Note For Anyone Writing About Me

Guide to Writing About Me

I am an Autistic person,not a person with autism. I am also not Aspergers. The diagnosis isn't even in the DSM anymore, and yes, I agree with the consolidation of all autistic spectrum stuff under one umbrella. I have other issues with the DSM.

I don't like Autism Speaks. I'm Disabled, not differently abled, and I am an Autistic activist. Self-advocate is true, but incomplete.

Citing My Posts

MLA: Zisk, Alyssa Hillary. "Post Title." Yes, That Too. Day Month Year of post. Web. Day Month Year of retrieval.

APA: Zisk, A. H. (Year Month Day of post.) Post Title. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Friday, December 30, 2016

"Blind imagination" neuroscience press release

For anyone new to the aphantasia discussions: It's a fancy word for not visualizing, or as I've tended to describe it, not having a mind's eye. I don't picture characters or scenes when I read books, for example.

As a rhetoric person and disability studies person, I looked at how we talk about aphantasia, in three parts. (Part one, part two, part three). As a neuroscience student, I wrote about one of the articles (Zeman et al, 2010, the case study) in terms of significance. And yes, some of the results are things I could totally have told you myself. Like the fact that "mental imagery" tests such as rotation (check if two block structures with angles are the same or not) can be done in ways other than rotating an image of the object. I know that because I don't view such images in my head and I'm good at the task. Testing everything is how science works, and trying to figure out what someone is doing rather than just what they aren't doing is still handy. So here it is!

A research team in the UK has shown the potential for dissociation between the experience of visual imagery and performance in tasks typically associated with visual imagery and visual memory in a case study. The patient, a 65 year old retired surveyor referred to as MX, reported the sudden loss of his ability to visualize. However, he retained the ability to complete tasks typically associated with visual imagery and visual memory, including mental rotation tasks.

The authors did a series of tests both on MX and on a group of controls of similar age, IQ, and professional backgrounds. These tests included assessments of general intelligence, memory, executive function, visual perception, subjective vividness of visual imagery, and imagery abilities. MX scored significantly lower than controls on subjective assessments of visual imagery. However, his scores in the other tests were not significantly different from that of controls. In the fMRI experiments, MX showed similar areas of activation to the control participants while viewing images. However, MX showed significantly different activation patterns when asked to generate faces. Rather than activating the posterior visual network, MX showed prefrontal activation in areas associated with many executive tasks.

Further behavioral testing was conducted to test if MX was using alternative cognitive strategies. The researchers gave MX variants of Brook's matrix and verbal tasks, along with mental rotation tasks. Here, MX's performance differed from typical patterns. While typical controls consistently perform better on the spatial Brooks task than on the verbal one, MX performed better on the verbal task. When asked to perform the typically visuo-spatial version of the task with verbal or visuo-spatial interference, MX showed no significant difference in performance between no distractor and visuo-spatial interference. However, his performance was significantly lower with the verbal distractor, again in reverse of the typical performance pattern. On mental rotation tasks, MX showed no impairment in correct performance. However, he consistently required more time than controls and showed a different relationship between angle of rotation and time required from the controls.

Both the behavioral and fMRI testing indicate the use of alternative cognitive strategies in order to perform tasks typically associated with visual imagery. On most tasks, these alternative strategies yield similar levels of accuracy to controls with typical visual imagery abilities. The case of MX provides insight into alternative ways of completing typically visual tasks. His performance indicates that mental imagery is not essential to tasks typically associated with it, making it less clear that mental imagery is the subject of mental imagery tests. It also indicates that reliance on the mind's eye in decision-making as suggested by Kosslyn is not universal. In addition, this case study may provide insight into the cognitive functioning of a small but significant subset of the population who report no mental imagery. Surveys dating back to 18801 show a group that report never having experienced mental imagery, alongside documentation of prior cases where imagery is lost. Further study could determine if similar strategies are used by this population, and what cognitive differences, if any, this is associated with.2

1  Galton, Francis. "I.—Statistics of mental imagery." Mind 19 (1880): 301-318.
Also relevant is: Faw, Bill. "Conflicting intuitions may be based on differing abilities: Evidence from mental imaging research." Journal of Consciousness Studies 16.4 (2009): 45-68.

2 Spoiler alert! This happened to some extent in Zeman, Adam, Michaela Dewar, and Sergio Della Sala. "Lives without imagery–Congenital aphantasia." Cortex 3 (2015). This case study got written up in Discover, then some people who have never had subjective mental imagery [like me!]  contacted the authors. Then people saw the follow up, some of whom also contacted the authors. The 2015 letter was actually the first one I found, followed by the two commentaries on it. [They wonder if there may be a connection with faceblindness, or prosopagnosia, which I also have. My brain. It is multiply interesting.]

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

No Boundary Thinking Seminar Reflection 1

This semester, I'm took a seminar on no-boundary thinking. Which sounds like a fancy word for what I often try to do as a vaguely disability studies like person: focusing on defining an issue and addressing it from any methods that work and not worrying about (often not knowing) what fields those definitions or methods come from. (To my professor from the seminar: Congratulations, you found my blog.)

So here's my first reflection post. Bracketed things were not in the original reflection that I turned in, and have been added since.

[So, at the start, we need to know what no-boundary thinking is. It's kind of what it sounds like: we're going to ignore the lines between disciplines as much as possible.] Huang et. al. (2013) discusses no-boundary thinking as thinking where problems are defined without being limited to a single discipline or group of disciplines, while the knowledge used to define and solve the problem can come from a variety of disciplines. Dr. Brian Dewsbury mentions that no-boundary thinking doesn't necessarily mean bringing more people on to a team just to have them – just because a given discipline has some bearing on a problem, that does not mean we must have a person who specializes in the discipline on the core team. If we did, teams could become overly large and difficult to coordinate, because many disciplines will have information that relates to any given problem. Stakeholders are brought up, and a fellow student says she is reminded of participatory research.

There are connections here: in participatory research, the idea is that affected communities 1) deserve a voice in discussions of problems that affect them, and 2) have useful information related to solving those problems. However, there is a risk of having people just to have them in participatory research – depending on when community members are included the research process, they may have little input in defining research questions, may be left out of data analysis and interpretation, and may generally find themselves used as a sign of community input rather than an actual source of expertise or information. [As opposed to how we should be defining and leading this thing. If anyone's job is "source of expertise for getting the thing done but not really deciding what needs to be done" it should be the outside academics studying the community.]

This problem in participatory research resembles a similar problem in interdisciplinary research, where the input from any given discipline is limited to where the people running the project think that discipline belongs, rather than appearing everywhere it could be helpful throughout the project time line. In both cases, the problem is with boundaries, whether between identities (academic, policy maker, or community member) or between disciplines. The problem is also with the assumption that people fit into exactly one of these boxes – a scholar on fisheries whose family depends on fishing does not fit into precisely one position. When I do research related to disability, I don't either. [I'm Disabled. I'm Autistic. I'm also legitimately a Disability Studies scholar, and I'm starting to be a researcher in assistive technology.] In both participatory and interdisciplinary research, the no boundary idea that we should be defining and approaching problems in ways that are “not limited by disciplines, traditions, vocabularies, or even technologies” (Huang et. al. 2013, p. 2) would be helpful.

Work Cited
Huang, X., Bruce, B., Buchan, A., Congdon, C. B., Cramer, C. L., Jennings, S. F., ... & Moore, J. H. (2013). No-boundary thinking inbioinformatics research. BioData mining, 6(1), 1.

