Monday, November 17, 2014


Apparently, people can identify others in a tenth of a second, or less. They can remember hundreds of faces, and recognize thirty classmates as "familiar" after seeing them once.
I say "apparently", because such concepts are so far out of my experience, if my mom hadn't told me, I would have never suspected a thing. It seems impossible to contemplate; a state of advanced mental technology on par with "Star Trek" computers that understand conversational English, and androids walking down the street.
Last week I timed myself recognizing people, and found my average was two seconds. Twenty times slower. In the time a "normal" person can recognize twenty people, I identify one. This is an improvement, thanks to my new Advance Recognition Algorithm:

1: List the names of the people you will be expected to identify in the current situation
2: Attempt to determine if they're around:
2.1: List each person's identifying traits such as hair, backpack, clothing or glasses.
2.2: Search for each person using this cue
2.3: Remember the current appearance of each person identified and associate it with their name
3: Conduct whatever social business required recognizing all those people

Identifying people is an exercise in logic and probabilities. I do not think "There's Sarah!". I think "That person is probably Sarah," or "That person may be Sarah, but I can't tell." To find my brother in a store, I look for his bright orange hoodie and messy anime hair. I have an idea of how his face looks, but find it easier to search for his clothes. When I learn to recognize someone, their name becomes a pointer leading to a list of details stored as text. (A pointer, for non-programmers, is an address. Your home address is a pointer to your house.) The upside is I don't forget names. (The downside is I can't remember someone unless I can spell their name.)

Sometimes my pointers don't work. They point to the wrong thing, and I get two people's identifying details mixed up. Or they point to nothing at all, which means I have no way to recognize someone. Heaven forbid someone else should forget a name: "You know, she's got a thin little nose, and very round eyes…" This is like giving someone your home address (which does not point to your phone) so they can call your cell.

It does not occur to me that this is different, or wrong, because for me it is not. Neither is it caused by learning programming, which only gave me the vocabulary to describe my system. Though I suspect the "other way" is better, my pointers work well enough.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Doom, Despair and Literary Analysis

 Tomorrow is the first day of the Fall 2014 semester of community college, the start of my last year before (hopefully) going off to "real" college…and (cue ominous music) the first day of English 2: Critical Analysis and Intermediate Composition!

In case the imaginary ominous music didn't tip you off, this is Bad News. On the Doom Scale of 1-10, 1 being least doom-y (a butterfly), and 10 being most doom-y (college applications, SATs, incomprehensible programming assignments), it ranks about a 15, higher than calculus, printer malfunctions, and spiders combined. For comparison, English 1 was about a 7, and only because, like English 2, it was an accelerated online class and I'd never done one before. Doom, I thought. Doom, despair and bad grades!

But English 1 was surprisingly doomless. We had readings, yes, and discussed them, but they were nonfiction, our final project was a research paper, and we wrote like I imagine engineers do: gathering information, discussing it, and summarizing it in double-spaced MLA-formatted papers. Analysis was straightforward: Author A uses more personal anecdotes than Author B, who cites more scientific studies. My greatest enemy was MS Word, which insisted on moving page numbers from the right to the left, and periodically hiding my cursor.

English 2 (cue the doom drums), is all about Literary Analysis. That means reading fiction (and not the popular kind either, but the dense, classic kind), producing a conclusion about "grand, overarching themes" or "a metaphor for the human condition", and writing an essay on said conclusion. I have no problem with reading, and few problems with writing. The real problem, to use a simile because metaphors are confusing, is that for me, producing a conclusion is like trying to pull chickens' teeth. (Chickens do not have teeth.)

