Unavoidable Ambience


Ed Yourdon via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

I admit it. When I walk through an airport (which I’ve done quite a lot of in the past couple of weeks), and see almost every pair of eyes staring at a phone or tablet screen, I get the feeling that something is wrong. It bothers me.

This is of course absurd if you know anything about me.

I adore smartphones and tablets and computers. I also hate being around groups of people, particularly strangers. In large part due to my Asperger’s syndrome, I’m deeply averse to casual human interaction, small talk, and establishing connections with people in meatspace. The smartphone and its ancillary technologies are a gift to someone like me; yes, as a way to escape and feed my mind and sate my need for dopamine squirts, but also as a means for me to communicate and build relationships on my terms, in my own time, and at a safe distance. I am serious when I say that I am so very grateful for these devices.

And yet. As my eyes survey a public space stuffed with humans, just about literally all transfixed on their phones, I can’t help but feel like something has gone wrong. I mean, they’re not all autistics and introverts, right?

If anything, I should be relieved. The more people who are engaged with their devices, the fewer there are to creep into my space and demand my attention and energy. As it is, I blend right in, which has been perhaps the chief aim of my existence in physical space since I was 10 years old.

Am I being weirdly territorial? Do I resent the normals of the world encroaching on my virtual space and leaning on my crutch? I mean after all, I’m in that space to get away from everyone, not meet up with them through a different venue.

Nah. These people may be online, but they’re still nowhere near me.

And anyway, I’ve argued before that there’s no reason to be judgmental about someone using a phone. Yes, it appears to the observer that all phone-gawkers are the same, passively consuming some digital confection of little to no value. But for all anyone knows, this person might be reading a scientific paper, that one might be engrossed in a rich novel, and that one might be reviewing important job-related correspondences. There’s no way to know.

But, you know, probably not. We still have no room to judge, though. I know that sometimes the best thing a person can do to heal psychological exhaustion is to vegetate for a bit, and rest one’s higher processes.

I suppose some of this has a lot to do with my own conditioning. I grew up to expect people to be interacting with each other when they’re in proximity. Lord knows I was never good at this, or ever liked it — indeed, it’s usually painful. But I knew that I was different for feeling this way, wrong, and well before I was ever diagnosed as autistic or sought therapy for my difficulties. I was the odd duck, while everyone else was doing it right. I learned, correctly or incorrectly, that this socially connective norm was right. To step back out into the world now, and in such a short space of time see things change so drastically, is jarring. I think, what happened to all of you?



Ed Yourdon via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

For a few weeks now I’ve been chewing over in my mind the recent New York Magazine essay by Andrew Sullivan, where he cops to becoming consumed by the digital space, recounts his efforts to center himself and his priorities, and worries aloud about what the new smartphone era is doing to society as a whole.

I deeply respect Sullivan — he is a major influence on my work, even when I disagree with him. And here, I do feel like his own, very real feelings of loss and panic have caused him to project too much on the rest of the world.

Nonetheless, let’s consider some of his observations.

As I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in [Sherry] Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

That feels worrying, to be sure. There’s something rather disquieting about the idea that we’re slowly atrophying our fundamental humanity. I don’t know that we actually are, but he’s at least succeeded in scaring me a little.

But look at one of the examples he uses here. “If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend…” In a hypothetical scenario in which a person is lost in digital distraction, he chooses another form of distraction as the venue: watching a football game. He doesn’t say whether he means watching one on television or in person, but it almost doesn’t matter. He’s talking about two people in the same place being distracted by the passive viewing of the same meaningless thing. A game! I absolutely grant that the parent and child here are missing out on the chance to connect over a shared experience as a result of the parent’s texting, but it remains that the original activity was one of passive consumption in the first place. (To be clear, I think the parent in this scenario should definitely put the phone away and be with their kid — I’m just pointing out the weirdness and the irony of the scenario Sullivan has chosen.)

Now put aside for a moment the parent-child aspect of this. Sullivan presumes that the connections being established over a digital medium while watching a football game are less valuable or less meaningful because they don’t occur in meatspace. I’m not refuting that per se, but I’m also not prepared to grant it axiomatically. I have what I consider to be very meaningful relationships and connections with people I have never met in person, and exist to me primarily as Twitter avatars or what have you, and I truly appreciate them during shared experiences like presidential debates. But again, I’m also autistic. And I also know that my in-person connections to people like my wife and children are more valuable and meaningful to me than all the smartphones in South Korea.

So like Sullivan I strongly suspect, if not from my own inner life then from my observation of other humans, that people need these social skills that have been “honed through the aeons.” But there are countless tiny signals and nuances in the digital realm as well, so there is the possibility that we are just honing new skills that will adapt us to a changing world.

It’s kind of the story of human civilization anyway, isn’t it? A wandering species of animal that somehow stumbles along building megacities and spacecraft and internets as its neocortices and amygdalae do-si-do throughout the millennia, hoping we don’t murder too many of each other and open too big of a hole in the food chain for some other species to become the boss. (I’m looking at you, octopuses.)


Sullivan also says that spirituality itself is being replaced by the unavoidable ambience of consumable content, because spirituality requires silence.

The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.