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Friday, December 23, 2016

#Rhetoric and #Aphantasia, 3/3, Zeman et al.

I'm writing some more about aphantasia, or no mind's eye. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. I think this is the last rhetoric discussion about aphantasia for now.

So now, after looking at some modern/mainstream articles and some older stuff – Galton's 1880 paper and a tracing of how people have thought about mentalimagery/the lack thereof by Bill Faw, I'm going to look at how Adam Zeman, those working with him (Michaela Dewar for both the papers where the word aphantasia is used, Sergio Della Sala for all three papers I'm looking at, and Lorna A. Torrens, Viktoria-Eleni Gountouna, David J. McGonigle, and Robert H. Logie for the loss of imagery paper that wound up inspiring the later aphantasia papers), and those reacting to their work in formal academic settings. I think of Zeman as the main person mostly because he tends to be the one to talk to journalists. (Isn't that how it goes?)

I start with the 2010 paper in Neuropsychologia. I did a "press release" report on this one for my neurobiology class this semester, which I may wind up sharing here too. (Note that this was published after Bill Faw makes his hypothesis about imagery-like processes at the subconscious level, so any evidence to the contrary was not available to him when he was writing.) In the introduction, the authors start off using “most people” instead of “people” when describing the ability to “call to mind an image that is less vivid than the original but has a visual 'feel.'” (145) This might seem like a small thing, but it's not. All too often, researchers talk about what all people do and implicitly exclude folks who don't do that from humanity. It's enough of a problem to have led to the paper, “On Not Being Human.” Pitfall #1 avoided.

The authors mention a debate over the importance of (visual) mental imagery in cognition, whether it plays a key role (maybe even a required role) or whether propositional/factual knowledge is sufficient for imagery tasks. As someone who doesn't experience any (visual) mental imagery, I know that there are other ways to do it, but the thing about scholarly discourse is that everything needs to be studied and checked. At least they're asking questions about how folks without mental imagery do the things rather than insisting that if we can do things like recognize rotated objects we must actually have a minds eye. The authors then propose that there are several ways to do imagery tasks at the cognitive level. Hi, cognitive (neuro) diversity, and that multiple ways might be available to “healthy adults.”

(Now what does it mean to be healthy here?) In this case, I think it refers to the fact that the in cases the authors know about where mental imagery is not a thing, it had been a thing before (so they recognized that there was a change instead of it being a normal state like it is for me) and then when it stopped being a thing, it was an event that also led to trouble with the imagery tasks usually used to check if a person can visualize things or not. They were also related to injuries or illnesses. Then MX shows up having lost his ability to visualize (again, not a thing I'd be able to show up with because I'm totally used to not visualizing), and he can still do these tasks. Mostly. There's some difficulty immediately following the loss of visualization ability, and a decrease in these difficulties as time goes by. The study authors interpret this as initial difficulties followed by development of a verbal strategy.) This upsets the theory that visualization is needed, though not necessarily the one that it's related or used for most people. The authors want to know how, which wasn't examined in the cases reported in 1954 where the ability to create certain kinds of mental visualizations went away after injury but the ability to do certain things visualizers would expect to be related weren't affected. (Reading and writing after not being able to visualize recently viewed pages, which wait people visualize pages? Also drawing building plans after not being able to visualize new building plans.) Brain, the author of the 1954 paper, noted that this must mean disconnection between the “visual imagery” related tasks and actual visual imagery was possible.

Despite the focus on understanding what MX does rather than what he doesn't do (the research team even goes into the fMRI part expecting that he's going to show different activation patterns than the neurotypicals do) they do talk about abnormal patterns of activation and healthy controls. That is, there's a definite “normal” mind that the authors are working with for this paper.

Moving on to the 2015 letter to the editor in Cortex where the term “aphantasia” is finally coined, we see a different tone. We're still talking about “imagery generation disorder” for the 65 year old who suddenly stopped having mental imagery, and we're still talking about a “condition”, but there are differences. Rather than assuming visual imagery is an everyone thing, it's now described as a most people thing. They also suggest that this is going to be a variant, comparing it to synaesthesia (not usually pathologized!) and prosopagnosia (kind of pathologized.) Of course, Zeman et. al. are calling both of those things disorders. So. It's a bit of mixed bag. The authors are replacing clearly pathologizing terminology like “defective revisualization.” They're also doing better than most of the journalists at not assuming that their readers all have mind's eyes. Quite a few of the journalists write like they think everyone in their audience can visualize, and that the aphantasiacs are not their audience. Really, 2% of the population is significant and we're probably more likely to be reading an article about aphantasia than the visualizers are. This is a bad assumption, which Zeman et. al. aren't showing.

Then, “Reflections on Aphantasia”, part of a 2016 discussion and again in Cortex, shows a distinct clinical focus, as one would expect in an academic journal focused on the relationship between the nervous system and cognition using neurodivergent people for contrast. (Both acquired and developmental.) The authors point out that calling mental stuff organic or functional doesn't quite work as a divide. (Functional sounds a lot like an academic version “all in your head” to me, in that functional apparently implies reversible? This idea is one of the things the authors are criticizing.) They point out that a range of factors can affect the level of visual imagery, including certain medications, depression, brain injury, and PTSD. They argue that lifelong aphantasia is unlikely to have such a source (and is therefore not pathological? Zeman is pretty insistent that aphantasia is not a disorder when interviewed. Or at least that congenital aphantasia isn't a disorder.) They also say that other psychiatric factors should be taken into account when assessing someone who claims aphantasia. It sounds like they're trying to have their cake and eat it: aphantasia isn't a disorder, they're born this way. But here's all this disordered stuff that could also cause it, and if you experience/complain of aphantasia because of those things, it's a disorder. So maybe it is?

I'm a bit reminded of the “we're not crazy” discourse around asexuality and around being transgender. Some of us do have pathologized stuff going on in addition to being asexual/transgender/aphantasiac. (Hi, I'm Autistic, asexual, nonbinary, and aphantasiac!) That doesn't mean the other states are somehow invalid or pathological, even if they are related to or directly caused by my being Autistic.

At the end of it all, I'm thinking people aren't quite certain how to place aphantasia. Is it a disorder? A disability? A sign of something else that's one of those things? Just a natural variation that we legitimately don't need to pathologize? (Even if it comes with other stuff we tend to pathologize?)

I lean towards variation that we don't need to pathologize, even if it comes with (or is caused by) stuff we tend to pathologize. I also lean towards disability under certain circumstances. In environments that are very specific about wanting visual methods to be used, aphantasia could well be disabling. That doesn't mean other people are talking about it that way. We're currently getting a mix where folks aren't quite sure how to write about it, I think.

Works Examined
Zeman, Adam, Michaela Dewar, and Sergio Della Sala. "Lives without imagery–Congenital aphantasia." Cortex 3 (2015).
Zeman, Adam, Michaela Dewar, and Sergio Della Sala. "Reflections on aphantasia." Cortex 74 (2016): 336-337.

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Monday, November 21, 2016

#Rhetoric and #Aphantasia (2/?, Faw and Galton)

I continue to look at the rhetoric around aphantasia, or not having a mind's eye. Part 1 is here. Now I'm looking at two papers written before the word "aphantasia" was coined. Both recognize that some people do have mental pictures (minds eye type stuff) and that some people don't, which involves recognizing some level of cognitive diversity. What people then do with the knowledge is another story. Galton is known for eugenics, after all.

