# Seeing Red

These vandalized goggles were found in my science lab at school yesterday. When I tried them on, they literally had me seeing red.

# Have you noticed what silver’s been doing lately? The price of silver is literally on fire!

Because of the price of silver being literally on fire, they will not be buying and selling troy ounces of metallic silver when the markets open in New York tomorrow morning. Instead, they will be selling “oxide ounces” of silver oxide, in sealed-plastic capsules of this black powder, with an oxide ounce of silver oxide being defined as that amount of silver oxide which contains one troy ounce of silver.

A troy ounce of silver is 31.1 grams of that element, which has a molar mass of 107.868 g/mole. Therefore, a troy ounce of silver contains (31.1 g)(1 mol/107.868 g) = 0.288 moles of silver. An oxide ounce of silver oxide would also contain oxygen, of course, and the formula on the front side of a silver oxide capsule (shown above; information on the back of the capsule gives the number of oxide ounces, which can vary from one capsule to another) is all that is needed to know that the number of moles of oxygen atoms (not molecules) is half the number of moles of silver, or (0.288 mol)/2 = 0.144 moles of oxygen atoms. Oxygen’s non-molecular molar mass is 15.9994 g, so this is (0.144 mol)(15.9994 g/mol) = 2.30 g of oxygen. Add that to the 31.1 g of silver in an oxide ounce of silver oxide, and you have 31.1 g + 2.30 g = 33.4 grams of silver oxide in an oxide ounce of that compound.

In practice, however, silver oxide (a black powder) is much less human-friendly than metallic silver bars, coins, or rounds. As you can easily verify for yourself using Google, silver oxide powder can, and has, caused health problems in humans, especially when inhaled. This is the reason for encapsulation in plastic, and the plastic, for health reasons, must be far more substantial than a mere plastic bag. For encapsulated silver oxide, the new industry standard will be to use exactly 6.6 g of hard plastic per oxide ounce of silver oxide, and this standard will be maintained when they begin manufacturing bars, rounds, and coins of silver oxide powder enclosed in hard plastic. This has created a new unit of measure — the “encapsulated ounce” — which is the total mass of one oxide ounce of silver oxide, plus the hard plastic surrounding it on all sides, for a total of 33.4 g + 6.6 g = 40.0 grams, which will certainly be a convenient number to use, compared to its predecessor-units.

# # #

[This is not from The Onion. We promise. It is, rather, a production of the Committee to Give Up on Getting People to Ever Understand the Meaning of the Word “Literally,” or CGUGPEUMWL, which is fun to try to pronounce.]

# Please do not play pranks on the Aspies

This is not a joke. I don’t know any way to make it plainer than this.

“Aspie,” in case you do not know, is a word commonly used within the community of people with Asperger’s Syndrome, as an informal term for ourselves. I don’t claim to speak for all Aspies, of course, but this is certainly true for me, as well as many others I know. Some Aspies have figured out how to recognize and understand pranks, but I am not one of them. I don’t understand why people play pranks . . . at all.

# What do you mean, you “can’t wait?” Obviously, you can!

Why do people so often, and completely incorrectly, say they “can’t wait” for things? No one ever says this, it seems, unless they already are waiting for whatever they are talking about.

A seasonal example: “I can’t wait for Christmas!”

When I hear this, I generally point out to people that they are already waiting, and therefore, obviously, they can do so.

What is it with this? Why do so many people say this thing that clearly makes no sense at all?

# On Deciphering Informal Medical Language, from an “Aspie” Point of View

Confusion

A major challenge for many Aspies (an informal name many of those with Asperger’s use for ourselves) is communication with the larger, non-Aspie population. Frustration and anger are common reactions to this challenge — sometimes from both sides. The reasons for this are known: these two parts of the population use language quite differently. Aspies tend to use and interpret language in absolute, literal terms, to a point that seems odd to most. Non-Aspies, by contrast, are often more flexible with use of language, and are (somehow) able to convey ideas between themselves using words which mean the exact opposite of their literal meaning. (Several examples will follow.) This difference is all that is required to explain why Aspies and non-Aspies often have trouble communicating with each other.

