Thursday, January 06, 2005

Asperger's syndrome and BitTorrent

Wired has a nice profile of Bram Cohen, the creator of BitTorrent. BitTorrent is a distributed P2P program that allows for sharing of massive files. Reportedly, it accounts for a third(!) of all bandwidth usage right now.

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

How long before O'Reilly publishes a book called Managing Asperger Coders?


Carson C. Chow said...

The problem with the diagnosis of mental illness is that the definitions are purely symptomatic. Perhaps if another Austrian psychologist in the 1940's had studied a set of individuals that couldn't balance their checkbooks and had hyper social skills, there would be an antithetical syndrome to Asperger's listed in the DSM-IV. There is no doubt that autism is a true mental deficiency perhaps due to a lack of connections between the amygdala and the cortex and Asperger's may or may not be a form of mild autism. However, simply having extreme powers of concentration and less than adequate social skills does not a syndrome make. At what point does sitting on the tail of the distribution become abnormal? The reason we need to diagnose illnesses is so that we know how to treat them or at least search for treatments. When a condition is actually beneficial, which it seems to be in Cohen's case, then it is somewhat insulting to those that have true debilitating diseases to claim there is an illness. Maybe we should diagnose Tiger Woods with hyper-coordination syndrome. Progress won't be made until we have a physiological mechanism for a disease or illness. This will be particularly difficult for psychology but until we can say that a given condition is due to something specific like a neuromodulator deficiency or a lack of synaptic connections, etc, we will always be subject to these dubious illnesses.

Steve Hsu said...

Yeah, I think it is all pretty amusing. "Superhuman powers of concentration" - we used to just call it being a nerd :-)

By the vague criteria in use today, a third of my friends and colleagues have AS, as does Bill Gates.

Seriously though, the type of person who might be characterized as having AS is going to have a greater and greater impact in our society, as technology becomes more and more important. It's the revenge of the nerds!

Anonymous said...

And opera singers are temperamental, and tennis players are, and philosophers [oh dear]... :)


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