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Asperger's, code maintainability, etc. - Accretions

Fata Morgana
2005-02-14 13:52
Asperger's, code maintainability, etc.
Public
After meeting Bram at a party last Saturday, I saw his face on the cover of a magazine at our place today (probably one dag29580863 picked up from CodeCon). So I decided to poke around the web a bit and learn what there is to learn about him. He says he suffers from mild Asperger's (Wired claims that Asperger's "gives him almost superhuman powers of concentration"), which I've seen a couple of times before in family friends. In one place it says he's self-diagnosed. I don't like it when people self-diagnose mental illness, because often they're wrong (sometimes even confusing one mental illness with another) and they undermine the credibility of real mental illness by doing so. In addition, self-diagnosed Asperger's seems to be a somewhat popular excuse among some geeks to explain their lack of social skills, though I've read that Asperger's is actually no more common among engineers than the general populace.

Anyway, he seems like a typical hacker (and I mean that as a compliment). I'm happy that he likes python too:
My favorite language for maintainability is Python. It has simple, clean syntax, object encapsulation, good library support, and optional named parameters. An example of a language which is terrible for maintainability is Perl. Yes, I said it. No, I'm not going to back down.
One commenter responded: "However, Perl has CPAN. With CPAN, you have complexity out of a can, enabling you to write even smaller programs." Like many perl programmers, he misses the point. Smaller is not necessarily better, especially when it comes to code maintainability. While it's good to be succinct, the fact that you can do what may take dozens of lines of other code in one line of perl code doesn't mean that that one line is at all intelligible, especially if your code must be maintained by anyone other than you (or even if the code is only for you, judging by the frequency with which my resident perl expert curses his so-clean, so-clever perl code over a few months old). Perl can be written semi-decently - the TWiki source code is pretty readable, even if practically every other line is a comment - but when it is, it looks a lot like python or other more structured languages anyway! Okay, enough hacker ranting. (Don't even get me started on VI ...)

Anyway, it's cool to have friends and friends of friends doing such interesting things, even if I don't have much to talk about with them at parties. :~)
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Kris
anemone
2005-02-14 22:55 (UTC)
(no subject)
For what it's worth, I'm pretty convinced that in general well-educated people are better at diagnosing their own mental illnesses than the so-called psychology profession is.

Hmm, maybe.

However, I've heard enough people use the term migraine to mean "bad headache" that unless I know the person particularly well, I can't tell what they mean when they say "I hava migraine."

Also, I think it's hard to self-diagnose conditions accurately, even if you are intelligent, since you don't have perspective--you are the only thing you have to compare to. (You know different things about yourself than you know about other people, and in the case of diagnosing something like ADD or Aspergers, I think this would be signficant.) I'd agree that your friends and family are probably able to do a better job than the doctors.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2005-02-14 23:30 (UTC)
(no subject)
I've come across therapists who didn't correctly diagnose a mental disorder, sure, just as I've had doctors who didn't accurately diagnose a physical illness. But I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the "so-called psychology profession." What are your reasons for doing so?

That's a good example (though migraines aren't a mental disorder, it's something that people misdiagnose all the time - even I sometimes accidentally call my tension headaches "migraines" even though I know they're quite different).

There are several aspects to self-diagnosis that make me skeptical of it. First, it's very common to self-diagnose a mental illness as an excuse for undesirable behavior that could come from other sources (possibly even other mental illnesses). Also, I've seen that people have a tendency to diagnose themselves while only accounting for positive evidence (discounting negative evidence), and also have a strong tendency to overplay symptoms when diagnosing themselves. Many people I know claim at one point or another to be "severely depressed" when they don't actually suffer from severe depression, and I've heard enough people claim they're bipolar when really they're just reacting to sugar, caffeine or other drugs, sleep patterns, or other environmental factors. Finally, it's common to confuse disorders that are actually quite different but are all often misunderstood, such as schizophrenia, multiple-personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and lesser neuroses. (Some of these tendencies also hold for diagnoses by friends and family.)