Just as with most people, Aspies are quite different from each other, but we also have some traits in common. For example, an intense urge to study and analyze some esoteric subject, which few others care about, is common — but the identity of that subject, or subjects, varies widely from one Aspie to another. My special interests all involve puzzles; I enjoy trying to figure out mathematical, scientific, and linguistic problems, in particular. Another Aspie might share none of those interests, but might be able to rattle off, say, hundreds of sports statistics, as easily as I can list the names of dozens of polyhedra. The existence of these “special interests,” as they are known, is (nearly?) universal among Aspies, but the topic of these special interests is not. For example, fewer than 1% of the Aspie population shares my obsession with polyhedra — a fact I know because the world’s most-focused “polyhedra people” are so uncommon that we have established many lines of communication between each other, enabling the formation of a rough estimate of this population. My estimate is ~300 people, worldwide. Even if I am off by a factor of ten, that simply isn’t nearly as many people as 1/10th of 1% of the world’s rapidly-growing Aspie population.

In my experience, medical terminology, in particular, has provided large numbers of baffling puzzles over the years. When talking to medically-trained professionals, I always let them know I am a teacher of science and mathematics. This lets them know that they need not hold back with medical jargon, which has a large overlap with scientific and mathematical jargon. I can understand it fairly well, and, when an unfamiliar term is used, I simply ask for a definition. When I need to, I take notes. If medical instructions are not clear, precise, literal, and detailed, people can die as a result. For this reason, such instructions generally are written in a precise, literal form of English which is a beter match for “Aspiespeak” than what we typically hear from non-Aspies.

On the other hand, when I speak to non-Aspies about medical subjects, I often get quite confused, and I suspect this happens with many other Aspies, as well. Examples follow.

“Nerve pills” — As someone who takes prescribed medication for the relief of anxiety (which is the way a doctor or pharmacist would likely phrase it), I have occasionally been asked if I might benefit from taking a “nerve pill.” Before remembering the translation of this term, I always think, and sometimes say, something along these lines: “I’m already nervous. Why would I take a pill to make me more nervous?” It’s the implied, omitted parts of the phrase, of course, that contribute to my confusion. As it is, this practice makes me wonder why we don’t call deodorant “oderant” instead, a term coined by Jerry Seinfeld, since that would make equally little sense, but would at least be consistent.

The related phrase “pain pills” elicits a similar response from me. Due to a fall over twenty years ago, I already hurt, and, sometimes, I need something that relieves pain — but I never need anything to cause more pain! Fortunately, the people I actually see for such medication, when it is needed, are physicians and pharmacists, and they use literal, precise terms for such medication. They also know the risks of such medication, and conversations with such people are important for anyone needing such medication, for obvious reasons: such medications should only be used in ways consistent with advice from doctors and pharmacists. Patients cannot obtain such advice without having honest conversations with these knowledgeable professionals.

The most confusing informal medical term like this which I hear, though, is the term “crazy pills.” I don’t hide the fact that I obtain professional help for mental health issues, and explained my reasons for this openness here. Most of those who do seek treatment for mental health problems, though, are not Aspies, and so it is quite common to hear such treatment, in the form of medication, referred to by this confusing term, which I must admit I intensely dislike. For one thing, the word “crazy” is not one to use lightly, due to the fact that it has been used, historically, to stigmatize those who need help maintaining or restoring mental health. For another, the literal meaning of “crazy pills” is the exact opposite of its in-use meaning.

The term I use to replace “crazy pills,” in my own speech, is “sanity pills.” Sanity is, after all, my preferred state, and that is the reason the psychiatry-related category on this blog is named “Mental Health,” not “Mental Illness.” Reminders that mental health is the goal are helpful; the opposite focus is not.

