Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Part 5: Zatanna

Posted in comics, science by Andrew Hickey on April 28, 2011

This essay appears in a revised form in my book An Incomprehensible Condition: An Unauthorised Guide To Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers. Paperback, Hardback, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), other ebook formats

This isn’t going to be about what you expect it to be.

Hands... touching hands... reaching out... touching me... touching you

Magic Theory

"Oh, and by the way, Terry, has anyone ever told you your continued refusal to believe in magic in a world full of superheroes and living gods is probably a sign of severe mental illness?"

Other than Mister Miracle, Zatanna is probably the most explicit statement of the basic themes of Seven Soldiers that Morrison could make, and yet people have been so confused by its form (a parody of another comic) that they really haven’t looked. It’s a great piece of sleight of hand by Morrison. While everyone is laughing at references to beards, the real information is getting slipped in under our noses.

The ‘m’ in M-theory very deliberately doesn’t stand for anything, at all. While the word comes from ‘membrane’ – as in the membrane universes it describes, Edward Witten, its creator, says “M can stand variously for ‘magic’, ‘mystery’, or ‘matrix’, according to one’s taste.” while Michio Kaku favours ‘mother’.

actually, it's not string. The world's held together by two staples in the middle

There’s an area of physics called ‘string theory’. As a matter of fact, this – and M-theory – are misnomers. A theory, in science, has predictive power – people have been able to come up with tests of the theory, and run those tests, and the result has been consistent with the theory. String ‘theory’ should really be called the string hypothesis – as it makes no predictions which are currently testable, let alone actually tested. Unlike quantum theory, or thermodynamics, it’s not made a single prediction which can be confirmed in the observable physical world. In fact, possibly even hypothesis is too strong a word – string philosophy, or string religion, might be better.

But despite this complete lack of testable predictions, physicists have been working on string theory for over forty years. This is because we currently have two separate theories of the universe – General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – which are both, as far as we can see, absolutely accurate, with no exceptions to either ever having been found, but which are incompatible.

And the reason for this is gravity – General Relativity explains gravity perfectly, while Quantum Mechanics doesn’t. But QM *does* though show that all the other fundamental forces – the strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism (which itself unifies such apparently-disparate phenomena as light, radio waves, magnetism and electricity) – are really all different aspects of the same thing. {FOOTNOTE: I am oversimplifying enormously here, but the gist of this is correct. If you want to understand all the details, read The Feynman Lectures On Physics, follow it with The Road To Reality by Roger Penrose (which is a much worse book but covers the decades of scientific progress since the Feynman lectures were released) and then read The Fabric Of Reality by David Deutsch to disabuse yourself of some of the wrong notions in The Road To Reality. At which point you’ll know about as much about this stuff as I do – which is to say you’ll *realise* you know nothing.} And physicists think that any successful ‘theory of everything’ will show that gravity is really the same thing as all the other forces, because it would be neater that way.

This isn’t as stupid a reason as it sounds, if you know about things like Kolmogrove Complexity, Solomonoff Induction and message entropy – and it’s how people like Einstein worked. Einstein didn’t get his theories of relativity by checking experimental results, but by trying to remove various bits of mathematical ugliness and come up with more universal equations.

Remember though what I said in the last essay – saying “everything is connected to everything else” is the same as saying “nothing is connected to anything” as far as information goes. Physicists look for symmetries, but it’s symmetries breaking that’s where the interesting stuff happens. A universe where everything was exactly the same as everything else would be a universe with nothing at all in it.

And so, whether gravity is in some sense ‘the same’ as electricity, as magnetism, as light, as the forces that hold atoms together – and we have every reason to think it is – in important ways *it is still different*. And without those differences – without those unique properties of gravity – apples wouldn’t fall to the ground and black holes wouldn’t exist. It’s in the differences, not the similarities, that the flavour of the world resides.

But nonetheless, we do think those similarities are there, and we want to find them, so we can better understand this universe in which we find ourselves.