So I'm starting with Bill Faw's paper, "Conflicting Intuitions May Be Based on Differing Abilities," which looks at the history of psychological/philosophical thought about mental imagery or the lack thereof. He points out a tendency for people to assume that everyone does this imagery (or doesn't do this imagery) the way the researcher them-self does(n't) do it. By and large, researchers assume it's a thing: most people can visualize things, after all. Faw claims, “Much of the current imaging literature either denies the existence of wakeful non-mental imagers, views non-imagers motivationally as 'repressors' or 'neurotic', or acknowledges them but does not fully incorporate them into their models.” 

Faw argues that the everyone uses mental images camp (thanks Aristotle) comes from two things: most people have mental images, and people tend to assume that what they do is what everyone does. Which leads me to ask regarding mental imagery what I've asked before regarding autism: theory of whose mind? (Sam mentions the incident in his thesis and on his blog.) Also, Faw is himself aphantasiac, or a non-mental-imager, as he calls it in his paper. (He's writing before the word aphantasia was coined. I kind of want to check if he's written on the topic since.) He describes reactions of disbelief from others, that non-imaging is even a thing, as well as challenges to the notion that he could know this about himself. Hello, parallels to autism with the “you can't know what it's like you be yourself” thing.

It does make skeptical sense to question whether people filling out a 5- or 7-scale survey all mean the same by ‘vague and dim’! But it seems untoward to dispute such strong statements of mental imaging abilities — and the lack thereof — as seen in the self-reports that Galton and I and many others have elicited. (16 in the ResearchGate PDF, probably 60 in the actual journal)

And that's the thing: I don't think people all mean the same thing by vague, dim, vivid, or any other inherently subjective descriptor. I (and Faw) do think there's a clear difference between "vivid" and "non-existent," though. Enough of a difference that assuming that everyone does (or doesn't do) mental imagery the same way seems ... less than logical? But it's something quite a few philosophers and psychologists seem to have been doing along the way.

Aristotle assumes “normal” thought involves imagery. (What the heck is normal? Hi, neurodiversity paradigm, it'd be nice to see you here.) Hobbes isn't talking about pictures so specifically, but does seem to hold that thinking/imagination depends on internal sensory creations. Locke writes of memory as re-experiencing or re-creating prior perceptions with the knowledge of having had them before. That's probably what my intro to neurobiology teacher meant by vivid recall, and it's not a thing I do except with sounds. Titchener describes his own mental imagery as a gallery and can not conceive of even small gaps in the streams of others imagery, assuming that his own experience is universal. (Theory of whose mind?) He was actually one of the respondents to Galton's survey, and he challenges the reports of other respondents who don't experience mental imagery.

Then he turns to the opposite intuition, where someone who describes what sounds like their own experience without conscious mental imagery (Watson, in this case) and assumes that this experience is the one that generalizes. (Theory of whose mind?) He denies mental imagery as being important to anyone and questions its very existence for most. And I do think generalizing ones own experience is a reasonable way to make guesses unless and until you get better information, but he's doing this in the face of a whole lot of descriptions of mental imagery by/from/for others. Interestingly, this guy was one of the big definers of behaviorist thought, and he claims thought as internal speech. (My thought is usually internal speech, but sometimes it's externalized typing or handwriting. Sometimes it's recognition of patterns that I then need to somehow translate into language in one of those forms.) That's the only person Faw describes as having rejected the importance and possibly existence of mental imagery, and even his descriptions of non-imaging are called ideological rejection by folks who assume we all have mental pictures.

On a similar note, Faw suggests (following Thomas Leahey) that Watson might have been a strong auditory imager but weak or non- visual imager. Which is a funny way of writing about it, since I always thought imagery meant visual stuff, but there doesn't seem to be a word for any similar activity with the other senses. Now that's a fun question – why don't we have words for internally created sensory perceptions for hearing or smell? We do have the idea of songs getting stuck in our heads, so I don't think it's most people not having those sorts of perceptions. Since I describe my own non-imagery as “no minds eye” I would make a parallel description using the idea of a minds ear, nose, or tongue, but that doesn't quite work with tactile sensations.

Then he gets into Galton. I actually read Galton's 1880 paper, and my thoughts on it come next:

This paper is cited as being the first place where aphantasia is described. Galton had no problem calling it a mental deficiency (unlike the folks who coined the term in 2015; Faw refers to it a dis-ability in describing his own experience in 2009 and gets cited in 2015):
"They had a mental deficiency of which they were unaware, and naturally enough supposed that those who were normally endowed, were romancing." (302)
Remember that this guy is one of the big eugenics guys. Of course, he found this was most common in "men of science" and therefore had some motivation to find a reason that this was OK. Or not genetic, instead caused by disuse. Or both.
"Scientific men as a class have feeble powers of visual representation. There is no doubt whatever on the latter point, however it may be accounted for. My own conclusion is, that an over-readiness to perceive clear mental pictures is antagonistic to the acquirement of habits of highly generalised and abstract thought, and that if the faculty, of producing them was ever possessed by men who think hard, it is very apt to be lost by disuse ... I am however bound to say, that the missing faculty seems to be replaced so serviceably by other modes' of conception, chiefly I believe connected with the motor sense, that men who declare themselves entirely deficient in the power of seeing mental pictures can nevertheless give life-like descriptions of what they have seen, and can otherwise express themselves as if they were gifted with a vivid visual imagination." (304)
That doesn't stop him from calling it a feeble ability or a mental deficiency, but he talks about compensation as not just a possibility, but as something that definitely happens.

But what does Faw have to say about Galton? He points out that Galton's the one of the few who seems not to have assumed that his own experience of mental imagery or lack thereof is everyone's experience of mental imagery, and that this is good research. Which is true enough. I still don't trust Galton as far as I can throw his long-decayed corpse, because eugenics, but his thoughts on mental imagery seem to be better balanced than the other folks Faw's been reading.

George Betts made a scale to measure visual imagery and looks around to see how common aphantasia is. He finds 2% among his college students and 19% among other psychologists. Which means he, too, has to have worked under the assumption that variation is a thing.

Then we get more recent work which tries to check mental imagery objectively rather than based on subjective self-reports, alongside continued surveys of subjective reports that find people tending towards “vivid” imagery. (Ok, but I'm still only understanding vividness as a thing that I don't experience.) I assume that some of the assumptions that internal imagery is required for object recognition (I can do this), freehand drawing (I am terrible at this), and spatial reasoning tasks (I'm good at these) come into play with the supposedly objective measures, since Faw described this sort of conflation as an issue in much of the literature. Even Faw's eventual hypothesis of subliminal/unconscious imagery that doesn't reach the conscious level still seems to be working with the assumption that some sort of image-like process is needed. It does recognize that it doesn't require an actual image, which is nice (and which may relate to Faw being aphantasiac himself and therefore knowing it's possible!)

Works Cited

Faw, Bill. "Conflicting intuitions may be based on differing abilities: Evidence from mental imaging research." Journal of Consciousness Studies 16.4 (2009): 45-68.
Galton, Francis. "I.—Statistics of mental imagery." Mind 19 (1880): 301-318.

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Friday, November 18, 2016

What's Apraxia? Oh. #AAC

Today I went to the Assistive Technology Conference of New England. My advisors brought me there. It was pretty cool. I had some conversations that I was glad to have. One of the sessions I attended was Kate Ahern's session on literacy and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). Pretty early on, she defined apraxia and noted that many AAC users and generally folks who can't necessarily talk have it. So here's how she described it:
Apraxia is "an inability to perform learned movements on command even if understood, there is a willingness to perform and the skill has been previously learned."  It's "worsened by anxiety, illness, stress, and demands."
So here's the thing. I know how to speak. In fact, I know how to speak two languages, English and Mandarin Chinese. My speaking ability varies from "no mouth sounds are happening" to "clearly fluent in the current language." A whole lot of in-between possibilities also happen, including fluent speech while needing someone else to initiate the conversation/prompt the speech, fluent-sounding scripting but no off-script speech, and slow speech that gets pushed out one word at a time.