Anyway, if he really has Asperger's, it seems like he should be properly diagnosed and possibly treated for it. I know one mild and one moderate case (mother and son), and from what I've seen, it can really get out of control if not monitored and actively subdued (not necessarily from drugs - sometimes just an awareness of your tendencies can stop "stimming," violence, and other unwanted behaviors). A friend with a different mental illness compares it to diabetes - manageable if you manage it, but potentially deadly if you ignore it.
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Jeff
lbchewie
2005-02-15 00:55 (UTC)
(no subject)
I have to agree with Morgan on this issue. Self-diagnosis of mental disorders is truly a dangerous thing to be taken too seriously.

Particulary with Asperger's Syndrome, it's a blurry disease. Ironically, I've been entering into a number of discussions about this condition lately on a ListServe to which I subscribe, and when I first learned about Aseprger's, I wondered if I can be afflicted. Being a person who tends to worry about things a lot, it can be frightening. Yet, as Morgan claims, it's all too easy to look at only the "positive evidence" than the differential diagnoses. Then when I sit down and really think about the "negative symptoms," I begin to relax a bit.

My abnormal psychology professor once said, "In this class, you're going to find yourself" in the context that she was hedging that at some point, we will all convince ourselves for a time that we had *some* "characterized" mental disorder.

Especially with Asperger's, extremely intelligent people often find it very difficult to interact with other people, and the "lack of social skills" doesn't imply a neurological ontology. Remember, communicating with other people is a *skill* ... some learn easier than others, but even so, social skills are in constant need of exercise. People who rarely interact with others, whatever the reason may be, may have extremely poor social skills (myself included), but it shouldn't sound an alarm for a disorder. Social interaction is remarkably complicated, like a delicate dance, and those who aren't routinely engaged in it are going to stand out as a little odd. The efforts should be spent on "socializing" the individual, rather than tossing them into a DSM IV category a priori. If on the otherhand there's an individual, who after studying/socializing for a while, seems *unable* to pick up on social cues, then there might be a problem. I'm worried anytime there's a psychological disorder that's given to people who just "don't fit in."

Aspergers is also a convenient crutch in the sense that a misdiagnosis can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy and a lack of a need to change. I very much agree with Morgan that anyone who claims to have Aspergers (or any illness) should seek professional treatment.
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spider88
2005-02-16 08:10 (UTC)
(no subject)
Aspergers is also a convenient crutch in the sense that a misdiagnosis can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy and a lack of a need to change.

In Bram's case, it was radically the opposite. I have *never* met a human being who improved interpersonally so fast or so dramatically in my life. Bram is a problem-solver. Once he understood what his problems were, he solved them. Without the sort of angst, fear, or shame that neurotypicals would experience. He has a happy wife and two healthy children and is a good dad. That's far better than a lot of "normal" people out there.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2005-02-16 10:13 (UTC)
(no subject)
I agree based on the folks I know. Once diagnosed with AS, they worked out better behavior interventions and had the support of therapists and a community to help them more effectively deal with it. I've certainly seen others use self-diagnosed mental illnesses as crutches, though.
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spider88
2005-02-16 08:13 (UTC)
(no subject)
I also do not agree that Asperger's is a mental illness. An mental illness is a mood, thought, or personality disorder. Asperger's and autism are biological disorders that affect perception and in the case of autism, language acquisition.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2005-02-16 10:16 (UTC)
(no subject)
Ah, interesting. Don't many mental illnesses have biological roots? They can certainly be hereditary, and they often are caused or exacerbated by chemical imbalances ... and many affect perception (at least in the fuzzy "opinion of the world" way I understand it).
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spider88
2005-02-16 19:04 (UTC)
(no subject)
Oh, definitely, they all have biological roots. It's just that (as I understand it) mood, thought, and personality disorders distort subjective perceptions, and developmental disorders affect objective perceptions. That is, a depressed person will interpret events and people as being negative, hostile, and hopeless. Someone with autism will actually experience noise as physical painful. Someone with Asperger's will actually not be able to interpret what a frown means - they have to learn to read faces by rote, not intuition like the rest of us.
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Jeff
lbchewie
2005-02-17 00:00 (UTC)
(no subject)
Still, a materialist might argue that no cognitive process occurs without a simple biological root. Therefore, the depressed person is behaving in such a way because of a chemical imbalance in the brain - most commonly a lack of seritonin and/or norepinephrine. Whether this condition was genetic or purely arisen from environmental factors, it becomes a nuerological disorder. "Mental illness" is a subclass of neurological problems, primarily involving the brain's impaired ability to process information - from the physical senses, emotions, or other mental constructs.