That’s a bit of a reach. The claims about the nature of reality made by faith traditions have indeed been disproven bit by bit over the ages, and we do now live at a time when they have been so utterly demolished by science — and even lived experience — that the outright rejection of faith in general becomes an increasingly tenable and normal condition. Has the noise of media contributed to this? Almost certainly, but I think it’s as much the content of that noise as it is the quantity.


clasesdeperiodismo via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

However, I think there can be little doubt that our current state of affairs is one in which there is precious little space for silence. And too many of us aren’t wise enough to seek it out of our own volition. Sullivan got wise, but only after driving himself to the brink. I am also very new to the notion that silence, space, and meditation (in the broadest sense) are not just sometimes pleasant or preferable, but necessary, physiologically and psychically. Silence is medicine I must remember to take.

And I must remember it on my own. Apart from the encouragement of my wife and therapist, there is no mechanism built into the digital age’s social infrastructure that either imposes or easily facilitates this (unless the power grid goes down). Our world is built on an increasingly complex lattice, made up of strands of distraction. For now, the choice is entirely our own to close our eyes and refuse to follow each strand as it passes our awareness. And it’s a choice that becomes more and more difficult to make all the time.

Those hundreds of people I see in one glance around the airport, each to a person gazing into an imperceptibly dense mosaic of pixels; if they’re not interacting with each other as I have grown to expect them to, I wonder if they ever find silence. I wonder if they ever seek it.

As an Aspie, I am highly sensitive to noise, crowds, and torrents of stimuli. So maybe that’s what concerns me when I see them, that I unconsciously perceive that even if I can’t literally hear it, there exists among this sea of glowing rectangles an ever-increasing amount of noise, forming into a tidal wave of clamor that will eventually sweep me out to sea.


Japanexperterna.se via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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The Alpha, the Omega, and the Google


Photo by Daniel Cukier CC BY-ND 2.0

Rumor has it that Google is set to recast itself as a full-fledged smartphone maker, with the expected introduction of its new “Pixel” phones on October 4. I think I understand what they’re up to.

To quickly catch you up, Google has for years offered up phones under the Nexus brand, but these were devices built by other manufacturers in partnership with Google, mainly intended as a “reference” for other manufacturers like Samsung, LG, HTC, and Sony, and to serve the Android die-hard fanbase. Nexus phones offered the “pure” Android experience, as opposed to the phones made by other manufacturers which usually layer manufacturer-specific alterations to “stock” Android. Nexus phones get software updates as soon as they’re available, and they are usually very well received and affordable relative to Samsung and Apple flagships.

Now it’s being reported that “Nexus” is gone, and the new name is “Pixel.” Pixel is not new, of course, being the brand under which they’ve been producing high-end Chromebooks and one (so far) Android tablet. Google reportedly intends the Pixel line of phones to not just serve as showcases for stock Android, but to assert a new level of control over the entire Android experience. The devices themselves, which will be built by HTC, will not carry any HTC branding. Not Nexus, not HTC’s Nexus, but a Pixel phone. A Google phone.

David Ruddock at Android Police has a piece today in which he ponders what the grander strategy is, and this part grabbed me:

This “Pixel versus Nexus” distinction matters a great deal. By framing the Pixel and Pixel XL as Google products and not as Android ones, and by removing all discussion of “partners,” Google will finally be able to assert that, if only implicitly, it is offering a counterpoint to Apple’s iPhones.

It’s more than a name change, and more than Google simply throwing more weight around. This is part of Google’s overall effort to instill in consumers the idea that it is “Google” that they can trust to make their lives better.

Let’s back up. This past summer, Google unveiled its own take on the digital-assistant-in-your-house thing with Google Home, more or less a googly Amazon Echo. This same digital-assistant tech will also live in its upcoming messenger platform Allo, and already more or less exists in a less-personified form in Google Now on Android phones.

But what’s different about what Google does here than what Amazon or Apple does? I mean apart from whatever back-end, A.I., deep-learning, jiggery-pokery is going on in server farms. When you want to talk to the digital assistant on an iPhone, you talk to Siri. When you want to talk to the Echo, you ask Alexa. When you want something from Google, you just ask Google.

Google doesn’t want to separate itself from its interactions with you. It doesn’t want you to imagine some “character” answering your questions. Google wants you to ask Google. Google is the company and the character.

Google is also the search engine. You don’t look up information at the “Nexus Search,” you google, as in the neologistic verb. Your photos live in Google Photos, your stuff is synced on Google Drive. Google is the agent, the entity, that you look to.

But not with phones. Not now, anyway. Following digital thinking, I’m going to guess that “Pixel” is the name of the phone model. There’s the Apple iPhone, the Samsung Galaxies, the Amazon Kindle, and now the Google Pixel. Not “Google and HTC’s Pixel,” but the Google Pixel.

That means it’s an honest to goodness Google phone, just like the Pixel C is a Google tablet and the Chromebook Pixel is a Google laptop.

And perhaps most importantly, again leaning on digital piece, is that the new phones aren’t “Android phones,” any more than Apple is known for “iOS phones” or Samsung for “TouchWiz (gag) phones.” For years, the tech press discussion has been about iPhone vs. Android, but Android means a million different things in a million different contexts in a million different iterations.

Android is just the operating system, and it’s not the brand that regular consumers seek out. Almost no one other than enthusiasts go into carrier stores and ask for the latest Android phones. They might ask for the latest Samsung or Galaxy phone, but not Android. Again, no more than they ask about the latest “iOS phone.”

I frankly think Android as a brand is more or less alienating to most folks, evoking the image of something geeky and complicated. Notice that the Android device manufacturers almost never mention the word Android in their PR. They know that no one other than techies care about that. Brands like Apple, iPhone, and Galaxy give feelings of bedazzlement over cool, useful things. “Android,” I suspect, sounds like homework.

