A genius explains

Tuesday, February 15th, 2005

From A genius explains:

Daniel Tammet is talking. As he talks, he studies my shirt and counts the stitches. Ever since the age of three, when he suffered an epileptic fit, Tammet has been obsessed with counting. Now he is 26, and a mathematical genius who can figure out cube roots quicker than a calculator and recall pi to 22,514 decimal places. He also happens to be autistic, which is why he can’t drive a car, wire a plug, or tell right from left. He lives with extraordinary ability and disability.

Tammet is calculating 377 multiplied by 795. Actually, he isn’t “calculating”: there is nothing conscious about what he is doing. He arrives at the answer instantly. Since his epileptic fit, he has been able to see numbers as shapes, colours and textures. The number two, for instance, is a motion, and five is a clap of thunder. “When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges. That’s the answer. It’s mental imagery. It’s like maths without having to think.”

Tammet is a “savant”, an individual with an astonishing, extraordinary mental ability. An estimated 10% of the autistic population — and an estimated 1% of the non-autistic population — have savant abilities, but no one knows exactly why. A number of scientists now hope that Tammet might help us to understand better. Professor Allan Snyder, from the Centre for the Mind at the Australian National University in Canberra, explains why Tammet is of particular, and international, scientific interest. “Savants can’t usually tell us how they do what they do,” says Snyder. “It just comes to them. Daniel can. He describes what he sees in his head. That’s why he’s exciting. He could be the Rosetta Stone.”

Daniel Tammet recently met Kim Peek, the real-life Rain Man:

Peek can read two pages simultaneously, one with each eye. He can also recall, in exact detail, the 7,600 books he has read.

A Key to Animal Behavior

Tuesday, January 11th, 2005

NPR’s Fresh Air interviews Temple Grandin, one of the nation’s top designers of livestock facilities. She has a unique insight into animal thinking: she’s autistic. “In her 1995 book Thinking in Pictures, she described how her inner-autistic world led her to develop an empathy for how animals cope.” Her new book is Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.

The BitTorrent Effect

Wednesday, December 29th, 2004

The BitTorrent Effect looks at Bram Cohen, the inventor of BitTorrent, who entered a “starving artist” period after quitting his job at MojoNation:

What kept Cohen going, say friends and family, was a cartoonishly inflated ego. “I can come off as pretty arrogant, but it’s because I know I’m right,” he laughs. “I’m very, very good at writing protocols. I’ve accomplished more working on my own than I ever did as part of a team.” While we’re having lunch, his wife, Jenna, tells me about the time they were watching Amadeus, where Mozart writes his music so rapidly and perfectly it appears to have been dictated by God. Cohen decided he was kind of like that. Like Mozart? Bram and Jenna nod.

“Bram will just pace around the house all day long, back and forth, in and out of the kitchen. Then he’ll suddenly go to his computer and the code just comes pouring out. And you can see by the lines on the screen that it’s clean,” Jenna says. “It’s clean code.” She pats her husband affectionately on the head: “My sweet little autistic nerd boy.” (Cohen in fact has Asperger’s syndrome, a condition on the mild end of the autism spectrum that gives him almost superhuman powers of concentration but can make it difficult for him to relate to other people.)

By the way, this passage intrigued me:

Cohen says he loves Amazons, a cross between chess and the Japanese game Go, because it is pure strategy. Players take turns dropping more and more tokens on a grid, trying to box in their opponent.

Concussions Kept Tintin Forever Young

Thursday, December 9th, 2004

Concussions kept Tintin forever young:

Comic book hero Tintin never aged during his 50-year career because the repeated blows he took to the head triggered a growth hormone deficiency, according to an analysis in the Christmas edition of a Canadian medical journal.

Claude Cyr, a professor of medicine at Quebec’s Sherbrooke University, said a study of the 23 hugely popular Tintin books showed the intrepid Belgian reporter suffered 50 significant losses of consciousness during his many adventures.

‘We hypothesize that Tintin has growth hormone deficiency and hypogonadotropic hypogonadism (a disorder of the pituitary gland) from repeated trauma. This could explain his delayed statural growth, delayed onset of puberty and lack of libido,’ Cyr wrote.

His article was in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, which has a tradition of publishing studies into the ailments of fictional characters in its Christmas edition.
Another study surmised that Beatrix Potter’s ever energetic Squirrel Nutkin character was in fact autistic.