And I have woken up non-speaking (that I know of) once since learning to speak: I was sick that day. Stress increases the likelihood that speech will go out, and that's both "doing too much" stress and "here are sensory processing issues in my faaaace" stress. Flashing lights will make speech go kaput pretty quickly, because repeated blows to the eyes are not fun for anyone and that's what flashing lights feel like to me.

Now, apraxia is describing a functional thing, not an internal why is this happening thing, so as great as it is to have the word (hey, formal sounding words are useful when dealing with formal sounding people) this doesn't really tell me new things on its own. It is, however, a useful word to look for research and narratives on because those might have information about the why's and how's. They also might have information about the "what to do now that you know this is a thing" side, which would be handy. I have a pretty good handle on what to do when speech isn't working (write, type, gesture, grab a whiteboard marker so that I can write, etc) but more possibilities means more versatility and more back-ups when the first idea doesn't work out.

It's also something where I can (and do) think about the rhetoric. How do we talk about apraxia? Kate calls it something neurological, and explicitly says that it's not laziness and not "a behavior" (I think it is partially detected from behavior in the literal sense that we're not actually doing the thing, but it is definitely not "a behavior" in the sense that behavioral therapists like to talk about. Not that I think the concept of "a behavior" in that sense is entirely coherent anyways.) But when describing the sorts of activities she suggests, she also says that we should make it worth fighting the apraxia.

So what does it mean when we talk about apraxia as a thing that we fight? We just said it's not a behavior, not laziness, that it's a neurological thing, what does it mean when we call this a thing you fight and could beat or lose to? And it's not just apraxia where people have thought about this. Cancer gets this treatment. Autism gets this treatment. Actually quite a few autism metaphors get discussed in Loud Hands: Autistic People Speaking (It's an anthology, Julia is the editor and not the author, IDK why Julia's listed as the author on Amazon.) Or even generally as an external force, whether or not it's one we're fighting? The mind isn't separate from the body, and the neurological quirks aren't separate from the mind. This isn't something I've thought about nearly so deeply as with my (part 2 still coming I swear) dive into aphantasia rhetoric, but it is something where I'll ask the question.

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Monday, November 7, 2016

#Rhetoric and #Aphantasia (1/2, not academia)

So I'm Autistic. I've seen all sorts of contradictory ways of thinking about autism. Somehow we both lack imagination and are lost in our own worlds? You kind of need to pick one, considering that making our own world involves imagination.

Well, about a year ago they gave a name to one of my other cognitive quirks. "Aphantasia" is now either an "intriguing variation in experience" (specifically stated not to be a disease!) which about 1 in 50 live with, or it's a "newly described condition" we'd like to investigate for insights into the imagination and ways to boost visual imagery (presumably in the folks who have such visual imagery) in order to "improve our memory, increase our empathy and even gain new treatments for conditions like addiction and anxiety."

The basic idea of aphantasia is that I don't have a mind's eye. (I do have a mind's ear, and absolutely get songs stuck in my head.) If you ask me to picture an object, I'll either sit quietly and then relay factual information about the type of object, or I'll bluntly tell you that I can't do that. Most creative exercises, there's a way around actually visualizing the thing. I can tell you this because I don't see images that are not literally in front of me, not when I'm awake. My mind just doesn't work that way. (So no, I don't think in pictures. I suspect that "no minds eye" and "thinking in pictures" is a combination you can't actually have in one person.)

And yes, I am interested in better understanding how my own mind works. I don't think that's unusual. Pop psychology exists, after all. And Tris, from Divergent, made her cooperation with Erudite's tests contingent on her getting to understand the results of the tests they were performing on her. She wanted to understand how her mind worked, and especially the ways her mind didn't follow the operating procedures she'd been implicitly taught were standard. But that's not why I'm following the discussion on aphantasia, really.

I'm watching the rhetoric.

Shortly after the publication of "Lives without Imagery -- Congenital Aphasia," a letter to the editor in Cortex authored by Adam Zeman, Michaela Dewar, and Segio Della Sala, we see a human interest story on aphantasia in the "future" section of We talk about one adult man who does not visualize, and we talk about the difficulty inherent in understanding the internal mental processes of another person. We see discussion of potential advantages of reduced or missing mental imagery -- not needing to re-watch disgusting or traumatic events, for one thing. It's mentioned that verbal and logical skills tend to get practiced more (hi, did you know that I'm a mathematician?)

This is also the article with the mention of treatments for other conditions -- anxiety and PTSD among them. Which ... well, I've got anxiety and already don't have any mental imagery. If reducing mental imagery helps some folks with anxiety, that's great but let's not pretend that will be a silver bullet, ethics around activating and suppressing cognitive abilities aside. (I think that it's fine to do so by the request/desire of the person whose head you're messing with, but there's a lot of space for coercion towards "typical" cognitive processes.) There's some talk about manipulating people's levels of mental imagery for various reasons, but it's in both directions. Despite calling aphantasia a newly described condition (as opposed to cognitive style/variant), this article is probably the furthest away from disability tropes of the BBC articles. (Which isn't that far.)

B percent live with, affects as many as X in Y. These are condition words, pathology words, but they show up in the article that calls aphantasia a variation and specifically states that it is not a disease. And the article's headline? "Aphantasia: I can't visualize my own children." It's in the "health" section. A professional describes the effect on memory more generally, and then three people give short descriptions. One talks about how he does things. Another talks about what he can't do. We close with another professional, speaking to medical history and to educational impacts. (As an aside, I hate mindmaps.) This article reads more like a personal interest story describing the experience of a disability than anything else. It wants to be a disability story, but this Adam Zeman guy who was first author on the congenital aphantasia study won't call it a disease.

Another piece in the health section discusses both aphantasia (not visualizing) and hyperphantasia (visualizing extra.) Zeman continues to insist that aphantasia is not a disorder, thank you very much. I'm sure he's seen enough of the discussion to realize that the way we talk about it is going that way. The discussion for aphantasia here is largely focused on what we can't do, though. His insistence reads as a bit incongruous with the way the rest of the article talks about aphantasia.

(If you want to call it a disability, or conditionally a disability, I'd give you that. The social model of disability, which recognizes interactions between people and their environments, is a thing. The insistence on visual methods of learning and things like mind maps is also a thing, and presumably just as inaccessible to other aphantasiacs as it is to me. Now we're bringing in ideas of neurodiversity, where a neurological type can be a disability without it being disordered. There's not just one right way for a mind to work)

Then there's the aphantasia forums. These started shortly after the first BBC articles, if I remember my timing correctly. I've got an account, and will probably be sharing my thoughts there too, but I honestly don't post much. There's places where people share articles about aphantasia, including ones they wrote themselves. There's crowd research. (I notice that one of the questions is about people having other cognitive disorders as well, which positions aphantasia implicitly as being a disorder.) I've seen general discussion where quite a few people talk about having trouble with mathematics, which is opposite what some of the published articles hypothesize (compensatory skills in logic, verbal stuff, and/or math.) That could be going in the direction of mutually contradictory stereotypes.