But you know what people do feel comfortable with? Google. You know what’s a nice, cute, safe word that feels both phone-related and still friendly? Pixel. Androids are semi-humanoid robots who have no feelings and might want to take over the world. Pixels are colorful things that make screens glow!

(Imagine how confused folks will get when their Google phone breaks and and they then google “how to fix dead pixel.”)

Google Home, Pixel, and all these other initiatives are of a piece. They’ve decided, I think, to stop making disparate products under disparate banners. Phones, operating systems, tablets, laptops, browsers, search engines, IOT/home devices, digital assistants – we’re meant to stop thinking of these things as separate brands in various arenas. They’re all just part of one thing, and to integrate them into your life, you just think, “OK, Google.”

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Apple is Both Tone Deaf and in Tune

Settle in as I express my deep disappointment at Apple, and then turn around and vigorously defend them on a totally separate point. On one issue, I find them being arbitrarily and arrogantly dismissive of an enormous proportion of their users, and on another, I find them  with what users need and want from a smartphone. They are simultaneously in tune and tone deaf. I know, it’s dizzying! Join me, won’t you?


Photo credit: woodleywonderworks via Foter.com / CC BY

As you are no doubt aware, the newly-announced iPhone 7 and 7 Plus do not have standard headphone jacks. No reason they’ve offered up for this decision holds water to me, and the fact that Phil Schiller characterized the decision as an example of “courage” is simply laughable. There’s no feature or innovation of the iPhones 7 that, as far as I can tell, required nixing the headphone jack. And its presence wouldn’t have prevented them emphasizing Lightning port-connected or wireless headphones. They could still have included Lightning headphones in the box, if they really think they’re so much better than analogue headphones.

I know the term is becoming cliché, but ditching the headphone jack is user-hostile. iPhones, to be sure, are high-end luxury devices, and on paper you might presume that anyone who can afford one can certainly make a change to all-wireless or all-Lightning headphones without much pain. But we all know that freaking everyone has iPhones. With carrier subsidies and installment plans, iPhone owners span economic strata. People of all means, ages, and technical acumen own iPhones, and want to have the latest iPhones.

Headphones, meanwhile, are a real democratizing technology. Yes, there are high-end headphones that cost ridiculous amounts of money, and even “mid-range” headphones are out of reach for many consumers. But anyone can afford cheap earbuds and enjoy the audio on their phones. Companies like Panasonic make incredibly inexpensive and well-regarded headphones that anyone can buy and afford to replace if they get lost or break. Headphones can be had by anyone, and enable anyone to hear what their phone can produce.

Apple doesn’t care about that anymore. I know they included a Lightning-to-analogue adapter, but people will lose it. They included Lightning EarPods in the box, but those will also get lost or break. And millions and millions of people already own headphones they already like, and Apple’s decided that it doesn’t really matter. Headphones were the great equalizer for these astoundingly-great, expensive, high-end electronics. Not anymore, as far as Apple’s concerned, and I think that kind of sucks.

This is part of why this is not analogous to Apple’s rejection of previous computing standards, like their nixing of floppy drives from the iMac and the end of optical drives in latter-day MacBooks: the user-base of floppy and optical drives does not begin to approach the universality of analogue headphones. Excluding floppy and optical drives in computers effected a certain subset of consumers who 1) used computers, 2) used Macs, and 3) made regular use of those drives. That’s a fraction of a fraction of a fraction. On the other hand, we have the set if people who use iPhones (approximately 79 bazillion), and the subset of those who rely on the headphones jack (approximately all). It’s a failed analogy.


Photo credit: Luis Marina via Foter.com / CC BY

Now, they have every right to change their product any way they choose, and the market can decide whether or not such a change is a deal-breaker. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s wise or in keeping with the ethos I feel like they purport to be guided by.

Okay, now, take a breath, I am now going to defend Apple. Here’s the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo on the iPhone 7, who says “Apple’s aesthetics have grown stale.”

As competitors have borrowed and even begun to surpass Apple’s best designs, what was iconic about the company’s phones, computers, tablets and other products has come to seem generic. …

… The bigger problem is an absence of delight. I recently checked in with several tech-pundit friends for their assessment of Apple’s aesthetic choices. “What was the last Apple design that really dazzled you?” I asked.

There was a small chorus of support for the MacBook, the beautifully tiny (if functionally flawed) laptop that Apple released last year. But most respondents were split between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 5 — two daring smartphone designs that were instantly recognized as surpassing anything else on the market.

Readers of this blog know that I have not been an iPhone user since the 5S, and have happily been in the land of Android…almost too happy. So I have no brand-identity motivation to defend Apple’s choices. (I mean, I just got finished crapping all over them, so.)

I’ve heard a lot of this kind of hand-wringing over the fact that the iPhone hasn’t changed in its broader design over three product generations. I shared some of this feeling for a while, wondering why Apple hadn’t been going out of its way to blow us all away with some delightful new novelty in phone design. But now I think I get it.

What’s a smartphone, really? It’s a computer with a touch display, meant to be held in the hand. There are theoretically any number of ways one could approach coming up with a form factor for such a device, but particularly when you’re talking about something so utterly ubiquitous as an iPhone, there’s not a lot of wiggle room left after you get down to “thin rounded rectangle.”