There's a whole field of "medical psychology" that's rising and has found profound neurological/biological differences between people who are affected with mental illnesses and the normal population. The pharmaceutical industry capitalizes heavily on this. The distiction where a person might see a neurologist and/or a psychologist/psychiatrist is blurry though. A psychiatrist straddles both disciplines. Furthermore, I'm fairly certain that autism is mentioned in the DSM IV (the definitive diagnostic psychological manual as published by the APA), thus making it one of the conditions that bridges the gap between the medical and psychological professions, but if it's in the DSM IV - it *is* considered by most in the profession to be a mental illness, otherwise it wouldn't be there.

Psychology and neurobiology are just two different approaches to the same problem. The psychologist changes the environment, the neurologist changes the physiology.
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spider88
2005-02-17 00:04 (UTC)
(no subject)
I agree that depression is related to changes in neurochemistry. My point was that the neurology of depression affects how one interprets input. Autism affects the input itself.
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Jeff
lbchewie
2005-02-17 00:36 (UTC)
(no subject)
Re: Autism affects the input itself.

I'm skeptical of this claim. Is there supporting reasearch to suggest that autism mangles that actual input? More specifically, do autistic people have changes in neuronal structure that affect the transmission of input to the appropriate centers in the brain (like... a bad cable). Alternatively (or comorbidly), are sensory pathways rerouted to the wrong loci in the brain?

I'll have to look into this, but my understanding is that input in people with autism is improperly processed - albeit at a much lower-level than most other cognitive functions. Sensory input passes through many brain structures before it finally reaches its final destinations.
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spider88
2005-02-17 00:52 (UTC)
(no subject)
I think the evidence is rather strong that the brain structure, not just the brain chemistry, of autistics differs from the norm. Most of what I read discusses the brain stem. (This is not the case with Asperger's.) You may want to read Temple Grandin's autobiography for a subjective account of having autism. Simple noises caused her pain. Autistics can't make sense of sensory inputs, so they resist touch, avoid noise and strong smealls, rarely learn to speak, and require on a predictable daily schedule (or become frantic - usually rocking or flapping their hands to calm themselves). The higher functioning ones, like Temple, can communicate this experience. There's plenty of scientific literature on the topic as well.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2005-02-15 01:07 (UTC)
(no subject)
Then again, it sounds like he's managing it well enough as it is, whether it's Asperger's or something else. Mental disorders are only really disorders when they impede one's functioning more than is desirable* or they hurt others. I guess my previous experience with certain mental illnesses in general, and Asperger's in particular, makes me prone to suggest professional diagnosis/treatment.

It strikes me as odd that he likes to mention Asperger's in interviews, when he hasn't been formally diagnosed - my first thought is that he's boasting about it, but he could just be trying to raise awareness. What are his motivations?

* The meaning of "desirable" varies, and may be imposed by others
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Jeff
lbchewie
2005-02-15 01:56 (UTC)
(no subject)
Or perhaps he's just stemming criticism for his awkwardness around others? What's your impression? Does he seem to function well around people?
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Conrad Heinrich Kilroy
conradkilroy
2005-02-15 02:12 (UTC)
(no subject)
I met Bram once by accident up at Valve Inc. My friend Laura was giving me a tour and lo and behold the master just happened to work there. His term there was short lived, but for a moment I met a legend.

