Mel Baggs has done the world a favor by writing a comprehensive explanation of what’s wrong with the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” and the Sally-Anne Test, i.e., the reason we’re told autistic people lack empathy, theory of mind, the ability to read body language, etc. Stylistically, I did notice that it’s very long, but I write very long blog posts. Another autistic blogger I like, John Michael Greer (who doesn’t write about autism), also writes very long and interesting Aspie rambles.
Baggs perfectly captured the feeling that precedes an epic length critique of something:
For too long, autistic people have been told who we are, instead of allowed to tell the world who we are. Test like the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test tend to fill me with an instant mini-explosion of rage. Because I can see each and every thing I just described to you. Only I see it all at once. Like just this ocean of wrongness that washes over me. And I can see all these things wrong, and feel that the are wrong, and understand that they are wrong. But until relatively recently, it was so hard to tell people why they were wrong, that most of the time I’d just splutter incoherently or tell them one or two things without giving them the whole picture.
“All at once” is key. Consider the previous post. All of that started buzzing around in my head from reading one article and looking up the original source. I’m working through some shit about empathy for myself, and it was also about racism and the election and liberal hypocrisy and teaching, so the special interests converged. My mind has a lot of information about all of those topics, so when I read the article, the mental representations are “intense” or vivid. There’s a room full of people that are out of touch with themselves: the teacher really wants to connect with the other straight white guy and overlooks how horrible he is; the straight white guy has Christian creepiness and he’s white supremacist but not comfortable with that fact; the black girl hates herself and she’s trying to be whiter than the white people, since we have to do everything harder to be recognized. The environment encourages everybody in their bullshit, cooperatively. Then there are the factual omissions and the misconceptions about what racism even is and white people simultaneously having a race and not and…
It’s a total situation, and the objections just multiply and displace each other in working memory as I keep reading, but every idea that gets activated is now primed, making it more likely that I’ll see unusual connections and patterns. Then it’s a race to systematically go through all this and record it before I can’t reconstruct it all. Luckily, I perseverate. I read the articles one day, and blogged about them the next. In that situation, I just knew that, except for an exercise break, there was no possibility of creating an equally rich representation for work purposes (which could not begin until ~1 PM because leaf blowers prevent audio recording). The demon just has to be purged, and then tomorrow I’ll hopefully get captured by something that helps me catch up in other areas. These thoughts are novel. The work thoughts are old, and the overall situation is either demotivating or stressful and I want to avoid it. My strategy for success in life has been to have faith in the universe that I’ll get it together before the deadline, whatever I’m working on.
I did a sales call yesterday. The first 5 minutes were one of the potential clients talking about his vacation and flying somewhere for 3 days, and all the normals seemed to bond over it, and then we got down to business. My job is to give a non-scripted but well-practiced Webex demo of our user interface, then go through the issues we found on the customer’s site until they get bored and want to talk about something else. Enough about the customer’s mistakes! Can we generate reports? Do we have a JSON API? Let the solutions architect handle it. I think people that are worse at my job want to emphasize the fail and keep going through the fail comprehensively, instead of being personable and emphasizing the understandableness or low severity of the issues. We’re The Subject Supposed To Know, about security. Don’t be a stern, scolding father to them.
I can very much do this because of high school debate. You had to adjust your strategy based on the judge’s “philosophy,” of which there were several common ones (hypothesis tester, old person who hates when you talk fast, stock issues, postmodernism nerd, unimportant what these are, specifically). Other customers want to have a technical knowledge pissing contest. Sometimes they just want to complain about their jobs or get help with something or you can make their boss not mad at them.
I don’t actually know what the sale people are thinking during those calls. I know that it’d be bad if I tried to participate during the early-call banter. Yeah, the holidays were nice. I came around to the idea that I’m autistic and did some aggressive inline skating and blogged about racism. I have bad social skills if that’s what I have to talk about. Small talk is like a minefield of figuring out how to lie by omission. Performance degrades. By the way, did you know that we have a JSON API that you could use to pull our data into your own bug tracking system, streamlining your software development life-cycle? Because then I can picture a graph of computers and that’s easier to describe. I can picture using an API to write a script to do something like that, and how I get sad when I have to log in to another thing oh god it never stops. I want to communicate that it doesn’t have to be like that.