While I understand what happens in a story, I tend to struggle with why. Why does Character A do Stupid Thing B instead of Smart Thing C? Why does he say "I know I shouldn't" and then do it anyway? Why does Character D do something blatantly illegal, and why doesn't Character E put a stop to it? Where do they get these dumb ideas, and how are we supposed to understand their motives if they never explain them properly?* If there was less subtext, and more actual text, I would have no problem; it would all be cause-and-effect. "Ever since Bob's girlfriend had left him for Bill, relations had been strained between the two men." (Several chapters later:) "Bob cackled as his flock of trained pigeons made a precision strike on Bill's new car." That makes sense: Bill stole Bob's girlfriend, therefore Bob is happy when Bill is not. Doom comes when that first sentence is left out: the cause is left unexplained, hidden in subtle clues of the characters' expression and speech, in subtext and metaphor, in things only English majors understand.

I like reading and writing. I love going to the library, immersing myself in a good book, and trying to write my own, somewhat-less-good stories. I'm happy to learn about symbolism and metaphor and allegory, and I can understand someone else's analysis, but I can't write my own without help. I need someone to pull out all those subtle cues, explain the why and help link the metaphor to the story. After that, I can do the rest, I think. I hope, because otherwise…
Can you tell I'm obsessed with the word "doom"?

*A proper explanation does not rely on subtext, metaphor, something said 200 pages ago, or the assumption that "everyone already knows". What if instruction manuals were written like that? "The great beast lies still in the pale light of dawn, waiting for its master to free it from endless hibernation." (Translation: "Your car doesn't go by itself.")

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Known Unknowns, Unknown Unknowns and the Engineering Method

A known unknown, in engineering jargon, is something you know you don't know. For example, I know that I need to improve my social skills. I know that I can't tell if someone is mad at me or just happened to slam the door shut because they're in a rush. (I usually assume they're mad at me.) I know that I don't know where the boundary between honesty and tattling lies (it moves around a lot). I know that I don't know when to speak and when to shut up.

This is bad enough, but what about the unknown unknowns? These are, quite simply, the things that you don't know you don't know. Either you think you know them (but don't), or you've never thought about them (and therefore never realized you don't know about them). In engineering, these are the unexpected factors you never even considered, like a meteorite falling on your computer, or ants nesting inside. (Now that I've thought of these, however; they are no longer unknown unknowns, but known unknowns.) The goal is to identify the unknown unknowns, turning them into known unknowns, and eventually known knowns.

These unknowns, and the engineering method, are my latest attempt at quantifying, analyzing, and, eventually, solving some of the social tangle. "Proper" social interaction, is a slippery, fluid, subjective thing, a set of rules constantly rewriting themselves, an intricate web through which others dance and I stumble. And no wonder: I like concrete things; right or wrong, black or white. A computer program won't suddenly decide to do something else when you run it. A calculator doesn't give you different answers every Tuesday. A person says one thing and means another, wishes they had said a third, and is thought to have said a fourth!

The engineering design method is simple, concrete, and logical. You begin by identifying the problem. Today's problem: apparently I don't look people in the eyes enough, and may offend them.
The second step is to brainstorm possible solutions to the problem. Maybe I could wear sunglasses! I could get my mom to alert me when I don't look at people so I remember to do it. I could alert myself, or wear a rubber band as a reminder. I could try to explain why I don't look at people so they won't be offended. Maybe nobody will notice, and it's not a problem after all!
Next, weed out the impractical ideas. Almost all of these are impractical except reminding myself to do it, though sunglasses would probably work outside.
Then think of some ways to implement the idea. I could wear a rubber band, like I said, or write a note on my hand. I could somehow train myself to remember every time I see someone. (Too bad there isn't an app for this.) An app! I should get a proximity sensor and have it beep when someone stands close by for a certain amount of time, like they would if talking with me.
Most of these solutions are impractical, including, unfortunately, the sensor. The best solution is for me to remember on my own, but that is also the hardest to implement, so I'll work on written reminders.
We have now arrived at a solution! All that remains is implementation, testing, and revision. How many other social problems can be solved this way?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A New Word!