Months later, I discovered he has a LJ.
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Conrad Heinrich Kilroy
conradkilroy
2005-02-15 14:58 (UTC)
(no subject)
correction, an LJ account
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2005-02-16 10:09 (UTC)
(no subject)
That two towers tetris icon you have is quite the icon ...
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Kragen Sitaker
kragen
2005-02-15 04:23 (UTC)
(no subject)
Asperger's syndrome is not a mental illness. Perhaps its absence could be considered a mental illness, since it's responsible for most wars and the slow pace of scientific progress.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2005-02-15 07:40 (UTC)
(no subject)
I don't understand what you mean - could you explain? Its absence? It's responsible for wars and slow progress?
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2005-02-16 10:08 (UTC)
(no subject)
I would posit that not all wars are a result of irrational behavior, and possibly very few are. Often, both sides (or at least those in power who are making the decisions) are perfectly rational and calculating, but their interests conflict. (Recently I've been reading about the US's meddling in South America which illustrates this vividly.)

I don't really have an opinion on the scientific progress claim (and it's all hypothetical anyway, of course). I do have some complaints with even the current "slow" rate of scientific (or perhaps more accurately technological) progress, though, as the negative effects tend to be poorly studied before deployment and externalized or even covered up afterward.

Though it's all supposition, I think that if everyone had mild Asperger's, the world could well be a more violent place. While I understand that one can learn to mitigate its negative effects, I've also seen that such control can be very difficult for some people, and if the emotional capacity of everyone were lowered, there would be fewer models for empathetic behavior.
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spider88
2005-02-16 19:13 (UTC)
(no subject)
Though it's all supposition, I think that if everyone had mild Asperger's, the world could well be a more violent place.

I think your underlying argument there is that the cause of violence is lack of empathy. I think the cause of violence is the urge to punish those that frustrate, disappoint, or anger us. Certainly empathy can reduce this urge, or even our feelings of frustration or anger. But Asperger's folks aready have lowered feelings of frustration and anger. They take things less personally, as they view things far more objectively that the rest of us.

Their lack of empathy may affect the success of their interpersonal communication, but I'm not aware that those with Asperger's are any more violent than others.

Also, I think the "lack of empathy" assumption about Asperger's isn't quite the right phrase. Asperger's folks know others have emotions, and may care about others quite a lot, but they don't quite know why or when people are having emotions, and they may not empathize in the sense of feeling the feeling along with the other person.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2005-02-17 03:24 (UTC)
(no subject)
Maybe you're right. I know one boy with Asperger's who can be violent, and since I know so few people with Asperger's in general (and all of them seem milder than him), this case represents a sizable fraction of my small sample.
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Kragen Sitaker
kragen
2005-02-15 04:42 (UTC)
(no subject)
Also, I disagree with your statements about Perl and Python. I agree that Perl is, in general, less readable than Python, and also less maintainable. But the difference between the two languages is not that great.

If there's a line of Perl (in the conventional sense, i.e. a statement under 80 characters long) that actually does express something that requires dozens of lines of code in some other language, it's guaranteed to be more readable and easier to get right than those dozens of lines of code. If it expresses the equivalent of two or three lines of some other code, then it could go either way, but not dozens.

The commenter is certainly correct in the cases where CPAN helps --- you're pretty much guaranteed to have an easier time writing an SNMP application by using Net::SNMP (or even my unfinished Net::NSNMP) than if you try to implement the SNMP protocol yourself from scratch. Likewise WWW::Mechanize, XML::Parser, etc. And, given a little more effort than the minimum, your application will be much less buggy, too.

The particular language features that make Perl error-prone, such as -w and "use strict" being optional, dynamic scoping, non-local $_, automatic string and numeric coercions (particularly for undef), regexp character classes that don't include quite what you think they do, and long library module names, don't actually help much to make it terser.

My experience is that you have to spend a lot of time reading other people's code before you understand what makes code easy or hard to read. I'm not actually particularly impressed by the comprehensibility of samples of Bram's code that I've seen (in BitTorrent), although I've certainly seen worse.
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