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Chapter 1
I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem. As with somany scientific breakthroughs, the answer was obvious inretrospect. But had it not been for a series of unscheduledevents, it is unlikely I would have discovered it.
The sequence was initiated by Gene insisting I give a lectureon Asperger’s syndrome that he had previously agreed todeliver himself.
The timing was extremely annoying. The preparation could betime-shared with lunch consumption, but on the designatedevening I had scheduled ninety-four minutes to clean mybathroom. I was faced with a choice of three options, none ofthem satisfactory.
1. Cleaning the bathroom after the lecture, resulting in loss ofsleep with a consequent reduction in mental and physicalperformance.
2. Rescheduling the cleaning until the following Tuesday,resulting in an eight-day period of compromised bathroomhygiene and consequent risk of disease.
8/2903. Refusing to deliver the lecture, resulting in damage to myfriendship with Gene.
I presented the dilemma to Gene, who, as usual, had analternative solution.
‘Don, I’ll pay for someone to clean your bathroom.’
I explained to Gene – again – that all cleaners, with thepossible exception of the Hungarian woman with the short skirt,made errors.
Short-skirt Woman, who had been Gene’s cleaner, haddisappeared following some problem with Gene and Claudia.
‘I’ll give you Eva’s mobile number. Just don’t mention me.’
‘What if she asks? How can I answer without mentioning you?’
‘Just say you’re contacting her because she’s the only cleanerwho does it properly. And if she mentions me, say nothing.’
This was an excellent outcome, and an illustration of Gene’sability to find solutions to social problems. Eva would enjoyhaving her competence recognised and might even be suitablefor a permanent role, which would free up an average of threehundred and sixteen minutes per week in my schedule.
Gene’s lecture problem had arisen because he had anopportunity to have sex with a Chilean academic who wasvisiting Melbourne for a conference. Gene has a project tohave sex with women of as many different nationalities aspossible. As a professor of psychology, he is extremelyinterested in human sexual attraction, which he believes islargely genetically determined.
This belief is consistent with Gene’s background as a geneticist.
Sixty-eight days after Gene hired me as a post-doctoralresearcher, he was promoted to head of the PsychologyDepartment, a highly contro-versial appointment that wasintended to establish the university as the Australian leader inevolutionary psychology and increase its public profile.
9/290During the time we worked concurrently in the GeneticsDepartment, we had numerous interesting discussions whichcontinued after his change of position. I would have beensatisfied with our relationship for this reason alone, but Genealso invited me to dinner at his house and performed otherfriendship rituals, resulting in a social relationship. His wifeClaudia, who is a clinical psychologist, is now also a friend.
Making a total of two.
Gene and Claudia tried for a while to assist me with the WifeProblem. Unfortunately, their approach was based on thetraditional dating paradigm, which I had previously abandonedon the basis that the probability of success did not justify theeffort and negative experiences. I am thirty-nine years old, tall,fit and intelligent, with a relatively high status andabove-average income as an associate professor.
Logically, I should be attractive to a wide range of women. Inthe animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing.
However, there is something about me that women findunappealing. I have never found it easy to make friends, and itseems that the deficiencies that caused this problem have alsoaffected my attempts at romantic relationships. The ApricotIce-cream Disaster is a good example.
Claudia had introduced me to one of her many friends.
Elizabeth was a highly intelligent computer scientist, with avision problem that had been corrected with glasses. I mentionthe glasses because Claudia showed me a photograph, andasked me if I was okay with them. An incredible question!
From a psychologist! In evaluating Elizabeth’s suitability as apotential partner – someone to provide intellectual stimulation,to share activities with, perhaps even to breed with –Claudia’s first concern was my reaction to her choice of glassesframes, which was probably not even her own but the result ofadvice from an optometrist. This is the world I have to live in.
Then Claudia told me, as though it was a problem: ‘She hasvery firm ideas.’
10/290‘Are they evidence-based?’
‘I guess so,’ Claudia said.
Perfect. She could have been describing me.
We met at a Thai restaurant. Restaurants are minefields for thesocially inept, and I was nervous as always in these situations.
But we got off to an excellent start when we both arrived atexactly 7.00 p.m. as arranged. Poor synchronisation is a hugewaste of time.
We survived the meal without her criticising me for any socialerrors. It is difficult to conduct a conversation while wonderingwhether you are looking at the correct body part but I lockedon to her bespec-tacled eyes, as recommended by Gene. Thisresulted in some inaccuracy in the eating process, which shedid not seem to notice. On the contrary, we had a highlyproductive discussion about simulation algorithms. She was sointeresting! I could already see the possibility of a permanentrelationship.
The waiter brought the dessert menus and Elizabeth said, ‘Idon’t like Asian desserts.’
This was almost certainly an unsound generalisation, based onlimited experience, and perhaps I should have recognised it asa warning sign. But it provided me with an opportunity for acreative suggestion.
‘We could get an ice-cream across the road.’
‘Great idea. As long as they’ve got apricot.’
I assessed that I was progressing well at this point, and didnot think the apricot preference would be a problem. I waswrong. The ice-cream parlour had a vast selection of flavours,but they had exhausted their supply of apricot. I ordered achocolate chilli and liquorice double cone for myself and askedElizabeth to nominate her second preference.
‘If they haven’t got apricot, I’ll pass.’
11/290I couldn’t believe it. All ice-cream tastes essentially the same,due to chilling of the tastebuds. This is especially true of fruitflavours. I suggested mango.
‘No thanks, I’m fine.’