Now, I adore some of the more novel smartphone designs of many Android phones. I thought the LG G4 was surprisingly wonderful with its leather back and ever-so-slightly curved screen; Motorola’s 2014/2015 aesthetic with sloping backs, rear “dimples,” and metallic edges I thought was delightfully striking; the Nextbit Robin is beautifully quirky and industrial; and of course Samsung’s current line of Galaxy S and Note devices are almost jewel-like. They’re all great.

But the current iPhone design is great, too. I’ll admit, I at first was a little underwhelmed by the look of the 6-era iPhones when they were introduced. But hold a 6/6S Plus in your hand (without a case) and the cold, smooth feel of it is startling. You almost feel like you shouldn’t be trusted with something like it. Before we switched carriers, my wife had the black iPhone 6-regular, and I was jealous of it. Not for its software experience, but just for that shape and that color.

But even if I hadn’t personally found the iPhone design so evocative and attractive, the market has spoken, and it has said loud and clear with the chorus of tens of millions of voices, “This design is great.” People like the shape and feel of iPhones as they are now.

And that design also just works. People find it sufficiently ergonomic, and the basic form factor allows Apple to put into the phone what it feels like it has to (at least up until its rebuff of the 1/8″ aux port). You know what that also sounds like? Computers. Which the iPhone is, by the way.

Look at Apple’s MacBooks. They fiddle around the edges of the design, but all in all, their laptops have looked more or less the same since 2001. The biggest shift in design was the MacBook Air which morphed to the current-day suffix-less MacBook, and that’s been consistent since 2011. This is because those forms work really, really well and also happen to look really good. And really, the entire laptop industry is essentially made up of products that are variations on screen-that-folds-down-on-keyboard. I mean, tablets haven’t been able to meaningfully hurt laptops because it turns out that the platonic laptop form is just about right.

Here’s more from the Manjoo piece:

The company says it does not change its designs just for the sake of change; the current iPhone design, which debuted in 2014, has sold hundreds of millions of units, so why mess with success? In a video accompanying the iPhone 7 unveiling on Wednesday, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design chief, called the device the “most deliberate evolution” of its design vision for the smartphone.

As much as I have been rolling my eyes at the grand pronouncements of Jonny Ive of late, I agree with him here. The design is deliberate, not the result of a lack of vision. They got it right in 2014, right for the market as it exists. To interpret the fact that they didn’t totally overhaul the iPhone form (perhaps a sphere? or something like this?) as a lack of vision or chops is, I think, short-sighted, and probably a symptom of focusing on a relatively new device category as it starts to mature.

I think it’s enough that each new phone released by any manufacturer is better than its predecessor. There are a lot of ways to be “better,” and only one of them is cosmetically.

And shit, you’re just going to put a case on it anyway.

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Quirky: Adapting for Asperger’s at the Expense of Sincerity


No really, I’m like this all the time.

Coming to terms with being a 38-year-old man with Asperger’s, having only been diagnosed a few weeks ago, has naturally lead to reexaminations of my behavior. The first things I’ve focused on have been those aspects of my personality that put me blatantly at odds with the rest of the species, such as my extreme introversion, my inability to read others’ signals or intentions, and my aversion to overstimulation.

But as some of this has begun to settle, I also find myself going a few layers deeper, and I realize just how much of my identity is wrapped up in how I’ve compensated for the hindrances of Asperger’s. Some of the more interesting exploration is not about my differences, but my adaptations — the behaviors I’ve adopted to mitigate those differences. Successful adaptations, even.

As I’ve noted before, some people have trouble accepting my Asperger’s diagnosis as a valid one, because all they see are the adaptations. They see me as someone who’s generally smart and funny and well spoken, someone who is obviously not “the average guy,” but someone a little different, just a little odd, and harmlessly so. A bit nerdy, a little geeky, and humorously self-effacing about all of it. Maybe a little too self-effacing, but oh, that’s just Paul. One of his many quirks.

That’s me. I’m quirky.

Paul says some weird things sometimes, or Paul gets oddly quiet and distant, or Paul seems to find everything funny, but also every once in a while he takes something too seriously, and talks a little too much, too fast, and too loud. But that’s just his quirkiness.

If anyone comes away with that impression of me, as “quirky,” then I have successfully adapted as best I could. Once it became clear to me, probably around my mid-teens, that I was never going to be considered “normal,” and not even in the same universe as “cool,” I decided (partly consciously, partly unconsciously) that I would adopt a quirky identity. I’d be the funny sidekick, the sarcastic friend, vaguely-artsy oddball, just minimally different enough to cover up just how utterly alien I actually felt. My quirkiness was like a white noise machine to help muffle and distract from the sound of the train line running right next to the house.

Decades of this practice led me to believe that the act was who I really was. In a new social setting, I’m harmless-quirky, making little jokes when it seems safe to do so. With bosses, I’m grinning-idiot-quirky, engaged and overly eager to agree. With closer friends, I’m wry-quirky, able to vent a little of my misanthropic steam, but in a safe and humorous way. And so on.

It even extends into my online persona, where the facepalming-Paul avatar has become my unofficial insignia. I have a quirky logo.

Some of it is natural, some of it is very much forced. But over the years I think I may have gotten so good at it that I don’t know when I’m “working” and when I’m just “being.”

But without this adaptive behavior, I don’t know how I would have navigated the real world. Maybe if I had known I had Asperger’s, and accepted the things that made me different, I wouldn’t have bothered to try so hard to please and to pass. What would I have been like? What happens if I decide to drop the quirk now? What will I be?

I think the scary answer to that is: sincere. I’d be sincere.

