Thursday, March 24, 2016

On Being A Geek

  There are different kinds of geeks, but I have a general impression about where I fit in. My general impression is that a lot of us identify ourselves loosely as
     -- "Mildly autistic, I suppose," or as
     -- "Somewhere on the autism spectrum--aren't we all?" or as
     -- "Maybe a little bit Aspie?--one-sided, long-winded speech about a favorite topic, while misunderstanding or not recognizing the listener's feelings or reactions -- that's me!" or simply with
      -- "I might be ADHD, the symptoms do seem -- hey, look, a squirrel!".

   So, I do have that general impression, but I don't really know a lot of geeks in the first place... there's daily variation for me, and I mostly like people one or maybe two at a time, but most days for me don't involve physically seeing anybody I don't know, and I like it this way. In fact my days don't usually involve talking in person or by phone with anyone outside my family except for my partner/coauthor. Yes, I have a family...once upon a time we were both not going to parties, and we decided to not-go-to-parties together, and we did eventually admit to our families that we'd gotten married, and our five kids are grown up now.  There's daily variation for me, but I couldn't possibly have a social life like that of the people I know or the characters I find in books. As one of the T-shirts my wife chose for me puts it,

You Read My T-Shirt.
That's enough social interaction
for one day.

   I can deal with the world much better in written form. (I don't even do all that well with television or movies. Standard-length YouTube videos and even TED talks I can handle, but after a while I'd much rather go read a book. My wife chooses movies that she thinks I'll get through, and is almost always right.)

   Normally I don't think about this, I just live with it, and I've been really quite happy with my life as it is...there are daily joys in seeking and re-examining the patterns that I find all around me, and in the people that form the most important of those patterns. And I think I have the strengths of my weaknesses, in the sense that if I hadn't been the kind of small child who sits in a field reciting the powers of 2, who sits under his Mommy's study table with ever-growing stacks of interlinked encyclopedia volumes, I might never have earned a PhuD in Computer Science. (Perhaps I'm wrong about that; my 3 brothers have science PhuDs, without my sort of issues. But I still think I have the strengths of my weaknesses.) In any case, I have been thinking lately about being "mildly autistic, I suppose" and I wanted to collect some links and notes, presenting five views from five bloggers: the (non-autistic) uber-geek Eric Raymond, the probably-mildly-autistic cultural-economist Tyler Cowen, the autistic tumblr-user alice-royal, the probably-mildly-autistic psychiatrist/rationalist whose pseudonym is "Scott Alexander", and .... well ... me, of course.

   First, let me start with Eric Raymond's recent post on Autism, genius, and the power of obliviousness. He has a very simple and logical explanation for the cognitive advantages often associated with autism, what I'm calling "the strength of my weaknesses":

Yes, there is an enabling superpower that autists have through damage and accident, but non-autists like me have to cultivate: not giving a shit about monkey social rituals.

Neurotypicals spend most of their cognitive bandwidth on mutual grooming and status-maintainance activity. ... The neurotypical human mind is designed to compete at this monkey status grind and has zero or only a vanishingly small amount of bandwidth to spare for anything else. Autists escape this trap by lacking the circuitry required to fully solve the other-minds problem; thus, even if their total processing capacity is average or subnormal, they have a lot more of it to spend on what neurotypicals interpret as weird savant talents.

Non-autists have it tougher. To do the genius thing, they have to be either so bright that they can do the monkey status grind with a tiny fraction of their cognitive capability, or train themselves into indifference so they basically don’t care if they lose the neurotypical social game.