Puzzles like this (figuring out non-literal terms used by non-Aspies) are not my favorite kind; in fact, I don’t enjoy them at all, for little or no logic is involved, and any pattern which might help me learn these things more easily has, so far, eluded me. Non-Aspies seem to just intuitively “know” what such phrases mean, as if they got a memo which was deliberately withheld from Aspies — and that is, for me (and many of us), both baffling, and irritating. Can I understand these things? Yes, with difficulty — I have to figure them out, step by step, each time, due to the fact that they do not make logical, literal sense, and thus do not come naturally to me. In fact, studying calculus was easier than understanding these common phrases which nearly everyone else just seems to somehow “know,” as if the knowledge was sent to them telepathically, but deliberately withheld from me, for reasons unknown.

For a fictional depiction of Aspie/non-Aspie confusion, this clip from Star Trek: The Next Generation, while not medically-oriented, does illustrate this commuication-problem in a humorous fashion. When the character of Data was created, some “Aspie” characteristics were deliberately included, just as they were for Mr. Spock, his predecessor. Some Aspies have criticized the Star Trek franchise for these practices, but I, personally, think they have been helpful, in that they use humor to try to bridge the currently-existing comprehension-gap. This gap is not helpful, so anything that narrows it is something I like.

# These phrases, and questions, are likely to confuse people with Asperger’s. Unless confusing us is your goal (and why would you want to do that?), please consider alternate wordings.

Throughout this post, I will refer to people with Asperger’s as “Aspies.” This is not considered a derogatory term; it’s simply how we refer to ourselves.

First, we are not stupid. We also are not trying to be difficult when we say we don’t understand you. We don’t have a disease, and the vast majority of us would refuse a “cure,” if one were discovered, for such a development would be seen by many of us, myself included, as an attempt to commit genocide. Like other groups of people, we want to stay alive, as individuals, and as a culture.

We are, however, different from most people. Our brains are hard-wired in ways that are not typical, with the result that we do not think in the same manner as others. These differences give us certain advantages which we value, but the trade-off comes in the form of problems involving communication with non-Aspies. You can see this in fiction, to get used to the way we think, simply by watching (or reading) Star Trek stories which feature Vulcans, or the android named Data. The difficulties those characters have, when trying to communicate with the humans they encounter, are very much like what happens when Aspies and non-Aspies attempt communication. Why is this the case? The answer is simple:  Star Trek was written that way.

Here are some specific questions, and phrases, which many Aspies find particularly baffling. In each case, I will attempt to explain why this is so.

“Who do you think you are?” — Ask an Aspie this question, and you’re likely to simply be given his or her name, in response. Apparently, this offends some people, but please don’t ask me why, for I don’t understand it myself. If a person were to ask me this question, my first guess would be that the questioner simply forgot my name, and needs a reminder. The meaning of volume, voice tone, and body language are mysteries to us. Sometimes we can figure out these mysteries, but it doesn’t happen automatically — we have to reason our way through it, and that takes time, especially for nuances of communication which are based on emotions.

“What do you think you’re doing?” — My likely response to this question would be an honest one:  “I’m trying to understand what you’re saying, but it doesn’t seem to be working very well.” However, that’s an answer from an Aspie in his fifth decade of trying to understand other people, so I’ve had a lot of practice. An Aspie teenager, in school, might simply say, “I’m walking to class,” “I’m taking notes,” or something like that, and then get in trouble for “backtalk,” as it is called — when the student was simply answering the question, without intending any disrespect whatsoever. Whatever answer this confusing question gets, from one of us, that answer will be both literal, and honest. It is not in our nature to lie, but it is definitely in our nature to think, listen, speak, read, and write literally, and logically.

“Do that again!” / “Say that again!” — If we have done or said something which you don’t like, and you actually don’t want to witness a rerun, why would you demand one? We think, speak, and interpret what we hear in terms of the actual words which are spoken. There’s nothing wrong with thinking literally, and, frankly, it puzzles us why so many of you think in other ways, so much of the time. If you ask for, or demand, a repeat performance of something you didn’t like, from one of us, you’re quite likely to get one — and then you’ll get angrier, we’ll get even more confused, and absolutely nothing of value will have been accomplished. If, on the other hand, you refrain from using “x” to mean “not x” (since it doesn’t), and simply tell us exactly what you mean, communication will become much easier, for all concerned.