Blake focuses on the experience of realizing that the way his mind works is most definitively not how most people's minds work. It's almost an attempt to analyze the psychology of the visualizing majority from the outsider perspective of an aphantasiac. Which, I mean, if they're going to do that to how we think, yeah, let's do this. Let's add a wing to the Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical. We've got an Autistic wing and a Dyslexic wing, why not an Aphantasiac wing?

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Thursday, November 3, 2016

Alyssa Reads Artists against Police Brutality

I was actually supposed to read this a while ago. (Sorry folks.) But here's the book: Artists against Police Brutality, an anthology from Rosarium. I got access to a PDF in order to write this review.

It's honest in a way I appreciate: the introduction tells you, straight out, that the project was born from (completely justified) anger. The mix of genres is good, because different people interact best with different formats, different kinds of stories. Me, I like words. And there are pieces here which are told as paragraphs of black text on a white background. Graphic narratives, combining pictures with words, are also great. There are plenty of those. Comics. It calls itself a comic book anthology. This is true. It is. (That doesn't mean it's what most people think of when they hear "comic book anthology. But that may have more to do with the idea of comics as somehow less mature than it does with the reality of stories told in graphic format.)

The family portrait was an emotional piece to look at. They're ... not a living family. They're a family tied together by the fact that they were all killed by police: John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Eric Carner, Michael Brown, Carry Ball Jr., Amandou Diallo, Tanisha Anderson, Mirriam Carey, Yvette Smith, Rekia Boyd, and Aiyana Stanley-Jones. (Read their names again. How often does the narrative ignore the people who are being killed?)

And then I go on: Family stories about uncles and fathers who were killed, personal stories of getting "lucky" by way of not being dead, fiction, memoir, satire. There are essays, connecting history to events to patterns and back around to events. Show the patterns: this was never an isolated incident.

One of my favorite lines comes from Barbara Brandon-Croft: "The media shoots film ... the police have bullets." Think about it next time someone tries to blame media for people not trusting the police. Who has the bullets here?

One story calls out the problematic white liberal. (Hi. I'm white.) "Colorblind" racism is a problem. Talking about a problem that already exists does not somehow bring that problem into existence. It was already there. We need to look at ourselves, and to listen to what the people we claim to help are actually saying. (And before anyone can quote MLK out of context, remember what he said about the white moderate.)

The story of Reginald Lawson is mentioned, too. He is a black autistic man, a teen at the time. He was, eventually, transferred to a "treatment" facility, which... I don't know if that's an improvement over jail. I know that's still being locked up. The person writing about his case is the mother of a black teen. She says her son also has Aspergers, also loves hoodies, could also be seen as a threat for the ways he is different. She says she has read the work of famous autistic people and gives a list. But those authors are all white, and race matters. Their experience is not the experience of her son. (Which is very true. There's a reason that All the Weight of Our Dreams is a thing.) (Also, while I very much can't speak to intersections of race and autism, I feel pretty confident saying that you should disregard her advice re: contacting Autism Speaks. They don't so much help as make statements about stuff other people got done in which they make it look like they helped.)

Continuing on, we meet a superhero who catches bullets before they hit people who, as people have the chance to find out, were all innocent. None of them even did what the officer tried to shoot them for. Another story speaks to domestic violence from a father who is a cop. There's a science fiction narrative set in outer space which (very intentionally) parallels race relations and the history of slavery in the U.S.

Artists against Police Brutality is not an easy read. It is an important read.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Day 2 (not) in the inaccessible classroom

Yesterday, lab was bad. Like, I wasn't able to stay kind of bad. And I wasn't too happy about that. Today, I didn't go to the main lab meeting. It was going to be in the same place, with the same noise issue, and I was having none of that. I was also invited to a lab meeting/seminar about an hour from campus during the usual lab time, but I'd have said “sorry, can't go” if there hadn't been a reason I was already preferring to avoid the electrical engineering lab today. I take my teaching obligations seriously, and err on the side of staying to teach even in situations where getting a substitute would really be OK.

But there was a reason for me to skip teaching today, called an inaccessible classroom environment. So I checked with the primary professor, and I got the go-ahead to skip the main lab session in its (unusual) room and go to the seminar. Instead, I was to negotiate a time to meet with a student who needed to use the oscilliscope in our usual lab classroom. The usual classroom doesn't have construction or explosion testing nearby, so this is great. I quite like being helpful as a teacher in ways that I can be, you know, actually helpful.

(I can absolutely be helpful as a teacher while speech isn't working. When I teach for the Art of Problem Solving, everything is always already typed, and that means speech is irrelevant. I've tutored real analysis without speech before. I've even run labwithout speech before. I wrote on index cards, which I left with the students whose questions I was answering. It worked out fine. Speech was not the problem. Continuing sensory assault which prevented me from focusing on a problem long enough to answer it and which was bringing me to the point of meltdown was the problem. Or: An inaccessible classroom was the problem.)

And my meeting with this student wasn't an issue of “well here's some make-work.” She actually needed to use the oscilloscope, and therefore the professor actually needed to find a TA who could meet this student in the lab. Not only that, but there were 6 other students who needed supplies from the lab (extra chips because they need 5 two-input and gates and their chip only came with 4, more wires because the lab needed a ton of wires, that sort of thing.) There were even three other students who came in needing troubleshooting help. So I got a small group of students working in the lab at an hour that worked for me, where it was quiet, providing actually needed supervision. This was good, becauseI don't take well to make-work, not when I can't really work 40 hours in a week and collapse in about a week when I try. I need prioritization to make sure that the work I'm doing is truly needed, not busy work.

In case your wondering where all the reflections on my teaching are coming from: I'm preparing a proposal on teaching while disabled. If the proposal is accepted, I'll have to keep a teaching journal in the spring semester. Since blogging is like journaling but more accessible to me (Julia says this too!), blogging gets me in the habit that I'll likely need to form. Plus I form insights by letting myself write, and that means blogging helps me organize my thoughts in ways that may well help with the proposal writing.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Silence of Absence

This Autistics Speaking Day, I had to leave the electrical engineering lab I'm a TA for early. It wasn't the professors fault, or the fault of my students, not at all. I did lose speech before I exited, which was literal silence, but that's not an issue. I've helped run lab without speech before. I'm pretty good at making myself understood without speech -- I type quickly, I can write by hand with pen on paper, and as long as you don't incorrectly presume that autistic means no body language, I'm not actually all that hard to read.

This was not the same as the time I successfully ran lab without speech. That day, speech wasn't working because of an event that took place prior to lab. The event was a one-off, not something that continued. This time, the cause of speech-kaput was in the lab. Or below it, to be precise. There's construction going on in the engineering area, including inside some of the buildings. One of the places that currently has loud construction is ... right below the computer lab, where we were meeting. There's apparently also explosion testing near the lab? Bad placement. That meant that the cause of speech-kaput was in the lab. It was also ongoing. If the cause were a one-off event in the lab, I could keep working. I'd be interrupted once, then go back to work and stay working. However:

  • Each round of noise (honestly pretty short) was painfully loud, interrupting me and making me jump.
  • The amount of time between rounds was unpredictable. Sometimes we'd get several in a row, quickly. Sometimes there'd be enough time to start working again, be concentrating on something, and then get interrupted again. Never enough time to fully recover, but sometimes enough to try working again.
That's a bad combination, and I lasted about half an hour ... of a lab session that's typically three hours. 

After I taught lab without speech, I felt good. Not great, because I was still reeling from the effects of the event that made me lose speech in the first place, but good. I'd done what needed doing, and I'd shown myself that I could teach without speech. 