I am not an insincere person, per se, not in the way we usually think of that term. I’m not two-faced or deceptive or phony. What I mean by sincerity is a dropping of unnecessary pretenses and performances, allowing whatever person was behind those masks to come out and breathe.

That’s terrifying!

I can’t say with any exactness, but I suspect this hypothetical sincere version of me would be less expressive when in the company of others. Even in conversation, I might look distant or even severe, even if my actual feelings were entirely benign. I would interject less often, and save my words for when they might contribute to something. That might make me appear disinterested or “shy,” even if I felt neither. A more sincere version of me might excuse himself entirely earlier and more often in order to recover from the stresses of stimuli.

A sincere version of me would be less concerned with a projected personal, online and off. He would not think so much about cultivating a “brand” for himself, and simply let his work and his words speak for themselves. It would likely have no impact on the number Twitter followers I could boast, and this version of me (again, hypothetical) wouldn’t concern himself with that anyway, because why bother.

This sincere-me would relieve himself of the stress brought engendered by worrying over what people thought of his various interests and obsessions. Contemporary geek culture has made the world a safe place for folks to proudly parade their allegiance to various fiction franchises, but that’s not quite what I mean, because what that really adds up to is a new in-group that happens to be made up of people who once languished in out-groups. That’s good and fine, but not what I mean.

I mean that when I have a driving obsession with something that holds no obvious value to anyone but the satisfaction of my own brain, that’s not a failing. It’s not something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of. I can just pursue that interest (within reason and feasibility) without regard to the opinions of others.

And I…I mean this hypothetically sincere version of me…wouldn’t have to make excuses for any of it. He wouldn’t have to apologize, and qualify himself with “I know this is weird” or “this probably seems silly, but…” He…I…would just follow the string of curiosity where it leads, and allow my brain its squirts of dopamine whenever they can be safely had.

The last bit of this is the hope that sincere-me would not indulge his autism and oddness at the expense of his responsibilities to those he loves. I don’t see that as a problem, because one thing that even quirky-me can be sincere about is my love and devotion to my wife and kids. I don’t need to “act” that, no“passing” required. Come to think of it, I’m very lucky for that.

The adaptations of Asperger’s have been enormously expensive in countless ways. They have eaten up time, energy, and my valuation of myself. Maybe over time, as I truly come to terms with this condition and its implications, I can begin to turn down the dials, divert power away from the quirk-generators, and recoup some of what I’ve lost. I would sincerely like that.

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You Choose to Exist Here: Reliving Deep Space Nine

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 10.10.04 PMDeep Space Nine has always been my favorite of all the Star Trek incarnations. Sweeping in scope, meticulous with character, and challenging my moral intuitions, I got the feeling from the entirety from Deep Space Nine that one gets from a rich and satisfying novel: I felt like a better person for having experienced it.

Occasional viewings of particular out of context episodes aside, I’ve been through the series twice. Once when it originally aired in the 90s when I was in high school and college, probably missing a view episodes due to the ephemeral nature of fixed-schedule TV airings (which seems an absurd way to watch a series now); and in the aughts when I was in my twenties, mostly via torrented downloads on my computer and old-school video iPod.

I am now beginning a third time around, in my late 30s, this time alongside my wife who, while no stranger to Star Trek, never saw DS9. We’ve just watched the pilot episode, titled “Emissary,” and there was something different about it this time, some things I truly didn’t expect.

First of all, I think I expected it to seem more dated and hokey. Instead, it came off as rather mature, far more sure of itself than most TV pilots, and head and shoulders and freakin’ torso over other Star Trek pilots. Jessica, to my surprise, said it seemed a little more mawkish than she expected, but within acceptable parameters (my words, she never talks like that). But not for me. It really held up. I rarely felt taken out of the action by something that seemed forced or overdone.

Also, I know that DS9 has the reputation of being the “downer” of the franchise, the “grim” series, but coming back to it, from the beginning, after all these years, this really was something of a shock. The original series, The Next Generation, Voyager, and Enterprise all began their runs with heaps of wonder and optimism. (Things of course go badly wrong for Voyager in order to set the stage for the series, but the hopeful “second star to the right and straight on ’til morning” spirit was always there.)

The series opens with a flashback to a massacre, and our lead protagonist unable to save his dead wife, and having to abandon his ship to a relentless zombie-cyborg force. Being stationed then at Deep Space Nine, née Terok Nor, we are placed in the midst of an ugly transition out of a brutal occupation. In the pilot episode of a Star Trek series, we are immediately faced with violent, pointless deaths and several characters absolutely spilling over with anger, regret, and helplessness. It’s quite stirring, and it all works.

But there was one part that hit me the hardest, that sunk deep into me, and oddly it’s something I’d almost entirely forgotten about from past viewings.

Toward the end of the episode, Ben Sisko is conversing with the skeptical wormhole aliens, non-physical entities who don’t even experience linear time as we do. They speak to him by taking the form of people in his memories, in the very settings he originally experienced them. So, for example, he discusses how humans experience time with his “son” Jake as they sit by what appears to be a lake, or with his late wife “Jennifer” as they walk down the beach where they met. It’s not really Jake and Jennifer, but wormhole aliens who have assumed their forms, taken from Sisko’s memory.

Somehow, Sisko repeatedly finds himself talking to the aliens amid his memory of the day his wife was killed by the Borg, where he sees his wife, dead, under a pile of rubble, as he’s about to be pulled away toward an escape vessel by his Bolian crewmate. Memory after memory, conversation after conversation, Sisko returns to the place and time he lost his wife.