Autism is an umbrella term. It encompasses Einstein (suspected to have had Aspergers' syndrome), me, classically autistic children who can't speak at all, and everything in between. How can one word do so much? It can't. In meaning so many things, it has been stretched too thin and now means almost nothing! 
 I don't want to call myself autistic. Not because I don't want to be labeled (I like labels,) but because I want to be labeled accurately and precisely. And it seems wrong when the same label applies to severely autistic kids who need so much more help than I do–as if I'll dilute the word's power by stretching its meaning so far. I also don't want a long phrase, or anything with overtly negative connotations.  I want a word that means high-functioning autism or Aspergers' syndrome only, but in fewer words and without the negative connotations of autism and syndrome.
The words I want don't yet exist. So I set out to find some myself:
Mentally Different
This one fits two of the three criteria: it's not too long, and it carries no negative connotation. I've used it before, but there's one major problem: inexactness. What, exactly, is mentally different? It could be anything, not just high-functioning autism! Time to try again…
I didn't make this one up, which is good because I don't like it much. It sounds silly, and while it's short, its root is Aspergers' syndrome, which definitely has a negative connotation. (I don't like having a syndrome. It sounds dreadful!)
Not too long, not too silly…this one is turning out well. It's not very exact, but since autistic people call "normal" people neurotypical, it's more "connected" to autism than "mentally different" is. Then I looked it up…and found out that according to Urban Dictionary (a notoriously unreliable source), it means someone with autism or a whole host of other disorders; schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dyslexia, et cetera. Another inexact term!
The negative of allistic, which is a synonym for neurotypical someone not on the autism spectrum. If allistic means not autistic, nonallistic must mean autistic. And since we already have autistic to refer to the severe forms, I claim nonallistic for my side of the spectrum; the high-functioning autistics. (I made it up, so I get to decide what it means.)
adj. | non-a-lis-tic | negative formation of allistic
a person with high-functioning autism or Aspergers' syndrome 
That's it! I've coined a new word! And now that I have my terminology straight, I can get on to what I meant to do before I noticed this problem, which was write about Autism Awareness Month.
More posts to follow soon!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

What I See

I've been told my eyes dart around when I talk to people, never lingering on their nose or eyes or wherever you're supposed to look, but flicking up, to the side, out the window, watching passers-by, reading signs, watching out. "Look at people when they talk to you," my mother tells me. "Why do you stare out the window in the car instead of looking at me? You have to look at people."

Well, I do. They're just never the right people. Imagine you're talking to someone. You're standing in the middle of the grocery store gabbing away, having just run into some long-lost friend using the mystical power of Face Recognition. What do you see?
I won't tell you, because I don't know. But here's what I see:
There's a traffic jam in the parking lot, and several employees in bright orange vests are directing traffic. I wish I had a bright orange vest. It would be fun to direct traffic. My favorite cereal is on sale–two for one. A bag dispenser in the produce section is almost out. There's that friendly employee, restocking the chips. He's always doing that. How many chips can people eat? A cart is coming down the aisle, a flickering overhead light reflected in its metal. An angry driver leans on his horn outside. The express lane sign says "10 items or fewer", which is good because "10 items or less" is grammatically incorrect. The produce guy has a big knife for cutting the brown ends off celery. Someone's spending a fortune on groceries in lane 4. Is Mother making a disapproving face at me?

Oh, wait. I'm supposed to look at the person talking to me.
Here's what I see now:
A brown spot has taken up residence on their cheek. Am I looking in the right place? People's noses are boring. Am I staring? Is Mother still making a disapproving face? I try to remember some detail of the shape of their nose, their eyes, their chin– it slips away as soon as my eyes do. I look past them at the traffic directors. Can they tell? Probably. I pull my eyes back to their thoroughly ordinary-looking nose. The need to look around–to know exactly where I am and what surrounds me–grows until it's almost painful. I remind myself that successful engineers have good social skills. There are no spiky crushers on the grocery store ceiling. Spiky crushers do not exist, except in video games. There are other things that fall on you from the ceiling, that paranoid part of me argues, the part that tells me to get behind something when a car drives by, in case they're looking for someone to shoot at. (I really have no idea where that part came from. Nobody has ever been shot at while walking up our street.) I hear a cart creaking behind me. If I turn around to look, Mother will make a disapproving face. In the car, she'll tell me again: "You have to look at people when they talk." And I'll look out the window and admire the scenery, and watch for rogue garbage trucks*, and tell her I'll try.