Do I have social skills? I can’t fly out to wherever and take the customer to a bar. But then there’s Baron-Cohen talking about how I’m socially retarded and lacking in empathy and it’s just not the right answer, all at once, as Mel Baggs described.
Sometimes I see the sales people stick to scripts inflexibly, in their own way, by trying to direct the conversation instead of talking about what the customer wants to talk about. They’re trying to prove a point about how great we are instead of trying to seem like a reasonable person over the phone, or so it seems to me.
But the people I’m empathizing with on the phone have jobs where they talk to IT security contractor on sales calls. I can relate to having to do tedious computer stuff to make reports, and I can do basic things in Vim. Those are not normal things to relate to other people about. It would be absurd for me to try to sell cars. My job isn’t even sales. My job is that the humans have arranged a conference call for themselves, and here they have the “engineer” from the basement who did the work on their site (or more likely I’m filling in for that person). I’m there to talk nerd stuff for as long as it takes them to start imagine using the product. The person on the other end of the call might be a senior I-don’t-give-a-fuck level manager, or he might be another basement-dweller who wants to pwn you. It’s like debate and judging philosophies.
I’m functioning at a high level, in that I do someting respectable and have a degree, but the things I’m actually doing are not normal. I thought it’s hilarious that Neurotribes opens with a Perl conference. I like Perl (also not normal), and there’s a lot of Perl at work compared to other places. This is my favorite classic Perl rant:
having a job is not unimportant, but if knowing perl is a requirement for
a particular job, consider another one before taking that one. this is
true even if you know perl very well. life is too long to be an expert
at harmful things, including such evilness as C++ and perl.
I once studied perl enough to read perl code and spot bugs in other
people’s programs (but later gained the wisdom that this was not an
accomplishment — spotting a bug in a perl program is like spotting the
dog that brought the fleas), but I don’t write in it and I don’t ever
plan to use it for anything (part of my new position is quality assurance
for the systems I’m inheriting responsibility for, and part of any
serious QA is removing perl code the same way you go over a dilapidated
building you inherit to remove chewing gum and duct tape and fix whatever
was kept together for real). also, very much unlike any other language I
have ever studied, perl has failed to stick to memory, a phenomenon that
has actually puzzled me, but I guess there are some things that are so
gross you just have to forget, or it’ll destroy something with you. perl
is the first such thing I have known.
this is your brain. this is perl. this is your brain on perl. any
| If I learn lisp well will I be able to do what people do with perl[?]
no, you won’t. however, there is a very important clue to be had from
this: what people do with perl is wrong. perl makes a whole lot of tasks
easy to do, but if you look closely, you will see that those tasks are
fundamentally braindamaged, and should never have been initiated. perl
is perhaps the best example I can think of for a theory I have on the
ills of optimization and the design choices people make. most people,
when faced with a problem, will not investigate the cause of the problem,
but will instead want to solve it because the problem is actually in the
way of something more important than figuring out why something suddenly
got in their way out of nowhere. if you are a programmer, you may reach
for perl at this point, and perl can remove your problem. happy, you go
on, but find another problem blocking your way, requiring more perl —
the perl programmer who veers off the road into the forest will get out
of his car and cut down each and every tree that blocks his progress,
then drive a few meters and repeat the whole process. whether he gets
where he wanted to go or not is immaterial — a perl programmer will
happily keep moving forward and look busy. getting a perl programmer
back on the road is a managerial responsibility, and it can be very hard:
the perl programmer is very good at solving his own problems and assure
you that he’s on the right track — he looks like any other programmer
who is stuck, and this happens to all of us, but the perl programmer is
very different in one crucial capacity: the tool is causing the problems,
and unlike other programmers who discover the cause of the problem sooner
or later and try something else, perl is rewarding the programmer with a
very strong sense of control and accomplishment that a perl programmer
does _not_ try something else….
I’ll concede, however, that it is very important to be able to understand
what perl programmers do. if you don’t understand what they are talking
about, you won’t understand what they are actually trying to accomplish
with all the incredibly braindamaged uses of hash tables and syntactic
sadomasochism, and you won’t be able to see through their charades and
“just one more hack, and I’ll be there” lies.