As the article points out, “Tintin was created by Belgium’s Georges Remi under the pen name Herge.” Hergé, by the way, is a homonym, in French, for RG, Georges Remi’s initials, reversed. A certain Roman de Tirtoff went by a similar pseudonym, Erté, or RT.

Great Hackers

Thursday, July 29th, 2004

Paul Graham has written a “provocative” and “controversial” piece on Great Hackers. He starts by explaining that variation in wealth isn’t a bad thing, because it points to a variation in productivity, something you only get (in large amounts) once you have complex tools to leverage:

If variation in productivity increases with technology, then the contribution of the most productive individuals will not only be disproportionately large, but will actually grow with time. When you reach the point where 90% of a group’s output is created by 1% of its members, you lose big if something (whether Viking raids, or central planning) drags their productivity down to the average.

Graham makes a number of disparate, but interesting, points. Here he slams the Java programming language in the process of making a greater point:

When you decide what infrastructure to use for a project, you’re not just making a technical decision. You’re also making a social decision, and this may be the more important of the two. For example, if your company wants to write some software, it might seem a prudent choice to write it in Java. But when you choose a language, you’re also choosing a community. The programmers you’ll be able to hire to work on a Java project won’t be as smart as the ones you could get to work on a project written in Python.

There are many disconnects between hackers and suits; here’s one huge example:

After software, the most important tool to a hacker is probably his office. Big companies think the function of office space is to express rank. But hackers use their offices for more than that: they use their office as a place to think in. And if you’re a technology company, their thoughts are your product. So making hackers work in a noisy, distracting environment is like having a paint factory where the air is full of soot.

The cartoon strip Dilbert has a lot to say about cubicles, and with good reason. All the hackers I know despise them. The mere prospect of being interrupted is enough to prevent hackers from working on hard problems. If you want to get real work done in an office with cubicles, you have two options: work at home, or come in early or late or on a weekend, when no one else is there. Don’t companies realize this is a sign that something is broken? An office environment is supposed to be something you work in, not something you work despite.

Generally, it’s hard — that’s an understatement — to manage hackers. There are some tricks though:

Like a parent saying to a child, I bet you can’t clean up your whole room in ten minutes, a good manager can sometimes redefine a problem as a more interesting one. Steve Jobs seems to be particularly good at this, in part simply by having high standards. There were a lot of small, inexpensive computers before the Mac. He redefined the problem as: make one that’s beautiful. And that probably drove the developers harder than any carrot or stick could.

I know the “death of a thousand cuts” — an not from watching Hong Kong wu xia movies:

It’s pretty easy to say what kinds of problems are not interesting: those where instead of solving a few big, clear, problems, you have to solve a lot of nasty little ones. One of the worst kinds of projects is writing an interface to a piece of software that’s full of bugs. Another is when you have to customize something for an individual client’s complex and ill-defined needs. To hackers these kinds of projects are the death of a thousand cuts.

The distinguishing feature of nasty little problems is that you don’t learn anything from them. Writing a compiler is interesting because it teaches you what a compiler is. But writing an interface to a buggy piece of software doesn’t teach you anything, because the bugs are random. So it’s not just fastidiousness that makes good hackers avoid nasty little problems. It’s more a question of self-preservation. Working on nasty little problems makes you stupid. Good hackers avoid it for the same reason models avoid cheeseburgers.

(Incidentally, I think this is what people mean when they talk about the “meaning of life.” On the face of it, this seems an odd idea. Life isn’t an expression; how could it have meaning? But it can have a quality that feels a lot like meaning. In a project like a compiler, you have to solve a lot of problems, but the problems all fall into a pattern, as in a signal. Whereas when the problems you have to solve are random, they seem like noise.)

How do you become a great hacker — or, at the very least, how do you avoid spoiling your hacker potential if you have it?

The key to being a good hacker may be to work on what you like. When I think about the great hackers I know, one thing they have in common is the extreme difficulty of making them work on anything they don’t want to. I don’t know if this is cause or effect; it may be both.