After I had to leave lab today, I didn't feel good. All too often, autistic people are silenced in conversations about autism by never even getting to be a part of the conversation. It's hard to have a voice (mouth-sounds or otherwise) when absent. And I was absent, because presence was inaccessible. I was silent in an entirely different way than when I was present, literally silent, and still teaching. 

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016


Recently, a friend of mine asked what we wished others knew about meltdowns. (She blogged about meltdowns a while back, too. It was good.) This caused me to make words. Many words.

You see, I have experience at appearing to be more OK than I am. (I think a lot of people have this experience.) I have also been taught, in a variety of ways, that I should not show around other people that I am not OK. And the thing about getting around that is … it takes energy to break that, energy I might not have when I'm not OK. Often, holding on to some appearance of being OK until I am alone is cheaper for me than allowing myself to show that I'm having a problem. (I'm not faking overload. I might be faking not-overload.)

Now, there is still a point where I will melt down, like it or not, and there are limits to how much I can delay this. So it is possible for me to melt down in front of people. And most of the people I'm around would want to help, would want to check in to make sure I'm OK, that sort of thing. There's just one problem: I reach the point where I can put up an (unusually expensive) facade of OK before I reach the point where I'm actually ready to start putting myself together.

What this means:
If I look like I'm on the edge of a meltdown, there are a few questions you can ask me, one at a time. I'm not going to keep track of a bunch of questions at a time, really do stick to one. And do not touch me. I know people do light touch for reassurance but this is a bad idea. You can point out a spot that's semi-enclosed (corner, alcove, back to the wall) and ask if I want to sit there1. I probably will. Don't push it if I say no. You can offer me a satin-bound blanket or a fidget toy. I'll probably take you up on either (or both) of those, but again, don't push it. And you can ask if I'd like you to leave me alone. I might say yes, but I also might say no – sometimes, especially if I've got another event coming up sooner than I'd be able to have the meltdown and start putting myself back together afterwards, I'm going to prefer to keep delaying. I'm better at delaying than I really should be, but sometimes this unfortunate skill gets used. But if I say yes, it's time for you to go away, and not come back until either I come looking for you or until the next day. Don't come check on me to see if I need anything. Don't come check on me to make sure I'm OK. Because your presence would mean my training to appear to be OK would make me appear to come out of the meltdown sooner, and because this is actually bad, doing either of those things is very likely to ensure that I am not OK. It will cause me to put the facade of OK up before the actually OK gets going. It does not matter how many times you tell me I don't need to put that facade up for you. I will not, in that state, be able to stop myself from doing what I've been taught I need to do. Stay away. No, you are not the exception to this, because there are none.

If I am actively melting down, that means I'm in bad enough shape that I can't hide it. That's not good, but that does mean there are some things you might be able to do before I've got enough juice to run the facade (and not enough to stop myself from doing so if there's anyone around.) First, do not touch me. Second, if I am not already curled up in a corner or alcove or with my back to the wall, offer to help me get to one of those positions. If I say yes, you can lead me to one. (See above: do not touch me to lead me.) Third, if there's a soft, satin-bound blanket around that I am not already in possession of, putting it near me is a good idea. (Not on me. Again: do not touch me.) If I don't seem to understand the offer, this is a cue to leave. Fourth, melting down burns a lot of energy. I am going to be tired, hungry, and thirsty. If you can put food and/or liquid that is ready to be consumed far enough away that I won't accidentally hit it while rocking or flapping, but close enough that I don't need to interact with any people to get at it, this is potentially useful. (Post-meltdown, I am even more likely than usual to get lost somewhere in the process of attempting to create and consume food.) Once location, blanket, and consumable objects are either taken care of or not, it's time for you to go away. The same rules apply as if you were heading out before I actually melted down.

Counterintuitively, if I start showing any signs of being OK again after I melted down, that's the point where you absolutely must leave now. I'm not OK yet, but I'm starting to be able to fake it and you need to go away so that I can choose not to do so. Those rules from heading out before I actually melted down? They still apply. You need to go away.

1  Weird as this may seem, if I'm going to the corner or grabbing the blanket on my own, that's a good sign. It means I've caught on to the low energy in time to drop the performance, which will buy me more time able to do stuff before I run out of energy entirely. It also means I'm still in good enough shape that if I felt I needed to just leave, I could have done so. This is the part where you get to see a person getting stuff done while visibly autistic. Just like the times where I'm pulling out a whiteboard marker, pen, or tablet to go to class non-speaking, I'm actually fine. Appearing to have my neurotype is not an emergency.

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Alyssa Reads The US Book

On September 26, my copy of The US Book, by Michael Scott Monje Jr, arrived. I started reading. I know that's the day it arrived because her poetry immediately got me writing, which she says is one of the best compliments her book could get. I was happy, because the writing induced by (starting to) read this book broke through a bit of writers block. After writing a good bit in June (honestly mostly yelling at Uniquely Human, but I was making words) I dropped off a good bit in July, then only managed to write here once each in August and September. (To be fair, there was some other writing happening in August. There was not in September.)

So you can thank The US Book for my presence here again.
Image of a very happy looking Alyssa holding a copy of The US Book

Also, those of you who know my art style might recognize that cover, partially. I did that line art. 

Now to the actual reading bit:

The line that got me writing again was "Speaking is a prison when it's the only thing you're given." As a part time typist who can always, always tell you more typing than speaking, I represent that statement. It was always assumed that speech would work, because it appeared to, but written English is my natural language in a way spoken English isn't. 

I don't know what word to best describe my reaction to the call for psychology, as rhetoric, to make use of neuroscience. Something positive, and with perhaps some pride because neuroscience is the thing I am studying for my doctorate while writing about rhetoric, representation, and neurodivergence on another side. (I can't call one action the center and all others the sides, but I can say that there are many sides to what I do.) I have to agree that neuroscience has a ways to grow, and I'd like to be part of that growing because seriously folks, there are always assumptions and narratives built in to our science and at least I will admit to my neurodivergent ones. 

Face My Morning Face remains as important as it was the day it went up on her blog, if not more so. I'm thinking more so, because of what it's led to since then.

I'm as proud of Look for our communications if you want us to bother with your language. being dedicated to me now as I was the day it went up on her blog, if not more so. (The dedication is on the blog, not in the book. That's OK. I remember, plus it's on the Internet.)

And maybe, just maybe, the taste of those two pieces, which appear in The US Book but which are also still free online for you to read, will whet your appetite for the rest. I know I'm pretty blatantly saying you should read this, if you can, but that's because I think you should. The US Book made me think, laugh, and write. 

And of course, I'm studying neuroscience without leaving behind my knowledge as an Autistic activist and scholar of how we speak and write about things. Or my knowledge as a mathematician, for that matter. That's where I learned to poke holes in arguments, after all. While I work, I need to remember:
  • Reading My Own Screams

    "Speaking is a prison when it's the only thing you're given." 'Nough said.
  • Uses of the Knife

    I need this to remember about psychology as rhetoric + needing neuroscience. What I am studying is real, and it's important, and it's narrative too. Remember where the narrative comes from, because ... some of it's coming from the same people who hate us (It's time to accept that they hate you.) I don't get to be "apolitical" (as in protecting the status quo or as in not paying attention) without being self-loathing or self-sabotaging.
  • Look for our communications if you want us to bother with your language.

    Communication barriers have more than one side and all too often, the side that's working hardest to translate their communications are also the ones who are called inherently incomprehensible.

    When I am tired and anxiety is telling me that nothing matters, I can remember that I have already had an impact. Not one measured in the metrics of academia, but one measured in people and poetry. I know which one matters more to me (and it's the one I've already got. Not gonna lie, though, I'm aiming for both.)
  • It's time to accept that they hate you.