It’s interesting to me that the Perl mindset would be described as “braindamaged.” LOL weak central coherence. It’s hard to explain, but Perl doesn’t try to force you to think a certain way, compared to Python or Ruby. But Perl culture produces this:
First place: there’s always someone who tries something totally beyond any understanding. That someone was Les Peters, who used a rendition of rotated 90 degree Mayan numerals to extract the required text. Yes, indeed. For this effort above and beyond the tethers of sanity, Les wins the hated and feared BEST OF SHOW award this year. Commiserations and sorrow go out to Les, his coworkers, and his family.
#:: ::-| ::-| .-. :||-:: 0-| .-| ::||-| .:|-. :||
#.: ::||-| .||-| :|||-| ::||-| ||-:: :|||-| .:|
That’s all for this year! We go now to clean our hands obsessively and rest up for next year’s onslaught….
The Obfuscated Perl Contest Judges
_ _END_ _
When you run that code, all it does is print the string “The Perl Journal.” lolwtf.
I think this computer tangent illustrates Mel Bagg’s point, which is that people with similar mindsets can bond/empathize over stuff that’s completely alien to others. To write that, Les Peters had to envision a whole process of the file reading itself line by line, keeping the first and last. Then splitting it up into chunks, using “-” as the delimiter. Then doing some kind of voodoo where the “|” gets turned into “:.:” and “:” subsequently gets turned into “:”. Then I don’t know what’s going on because I don’t understand Mayan numerals, but the number 20 is significant? Something to do with the number of characters in the line? Those things are used to compute the decimal ASCII codes corresponing to “The Print Journal.” They’re converted to characters and printed to the terminal, one-by-one, followed by a newline. The sheer pleasure of picturing the whole complicated process. Then there’s the fact that, in Perl, certain things are “implicit.” The keyword “length” means length($_), where $_ means “it”, which will mean different things at different levels of a nested loop, because of scope (nevermind). “$0” means “this file” (I think), etc. Mastery of so many things had to converge. And then all of it expressed in a minimum of characters, for maximum information density.
If I’m even discussing “JSON APIs” with someone on the phone, it means that their life problems at work have to do with processes like the one in the last paragraph (non-obfuscated). After scanning their stuff, can we send the data from our database tables to their scripts, when the scripts give us a password (“API key”) in a special HTTP header, then express their requests in a special format? Can we send the data in a format that makes it EZ-Mode to reformat the data for their own internal purposes?
I’m “high-functioning”, but it’s not because of relating to normal people about normal things. It’s because I do things in the background, that normal people don’t want to know about, which makes their normal person stuff online go more smoothly. Having a PhD helps a lot in normal life, but the way to get a PhD is not normal whatsoever. I made it through my 20s without really being employable. I came in at 4:30 to 6:00 when everyone was going home, so I could get behind schedule and nobody was looking at me and I could pace around and be weird and think about 1 thing obsessively for my whole existence. Rats needed to be checked on at least once a day, so I (in)conveniently was never able to go anywhere or do anything beyond a certain radius from the lab. The same thing every day. This one time, I did better than the other TAs because I alphabetized the tests after grading them without being told.
The only reason that I’m “high-functioning” is that I’ve always found a niche where it was OK to do things that were otherwise socially unacceptable. I turned “I can’t stop thinking about drugs and being sad” into something that impresses people that don’t know what it is. In the process, I helped bring funding to various people, I was part of the college education of many people’s children, I met diversity needs, I graded papers and held review sessions. I did try to do things in the lab, but I guess that was mostly a loss. But mainly those activities were a way to talk and think about drugs. Confirming and defying the stereotypes.
The reason that I’m employed and 85% of people with Asperger syndrome aren’t is that I’ve been allowed to get away with stuff, within limits other people presumably see as eccentricities, in exchange for ultimately delivering good-enough work without asking explicitly for accommodations.
That’s CLEARLY a matter of socioeconomic privilege, the rest of this blog notwithstanding.
I’m also clearly not socially clueless, and clearly not using a normal strategy to get by in life. It doesn’t compute for people that I could be successful and also a fuckup, for the same reason.
The things that suck about jobs can be so petty, and all about messing up any kind of self-regulation. You have to lose sleep to be there on time, then drive through stresful traffic because everybody has to work at the same time for no reason, then limits are placed on when you can eat and use the bathroom, sounds, smells, brightness. Being watched. Have to start and stop tasks on someone else’s schedule. Expectations of multitasking, against all evidence that it’s harmful. The irrational belief that people can perform cognitively demanding work for 8 hours. What does any of that have to do with computer security? Like just this ocean of wrongness that washes over me.