There have been several attempts at Theories Of Everything that do this over the years – Einstein spent the last forty years of his life working on various dead-end attempts, and the physicist Frank Tipler has argued in a rather wonderful paper that Richard Feynman actually *did* discover the theory of everything, back in the 1960s, but hadn’t realised it because his theory unfortunately required an infinite number of terms in the equations.{FOOTNOTE Tipler has *also* argued at times that he’s proved the existence of God, that Barack Obama is evil because he doesn’t believe in aether, and that if we clone Jesus using genetic material from the Turin Shroud we’ll be able to figure out how to get free energy from baryon annihilation. He’s one of the more…original…thinkers in physics. But in this case he makes a reasonable argument.} But none of these have had much success among what for want of a better term we can call the physics ‘community’, in part because they’re not neat. They’re not nice.

String theory is nice. And it ties up gravity and electromagnetism in a neat little bow.

What string theory says is that rather than particles being 0-dimensional points, like conventional physics says, they’re actually the end of one-dimensional lines (‘strings’) that can vibrate in more dimensions than we can see. In the same way that a guitar string vibrating up and down can make different musical notes, a one-dimensional string vibrating in ten dimensions can give the appearance of a zero-dimensional particle moving in a four-dimensional spacetime.

In this model a photon (the particles that carry the electromagnetic force – ‘light particles’) is one of the things you get from a string whose ends are dangling loose, while a graviton (the hypothetical particle that would carry the gravitational force, that has never yet been observed) would be what you’d get from a string whose ends were joined, forming a loop.

The only slight problem with this – a beautiful piece of mathematics – was that people very quickly noticed that there’s more than one way of doing this, and by the early 1990s there were five different string theories. All of them had the same basic idea – that you have 1-d strings vibrating in N dimensions – but their models all had different numbers of dimensions, and made different predictions (without any of them making the kind of prediction *that can be tested*). If string theory was going to survive at all, something else had to come along.

That something was M-theory.

Matrix Theory

We gotta get out of this place, if it's the last thing we ever do

What M-theory says is that there are actually even more dimensions than that – that our 0-D particles in 4D spacetime that are really 1-D strings in 10D spacetime are *really* 1-D slices of 2-D sheets (membranes, or ‘branes’ for short) in an 11-D spacetime. All of the competing string theories were just selecting different sets of ten dimensions out of the eleven ‘real’ ones (think of the blind people and the elephant). The reason why gravity looks different from the other forces is that the strings that cause the ‘normal’ forces are open-ended, but the ends are stuck to p-dimensional ‘branes (or p-branes for short. This is physicist humour), while gravitons move freely between different ‘branes because their loop structure stops them sticking to anything.

M-theory also gives an explanation, of sorts, for the existence of the universe. It says that multi-dimensional ‘branes are rippled, and that two of them at some point banged together – and our universe is a four-dimensional interference pattern from the ripples on those two p-branes. The ‘lumpiness’ of the universe (the way matter clusters together into galaxies with vast tracts of space in between) comes from some of the ripples cancelling each other out and others reinforcing each other, while the expansion is caused by the two branes moving.

Now, this is pretty much exactly like the way holograms are created {FOOTNOTE: If you don’t know about how holograms are created, Wikipedia has a good explanation} and indeed it is {FOOTNOTE: I think. This is not my area of expertise – I’ve skim-read tons of papers on cosmology and particle physics, but my main scientific interests are rather more esoteric areas to do with the application of pure mathematics. Please don’t blame me for any epistemic failures caused by this essay.} a special case of a rather more general area of string theory, the ‘holographic universe’ principle.

This principle says that rather than being, as we appear, a three-dimensional {FOOTNOTE: Here I’m talking only of spacelike dimensions} universe, we’re actually only a two-dimensional pattern of information – like the panels of a comic book – ‘painted on’ the cosmological horizon (the part of the universe past which it’s impossible even in principle to see anything). But that information encodes a third dimension implicitly – the same way you can get a three-dimensional hologram on a two-dimensional image.