Great hackers are obviously smart, but there’s more to it than that. They’re also extremely curious about how things work. And they focus:

Several friends mentioned hackers’ ability to concentrate– their ability, as one put it, to “tune out everything outside their own heads.” I’ve certainly noticed this. And I’ve heard several hackers say that after drinking even half a beer they can’t program at all. So maybe hacking does require some special ability to focus. Perhaps great hackers can load a large amount of context into their head, so that when they look at a line of code, they see not just that line but the whole program around it. John McPhee wrote that Bill Bradley’s success as a basketball player was due partly to his extraordinary peripheral vision. “Perfect” eyesight means about 47 degrees of vertical peripheral vision. Bill Bradley had 70; he could see the basket when he was looking at the floor. Maybe great hackers have some similar inborn ability. (I cheat by using a very dense language, which shrinks the court.)

This could explain the disconnect over cubicles. Maybe the people in charge of facilities, not having any concentration to shatter, have no idea that working in a cubicle feels to a hacker like having one’s brain in a blender. (Whereas Bill, if the rumors of autism are true, knows all too well.)

Read the whole article.

Animal behaviour

Thursday, July 1st, 2004

Many philosophers believe that humans are the only species with a “theory of mind”; they understand that others have their own thoughts. Animal behaviour looks at ravens, known to be both clever and sociable, and their theory of mind:

Response to gaze is reckoned to be a good measure of the development of theory of mind in human children. By about 18 months of age most children are able to follow the gaze of another person, and infer things about the gazer from it. Failure to develop this trick is an early symptom of autism, a syndrome whose main underlying feature is an inability to understand that other people have minds, too.

To test whether ravens could follow gaze, Dr Heinrich and Dr Bugnyar used six six-month-old hand-reared ravens, and one four-year-old. The birds were sat, one at a time, on a perch on one side of a room divided by a barrier. An experimenter sat about a metre in front of the barrier. The experimenter moved his head and eyes in a particular direction and gazed for 30 seconds before looking away. Sometimes he gazed up, sometimes to the part of the room where the bird sat, and sometimes to the part of the room hidden behind the barrier. The experiment was videotaped.

Dr Heinrich and Dr Bugnyar found that all the birds were able to follow the gaze of the experimenters, even beyond the barrier. In the latter case, the curious birds either jumped down from the perch and walked around the barrier to have a look or leapt on top of it and peered over. There was never anything there, but they were determined to see for themselves.

I’m not surprised — but the next study gets more interesting:

Dr Bugnyar was conducting an experiment designed to see what ravens learn from each other while foraging. While doing so he noticed strange interactions between two males, Hugin, a subordinate bird, and Munin, a dominant one.

A quick aside: Hugin (Thought) and Mugin (Memory) are the names of Odin’s ravens in Norse mythology.

The task was to work out which colour-coded film containers held some bits of cheese, then prise the containers open and eat the contents. The subordinate male was far better at this task than the dominant. However, he never managed to gulp down more than a few pieces of the reward before the dominant raven, Munin, was hustling him on his way. Clearly (and not unexpectedly) ravens are able to learn about food sources from one another. They are also able to bully each other to gain access to that food.

But then something unexpected happened. Hugin, the subordinate, tried a new strategy. As soon as Munin bullied him, he headed over to a set of empty containers, prised the lids off them enthusiastically, and pretended to eat. Munin followed, whereupon Hugin returned to the loaded containers and ate his fill.

Doesn’t sound too different from elementary school.

Answer, but No Cure, for a Social Disorder That Isolates Many

Wednesday, May 5th, 2004

Answer, but No Cure, for a Social Disorder That Isolates Many discusses Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism:

They are what autism researchers call “mind blind.” Lacking the ability to read cues like body language to intuit what other people are thinking, they have profound difficulty navigating basic social interactions. The diagnosis is reordering their lives. Some have become newly determined to learn how to compensate.

They are filling up scarce classes that teach skills like how close to stand next to someone at a party, or how to tell when people are angry even when they are smiling.

Many Aspies, as they call themselves, and their families find it reassuring to know that they have a condition — even though there’s no cure.

Reward Mechanism Involved In Addiction Likely Regulates Pair Bonds Between Monogamous Animals

Friday, January 30th, 2004

I’m certainly addicted to my prairie vole. Reward Mechanism Involved In Addiction Likely Regulates Pair Bonds Between Monogamous Animals:

The reward mechanism involved in addiction appears to regulate lifelong social or pair bonds between monogamous mating animals, according to a Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN) study of prairie voles published in the January 19 edition of the Journal of Comparative Neurology. The finding could have implications for understanding the basis of romantic love and disorders of the ability to form social attachments, such as autism and schizophrenia.