“Don’t get technical with me!” — As far as I can tell, this means that the speaker wants us to refrain from choosing our words with precision, but I could be wrong, for this is the most baffling item on this list, so far. Clarity of language is desirable, for it facilitates communication, and sometimes, technical terms are needed for this purpose. I don’t know what to suggest as a substitute for this phrase, since I don’t understand it, but I can assure you that using it, with an Aspie, is a complete waste of your time.

“What’s wrong with you?” — This is another baffling question. If asked very loudly, the most likely answers Aspies will give are “I have a headache,” or perhaps “Sudden-onset tinnitus,” with the cause, in each case, being simple: from our point of view, the questioner is trying to deafen us, by yelling things which make no sense (at any volume). Do you like being shouted at, from close range? No? Well then, this is one way that we aren’t so different from non-Aspies, for we don’t like it either. Also:  it’s quite likely that we don’t see anything wrong with us at all, for, in this situation, we are not the ones shouting nonsense-questions, so you might even get this response:  “Nothing. What’s wrong with you?” In such a situation, that isn’t backtalk — it’s a perfectly legitimate question, and we are not responsible for any emotion-laden, irrational response the non-Aspie questioner might display.

“I need this done yesterday!” — Many of us can explain, in detail, why time travel into the past is not permitted by the laws of physics, as they are currently understood. Those who request, or demand, reverse-time-travel, from an Aspie, should not be surprised to hear such an explanation. Ask us to flap our arms and fly, and the response will likely be similar.

I could give more examples, but I think the point has been made. We aren’t all alike, so the examples of hypothetical responses I gave, above, will vary from one Aspie to another. What isn’t likely to vary, though, is the confusion each of us experiences when things are said to us which make no sense, if interpreted literally. That’s the key to communicating with us:  when we hear something, we automatically use logic, and rational thought, to attempt to understand the literal meaning of what has been said to us. For many of us, that is the only meaning we can understand.

In my case (and probably in the cases of at least some other Aspies), this goes a little further: rational, literal, and logical interpretations of language are the only ones I want to understand. This is a self-protection mechanism, for the idea of losing even part of my ability to think clearly, and rationally, is extremely frightening to me. To pour a lot of effort into trying to think in non-Aspie ways, I fear, could damage my mind — if, that is, I was successful in the attempt. I don’t want to risk turning into a person who considers “x” and “not x” to be interchangeable, for one doesn’t equal negative one. To change, in this way, would effectively kill the person I am. It wouldn’t stop my heart from beating, of course, but some things are even worse than physical death. If such a change ever happened, I would look the same, and would have the same legal name, but I would no longer be RobertLovesPi. It makes perfect sense for me to be absolutely unwilling to risk something so dangerous.

In addition to the central importance of the fact that we think in literal terms, while others often don’t, Aspies have some other difficulties (or the rest of the world does, depending on your point of view). I attempted to describe these difficulties, which involve coping with the emotionalism and irrationality of numerous other people, in the examples of confusing phrases and questions given above. Emotionalism and irrationality are, to us, severe impediments to understanding anything, and we live our lives in a state of near-constant bombardment from both, since Aspies are outnumbered by non-Aspies by a huge margin. On this planet, to borrow a book title from Robert Heinlein, I live my life as a “stranger in a strange land.” I know that many other Aspies see life in a similar way, for that idea is embedded in the name of the largest online community created by and for Aspies, as well as others on the autism spectrum: www.wrongplanet.net. If you are curious about how other Aspies view the things I have described above, or if you are, yourself, an Aspie in need of an temporary escape from social interaction with non-Aspies, you can find a great many of us at that website. (Also, if you want to find me there, just search for me, using the name of this blog — my not-at-all-secret identity, all over the Internet.)

# Attention, Tumblr: Learn the Meaning of the Word “Literally”

I just got an e-mail, from Tumblr (I used to blog a lot there, before coming here to WordPress). The e-mail has the title, “Your Dashboard is literally on fire.” I’m now afraid to go look at my car, OR log on to my old Tumblr account. I dislike being burned.