To explain why, we need to look at the connections between information, entropy, gravity and black holes {FOOTNOTE: For more on all these things, and on Seven Soldiers, and many other subjects that connect to this series of essays, see my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!}

The reason for this is something called the Black Hole Information Paradox, discovered by Stephen Hawking (more or less as a trivial lemma based on the more important work of Jakob Bekenstein). Black holes must have entropy, as Bekenstein showed, because otherwise we could violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics (just get a piece of Highest Entropy Matter and throw it into the black hole – the entropy outside the black hole decreases, so the entropy inside the black hole must increase). Unfortunately, they also have something called Hawking Radiation – they let out energy. But that energy is – has to be – random. Which means that information that goes into the black hole has to stay there – it’s been destroyed as far as the outside universe is concerned. Which shouldn’t happen – conservation of information is actually the same thing as the Second Law. {FOOTNOTE: The best guess at the moment is that the energy coming out is not *quite* random, so information can eventually leak out of a black hole, given enough time. Hawking now claims that everything, yes everything, can escape the deadly gravitational pull of a black hole – it just takes a while.}

But the interesting thing is that black holes must have the highest possible information density, because of this – you cannot have something that contains more information in a given space than a black hole. And Bekenstein worked out how much information this is – it’s called the Bekenstein Bound – and discovered it was I<=2piRE/hcln2 {If I do turn this into a book, you can see this formula all nicely typeset}

Here I is the information, and the important thing to note is that it's proportional to R, rather than say to R squared or cubed. In other words, I increases with the derivative of the surface area of the sphere, not of the volume. In other other words, if you have a sphere of any size – even universe size – and it's got maximum information density, you can get all the information that's in it just from its surface, without having to look inside.

Which means from an information point of view, the whole visible universe might as well be inside a black hole – and when the universe expands, that's other stuff falling into the black hole from outside.

And another way of saying that is that the whole three-dimensional spatial universe is just a mathematical artefact, and we're 'really' a two-dimensional pattern of information, spread infinitely thinly on the outside of a three-dimensional bubble. It just feels to us like we're inside.

Note that while the holographic principle – the idea that we are a hologram – depends on string theory, the rest of this doesn't. That *is* the maximum amount of information that can be contained in a sphere, and it *is* the amount that is contained in a black hole. Whether we're holograms or not, we *can* be described – 100% accurately – by just the information on the surface of the smallest possible sphere we could fit in. What's on the inside doesn't count – surfaces matter.

Mystery Theory

phall if you will, but rise you must

But just what *is* information?

As defined by Claude Shannon, information is the same thing as unpredictability – if you’re given a sequence, the information in the next item in the sequence is the inverse of the probability you could have predicted it given the previous items.

For example, if I give you a sequence 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…, telling you the next number is seven gives you very little new information, because you could have predicted it with very high probability from the previous numbers.

If I say “my love is like a red, red”, you can guess that the next word is ‘rose’ – saying ‘rose’ won’t give you any new information. But if it turns out that my love is, in fact, like a red, red baboon’s bottom, then you’ve got some new information.

Now, the interesting thing about this is that information and entropy are the same thing. I’m not going to show you a formal proof of that here, but I can sketch it informally:

You can think of the information content of something as being the length of the shortest message you could write giving a precise description of it. Imagine you have a perfectly cubic crystal, made of just one type of atom, with no impurities, and it’s precisely one centimeter on each side. To describe that, you just say “a 1 cm cubic crystal of atom X”, and that contains *all* the information about it.

Now suppose you drop the crystal on the floor and it shatters into a thousand pieces, all of them irregular. To describe that perfectly, you need to describe the shape of all the different pieces and where they are in relation to each other. You’d need a rather large book to give all that information. A loss of order has become a gain in information (a gain in the information in the object, that is. You’ve lost the information you had about the object).

This is a rather more important thing than you might realise – this is the reason why entropy always increases. Because there is only *one* way for the atoms in that cube to be arranged in a perfect crystalline cube, but a functionally-infinite number of ways for the atoms to be arranged in ways that *aren’t* a perfect crystalline cube. Any deviation at all from an ordered state is far, far more likely to go to a disordered state (a state that takes more information to describe) than to an ordered one. But a disordered state is still more likely to go to another disordered state than back to the ordered one.

Information is the same as entropy, and so processing information produces waste heat – this is why your laptop gets hot.

And increase in entropy is the same thing as time.

