: whatever the group does is the responsibility of the group rather than devolving to each individual within it. There appears to be self-censorship: there must be no disagreement within the group, so no member feels able to take a dissenting position on anything.

I find it all rather depressing and dispiriting. Is it a failure in education that people are so reluctant to think for themselves and stand up in defense of their values? Or – a darker thought – is it just human nature? Are we doomed to a society shaped and dominated by inter-group rivalries and conflict?

Enough of this – I dislike ending on a negative note and this subject is getting me down. I’ll just continue to hope for enlightenment and respect, and treat others as I would like to be treated in return. Perhaps it’s just a drop in the ocean, a solitary candle against the darkness, but at least I can hold my head high.

Alpha and Omega

Alpha and Omega

Everything comes to an end,
That’s just the way of the world.
Every new fashion and trend
Like a spring flower unfurled.

Try as you might, you can’t mend
Petals when withered and brown.
Enjoy the moment, my friend,
Go with a smile, not a frown.

Cycles forever repeat,
Memories all that transcend.
Life springs from death, born complete.
Everything starts from an end.



One of my work colleagues, having read my post Music and Mood, asked me whether I had ever seen Disney’s Fantasia – in particular the abstract animation accompanying Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. He was curious to know whether my mental images would match the animation at all.

I hadn’t seen the picture at that point, but have since watched most of the segment in question. The short answer is that the images it conjures up in my mind do not match those in the movie at all. In fact the mismatch was so great that I stopped watching because I found the animation distracted from the music rather than complementing it; however I did find an audio recording of the piece played on a pipe organ which I found much more satisfying than the orchestral version because of the purity of tone.

It is somewhat curious to me that what is essentially an abstract piece of music – there is no evidence that Bach intended any narrative in his composition – should inspire concrete images in my mind’s eye. The opening bars bring into being a darkened landscape, hills rolling to the horizon, the scene widening. And then as that powerful chord is built up the sun rises above the far horizon, flooding the bucolic land with its warm golden brightness. As the piece progresses there is movement as flowers spring up out of the ground, streams and waterfalls cascade and great towering trees thrust skywards, propelled by the strength of the deep bass notes.

There is a lot of detail and movement in my images, especially those that are produced by rapid sequences of notes – this is in complete contrast to the simple nature of the animation in Fantasia, where the complexity of the music is not matched by the visuals. There are odd moments that begin to show promise but they still fall far short and I am left with a feeling of dissatisfaction because the combined experience of music and video ends up much less involving than the music alone.

Filling in the Blanks

Filling in the Blanks

“Yeah, mumble mumble last night mumble mumble meal mumble Friday?” Oops. You just asked me something. What did you just say? Well, based on what you were talking about before – the bits I managed to catch – I guess you just asked me if I want to go out for a meal Friday. I’d better see if I’m correct – ask a hopefully relevant question and see what you say: “A meal this Friday? Where?”

At this point I either come across as “normal”, following the conversation, or I just dropped a spanner in the works and confused the heck out of you. And I never know which it’s going to be! The problem is that if there’s any distraction – background noise or movement in particular – then I fail to distinguish the speaker’s voice. I know they’re talking to me, I can see their lips moving and hear sounds, but even concentrating intently I can only interpret the odd word and have to guess the rest from context.

More often than I care to admit somebody will say something to me and I’ll respond with some acknowledgement. It’s several seconds later that I finally work out what they said and can tell whether my response was appropriate. Or whether I just looked stupid again.

See if you can work out the meaning of this short extract. To make things easier I’ve left in most of the nouns:

__________ impairment ___ social _________ stereotyped and restricted patterns ______ activities and interests, and _____ally signi_____lay in cog______opment or general _____ language.

This is from a description of Aspergers Syndrome that I’ve quoted previously. I admit I’ve been selective in the bits I blanked out, but this is only for the purpose of illustration. In a real situation there would be snatches of other conversations interleaved with this one, and the whole would be obscured by background noise:

The thing is, I don’t have hearing problems. I can pick up faint sounds like the clock ticking at home. I score in the average range in hearing tests. But if somebody says something while the TV is on – or there’s music playing or other conversations going on around us – then although I can hear all the sounds, I can’t separate them very well. It’s a problem with processing the sensory input and I find it hard work and very frustrating, so I often keep out of conversations in noisy environments. In fact I prefer to avoid noisy social environments altogether.

With all this it’s no surprise I prefer to communicate in writing – through email, text or similar mechanisms. The words are in front of me, not obscured by noise, and there is no need for an immediate response. I can take the time to compose my reply, re-reading their comment if necessary and thinking of le mot juste – the right word that will exactly convey my intended meaning.