    Put so well, what I fight, why I fight, and remember that I am not alone. I'm not. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Not everything is possible (And I get a lot more done when I admit this)

There are, in fact, things I can't do, no matter what mindset I am in. There are, in fact, things where it is not worth my time to try it again and bang my head against that (metaphorical) wall one more time, just to satisfy people who say I won't know until I try. (Usually I have tried the specific task already, which means I should get to know by their logic? The rest of the times, I've tried enough sufficiently similar things that I can predict what the problem will be.)

Now, this is probably the part where you want to tell me not to be so hard on myself. You might want to tell me that the only disability in life is a bad attitude. (Maybe, just maybe, I'll shoot back that my primary disability is y'alls bad attitude about my realities.) Maybe you want to tell me that anything is possible, and tell (not ask) me how much I'm limiting myself this way.

Because I used to think that if I just tried harder I could, in fact, do anything, I actually know what my abilities look like that way. I'm still working on the details of what my abilities look like when I recognize my limits (which is not the same thing as limiting myself, to be clear. I do not bring these limitations into existence by recognizing them.) But I can tell you this: Overall, I get more done  (not less!) when I admit that there are things I can't do. 

I get more done when I recognize that I am not going to gain the ability to independently organize my space on the n+1st try, and that I should wait to try this whole organization thing until the person helping me is ready, because I don't spend all my energy on it until there's someone there to help make sure I'm spending it in useful ways. (Organizing my room still costs all my energy for the day, but it at least ends with organization.)

I get more done when I recognize that my exception handling is not suddenly going to work normally just because that would be convenient. (Weirdly enough, this exception handling issue as it relates to sudden schedule changes is one reason that pushing through pain or illness to finish whatever I was planning on doing is actually the smarter choice. Which sounds like the opposite of limiting myself, at least to an outside observer, I think? That I'm doing a thing while sick or tired or injured because I know my limits even sounds counter-intuitive to me, and I know it's sometimes true.)

I get more done when I recognize that this exception handling issue (plus whatever else is going on with certain kinds of questions that cause them to create an exception in the first place) will, in fact, prevent me from doing many surveys and evaluations. If I'm not burning out most or all of my energy for the day on some survey my program asked me to do (and which they thought would be a 5 minute easy thing), I still have that energy for literally anything else.

I get more done when I recognize that I can't actually stay in a room with a flickering fluorescent light or troubleshoot a circuit with an LED flashing at 5-20 Hz. That's because said flashing lights will, given time, knock out my ability to speak, possibly my sense of direction, and definitely my ability to concentrate on anything other than make it stop. Turn off the light. Unplug the circuit while I try to determine what's wrong with it. Replace the 0.1 microfarad capacitor with the 1 microfarad capacitor to get a .5-2Hz flash rate on the LED, or with 0.01 microfarad for 50-200Hz that I can't see flashing. 

I get more done when I recognize that I am not going to be able to cook three meals a day for myself (and not even one consistently if I'm working from scratch) because I can plan around this. At university, I have a meal plan. That keeps me fed. At home, I cook a large pot of something once or twice a week and eat it until it's gone (then stare sadly at the pot which no longer contains food because I am hungry and there is not a food.) This doesn't work as well as the meal plan does, but it works much better than believing that if I just try one more time, I can cook three meals a day. Because I am spending less time trying to make food happen and more time fed, I can get more other things done too!

I get more done when I recognize that I do, in fact, need to stim and probably shouldn't be faking eye contact all the time. (No, really. Letting myself flap and rock made the difference between always absolutely needing 10 hours of sleep per night with people being able to tell the difference if I got "only" 8-9 hours of sleep one night and my being completely fine with 9 hours as a regular thing and OK with 7-8 occasionally.)

I get more done when I recognize that I am not going to work 40 hours in a week. (I'm going to suggest that anyone who's ever seen my class schedule not run the numbers for this statement, because you will be at least as confused as I am by how this works. I'm pretty confused even while knowing from experience that it somehow does.) I get more done because I'm not staring at whatever my work should be and not recovering when I burn through my mental energy in two to three hours. I rest for several hours and can sometimes (not always, but sometimes) get a second good shift of an hour or three writing things that needed to be written, doing homework, reading for classes, preparing to teach, editing work before I submit it somewhere, or reading for the purposes of my writing. That's more done than when I tried to work straight through, just to be clear. Less time total that looks like work, but quite a bit more done and similar amounts of time that are actually work.

I get more done when I recognize that I can't do a hackathon or any other kind of event that involves working for a marathon amount of time at a sprint level of intensity while going short on sleep. (Actually any event or combination of events that puts me short on sleep for more than a night or two is usually out regardless of intensity, and it's definitely not happening during the semester.) Making myself ill over the weekend by burning myself out to the tune of needing two or three days completely off to recover... when the next day is Monday? Yeah, I can't do that. (Seriously, do you think I'm going to gain the ability to work a 40 hour week by putting all 40 hours onto 2 days?) A more extreme version of the work model that already doesn't work for me only fails more obviously. 

I have better class participation when I don't try to force speech until it's gone, then fall silent because if I had something to say I'd be able to say it. Switching to writing when speech gives out means I can keep participating, that I can show what I know and help my classmates when they are having trouble, and that I can ask questions if I need help. Switching to writing at the point that writing is simply easier overall lets me save energy so that speech might not even give out entirely! That comes in handy if I have sports practice after class, or if I'm going anywhere that doesn't have a white board. 

I have a better time on vacation when I recognize that I'm not going to enjoy speeding from activity to activity at a breakneck pace and will eventually melt down if I try. I still want a calm hour alone on my computer in the morning and similar at night. (I also wake up earlier than my family by enough that it's really easy for me to get that morning hour.) So I bring my laptop on vacation, even if I'm not planning to work, even though the others don't. 

I can't stop you from believing that I'm limiting myself (as opposed to recognizing limits that are already there and being happier and healthier while doing more things I care about because I'm not banging my head against the stuff I can't do.) I can, however, explain so that 1) I remind myself that I'm doing what works for me, and 2) others like me can read that they are not alone.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Switch out the capacitor

This semester, my teaching assistantship is in electrical engineering. (And for as long as I'm a TA instead of a research assistant, I suspect it's going to stay in electrical engineering or similar, since electrical, biomedical, and computer engineering is the department my advisor's in.)

So now I'm one of three responsible people in the room for a digital circuits lab. (All three of us speak Mandarin, which is cool, but not the point of what I'm writing today.) They've both been doing circuits for much longer than I have, which is to be expected since I'm brand new to electrical engineering. Still, I'm a pretty quick study and I have very good pattern recognition, which comes in handy when my job mostly means troubleshooting other people's circuits to figure out what's wrong.

This isn't about my ability to troubleshoot circuits, really.
Unless it is, because I can't troubleshoot a circuit while looking at a light that's blinking at 5-20 Hz. The light is small enough that I'm (mostly) OK with the light near the edges of my vision, but the blinking light is the signal on the circuit I'm troubleshooting, which means it's on the circuit I'm trying to fix. That's not going to work.

"Alright, I'm turning off the power. I can't work with the flashing in my face and you should turn the power off when moving wires anyways."

That's method the first. You've got two reasons to turn off the power (plus "the teacher says so") and one of them is a safety thing they've been taught but tend to ignore. I'm still telling you what my need is (no flashing lights in my face) but it's not the only reason for what I'm asking you to do. I tend to go to this first if the problem seems to be with the circuit.