This may not seem intuitively obvious, but it’s a fact. In general, the laws of physics are time-invariant – they don’t have an arrow of time built in. Newton’s laws of motion, for example, look exactly the same going forwards and backwards in time – if you took a film of the solar system, with all the planets going round the sun, and ran it backwards, there would be nothing there that looked wrong. There are very good mathematical reasons for thinking that time does not, in any real sense, exist at all.

What do exist, though, are different states of entropy, different configurations of matter. And each of those configuration spaces (let’s call them ‘universes’ for now) contains information about other configuration states. And that information always seems to describe another, slightly more ordered, configuration space (it couldn’t describe a less ordered one, because that would take more space than there is in the universe, obviously). We call that described configuration space ‘the past’. We call those configuration states that are more disordered than this one, that can be predicted from this one (but not perfectly, otherwise the description would take up more space than there is in the universe) ‘the future’.

This is why we can know the past but not know the future – why, indeed, there are always many possible futures but only one past. Because the number of more disordered states is always greater than the number of more ordered states. {FOOTNOTE: For more on this see Julian Barbour’s excellent book The End Of Time. In fairness, I should point out that Barbour’s timeless, Machian, formulation of physics is just as speculative as string theory. The difference is that while string theory is messy and postulates many extra dimensions we can’t see, Barbour’s formulation is beautiful and does away with one. I should be very surprised to see string theory or M-theory lead to a successful, testable theory except via the sort of simplifying process by which phlogiston led to oxygen or the Lorenz contraction to relativity, but I should be even more surprised if something like Barbour’s formulation doesn’t eventually become the basis of our standard understanding of physics.}

In fact, information is so crucial – information, entropy and time are so tied up – that several physicists have suggested that information, rather than matter or energy, is what the universe is made of. Perhaps most famously, John Wheeler {FOOTNOTE: A contender for greatest American physicist of the twentieth century, possibly only topped by his student Richard Feynman, it would take more space than I have here to explain why Wheeler’s opinion matters. Just trust me – he knew what he was talking about.} wrote:

It from bit. Otherwise put, every ‘it’—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.

Now, my own opinion is that It’s More Complicated Than That, and that Wheeler was in a sense being confused by the Copenhagen interpretation which he never abandoned (even though he put his name to his grad. student Hugh Everett’s explanation of the more reasonable Many Worlds theory), but in another, deeper sense he was right. E.T. Jaynes showed that we can derive probability theory from pure logic. Time, entropy and many conservation laws in physics can be derived from probability theory. So it’s entirely possible that when we get the final Theory Of Everything, it will be derivable entirely from pure logic and computation on a small amount of initial information.

Mother Theory
Women and skeptics first!

So if all that is right, then what are we? Rather than a three-dimensional universe existing in time, we’re a whole series of still, two-dimensional patterns of information – two dimensional patterns on a three-dimensional surface – and we don’t have any existence in time at all. There’s just a lot of two dimensional patterns, next to each other in some sense, which you can put in order and perceive as a story.

When Morrison wants us to have empathy for comic characters – when he gets us to reach out our hand and touch Zatanna’s, to help her save herself (and is there *any* reader, no matter how sceptical and materialist, who *didn’t* touch Zee’s hand when they got to that part? Who *didn’t* reach out to help her? I hope I never meet someone so lacking in feelings…), he really wants us to save *ourselves*. One of the big, big themes of Seven Soldiers, one that Morrison practically bludgeons us over the head with, is that we should be careful what we create, and be kind to our creations. Be they robots, golems, amorphous beings taking the shape of our perfect lover, or be they our children – or the comic characters we create – we should help them up when they fall. {FOOTNOTE: And if physicist Max Tegmark is to be believed, many of the things we ‘create’ have their own objective existence as separate universes. According to Tegmark’s Ultimate Ensemble Theory, not only is the universe made of information, but it’s specifically a mathematical formula – and every other mathematical formula is just as real. If so, as far as I can see, that means that every equation, every poem, every piece of music, every computer program – in short every *thought* – is a universe to itself, as real as this one.}

Because if we’re made of information, then we’re made of *words*. We can’t avoid eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge – everything we do, everything we are, is information processing. Berkeley was right when he said esse is percipi (and right when he attacked Newton on the basis that nothing is absolute, though as wrong as you can get about the infinitessimals in calculus) – nothing can exist without being perceived. But at the same time the mere act of perception is a destructive one – we increase the order in our brains by destroying the order outside. There is no such thing as a non-destructive act, or a harmless thought.

