All that in 5 seconds?

My post Google Male over at The Odd Is Silent is a stream-of-consciousness description of my reaction to a bad Google Voice translation.  It’s been polished up a bit and the multiple parallel trains of thought serialized into narrative form but it’s faithful to the actual process.

On reading it Morag asked “How can all that go through your head in 5 seconds?!”  I don’t propose that the answer to that question is entirely due to my autism, but I do suspect it is at least strongly influenced by it so I’m responding here.

For as long as I can remember, a key part of my communication deficit has been that my thoughts race ahead so much faster than I can verbalize them. For many people the phrase “lose my train of thought” refers to a complexity problem or a bookmark problem. They either get lost in the intricacies of the concepts or else have composed something specific and end up focusing more on articulating it faithfully than on the content itself.

But in my case “losing my train of thought” is more like the train is pulling away from the station too fast. Problem is, I’m on the train and the other person is on the platform. I try to stay anchored in the conversation at the platform but my thoughts race me away so fast that sometimes this isn’t possible. To an external observer the result may be indistinguishable from the complexity or bookmark problems even though the root cause is completely different.

One of the things that I experience regularly in social discourse is that my struggling with verbal communication is perceived as by being “slow.” Not when talking about something in which I have expert knowledge of course, but when making small talk some people come away with the impression that I can’t keep up. Ironically, what’s happening in these cases is almost always the opposite – I’m working hard to slow the thoughts down and focus so I can express a thought before it is replaced by ten more and I can’t get it back.

It’s takes conscious, deliberate, and focused attention to pull that off which is why after presenting a conference session or two I usually go back to my room to chill out. Not so much at MQTC because it’s a much smaller event and it’s more like a reunion than a conference, but definitely at the larger events.

So the process for the Google Male blog post went something like this:

  1. Open email from Google
  2. Humor ensues resulting in a brief pause
  3. Frantically write notes for 5 minutes
  4. Ponder it for a day
  5. Take an hour to convert the written and mental notes to the finished post

(Spoiler alert, if you haven’t read Google Male yet these give much of it away so if you plan to do so, now’s the time.)

In the 5-second span described in the post, the germ of each of these ideas was born:

  • I thought it was weird my friend had left a voice mail that mentioned having a penis.
  • I thought it was weird it had a definitive “cutoff” date and time.
  • I thought it was weird the time was within the next few hours and why wasn’t she in the hospital prepping?
  • I wondered how she’d call from the hospital afterward and about the interval of time she considered “right after”.
  • Somewhere in all of this I was reminded of a couple friends in gender transition and wondered if they’d find all this offensive or funny. If I believed they’d find it offensive I’d not have posted it.
  • It occurred to me that it must be a temporary thing and I wondered how that worked, which led to the image of a car dealership and a showroom. (The lineage of that probably traces back to the old joke about picking your nose in the plastic surgeon’s office, another case of selecting body customization from a matrix of pre-set offerings and juxtaposed against a social taboo.)
  • Then I remembered brain surgery which is done under local anesthesia and thinking it would be one type of major procedure where you could have that phone call during the operation. Cue the image of someone in a cranial cradle with their brain exposed chatting casually on the phone while the surgeon is mucking about with the gray matter.  Now morph that by putting the patient in stirrups and have the doctor mapping nerves “down there” instead of in the skull.
  • I wondered why call me about this and why I hadn’t got the call when the thing had first been attached.

That was the essence of the entire post and it happened near-instantaneously.  I don’t actually know that it was 5 seconds because there’s no subjective passage of time when this occurs, it’s more like a flash of inspiration in which fully realized ideas just materialize with one hell of a lot of detail and texture. The return of conscious control and re-entry to normal subjective time is always a bit jarring and generally marks the moment when I recognize what’s happened.

The experience is a lot like waking up from a dream and trying to write it down before you lose it.  It’s also similar to the petit mal seizures I used to have as a kid except that I never completely lose awareness of the outside world and it can be interrupted, for example to alert for danger, a ringing phone, a tap on the shoulder, etc.

The experience and my handling of it has evolved over time.  As a kid I only had two communication modes. I was either in my own head quietly thinking along at my natural pace, or else I was attempting to talk at that same pace, giving voice to every thread of thought, annoying the crap out of everyone around me and wondering why I got back negative reactions like frustration, anger, and dismissal.  Very often I was frustrated because it seemed to me that everyone else was slow and it was the rest of the world that couldn’t keep up with me.