New Insights Into Autism

Thursday, July 17th, 2003

New Insights Into Autism reports on a recent study:

The study in Wednesday’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that a small head circumference at birth followed by a sudden growth spurt of the head before the end of the first year is a reliable early warning sign of autism.
National statistics on autism spectrum disorder are hard to come by, but the incidence has been rising mysteriously. The disorder, which ranges from severe to moderate cases, affects an estimated one in 160 children in the U.S., according to UCSD researchers. It is typically diagnosed between ages 2 and 4, based on a child’s behavior — delayed speech, difficulties with social interactions, poor attention, impaired exploration of the environment and inappropriate emotional responses.
The cause of the small brain size at birth is unknown. But the abnormally sped-up brain growth, says Dr. Courchesne, likely reflects excessive numbers of brain cells, failure of the brain to prune the hundreds of synapses that connect one neuron to another, or both. Normally, experiences sculpt the developing brain; unneeded or unused synapses are pruned away. Autistic children, in contrast, seem to suffer from the neurological equivalent of electrical overload: too many impulses, thoughts and sensations in their brain.
[T]he scientists found that the head size at birth of the autistic children was, on average, in the 25th percentile (smaller than 75% of other newborns). But most of these children quickly began a period of such rapid brain growth that, by 6 to 14 months, they landed in the 84th percentile. By 4 or 5, their brain was the size of a typical 12-year old’s.

The New Sex Scorecard

Wednesday, July 16th, 2003

The New Sex Scorecard declares that “It’s safe to talk about sex differences again.”:

Get out the spittoon. Men produce twice as much saliva as women. Women, for their part, learn to speak earlier, know more words, recall them better, pause less and glide through tongue twisters.

Here’s an interesting anatomical difference:

Gur’s discovery that females have about 15 to 20 percent more gray matter than males suddenly made sense of another major sex difference: Men, overall, have larger brains than women (their heads and bodies are larger), but the sexes score equally well on tests of intelligence.

Gray matter, made up of the bodies of nerve cells and their connecting dendrites, is where the brain’s heavy lifting is done. The female brain is more densely packed with neurons and dendrites, providing concentrated processing power — and more thought-linking capability.

The larger male cranium is filled with more white matter and cerebrospinal fluid. “That fluid is probably helpful,” says Gur, director of the Brain Behavior Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. “It cushions the brain, and men are more likely to get their heads banged about.”

White matter, made of the long arms of neurons encased in a protective film of fat, helps distribute processing throughout the brain. It gives males superiority at spatial reasoning. White matter also carries fibers that inhibit “information spread” in the cortex. That allows a single-mindedness that spatial problems require, especially difficult ones. The harder a spatial task, Gur finds, the more circumscribed the right-sided brain activation in males, but not in females. The white matter advantage of males, he believes, suppresses activation of areas that could interfere with work.

The white matter in women’s brains is concentrated in the corpus callosum, which links the brain’s hemispheres, and enables the right side of the brain to pitch in on language tasks. The more difficult the verbal task, the more global the neural participation required — a response that’s stronger in females.

Women have another heady advantage — faster blood flow to the brain, which offsets the cognitive effects of aging. Men lose more brain tissue with age, especially in the left frontal cortex, the part of the brain that thinks about consequences and provides self-control.

“You can see the tissue loss by age 45, and that may explain why midlife crisis is harder on men,” says Gur. “Men have the same impulses but they lose the ability to consider long-term consequences.”

This should come as little surprise:

Women’s perceptual skills are oriented to quick — call it intuitive — people reading. Females are gifted at detecting the feelings and thoughts of others, inferring intentions, absorbing contextual clues and responding in emotionally appropriate ways. They empathize. Tuned to others, they more readily see alternate sides of an argument. Such empathy fosters communication and primes females for attachment.
Men focus first on minute detail, and operate most easily with a certain detachment. They construct rules-based analyses of the natural world, inanimate objects and events. In the coinage of Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, Ph.D., they systemize.