Throughout their conversations, which are some of the headiest and evocative pieces of dialogue one was ever likely to hear on prime time commercial television, Sisko struggles to explain to the aliens how humans and other “corporeal beings” do not exist in a timeless state, but begin an existence, live their lives through a chain of causal events, and then cease to exist. The aliens are entirely unfamiliar with such an existence, and they ask increasingly probing questions in order to grasp the concept.

One thing doesn’t make sense to them. Remember, they only have Sisko’s memories as a frame of reference. Sisko is telling them that corporeal beings travel along a timeline, and make the best of their lives from one moment to the next, aware that each choice affects and allows the moments to come. And yet, they keep returning to the scene of Jennifer’s death. One of them asks Sisko, “If what you say is true, then why do you exist here?!”

It’s not the aliens taking Sisko to this scene, it’s Sisko taking them.

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 10.12.11 PM“I never left this ship,” Sisko says, a realization dawning on him.

“You exist here,” the alien in the form of Jennifer says, also beginning to understand.

“I exist here,” says Sisko. “I don’t know if you can understand.” He begins to sob, increasingly so as he speaks. “I see her like this, every time I close my eyes. In the darkness, in the blink of an eye, I see her… like this!”

“None of your past experiences helped prepare you for this consequence.”

“And I have never figured out how to live without her.”

“So, you choose to exist here,” says the alien, and Sisko nods. “It is not linear.”

“No,” he says, drained, exposed, defeated. “It’s not linear.”

In previous viewings, this scene was meaningful, but to the extent that it was a character I was interested in coming to terms with something painful. It did not truly resonate with me.

Now, as I approach 40, with a wife and two children that I love beyond measure, and with an ongoing struggle with my own post-traumatic stress, I understood.

For so long after I was attacked, I existed there, on that sidewalk, in the dark, with the sounds of footfalls running toward me, of the blows to my head and body, the impact of the concrete, the vertigo of the stumbling walk home. I existed there.

I existed in the throngs of middle school classmates joyfully mocking me, I existed in the oppressive air of the abuse and scrutiny (real and imagined) of my preteen and teenage years. Decades on, I stayed there.

And much to the sadness and frustration of those who loved me, but couldn’t understand, it was not linear.

I suppose I simply hadn’t yet lived enough to truly understand Sisko’s journey before. It’s amazing to me now, to think that this profound, climactic lesson of my favorite show just flitted away in previous viewings. I’m so glad I came back to it now to experience in earnest. I wonder what else Deep Space Nine will show me this time that it couldn’t before.

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This Fucking Guy: How Our Shitty Electoral System Let a Monster Run Maine

1024px-LepageumaineEven in the Age of Trump, one political figure stands out above all others as the lowest of the low, the king of the boors, the bastard of disaster, Paul LePage, second-term governor of the great state of Maine, my home.

In just the last 72 hours, he has left a threatening voicemail with a state legislator, promising to “come after you” and calling him a “cocksucker.” He also demanded the legislator “prove I’m a racist,” which LePage quickly did all by himself:

When you go to war, if you know the enemy, the enemy dresses in red and you dress in blue, you shoot at red, don’t you? You shoot at the enemy. You try to identify the enemy. And the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority right now coming in are people of color or people of Hispanic origin. I can’t help that. I just can’t help it. Those are the facts.

These are just the latest two examples of what kind of an abysmal pit of a human being he is.

Believe me when I tell you that Maine is a good state. The people are by and large good-hearted, decent, and tolerant. There is a generosity of spirit within the state’s culture that I’ve not seen the likes of in any other place I’ve lived. Now, of course, Maine is populated by humans, and that means a large number of them will be assholes, ignoramuses, vultures, bullies, cowards, and gross opportunists. Such is homo sapiens in all its wonder.

But Paul LePage does not represent the Maine I know. His governorship is not a true reflection of the politics, nor even the simplest notions of decency, of Mainers as a whole. And yet somehow he has been elected the state’s leader, twice. How could this be?

You might already know that in both of LePage’s gubernatorial races, he faced not one but two opponents: A Democratic nominee, and an independent, Eliot Cutler. Now, Maine has a history of being open to independent candidacies that sets it apart from other states. Sen. Angus King is one such independent, and was previously a very popular governor. It is rational for other potentially-strong independent candidates to think they have a realistic shot at being elected over the major party candidates.

You know how this ends, of course. In 2010 the vote was more or less split three ways, with LePage eking out a plurality victory with almost 38%, and the independent Cutler coming in second with 36%, and the Democrat Libby Mitchell lagging with about 19%. Fast forward to 2014 and the unthinkable was thunk all over again, but this time Cutler faltered, earning only a little over 8% of the vote, but enough to deny a victory to the Democrat, Rep. Mike Michaud, who lost with 43% to LePage’s 48%.

I say that Cutler denied a victory to Michaud because there was very little overlap in those who favored both Cutler and LePage. Had Cutler not run, Michaud would have won. In 2010, had the Democrats realized they were out of luck that year, they could have rallied behind Cutler, and kept LePage from ever having gotten near the governorship, with a guaranteed blowout victory.

So is it all Cutler’s fault? Is it Libby Mitchell’s for not facing reality in 2010? In the narrow view, yes. For the good of the state they sought to lead, they should both have examined their consciences and done what needed to be done to stop LePage from becoming governor.

But in the broad view, the fault lies not with the candidates, who rationally believe they have a shot to win and a right to run, but with the electoral system itself. Hate the game, not the player.

