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Are You Listening?

smartphoneMy smartphone is smarter than I am. It’s brain is broken up into eight processing circuits. Six of the processors are for general computing—making phone calls, playing games, tweeting and all the other smartphone wizardry we take for granted. There are two special processors, though, which are a different. One circuit is a little bit of genius. It is a natural language processor. It is always on, always listening, always ready to understand speech. It allows me to talk to the phone without touching it.

Humans have wiring in their brains—natural social processors—that interpret complex social interplay. Without conscious thought, this special purpose circuitry subtly decodes the meaning of numerous social cues: the choice of words (casual or formal, welcoming or off-putting), changes in tone (ending a sentence higher to welcome collaboration, or lower to indicate authority), the accompanying facial expressions (smiles, frowns, brow-furrowing, cocked eyebrows), gestures (folded arms, outstretched hands, shoulder brushing), body positioning (angling towards the welcomed, or away from the shunned), and many more. This processor is always on, always ready to help humans understand each other’s behavior.

The Seventy Percent Solution

70% Off!

I am wrong 70% of the time. Don’t ask me how I know it is 70%. I recognize numbers the way you recognize faces—a matter of familiarity and unconscious association, not calculation. I have a holistic understanding that 70% of all the decisions I make are incorrect. Even when I am not paying attention, my brain is keeping track. Just as you might say, “Oh, that’s Arnold. He changed his eyeglasses.” I will tell myself, “Yes, 70% feels right.”

I wouldn’t have had much success in life if I failed at 70% of everything I attempted. What I needed was a mechanism to overcome my intrinsic tendency to make the wrong call. 

Look to the Autistics

mallardThe autistic brain is not malformed nor diseased. It isn’t something to be pitied or corrected. Our brains just happen to be different from yours. That doesn’t make the autistic brain wrong. It does, however, make it somewhat incompatible with a world, a society, constructed by human brains.

Is it any wonder that the autistic brain – and the person containing it – can sometimes struggle? We’re plaid, trying to exist in a striped world. We clash a little. Both patterns work. They’re just slightly incompatible. And there’s a lot more of you guys.

When you go out looking for a chicken and you find a duck, you wouldn’t say, “Well, that’s an odd looking chicken. Poor thing.” It’s not wrong. It’s just not what you were expecting.

Embrace the duck.  Listen for the quacking. It can be a nice change from all the clucking going on in the human hen house. Not only that. We may not lay eggs as efficiently as you. But man, can we swim!

The Telling of the Land and the People

When the People did not exist, when the Land did not exist, when all there was was starlight, it was enough. And so it existed before time started. Timeless, the Stars sang to each other without beat, without rhythm. It was enough.

And in the timeless void a red Star, Eye of Fire, sang to its Star-mate Fire Bright, “Sing to me and then I will sing to you.” Fire Bright also said, “What means ‘then’?” And we say now “also” for it was no response because response has sequence and sequence needs time. So all Stars sang to each other and knew their words always. So Eye of Fire also sang, “My words are not known and need yours to be known.” And Fire Bright sang also, “We all know our words always.” And Eye of Fire’s words were there also, “We are love together and yet love is mystery.” And to all Stars these words were strange for knowing all words in eternity left no room for mystery in song. So sang Fire Bright. Then Eye of Fire made new words, singing, “Because you don’t know ‘then’, I will show you and only when I know your words, will I add my love and sing them back.” And Eye of Fire did. And Eye of Fire created time

An Atheist’s Primer on Grammar and Style

dictionaryMany people find atheism to be freeing. It frees the mind of the shackles of indoctrinated scripture. Avoiding such false beliefs opens up a whole universe to explore — granted. I want to speak, though, of a different kind of freedom.

One of the hidden freeing aspects of atheism is being able to cut down the number of words used when talking about God. Theists, especially those who use the name “God” as their god, have to navigate a politically correct minefield. Avoiding sexism these days requires one to use convoluted phrasing such as, “God has a reason why he or she capriciously wipes out entire populations with tsunamis and volcanoes, but he or she chooses not to let us in on it. Who can know his or her mind?”

Letting Him Out

boy behind fenceI had a boy nobody knew about: a feeble autistic child. I was barely an adult myself when I put him away. I had no options. And I told no one what I did.

My boy avoided people. He would slip off to the basement, hiding in the narrow space behind the furnace, comforted by solitude and constriction. He barely ate. He rarely spoke. I knew my rail thin, silent child was not made for this world. To protect him — from himself and others — I found a place for him behind thick walls.
He was isolated, but safeguarded. It was the best solution I could come up with.

The years passed while I kept my dark secret. I would lie awake at night, picturing the young boy,

They’ll Know He’s a Phony

Robert Preston and Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria

If you’re autistic, talking to humans is a bit of a magic trick.

When I was a child, I had yet to learn that trick. In fact, I didn’t yet know that I was autistic. Talking to humans was a mystery to me, as was so much else in life. I was a frustrated quiet child.

If I needed to something to drink, I didn’t know how to ask for it. So I remained silent and thirsty. If I was lucky, my younger brother was with me. He would know what I needed and ask for me.

When I was sick during the night, I knew I needed help from my mother. I went to my parents’ closed bedroom door and froze. I didn’t know what the next step was. I tried every few minutes to knock, or to speak, each time backing off. Tired and sick, I collapsed to the floor and slept the rest of the night curled up at the foot of the door.

Boundary Issues

I study humans as a matter of survival. I need to understand how humans work, because I live in a world full of them. I notice things about them that they don’t recognize themselves. For example, humans define boundaries. It’s how they make sense of the world, how they organize it, how they pigeonhole all of its myriad bits.

A boundary surrounds a concept. What’s included is different in kind from everything beyond it. Without boundaries, the universe would be an indistinct blur, lacking mental handholds. Boundaries are clumsy organizational tools, though. They are seldom as well-defined as you might assume. The closer you look at the boundary, the more difficult it is to fix. As essential as boundaries are, they tend to be imprecise.

Consider the concept of North America. Anyone (I hope) can look at a map of the world and instantly point to that continent. When I start asking questions, though, the concept of North America, and the borders that define it, becomes murky. 

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