And I am trying. I'm getting better at looking at people, though I don't think it's improving my face recognition skills, or providing any useful social insights. I try because I've been told that flicking your eyes around–furtive eye movement, when you want a negative connotation–makes you look dishonest. Because I want to be a spacecraft engineer, and nobody will hire someone who twists around to look behind them at every noise. Because maybe if I look at people's faces, eventually I'll start picking out the little details that apparently tell you how they're feeling. But looking at people is hard, especially when there's so many other, more interesting things to look at. So if one day you meet someone whose eyes dart around, looking everywhere but at your face, don't think "They're not paying attention." Maybe they are. Maybe you've run into someone like me, who looks at everything, not just your face.

*I have a problem with garbage trucks. When I was little my room faced an alley across our street where, every Wednesday at some ungodly hour of the morning, a huge garbage truck would come charging along, looking as if it was about to crash through my window until it turned onto the street proper. I have less of a problem with recycling and yardwaste trucks, but they're all too big and noisy.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Tactical Squawking

I was preparing dinner when I heard the noise. I would write it here, but you see, it was the sort of sound it's impossible to spell. Imagine several very ill hawks attempting to sing in a choir, with a dying car engine as accompaniment. As you can imagine, it was a very disturbing noise, both due to its awfulness (is that a word?) and its unexpectedness.
The noise continued in sporadic bursts from my brother's room, where he usually sits quietly at his computer (quietly being the key word here), working on digital art or battling his friends in Team Fortress 2.
I chopped up a bell pepper. QUAAARRWWK!* went the noise, echoing down the stairs.
"What's he doing now?" my mom sighed over the carrot she was grating.
"I don't know! He's so weird!"
KRAAAAEERK! The salad spinner vibrated from the force of the sound (or maybe I'm just being melodramatic). I sliced the radishes with more violence than strictly necessary, venting my exasperation on innocent root vegetables. AEERRRK!  A timer went off, drowning out the next few screeches. Then, just when I thought he'd stopped: ZZZWEEE! EEEEAWK! QUAAAAWH!
We looked at each other, my mom and I. And even though I'm not very good with the social stuff, I knew an unspoken question hung between us. I even knew what it was: What the heck is that ungodly racket?
KKREEEEEAH! I stalked into my brother's room.
"What are you doing?" He was playing a video game; I don't know which one. It was the kind where you run around and shoot people before they shoot you; an online one, with voice-chat.
ZWAAARK! "I'm distracting the other team!" he explained, screeching again. The other players stopped, forgetting to shoot. He smashed their heads with a frying pan.
"Aren't you also distracting your own team?"
"No, they know what I'm doing."
Completely forgetting to yell at him, or even tell him to shut up, I walked into the kitchen and metaphorically died laughing, though not before explaining the awful racket was actually a form of sonic warfare. My mother was not amused, but she didn't see it the way I did: while we were downstairs thinking what is that bozo doing? he was upstairs devising an innovative new strategy.
So the moral of this story is: The mentally different do a lot of things which make absolutely no sense to neurotypicals. When someone does something weird or annoying, before you yell at them, find out their reasoning. Also, don't use voice-chat or my brother might screech in your ear.

Epilogue: It has now been a week since the invention of Tactical Squawking. It is no longer funny. In fact, it's becoming annoying. But considering that's its purpose, I'm not going to complain (though if it keeps up, I might have to change my mind).

*Would you look at that, I managed to spell it after all.