I’m talking of course about the first-past-the-post system used for almost every office in American politics, where the person who simply gets the most votes – not the candidate who gets a majority of votes, and that’s important – wins. Pluralities, not majorities, decide who takes power. And pluralities have a funny way of being very small and very unrepresentative of electorates as a whole.

Let’s pretend that Maine instead used a voting method that allowed voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. If voters get to indicate their second and third (and so on) choices on their ballots, non-viable candidates can be eliminated and a real consensus can emerge.

You might have heard of Ranked Choice Voting or Instant Runoff Voting (insider secret: they’re the same thing!), particularly during the 2000 election when Ralph Nader began to whittle away at Al Gore’s support. It’s actually wicked simple.

To be brief, you look at your ballot, and you mark your favorite candidate with a 1, your second-favorite with a 2, and so on. In 2010, a Mitchell voter would likely have indicated Cutler as their second choice (not all of them, of course). So when the ballots were counted and showed that Mitchell had come in third place for first-choice votes, she’d have been eliminated, and those ballots would then be allocated to Mitchell voters’ second choices. Most of those would have been for Cutler, and Cutler would have gone over the 50% mark, winning with an actual majority instead of a mere plurality.

If you have a gut reaction to this along the lines of “well that doesn’t seem fair,” let me put it this way: Is it fair that the person taking office is someone wholly rejected and disliked by two-thirds of the electorate? By counting the second-choice votes of non-viable candidates, the electorate gets the candidate who was the true consensus choice of the majority. Mitchell voters, otherwise relegated to electoral irrelevance, can now say, “If I can’t have Mitchell, I’ll take Cutler,” and actually be heard. They still count.

Now repeat this for 2014. Chances are most Cutler voters (doomed to see their candidate get crushed) would have preferred Michaud over LePage. Eliminate Cutler in the first “round,” reallocate his supporters’ second-choice votes, and you probably have Michaud eking out a majority.

Or maybe you don’t! Maybe I’m wrong about who Cutler voters would have preferred and you still get a LePage win, but at least that would reflect the actual will of the electorate. As you can imagine, though, I find that implausible, and despite LePage’s strong 48% showing in 2014, a sizable enough portion of Cutler’s slice of the electorate would have pushed Michaud over the 50% mark, needing only an additional 6 and a half percent or so.

If Florida had used such a system in 2000, it’s inconceivable that Gore would not have won the state, being the overwhelming second-choice of Nader voters, and saving us from eight years of horror. And more to the point, it would have been the fair thing to do, representing the actual majority consensus of Florida’s voters. You know, “the people.”

(Now imagine if the current presidential election were closer than it is, and it really looked like Gary Johnson or Jill Stein might tilt the race from Clinton to Trump, when you know for certain that Trump doesn’t have the support of the majority of Americans. Yeah, think about that. Think hard about it, then get a drink.)

This is so obvious to me, that it pains me that the push to get ranked choice systems in place, even experimentally, is such an uphill slog. I was in the slog, having worked for FairVote back in the aughts, which is the country’s main advocate for these kinds of reform. There is a real movement to get this adopted in Maine statewide, as it has already been working successfully in the mayoral elections for Portland, Maine since 2011.

So let me wind this down by narrowing the focus back to the Goblin King of New England. Maine is not a state of grotesque monsters, and yet because of our first-past-the-post voting system, we have one for governor, and he’s one that threatens people who get under his skin and talks about shooting down black and Hispanic people. And that’s just what he says out loud. His policies (and just as important, the policies he blocks) are as dark and soulless as his words and his heart.

That’s not Maine. That’s not us. I wish we had a voting system that allowed us to say so.

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You Don’t Seem Autistic to Me: Asperger’s and the Fear of Not Being Believed

[Updated below]

Do you remember when you were a kid, and being sick meant the tantalizing possibility of staying home from school for a day? I was usually pretty pleased to be just sick enough to avoid the misery of middle and high school, as long as the illness in question wasn’t something agonizing. (I did have some brutal ear infections back then that I did not enjoy.)

I remember that I would become pretty defensive about just how sick I really was. “Are you sure you’re not well enough to get through the day?” my parents would ask. I, taken aback by my parents’ skepticism, would respond with incredulity. “Yeeeesssss! I’m suuuuuure!” That defensiveness was due to the fact that I knew I wanted to be sick, and I knew that it was possible that I could maybe make it through the day, that I was perhaps playing it up a bit. It didn’t occur to me then, but does now, that this over-dramatization of illness on my part was probably already being taken into account by my parents and their decision to allow me to stay home. Melodrama was built into the stock, as it were.

Today something very similar is cropping up for me in a whole new way with my recent diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. (Here’s my first post on this new revelation, and some follow-up.) I am finding myself feeling very defensive about the fact of my condition. I am often under the suspicion that certain people in my life doubt the reality of my Asperger’s, that they think I’ve either gotten a bad diagnosis, or that I’ve somehow manipulated the process to get it.

In reality, only one person has actually said anything like this, and it was said with the best and most generous of intentions, saying that I am just too “charming” and personable to be someone with Asperger’s, comparing the behavior they see from me with others they know with the same condition, and who seem very, very different.

And I get that. Many people with Asperger’s, and many of the fictionalized portrayals of Asperger’s in entertainment, have glaringly severe social impairments that are obvious and off-putting to neurotypical people. There are aspies who really look like they “have something.” Whereas I don’t seem that way to most people. I would venture to say that no one, save my wife and therapist, would have ever entertained the notion that I might be at all autistic. I pass extremely well in most cases.