  I think that works, to a considerable extent, as an explanation linking at least two major aspects of autism. I gave up young on "monkey status games" that I really couldn't play, or even figure out when I'd won or lost points; it's not that I don't care at all, it's certainly not that I denigrate "monkey social rituals", it's just that this has never been an option. So when it crops up, I shrug and move on. I do keep stumbling over this:  most people's statements about most subjects, especially politics but really truly most subjects, seem to be ways to reinforce their status within the Right Group. As Robin Hanson keeps explaining,
"much of our behavior is poorly explained by the reasons we give, and better explained as ways to signal abilities, loyalties, etc."  Depressingly often, that's by talking about how evil+stupid are the members of the Wrong Group and anyone who fails to despise them sufficiently. I shrug and move on. I'd probably have tried for group status, if I could have, but I can't figure out the signals -- even professionally. It's not just a question of status. My father and his father were people people with many acquaintances, people to call on or be called by...a support network. My wife's grandfather turned out to be another with an even wider circle; he wanted to introduce me to people, and gave up in frustration with "You're smart but you have no ambition." For him, a condemnation; for me, just the way things are.  I should have tried harder, but I wouldn't have gotten much farther. Let me put it this way:
  I think that everybody has a whole lot of pattern-handling machinery, and finds joy in finding patterns. That's a fundamental part of being a primate: "monkey curiosity" -- I'm happy being a monkey. There are large-scale patterns and small-scale patterns, patterns with lots of symmetry and patterns with lots of chaotic semi-structure...your brain is not a general-purpose processor so much as it is a collection of immensely complicated interlocked machines with enough plasticity to adjust and complement one another. Something like that.
  I think that "normal" people, "neurotypical" people in all their atypical variations, have pattern-handling machinery for partial processing of the normal chaos of Life and other people. This involves (at least) selective focus, switchable selective focus: when you walk into a room full of other people, Gentle Reader, you can probably get an instant idea of who's there and what's going on. You can listen to a conversation while being sort-of aware of other things going on. You're not overwhelmed; you're seeing and being seen.
   Part of that partial-processing pattern-handling machinery, some of that selective focus, is defective or absent in a lot of us, including me. So we're probably not gonna be seen at the party in the first place. So we'll be doing other things, and our pattern-processing machinery will be shaping itself around patterns that you don't think about very often. And of course we'll get good at what we do over and over. So it goes.

 Second, I want to think about a book-length happy-happy version of autistic superpowers. (That's not quite fair, but almost.) Here are semi-random clips from Tyler Cowen's The Age of the Infovore: Succeeding in the Information Economy (clips in order, but without the page numbers because I'm copying and pasting from the Kindle app -- which I originally installed in order to read his "Great Stagnation" ebook.)
Autistics are information lovers to an extreme degree and they are the people who engage with information most passionately. When it comes to their areas of interest, autistics are the true infovores, as I call them....

Often autistics seek out work that satisfies their passion for information, whether it involves designing new software for a library, conducting a scientific experiment, or ordering ideas in the form of a book or a blog....

The notion of “ordering information” may sound a little dry, but it is a joy in our everyday lives, whether you are autistic or not. It should be familiar to anyone who has enjoyed alphabetizing books on a shelf, arranging photos in an album, finishing a crossword puzzle, or just tidying up a room. It’s not that anyone sits down and says “I want to do some ordering now,” but rather we are interested in specific features of our world. We have become infovores to help make the world real and salient for us. Ordering and manipulating information is useful, fun, alternately intense and calming,...
  "Useful, fun, alternately intense and calming" --- Yes! That's Me-Me-Me! (He says excitedly. Pause for calm; I think I'll sort some data.) And Cowen thinks that's what modern society is all about...the world is becoming autistic, and that's a good thing:

In essence we are using tools and capital goods—computers and the web—to replicate or mimic some of the information-absorbing, information-processing, and mental-ordering abilities of autistics....

Economists have studied our species as homo economicus, and some decades ago, when my social science colleagues investigated our game-playing nature, homo ludens was born. Today a new kind of person creates his or her very own economy in his or her head. The age of homo ordo is upon us.... ... ...