The superiority of males at spatial cognition and females’ talent for language probably subserve the more basic difference of systemizing versus empathizing. The two mental styles manifest in the toys kids prefer (humanlike dolls versus mechanical trucks); verbal impatience in males (ordering rather than negotiating); and navigation (women personalize space by finding landmarks; men see a geometric system, taking directional cues in the layout of routes).

Autism is fascinating:

In his work as director of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre, he finds that children and adults with autism, and its less severe variant Asperger syndrome, are unusual in both dimensions of perception. Its victims are “mindblind,” unable to recognize people’s feelings. They also have a peculiar talent for systemizing, obsessively focusing on, say, light switches or sink faucets.
Autism overwhelmingly strikes males; the ratio is ten to one for Asperger.
The more testosterone the children had been exposed to in the womb, the less able they were to make eye contact at 1 year of age. “Who would have thought that a behavior like eye contact, which is so intrinsically social, could be in part shaped by a biological factor?” he asks. What’s more, the testosterone level during fetal life also influenced language skills. The higher the prenatal testosterone level, the smaller a child’s vocabulary at 18 months and again at 24 months.

Lack of eye contact and poor language aptitude are early hallmarks of autism. “Being strongly attracted to systems, together with a lack of empathy, may be the core characteristics of individuals on the autistic spectrum,” says Baron-Cohen. “Maybe testosterone does more than affect spatial ability and language. Maybe it also affects social ability.” And perhaps autism represents an “extreme form” of the male brain.

Savant for a Day

Monday, June 23rd, 2003

A recent NY Times article, Savant for a Day, reports on a hard-to-believe invention:

The Medtronic was originally developed as a tool for brain surgery: by stimulating or slowing down specific regions of the brain, it allowed doctors to monitor the effects of surgery in real time. But it also produced, they noted, strange and unexpected effects on patients’ mental functions: one minute they would lose the ability to speak, another minute they would speak easily but would make odd linguistic errors and so on. A number of researchers started to look into the possibilities, but one in particular intrigued Snyder: that people undergoing transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, could suddenly exhibit savant intelligence — those isolated pockets of geniuslike mental ability that most often appear in autistic people.
He has used TMS dozens of times on university students, measuring its effect on their ability to draw, to proofread and to perform difficult mathematical functions like identifying prime numbers by sight. Hooked up to the machine, 40 percent of test subjects exhibited extraordinary, and newfound, mental skills. That Snyder was able to induce these remarkable feats in a controlled, repeatable experiment is more than just a great party trick; it’s a breakthrough that may lead to a revolution in the way we understand the limits of our own intelligence — and the functioning of the human brain in general.
Perhaps the most famous savant was Dustin Hoffman’s character in ”Rain Man,” who could count hundreds of matchsticks at a glance. But the truth has often been even stranger: one celebrated savant in turn-of-the-century Vienna could calculate the day of the week for every date since the birth of Christ. Other savants can speak dozens of languages without formally studying any of them or can reproduce music at the piano after only a single hearing. A savant studied by the English doctor J. Langdon Down in 1887 had memorized every page of Gibbon’s ”Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” At the beginning of the 19th century, the splendidly named Gottfried Mind became famous all over Europe for the amazing pictures he drew of cats.

California Autism Rate Doubles in Four Years

Wednesday, May 14th, 2003

If this is true, it’s really creepy. California Autism Rate Doubles in Four Years:

Autism cases in California nearly doubled over the past four years to more than 20,000 — a phenomenon whose cause may be difficult to pinpoint because it is not related to population increases or the way the disorder is diagnosed, a state study said on Tuesday.

Once a rare disorder, autism now is more prevalent than childhood cancer, diabetes and Down syndrome, the study’s author, Dr. Ron Huff, said.

The spectacular rate of increase for autism dwarfs rises of 35 percent to 49 percent for new cases of mental retardation, cerebral palsy and epilepsy in California, he said.

“We are convinced that this is for real,” Huff said. “It has to be taken seriously.” Huff’s study was a follow-up to an earlier report ordered by California lawmakers that showed a 273 percent rise in autism cases statewide between 1987 to 1998.

“All through the 1970s to the mid-1980s, we were looking at a couple of hundred (autistic) kids each year,” Huff said. “Over the next decade we were looking at thousands of new cases each year. Parents were reporting anecdotally that there were a lot more of these kids out there that anyone believed.”

Of course, if the number of functioning autistics increases, we can expect a boost to the tech sector. (Sorry.)