Life – and intelligence – is a constant, permanent struggle against entropy, but entropy has loaded the dice against us. We can’t possibly win, but nor can we possibly give up and admit defeat. The best thing – the only thing – we can do is to keep fighting anyway, and offer a hand up to anyone who falls in the struggle, as we ourselves have already fallen.

“We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origins. At last, we have succeeded in reconstructing the creature that made the footprint. And lo! It is our own.”

Sir Arthur Eddington, Space, Time, and Gravitation, 1920

Comic issues Zatanna #1-4

Artists Ryan Sook (pencils), Mick Gray (inks), Nathan Eyring (colours)

Other credits Jared K Fletcher (letters), Harvey Richards (asst editor), Peter Tomasi (editor)

Connected Morrison works Animal Man deals with many of the same themes slightly more explicitly, as does The Invisibles, but probably the most thematically-similar work, though different in flavour, is The Filth

Look Out For
2D projections of 3D spaces, dice, form and in-form-ation, top hats, “if you can’t keep it down, don’t bring it up”, hands, ‘mortal clay’ and parent problems.

Still to come in Seven Soldiers
Who breaks a butterfly on the wing? How to keep young and beautiful! And a cat in a Morrison story that doesn’t die!

This image seems to be persuading people #yes2av

Posted in politics by Andrew Hickey on April 28, 2011

This image, sadly, seems to be far more successful at persuading people of the case for AV than anything the official Yes campaign have come up with. Reposting to boost the signal. coffee or beer, the FPTP way
(Not sure of the source of this, but @zombywuf on Twitter is the earliest person I can find to have posted this.)

Zatanna post in an hour or two. Klarion post (hopefully) some time tonight.

GET OUT THE VOTE! #yes2av

Posted in politics by Andrew Hickey on April 27, 2011

Before reading this, sign up for Yes In May Get Out The Vote campaigning on the fifth of May. You can come back and read why later.

I’ve not been online much for a couple of days, but even so I’ve seen quite a few people, in the lead-up to the referendum in May, complaining about the Yes campaign having not been hard-hitting enough.
I have my problems with the campaign, too, but I have a few things to say:
Firstly, the polls have us neck and neck – and that’s with polls currently biasing against people who say they’re Lib Dem supporters, to correct for over-weighting us in the last election. As Lib Dems are most likely to be in favour of electoral reform, it’s not looking bad at all.

But here’s the crucial thing – the No campaign just aren’t motivated. On the Yes side, we started organising street stalls nearly a year ago, and I’ve given up at least one weekend a month (two a month since January, and every weekend for the month leading up to the event) to stand outside accosting strangers with bits of paper, whatever the weather. By contrast, the No campaign have organised one street stall – at the same time as ours two weeks ago. Two members of the local Tory party turned up for half an hour, giving out leaflets about how Nick Clegg wanted us to spend fifty grazillion jillion quadrillion pounds on keeping him in power forever, and then left. They had a joke with us before they left about how they didn’t believe the rubbish they were spouting themselves.

The No campaign have had more money and more PR experience, but we’ve got people who actually care.

And that’s going to be the key – the No campaign’s whole thing has been about sowing FUD, and getting people confused and bored. Bored people don’t vote.

But people on the Yes side are going to be far more likely to be enthused enough to get up and vote than the No side – when was the last time you made an effort to enthusiastically endorse keeping things exactly the same as always? When have you marched, delivered leaflets, knocked on doors, or made phone calls for “don’t change everything, we’re fine as we are”?

We can win if, *ON THE DAY*, we get everyone we can out and voting. Get Out The Vote campaigns can win elections – I helped out in Northenden at the council elections in 2008 where the Lib Dems won by *two* votes, and I persuaded at least three people who weren’t planning on voting to vote that day (probably more, but those are the ones who actually said “I’m not going to vote” and who later said “OK, you’ve persuaded me” and went to the polling station). I made that difference.