It took a long time before I figured out that I needed to slow down verbally and try to focus on a single conversational track when trying to converse with other humans.  Problem is, when I try to focus on one thing the random thoughts don’t subside on command.  I have to erect and maintain mental walls to keep the distracting thoughts out.  My experience while in this state is akin to a swarm of hornets trying to invade my conscious sphere from all directions.  The nature of each invading thought in relation to the subject of my intended focus describes a facet on the surface of that conscious sphere where the two overlap or intersect in some way.

Over time as more and more of those facets are described and fixed in place the more the boundaries and structure of that sphere of consciousness becomes perceptible.  Where those facets cluster together describes a strong interaction or dependency between two things.  I find it fascinating, entertaining and enlightening to walk those boundaries in my mind until they are thoroughly mapped out. It’s incredibly easy to lose myself mapping out those intersections if I drop my focus for even a second.  This is the train that transports me away from the platform and from our conversation if I’m not careful.

With enough practice I could probably learn to suppress it entirely but I’m afraid to try since this is key to how I earn my living.  When I’m analyzing any sort of systems, but especially software systems, mapping those boundaries and intersections is not a distraction but in fact is the primary goal.  With a good enough map one can accurately describe the ways in which things will break or when faced with a broken system work backwards to identify the set of things that could have caused it.

This is the pattern recognition sense that I often credit for whatever natural talent I have as a software systems analyst and architect.  There are two aspects of this that I suspect are elevated above the general population.  One is that the knowledge base on which I draw for insight is very broad and sufficiently deep to discern connections between things that are only distantly related, and which other people tend to miss.  From outside my head it’s a bit hard to follow.  For example my pitch for why we need to prioritize digital privacy and intellectual property starts off with an explanation of the dynamics of audio feedback loops – the squeal of a microphone held too close to the speaker.  I have a very hard time explaining privacy and IP rights without first giving that example but the two things seem so unrelated to most people that it’s more confusing than helpful.  To me the connection is intuitive and critical to a complete understanding of the problem.

The other aspect of this that I suspect is unusual is that in many cases the perception is instantaneous or close to it.  In Why I don’t do Christmas cards I describe how many people just “know” whether another person is sincere.  They are unconsciously analyzing micro-expressions, body language, and spoken communications in real time to get a sense of the other person without necessarily being able to explain how they arrived at it.

While I can’t do this at all with people it is a good analogy for how I perceive complex software systems.  If I know enough about the systems involved, I perceive their interactions, boundary surfaces, overlaps and limits as an intuitive sense, and I just “know” things without necessarily being able to describe how I arrived at that knowledge.

Very often when I’m diagnosing a problem I intuitively “know” the answer within minutes but then spend have to devise the means by which to demonstrate it.  It turns out that business clients tend to insist on logical explanations and proof before committing hundreds of thousands of dollars based on my advice.  If I can’t explain my recommendations, or if the explanation of a software problem begins with a physics lesson, I don’t get asked to return.

This also explains why I do my best work at night.  It is only when I stop trying to block the invading thoughts and embrace them that I enter a state of flow.  The analysis I do in that state is what people pay me for.  Since I’ve focused on Enterprise Network Security and am responsible for tightening up the security of many vendors you and I rely on daily, I consider this my mission in life.  That I’m paid to follow that passion and that it makes a positive difference in the world are a continual source of amazement to me and I’m grateful every day for it.  But it isn’t something that switches on and off.  It’s almost impossible to maintain a state of flow and pay even the slightest attention to the phone, chat, emails, and other interruptions that go on all day.

Getting back to the 5 seconds which inspired the blog post, it was one of those instantaneous things.  I knew immediately that the email was unusual and funny, and with an incredible amount of detail about a great many ways in which that was so.  When I wrote that those things went through my head in 5 seconds the description was a bit lazy of me.  What actually happened was that one of those conceptual objects materialized fully formed in my thoughts and in sufficient detail that I could write a book.

The 5 seconds I spent next was kind of like when you win the shopping spree and they give you a cart and some allotted time to grab all you can.  In this case I just grabbed the low-hanging fruit and generated English descriptions to approximate the concepts I happened to pick.  The number of things listed in the post isn’t remarkable because it is large but rather because it is so small.  Some of the omitted material was too bawdy.  Some relied on connections between seemingly unrelated things.  But most of the omitted material was funny only in context of my personal experience.  I laugh out loud recalling those but nobody else would get the joke so I struck it.  The post is what’s left after all that culling.

Sorry for a long-ish answer to the seemingly simple question of “How can all that go through your head in 5 seconds?!”  I figured the seemingly simple response of “how can it not?” didn’t do it justice.

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