First, many autistics are very good at perceiving, processing, and ordering information, especially in specialized or preferred areas of interest... Second, autistics have a bias toward “local processing” or “local perception.” For instance an autistic person may be more likely to notice a particular sound or a particular piece of a pattern, or an autistic may have an especially good knowledge of detail or fact, again in preferred areas of interest. To set off those two features for emphasis, the cognitive strengths of autism include: Strong skills in ordering knowledge in preferred areas Strong skills in perceiving small bits of information in preferred areas...
  That sounds like a way of pointing out that "we don't get the big picture very well" isn't all that bad. Indeed, in writing with a co-author it's not just that my co-author has always done all the presentations: he writes almost all of the words, I write almost all of the code, we both discuss both. He's the "top-down" guy, I'm the "bottom-up" guy. Cowen continues later:

autistics ... are better at noticing details in patterns, they have better eyesight on average, they are less likely to be fooled by optical illusions, they are more likely to fit some canons of economic rationality, and they are less likely to have false memories of particular kinds. Autistics are also more likely to be savants and have extreme abilities to memorize, perform operations with codes and ciphers, perform calculations in their head,
  Details..yeah. It has obvious advantages for a programmer, scientist, writer, certainly. And I'm not any kind of a savant, but I remember that when my dad said that I had to write to family friends to say I'd gotten married, I sent off postcards saying "you probably don't even remember me but..." and one replied "Sure I remember you. What's 1/2 of 1/512?" For me that was pre-K. (I always liked the powers of 2, and my small granddaughters have at least learned to count in binary on their fingers.) Cowen does admit that there are disses to go with the advantages:

A cognitive problem is that many autistics are easily overwhelmed by processing particular stimuli from the outside world. This problem is related to the aforementioned strength of local perception.

Some researchers view autistics as having perceptual equipment turned either “very on” or “very off” rather than modulating at the more typical ranges in between.....
  And both of those say to me that my selective filters don't work properly. If you and I both go into the Paleolithic underbrush, we both start noticing different kinds of plants but you back off because your selective focus works: you remember the context of sabre-tooth tigers. I learn more about plants to eat than you do, until I get eaten. But in the modern world I don't (usually) get eaten, and I just end up having learned more about plants. More Cowen:

It is common, though by no means universal, that autistics have difficulty with speaking intelligibly or that they are late talkers or that they understand written instructions better than spoken instructions. Some researchers include “weak executive function” (a bundled function of strategic planning, impulse control, working memory, flexibility in thought and action, and other features) as part of the cognitive profile of autism. Other research focuses on the question of “weak central coherence,” or failure to see the “bigger picture.” But it seems these are secondary traits, more common in autistic subgroups than in autism per se.
  Well, they're certainly characteristic of at least one member of any subgroup that includes me. I'd say there are indubitably many paths to different-but-overlapping sets of symptoms identifiable as "autism", and failure-of-focus (or perhaps uncontrolled focus) is quite central to my subgroup.

Third, here's a discussion of what people think of when they hear "the autism spectrum" mentioned, contrasted with an image of what it "actually looks like" (from inside, evidently):
[Image 1: A simple, linear line drawn in red, with a cross bar at the beginning and end of the line. The beginning cross bar is labeled “mild autism” and the end cross bar is labeled “severe autism”.]

[Image 2: A circular representation of the colour spectrum, similar to the wheel colour picker in Photoshop. The different colour sections on the wheel are labeled, but each colour also bleeds into the next. The red portion is labeled “speech”, the yellow “social ability”, the green “stimming”, and the blue “executive functioning”....Within each colour section, the dots may be closer to the center or closer to the edge, indicating the severity of impairment... ... The yesterday dots indicate that the autistic person was verbal, stimming with toys, and forgetting steps in their routine. The today dots indicate that the autistic person is verbal with communication aids, unable to leave their house, and that they don’t know where to start when it comes to their routine or completing tasks..