And you can make a difference too. I don’t know exactly what the Yes campaign’s plans are for Thursday of next week, but from my experience at elections I can tell you that polling day is crucial. You need people to go door-knocking, people to make ‘phone calls, street stalls, people to tally at polling stations (so that the campaign knows who’s already voted and doesn’t knock on their doors and phone them up), people to deliver leaflets, people to offer lifts to the polling station. people to attend the polling station to supervise the counting. These are the MOST important jobs you can do on polling day.

I’m still working out exactly how much time I’ll be spending on specifically AV Get Out The Vote work and how much on Lib Dem (but Lib Dem voters will all be Yes voters anyway, so Lib Dem GOTV work works for both).

But understand this, if you’re a British voter, this may well be the single most important day of your life – the decision made on Thursday the Fifth of May will decide how elections are run for the forseeable future. Which means it’ll decide who gets to form every government for the rest of your life. Which means it’ll decide how much you pay in tax, whether we go to war and who with, whether the NHS stays public or gets privatised… this is the biggest decision you can ever make.

So if you can give *any* time at all – a couple of hours on the phones after work, a round of leafletting in the morning, the whole day door-knocking, volunteer here. If you’ve done nothing else for the campaign, do this. If you can persuade one other person who wasn’t going to vote to vote yes, you’ve doubled the power of your own vote. If you can get three other people to vote yes, you’ve effectively got four times the power of the No voter who can’t be bothered getting out of their chair and persuading people. I’ve already convinced dozens of people to vote Yes, and I plan on convincing many more on polling day. Will you be making that difference too?

Minor Announcement

Posted in books by Andrew Hickey on April 27, 2011

I was keeping this a secret, but now the announcement’s been made on a mailing list, I think I’m free to talk about it publicly – I made my first professional fiction sale a few months ago, to an anthology being put together by Simon Bucher-Jones, based around his Obituaria concept. What was particularly nice about this is that Simon asked me for the story, rather than me submitting it to him – given that I’ve enjoyed his writing so much, that made me feel very, very happy.
I’m not at liberty to state the names of the other authors who will be playing in this world with me – because some of the contracts haven’t been firmed up, some stories haven’t been finished, and so on – but at least three of the people SBJ has told me are involved are people who’ve written novels that are among my favourites, so it should be a good one. Some of the people involved also occasionally read my blog, so if they want to name themselves in the comments that’s fine by me.
My story is called Twenty Voices, and consists of eighteen monologues and a dialogue. It features Presidents, Popes, rock stars, time travellers and a saint, and you’ll like it.

(For those of you who enjoy my fiction, I’m going to try to get some more short stories written over the next few weeks, once I’ve finished the Seven Soldiers stuff. I’m also working on a novel proposal, which I started more than a month and a half ago but is still *NOT QUITE RIGHT*).

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Running Into Walls

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on April 25, 2011

On a recent blog post of mine, a friend said she was no longer going to visit the blog of a minor public figure because he kept making sleazy, objectifying comments. I won’t name that figure or the friend here because it’s not really the point of the post, but it’s not hard to find out who it is.

I agree with her – the person in question does, quite often, say things that make me feel angry or exasperated. I quite understand and agree with my friend not wanting to visit his blog. I want to make that very clear before I go any further – this is *NOT* me saying my friend is overreacting – I think the reaction entirely justified given the comments in question. But unlike with many, many other people who make comments like that, I don’t, myself, get a feeling from that person’s posts that he is ultimately a bad person. In order to explain why, I have to talk a bit about Asperger’s Syndrome.

Which I have.

I really, really, *REALLY* dislike talking about having Asperger’s on the internet – or even at all. Partly because there is such a huge stigma attached to it that by writing this I am severely damaging my employment prospects, but also because of what my friend Jane terms ‘Arse-Purger’s Syndrome’ – the tendency of people on the internet to say, whenever they have caused offence, “I have Asperger’s Syndrome, so I can’t help being insensitive, and it’s just your problem so deal with it!”

That is not the way someone who *actually* has Asperger’s will generally deal with things (it *is* the way a misdiagnosed sociopath might behave, but it’s not the way someone with Asperger’s behaves). Once they realise they’ve caused offence, and why, someone with Asperger’s will be absolutely mortified.

The problem is, they’ll often not realise they’ve caused offence at all.