I explained the physiology of tastebud chilling in some detail. Ipredicted that if I purchased a mango and a peach ice-creamshe would be incapable of differentiating. And, by extension,either would be equivalent to apricot.
‘They’re completely different,’ she said. ‘If you can’t tell mangofrom peach, that’s your problem.’
Now we had a simple objective disagreement that could readilybe resolved experimentally. I ordered a minimum-size ice-creamin each of the two flavours. But by the time the serving personhad prepared them, and I turned to ask Elizabeth to close hereyes for the experiment, she had gone. So much for‘evidence-based’. And for computer‘scientist’.
Afterwards, Claudia advised me that I should have abandonedthe experiment prior to Elizabeth leaving. Obviously. But at whatpoint?
Where was the signal? These are the subtleties I fail to see.
But I also fail to see why heightened sensitivity to obscure cuesabout ice-cream flavours should be a prerequisite for beingsomeone’s partner. It seems reasonable to assume that somewomen do not require this. Unfortunately, the process offinding them is impossibly inefficient. The Apricot Ice-creamDisaster had cost a whole evening of my life, compensated foronly by the information about simulation algorithms.
Two lunchtimes were sufficient to research and prepare mylecture on Asperger’s syndrome, without sacrificing nourishment,thanks to the provision of Wi-Fi in the medical library café. Ihad no previous knowledge of autism spectrum disorders, asthey were outside my specialty.
The subject was fascinating. It seemed appropriate to focus onthe12/290genetic aspects of the syndrome, which might be unfamiliar tomy audience. Most diseases have some basis in our DNA,though in many cases we have yet to discover it. My ownwork focuses on genetic predisposition to cirrhosis of the liver.
Much of my working time is devoted to getting mice drunk.
Naturally, the books and research papers described thesymptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, and I formed a provisionalconclusion that most of these were simply variations in humanbrain function that had been inappropriately medicalised becausethey did not fit social norms –constructed social norms – that reflected the most commonhuman configurations rather than the full range.
The lecture was scheduled for 7.00 p.m. at an inner-suburbanschool. I estimated the cycle ride at twelve minutes, and allowedthree minutes to boot my computer and connect it to theprojector.
I arrived on schedule at 6.57 p.m., having let Eva, theshort-skirted cleaner, into my apartment twenty-seven minutesearlier. There were approximately twenty-five people millingaround the door and the front of the classroom, but Iimmediately recognised Julie, the convenor, from Gene’sdescription: ‘blonde with big tits’. In fact, her breasts wereprobably no more than one and a half standard deviationsfrom the mean size for her body weight, and hardly aremarkable identifying feature. It was more a question ofelevation and exposure, as a result of her choice of costume,which seemed perfectly practical for a hot January evening.
I may have spent too long verifying her identity, as she lookedat me strangely.
‘You must be Julie,’ I said.
‘Can I help you?’
Good. A practical person. ‘Yes, direct me to the VGA cable.
Please.’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘You must be Professor Tillman. I’m so glad youcould make it.’
13/290She extended her hand but I waved it away. ‘The VGA cable,please.
It’s 6.58.’
‘Relax,’ she said. ‘We never start before 7.15. Would you like acoffee?’
Why do people value others’ time so little? Now we wouldhave the inevitable small talk. I could have spent fifteen minutesat home practising aikido.
I had been focusing on Julie and the screen at the front ofthe room.
Now I looked around and realised that I had failed to observenineteen people. They were children, predominantly male, sittingat desks. Presumably these were the victims of Asperger’ssyndrome. Almost all of the literature focuses on children.
Despite their affliction, they were making better use of theirtime than their parents, who were chattering aimlessly. Mostwere operating portable computing devices. I guessed their agesas between eight and thirteen. I hoped they had been payingattention in their science classes, as my material assumed aworking knowledge of organic chemistry and the structure ofDNA.
I realised that I had failed to reply to the coffee question.
‘No.’
Unfortunately, because of the delay, Julie had forgotten thequestion. ‘No coffee,’ I explained. ‘I never drink coffee after3.48 p.m. It in-terferes with sleep. Caffeine has a half-life ofthree to four hours, so it’s irresponsible serving coffee at 7.00p.m. unless people are planning to stay awake until aftermidnight. Which doesn’t allow adequate sleep if they have aconventional job.’ I was trying to make use of the waiting timeby offering practical advice, but it seemed that she preferred todiscuss trivia.
‘Is Gene all right?’ she asked. It was obviously a variant onthat most common of formulaic interactions, ‘How are you?’
14/290‘He’s fine, thank you,’ I said, adapting the conventional reply tothe third-person form.
‘Oh. I thought he was ill.’
‘Gene is in excellent health except for being six kilogramsoverweight. We went for a run this morning. He has a datetonight, and he wouldn’t be able to go out if he was ill.’
Julie seemed unimpressed and, in reviewing the interaction later,I realised that Gene must have lied to her about his reason fornot being present. This was presumably to protect Julie fromfeeling that her lecture was unimportant to Gene and toprovide a justification for a less prestigious speaker being sentas a substitute. It seems hardly possible to analyse such acomplex situation involving deceit and sup-position of anotherperson’s emotional response, and then prepare your ownplausible lie, all while someone is waiting for you to reply to aquestion. Yet that is exactly what people expect you to be ableto do.
Eventually, I set up my computer and we got started, eighteenminutes late. I would need to speak forty-three per centfaster to finish on schedule at 8.00 p.m. – a virtuallyimpossible performance goal.
We were going to finish late, and my schedule for the rest ofthe night would be thrown out.
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