"Can you switch out the capacitor for one size up or one size down? I know this is the one on the lab sheet, but I can't work with that blink rate."

That's method the second. It eliminates the bad flash rate permanently, which is good, and it lets me leave the light on while trying to figure out what's going on with the oscilloscope. The only problem is, of course, that it's not the capacitor size used on the lab sheet, so I am telling students to not follow part of the directions. Still, why are the directions setting up a circuit that blinks in the most common frequency rate for problems? Seriously, why. Why are they so sure no one who'd have a problem is in the class? (Or, you know, teaching the class. Disabled teachers exist and all.)

Now, here's the bit where being a teacher and being around good folks is helpful: the students listen. I'm not sure how so many people don't realize that flashing lights can be an issue (and I don't blame the students at all for, well, following directions) but no one is arguing with me when I point out that the flashing lights can be a problem for people, including for me. They turn the power off, or they switch off the capacitor. They ask, "Is that a common issue?" and I say "More common than you'd think with how many things flash in that range..." Who knows? They might even remember that flashing lights can cause problems.

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Plans, Executive (Dys)function, and Throwing Exceptions

I've written before about plans and routines, where a routine can become an implicit plan, and if a plan gets thrown off, I'm going to have a bad time. I've also (really recently!) written about "independent" (as defined by able people, not as defined by the independent living movement) living, supports, and teachable skills not being all there is to it. Now I'm writing about something that connects both of these, thanks to Avi for providing the word to describe it: Exception handling. Thanks to Avi also for the idea of writing these out as scripts. I've done enough programming to write psuedocode for this. Think "vaguely Python-like". The code is intentionally a bit messy because, well, the way my head actually deals with this stuff is a bit messy. So there's exceptions and different kinds of loops mixed together, and sometimes things will just crash instead of doing what you'd expect, even if it's not immediately obvious why.

I've done a little bit with programming, enough to know that sometimes you can break a program by giving it input it doesn't expect. If my program is supposed to take a number between 0 and 100 and convert it into a letter grade, which is an actual simple script they had us write when we were learning, it might not give me an output for a number less than 0, a number greater than 100, or an input that is not a number. It also might, but it wouldn't be especially useful output. (It's not a letter grade for an actual score.) Still, the program just sort of ... stopping ... the first time the input is supposed to get used is a very real possibility if the input is wrong or missing.

Something like that can happen with my change of plans issues, and with my getting things done issues. It's even what goes wrong for me on a lot of surveys and popular online quizzes.

Change of plans

Error: meeting not found.

And then I am done. I don't really have a script to handle that exception, so I crash.

Tentative plans
try self.goto(meeting);
try self.goto(office);
try self.playgames();
while time>5:30 pm;

This time the plan for the meeting is tentative, so instead of "go" it's "try to go" and the script does not immediately crash if the meeting is not found. This is why "no plan" or "tentative plan only" is better for me than "broken plan." Also, there can be lines after the attempted meeting about what I'll do if the meeting isn't actually a thing that's happening.

Note that can time out or get lost at any point in this listand that any of the items used being missing will throw an exception that I may or may not be able to handle.

Cleaning my room
for object on floor;
          location = object.properlocation();
          energy -=5
          if energy <=0;
               return false

     except object.properlocation()==null;
          if energy>=10;
               define object.properlocation();
               energy -= 10;

     except contents(object.properlocation()) != null;
          if energy>=15;
                    energy -= 15


And to be clear, this is what the script looks like after a lot of optimization. I did not always have the two except bits that could catch issues. Common places for this program to fail were at location=object.properlocation() because I don't know where something goes, at because there's already something else where the thing goes. These used to lead to a complete crash.

Now I've got some level of exception handling define a new output for object.properlocation() or interrupt and choose a new object to move because location is occupied. That's what the exceptions are meant to handle, but you might notice that they are expensive! (You also might notice that I can get my energy as low as -5 before hitting the stop point if I'm not careful, which is a problem I'm still working on. If I were actually a computer I could just change some numbers around in my if statements, but I am not.)

I can also run through all my RAM trying to list the objects on the floor and never even get started. This is a thing that happens.

Surveys/Quizzes (must complete, no aid available)
crycount=0   % Initialize the cry count.
for question in survey;

     if question.type()==TF or question.type()=multiple choice;
          answers={true, false};
          if question.type()=multiple choice;
          try answers.choose(correct);
               increment question;
          if "other" is in answers;
               try answers.write();
          try self.cry();
          increment question;

     if question.type()==open answer;
          try answers.write(response);
               increment question
          except question.brainbreak==true;
               try self.cry();
                    try answers.write(nonsense);
                         increment question;
                    try answers.write(nope.explain());
                         increment question;

     if question.type()==number rating;
          try self.cry();
          increment question;

self.flop(crycount hours);

So there's two things in there which lead to bad things. It's try self.cry() because I don't always actually cry, but the count definitely still gets incremented and this sort of thing knocks me over  pretty badly. I'm done for the day after even a short inaccessible survey. Multiple choice questions where none of the answers are quite right are bad, especially if they don't have an other option. Certain open response questions also break my brain. I tend to think in patterns rather than examples and my episodic memory is terrible, so if you ask for an example of a thing that happened to me we'll usually get into trouble. Choosing a number to explain how much I agree or disagree with a statement is really bad to start, and it's even worse if the statement is ambiguous or one that I only partially agree with. These kinds of problems, by the way, are why I thought the language utilization reports were the hardest thing they asked me to do while I was in China. They were also the first time I managed to ask for help with one of these, leading to the next bit of psuedocode:

Surveys/Quizzes (not required AND/OR can ask for help)

required=read.survey.required();     % Don't need to check help value because 
                                                              %  this script is only used if help is
                                                              %  available OR completion is optional.  

crycount=0   % Initialize the cry count.

for question in survey;

     if question.type()==TF or question.type()==multiple choice;
          answers={true, false};
          if question.type()==multiple choice;
          try answers.choose(correct);
               increment question;
          if "other" is in answers;
               try answers.write();
          elif required==false;
               return false;
          increment question

     if question.type()==open answer;
          try answers.write(response);
               increment question;
          except question.brainbreak ==true;
               if required==false;
                    return false;
                    try self.cry();
               increment question

     if question.type()==number rating;
          elif required==false;
               return false;
          increment question

self.flop(crycount hours)

Progress! Crying and flopping are significantly reduced. (So is the likelihood of my getting the survey done, but I'm OK with that.) For timing reference, my language utilization report from my year in China was the first time I managed help.request()  for this sort of thing. They, uh, weren't quire sure how to handle that, because these reports aren't the hard part for most people. Their first idea was to ask the residence director to help me. This got the report done, which was some sort of progress, but it involved enough crying (by me) and confusion (by both of us) that she decided to have the program just ... give up. No more language utilization reports for me, it's not worth it. (I agreed. It was really, really not worth it.)

Notice that while someone helping me eliminates the exhaustion cost for a multiple choice or true/false question that is ambiguous or has bad answers, it does nothing about the exhaustion cost for a brain-breaking open ended question, and it reduces but does not eliminate the cost for "rate this from 1-n" type questions. That's part of why the language utilization reports got nixed, and why the survey I was supposed to do for my university after the year abroad was done slowly, painfully, and with help.

And as for things that aren't just teachable skills? Yes, teaching me certain skills (or practice with certain skills that I theoretically have) could have the effect of writing in ways to handle specific exceptions. That's not the same thing as making my exception handling work at a "standard" speed or efficiency, and it's definitely not the same thing as reducing the associated costs for those exceptions.