Before we go any further, please go to the TV Tropes page about Asperger’s and read that. Despite a couple of problems, it is *FAR AND AWAY* the most accurate thing I’ve ever read on what having Asperger’s is really like.

Now, having Asperger’s is not, I repeat *NOT*, *N-O-T NOT* an excuse for bad behaviour, for racism, for sexism, for sexual harassment, for any of those things. I know this because I don’t do those things myself, and I have Asperger’s. If I can manage to be a more-or-less reasonable human being for the most part (I have more than my share of faults, but not those ones), then so can anyone else.

BUT (and you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you?) there is a difference between not being an arsehole and not acting like an arsehole, and the latter is somewhat more difficult.

Because when you have Asperger’s, you *can’t tell* when you’re saying something wrong, or something upsetting, or something offensive. You can often tell afterwards that someone’s been upset, because they’ll punch you, or stop talking to you, or something along those lines, but you won’t know *why* – unless they explain to you in a calm, detailed manner, exactly what it was you did wrong.

I don’t like to think of having Asperger’s as a disability as such – it’s a cognitive difference, and it has definite positive sides as well as negative ones. In my case I have a great ability to see rather abstract patterns, which gives me a good mathematical intuition and enables me to understand music on a deeper level than most (but not all) people I know.

But it has a downside, too, and that downside *is* best modelled as a disability. Not so much because of the problem itself, but because of the way the rest of society is structured.

Imagine you’re blind, but you appear perfectly normal to the outside. You’ve been blind from birth, and while you know there’s a sense other people have, you can’t ever really understand it. But you have a few other advantages – you have good hearing, and maybe a good sense of touch – and so you can cope. In a controlled environment – in your own home, or at work – you can seem exactly like a sighted person, and many of your friends have never even guessed you are blind.

But every so often you run into a brick wall when you’re somewhere unfamilliar.

And all the people around you, rather than offering sympathy or even just ignoring it, start attacking you. Asking why you couldn’t see the brick wall. They could see the brick wall – it was right there in front of their eyes. The only other people who ever run into the brick wall are bastards who are doing it deliberately to get attention, so you must be one of them too. If you tell them you couldn’t see the brick wall you’re either asking for attention or just a liar – everyone can see the brick wall. It’s right there.

And then psychologists start making up stuff about you. They say you ‘lack theory of wall’, that you don’t believe walls exist. Nobody bothers to check what you think before doing this – if they did you’d be likely to say that you have rather more belief in walls than most people, because you get very personal proof that they exist on a regular basis, you just *CAN’T SEE THEM*. But your opinion doesn’t matter, because you’re one of those people with wallrunner syndrome, and everyone knows they’re a bunch of arseholes – you just have to look at all the people on the internet saying they’ve got it. This ‘blindness’ thing is probably not real anyway.

Except it’s even worse than that, because the majority of the time when you run into a wall, while you’re lying there on the floor with blood running out of your nose, one of your friends will say “what did you do that for, you bastard?” Even the ones who believe you on a conscious level when you say you can’t see walls will think you really must be able to – after all, you don’t bump into walls in your own house (where you know where you are) so if you bump into walls in *their* houses it must be because you’re insensitive. Because you just don’t *care* about the damage your nose is doing to their plasterwork.

And you *are* damaging their plasterwork – and you don’t want to upset your friends, and you know your friends just *don’t understand*, they really don’t *GET* that you can’t see the walls. So it’s not their fault when they get angry, and when they stop inviting you round, and when they tell other people to avoid you. It’s your fault, for not being able to do this *simple, obvious, easy thing that even babies can do*.

And I get the impression that the public figure in question (who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, and who doesn’t seem to me like a bad person), is feeling like that when he’s making tasteless, offensive jokes. I see someone banging into the wall far more often than he should be – or at least banging into a wall that I can always avoid myself – but I *don’t* see him doing so deliberately. That doesn’t make a difference if it’s your plasterwork he’s ruining, and if it’s you who’s got to pay for it – you still want him out of the house before he also knocks over the table and breaks all your china – but I can’t help but sympathise with him as well, and to put him running head-first into a brick wall into a different category than the people who are trying to smash the wall down with sledgehammers…

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