The Joy of Darts

The Joy of Darts

A post by C. S. Wyatt started me thinking about what games and sports I enjoy, and why.

I have always enjoyed word-based puzzles, particularly crosswords, and complete at least one cryptic crossword most days – my favorite is the Daily Telegraph which I usually finish in under 20 minutes. What attracts me is the challenge of interpreting the clue in the correct way to construct the answer – it’s a combination of an extensive vocabulary, an awareness of multiple meanings of words and logical reasoning.

I occasionally solve Sudoku puzzles but find them much less satisfying because of the purely mechanical methods involved. I found it much more interesting to write a computer program to apply the methods and solve the puzzles that way.

Quizzes in various forms can be fun. I used to enjoy taking part in a local pub quiz but after a while got bored by the consistently variable level of difficulty of the questions – the first few would be insultingly easy, while the final ones would often be so obscure that they just resulted in a random choice of one of the multiple options provided. I enjoy playing Trivial Pursuit now and again but get frustrated by the element of luck introduced by rolling a die to determine where I can move my counter.

I have played card games in the past – blackjack, poker – in social settings for chips rather than “real” money in a casino. While I did very much enjoy studying and designing strategies to guide my play (I bought a copy of Hoyle as a reference), I found that the random turn of the cards and the unpredictability of other players meant I did not get nearly as much pleasure from actually playing the games.

I play pool (8-ball) on occasion – I used to captain a pub team – and ten-pin bowling, but the sport I play most has to be darts. In all of these sports, how well I do depends on my individual skill – there is no significant random element apart from the very small variation in ambient conditions – these being indoor sports – which affect all the players equally. I also enjoy the fact that, unlike in team sports such as rugby, I can play at whatever pace suits me.

In summary, I have a strong preference for games of skill rather than chance. I much prefer turn-based games. I enjoy puzzles and other activities that exercise my mind. I prefer games where it is only my individual performance that affects the outcome, although I have played pairs matches in both pool and darts. I believe that the individual turn-based nature of these is a much more significant factor than any interaction between myself and my partner in the pair – there is not the depth of strategy and real-time interaction involved unlike a regular team sport.

In fact, having considered the reasons why my preferences lie in a particular direction, I can see strong parallels between these leisure activities and my love of programming. There are the same elements of skill, knowledge, problem-solving and individual effort. Just as I am happiest and perform best when left to my own devices at work, so I prefer those leisure activities that involve solo endeavor.

A Bit Aspie

A Bit Aspie

I suppose, people being people, that other Aspies have tried to explain how the condition affects their functioning in some way, such as difficulty reading non-verbal signals, only to hear, “I, like, get that too, you know: maybe I’m a bit Aspergers.” Even after ignoring the involuntary wince that is triggered whenever language is tortured in my presence, I struggle to respond to that. While I don’t want to dismiss out of hand the possibility that they might be correct, it can be hard to explain how AS (and autism) are  about more than being awkward in social situations.

What I want to say to these people – but can’t because my AS makes it too difficult to formulate an adequate response without zoning out for too long and dropping out of the conversation – is that I doubt very much whether they do have AS. AS is not like a salad bar where you get to choose how much of each symptom you want. It’s not something I chose to have – I have it, live with it and cope with the challenges as best I can. Each symptom taken in isolation does not define the condition: it is called a pervasive disorder for a reason. It is a set of symptoms, usually with varying degrees of severity, and having AS means you pretty much got the lot.

What is “the lot”? To quote the Wikipedia article which summarizes the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria,

[…] a pattern of symptoms rather than a single symptom. It is characterized by impairment in social interaction, by stereotyped and restricted patterns of behavior, activities and interests, and by no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or general delay in language.

This doesn’t even attempt to explain why these symptoms occur: it is just a “pattern” that recurs and has been labelled as Asperger Syndrome. The label is a convenience, nothing more, to cover the effects of particular cognitive differences. It does not describe the differences between individuals with AS, the varying degrees of difficulty we face in everyday situations. Couched in the most general terms it says nothing about how it feels from the inside – how exhausting it is to deal with “normal” life, to feel so often that we have to consciously act “normal” with other people so that we are not seen as alien, to face censure for “inappropriate” behavior when we don’t conform to their “normal” standards.

I doubt that any sighted person would describe themselves as “a bit blind” because they close their eyes occasionally. Likewise, they are not “a bit Aspie” because they sometimes feel awkward in social situations or have a fanatical interest in, say, football. There is evidence that the Aspie label is somehow becoming seen as “cool” – I can’t understand why this should be so, because I know first-hand that the reality is that even in a mild form it causes significant difficulties for those directly affected, and also indirectly for those such as partners in relationships.