In other words, each of the four segments of alice-royal's circle is being used as a one-dimensional scale, making a four-dimensional image overall although dimensions are pretty strongly correlated. Okay, that's not how I would do it, as I'll show later, but I certainly sympathize -- and it's better than having only one scale. However, part of the circle discussion really bothers me: "none of these points are necessarily negative....There is no such thing as ‘mild autism’ or ‘high-functioning’ autism, and those labels are actually inherently ableist." Oh, please. The points in the picture include not only "unable to leave house" but "self-harming stims". Hmm... that gets me to my final source.

  Fourth,  "Scott Alexander" (pseudonym) the blogging psychiatrist/rationalist, saying recently in Against Against Autism Cures | Slate Star Codex
On the one hand, about half my friends, my girlfriend, and my ex-girlfriend all identify as autistic. For that matter, people keep trying to tell me I’m autistic. When people say “autistic” in cases like this, they mean “introverted, likes math and trains, some unusual sensory sensitivities, and makes cute hand movements when they get excited.”

On the other hand, I work as a psychiatrist and some of my patients are autistic. Many of these patients are nonverbal. Many of them are violent. Many of them scream all the time. Some of them seem to live their entire lives as one big effort to kill or maim themselves...
If we're going to use the word "autistic" to refer to the whole range, which we do, then "mild autism" is a useful description for a lot of us. "Ableism" is not the issue. And there's no fixed boundary between autistic and neurotypical; current research claims "to make an incontrovertible case that the genetic risk contributing to autism is genetic risk that exists in all of us," and I guess I believe that. There are so many mechanisms involved, and they can go a little bit wrong in so many ways, and so badly wrong in quite a few...

Apart from that issue, I like the circle, but as I said that's not how I would do it. It's not how I do do it.

  Fifth, is me. I want to extend the list of issues ["speech", "social ability", "stimming", "executive function"]; I'll add "repetitions" and "sensory issues". Then, instead of a coloured circle, I want a star figure or even a stylized exoskeleton that I see myself stepping into.
  1. The head-helmet is executive function, with goggles and headphones for sensory issues. (Yes, sensory issues apply to much more than the head; this is my diagram, okay?) 
  2. The arms are the externals, speech on the right and social ability on the left. (That's Social Function On The Right Side of The Brain, symbols on the left side of the brain.) 
  3. The legs are internals, repetitions and stimming: stimming for the left leg, repetitions on the right. 

  Got that? Now: imagine the head-helmet somewhat shrunken and unbalanced in a Needs Help to Keep On Track sort of way, with fairly heavy Prefers Darkness goggles and Doesn't Do Well With Noise headphones. The right arm is long and a bit floppy with sentences that go on and on and on in all directions without paying much attention to the head...but some. The left arm is a bit stunted in a Sorry Not Gonna Reach Out To You If I Don't Know You Already, and I Have Real Trouble Recognizing Your Face Unless I see You Every Day For Quite A While sort of way. The legs are nearly normal, with the right leg's repetitive misbehaviour almost entirely inside the head (isn't that a fun image?) and the left leg wanting to pace back and forth -- and seek out blog entries, and do brief Google-searches of random topics like rocket stoves and bioponics and sci/tech advances of 1656 which was my old debit card's PIN and was the year that Christiaan Huygens invented a good enough pendulum clock to have both minute and second hands, and that Cyrano de Bergerac invented the semi-modern sci-fi story -- and the ramjet, within it. (My new PIN is even better, but that's purely numeric, not history. I'm a very very boring person.)

  There's daily variation for me, but that's the image to hold -- on a pretty-good day, and they are indeed pretty good days, I'm a happy geek. Limited, aware that other people don't seem to have the same limits, but happy nonetheless. And today is a pretty good day, even if I get distracted trying to think of what my exoskeleton left and right legs are reminding me of and then have to look up Papyrus of Ani; Egyptian Book of the Dead [Budge]
[And I reply], "Besu-Ahu" is the name of my right foot, and "Unpet-ent-Het-Heru" is the name of my left foot.
  Other people don't seem to do that, or understand why I do, but it's not a major problem, and today is a pretty good day. And my exoskeleton is actually helpful, expressing a role that I can make myself play as well as a default status. I can visualize myself stepping into it...I can even adjust it a bit and then step into it, deciding to stretch my left arm and pull in the right, be somewhat more social with better-focused sentences or step out into a Maker Faire crowd in the sun. Or I can relax it a bit, consciously giving my inner geek a rest, being only what he needs to be for a while.