And why wouldn’t I? I have spent the better part of four decades trying to not seem like an alien, but suffering under the constant stress of my what I perceived to be scrutiny and revulsion from others. I had every incentive to appear as normal, as charming, as personable, and as funny as possible when in the company of people. And when attention on me wasn’t a requirement, my incentive was to blend, to disappear, to go as unnoticed as possible. As far as my brain was concerned, this was a struggle for survival. I, at a biological level, believed I needed to pass and to blend in order to live.

And I had no idea why it was so, so incredibly hard. I had to assume it was my own stupidity, laziness, obliviousness, or defectiveness.

So of course I don’t seem like an aspie to most people most of the time. As a contrast, there’s a person I know who I strongly suspect is also an aspie, but hasn’t felt the same need to adapt or ingratiate themselves to others, and has instead fully embraced their quirks, to hell with everyone else if they don’t like it. I never had the luxury to go in that direction, and it never occurred to me to be an option. I felt I had absolutely no choice but to pass.

And like the kid who is secretly glad to be sick in order to be able to stay home and watch TV all day, I wanted this diagnosis. I hoped the neuropsychologist would come back with a clear statement that I, indeed, had Asperger’s. It promised to explain so much of the pain and alienation and utter confusion I’ve experienced all my life, and it would mean that it wasn’t all due to my own failures to “live up” to the rest of the world’s norms and expectations. So I worried that in my testing, I might unconsciously try to “game the system,” and make myself seem more “aspie” (as though I would really know how to do that). Just as I was worried about others’ suspicions of me, I was suspicious of myself.

This worry, though, turned out to be a pointless one. The testing, which took about 10 hours total, was so, well, alien to me, so removed from anything that I thought could relate to Asperger’s or much of anything else, I couldn’t have gamed it if I’d wanted to. And like the mom who already presumes their sick kid is probably overstating things just a little, these tests and evaluations have unconscious leanings already taken into account, as their abstractness and inscrutability are a definite check against the gilding of psychological lilies.

In the interviews and written portions of the evaluation, I did check myself for embellishment, but it turned out I felt no impulse to embellish. Honest, straightforward answers according to my own genuine thoughts and feelings were enough. They spilled out. I told my story as honestly as one could, because that story was full and rich and silly and sad all by itself. It didn’t need any dramatization or exaggeration. It was whole on its own.

And the doctor’s diagnosis was indeed definitive. There was no hedging, no “jump ball,” as Ray Romano’s character on Parenthood put it when he looked into the possibility of being an aspie himself. It was for sure. The doctor described it as “severe,” meaning firmly on the spectrum, and she explained how my results on the barrage of seemingly unrelated tests all confirmed this, one after the other.

She also described how people with Asperger’s commonly find themselves drawn to the arts and to acting in particular. Aspies usually have sharp minds and good observational skills, and use those to their advantage in learning particular crafts and in the imitation of others’ mannerisms and behavior. I’m a pretty good stage actor, and it turns out I’m also a pretty good neurotypical imitator. As I said, I’ve had almost 40 years of practice.

So it’s no surprise that I don’t “seem” autistic to most people. The doctor actually tried to impress upon me what a remarkable achievement it is that I’ve gotten this far, with a master’s degree and a meaningful job and a wonderful wife and amazing kids, all while trudging through this morass, and navigating through the confounding labyrinth of my differently-wired brain.

But rather than take pride, I tend to feel defensive. I still stress over scrutiny. I still worry about the doubts of others. Just as I’ve felt like a fraudulent human, always about to unmasked and humiliated (which, remember, I internalize as a genuine threat to my survival), here I am again afraid that others will think my autism is overstated or a mere performance.

Just last night I had a conversation about my autism with someone who has their own personal experience with people close to them who also have Asperger’s, and I felt like I was drowning. I rambled and sputtered, I spoke too loud and too fast, and I kept lurching back and forth between filling up conversational space and worrying that I had gone on too long. I was a hot mess, and now I realize it was because I was afraid I wasn’t being believed. This person had not said or done anything to make me think that, but I just thought that. In discussing something so new and personal and raw, I scrambled and flailed to protect myself.

I don’t want to feel that way anymore. Part of this new chapter of my life is the beginnings of acceptance and belief in myself, regardless of what others think, or even more important, what I perceive or suspect they think. That would be true even if I didn’t have Asperger’s.

This is real. This is who I am, and who I have always been. And though it is as old as I am, for now it is also new. In some ways, I am new. The coming months and years will find me experimenting with and easing into new ways of being and behaving that better suit me, and stepping back from many of the affectations and masks I’ve layered upon myself over the years. Many of those layers will stay, because they, too, are me.

I guess, when it comes down to it, I get to decide. I will try not to make that process harder on myself by worrying about the imagined doubts of others, which only fixes those layers more firmly in place.

Update August 27: Since writing this, one thing should be clarified. Some of the doubt I imagine to exist, but likely doesn’t, is about me, but another more problematic version of skepticism is doubt about the neuropsychologist who diagnosed me. And I just don’t know what to say to that. She’s an expert in her field, with decades of experience, and a particular specialization in adults on the spectrum, and she tested me for hours and hours over a period of months. And that’s in addition to the diagnosis of my regular therapist. But they don’t know what they’re talking about? 

Honestly, if you think my doctor is wrong, I don’t know what to say to you. I’m not sure why you’d know better than them, or know enough to think they somehow screwed up completely. But it’s very frustrating.

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