  On a pretty good day, I can walk into a party, and if somebody wants to talk about computers or about something technical then I can focus on that and I won't have any idea of what else is happening or how long we've been talking. If nobody talks to me, I may be able to stand near somebody I know, and see what happens. Or I may just stay for a couple of minutes with an intangible glass wall between me and the rest of the room, and then I go in search of silence. But it's all about seeking patterns, finding delight in many but being overwhelmed by others. On a not-so-good day, I'm overwhelmed at the start and I just need to read a book, or investigate some random topic within Wikipedia or with Google's aid (sometimes making models with cardboard and duct tape), or just play FreeCell over and over and over. Or just sit in the dark, in silence. And I'm perfectly okay, as long as that option is available.

  Is there an overall pattern? Maybe: I believe that lack-of-selective-focus is the key for my kind of geek; it leads to being-overwhelmed-by-detail and thus executive function failure (can't track projects, it's even hard to plan a day); it leads to being unable to not-hearing what I ought to be listening to, even as I fail to tune out sensory stuff (I'm listening to the ticking of a clock; I like it); it leads to being overwhelmed by most social situations; it leads to a failure to clip my sentences (okay, this sentence is deliberate, but I'm remembering a 9th-grade biology teacher reading my first sentence aloud, gasping dramatically for breath when he reached a comma somewhere on the second page, then going on....); it leads indirectly to being the kind of infovore I am. I do need help...everybody needs help sometimes. I have had help, a great deal of it. And I'm grateful.

   And have I made mistakes, to fit the theme of this particular notes-to-me blog? Yes, of course. Everybody should probably seek ways to push their limits, a little at a time. I do...but I should have tried harder at various stages to widen my own circle of support. (When I say "everybody should do X", it's usually not so much a particular moral judgement about X as it is a guess that whatever you value, doing X is likely to help you get there.) People like me, people with executive-function problems, should seek people who will help them stay on track, and careers with tracks they can stay on. I sort of did, but I didn't understand what I was doing; I probably should have asked my wife (or somebody), forty years or so ago, to ask me at each day's beginning for a one-sentence summary of what I hoped to do, and then to ask me at each day's end for a similar summary of what I'd done. Something like that, with variations as time went by...just to help me stay on track. I should have recognized that at least part of my being a bad lecturer was probably not something I could learn to fix, not as an adult. Parents of geeky kids should probably promote geeky socializations, like role-playing games and robotics clubs... I suspect that if my parents had thought in those terms, or even had those terms to think in half a century ago, I'd have done better developing the limited people-skills I have. As it is, I am who I am. That's the Exodus Pi-verse, Exodus 3:14. But maybe it's better to use the phrasing suggested by Popeye the Sailor Man:

(Or then again, maybe not. I try to find my limits, and go beyond them. Occasionally it seems to work.)

Update: Less than a day after I posted, Peter Gray (psychologist) posted on ADHD, Creativity, and the Concept of Group Intelligence | Psychology Today
The groups containing an ADHD student were far more likely to solve the problems than were the control groups! In fact, 14 of the 16 groups (88%) containing an ADHD student solved both problems, and none (0%) of the 6 control groups did. This result was significant at the p < .0001 level, meaning that there is less than one chance in 10,000 that such a large difference, with this many groups, would occur by chance.

What is going on here? ...
And the moral appears to be that We need the neurotypicals and they need us. Very nice.

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Blogger Liza Myers said...

In my quest to understand google docs I came across this, tj. What a fascinating self-analysis. Talk again soon...

10:12 PM  

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