Fallout Graphing Calculator, A pip Boy

Autism and the Evolution of Obsession6 min read

I will always be that person with the cal­cu­la­tors. It wasn’t always cal­cu­la­tors for me. But at a cer­tain age, I embraced a thing and com­mitted to it. It may have changed and evolved, but now when it hap­pens I know that I simply found a new thing. I found a new cal­cu­lator.

Don’t get me wrong, all cal­cu­la­tors are not cre­ated equally.  It was always Texas Instruments graphing cal­cu­la­tors for me. I have to have some stan­dards, right?

Texas Instruments TI-82. Photo by ChrisJ

I remember being in late ele­men­tary school, waiting at the dance studio while my younger sis­ters went through their prac­tice ses­sions, and I watched the older dancers stretching on the open floor with back­packs and books spread in semi­cir­cles and TI-82’s in hand, bat­tling their algebra.  I was instantly engaged. These tiny com­puters seemed a sci­ence fic­tion to me. The idea that one could easily find the answer to com­plex and abstract prob­lems with a hand­held com­puter with an LCD dis­play got me. Legos would never be able to com­pete again.

I dove head­first into them in 6th grade, reading every­thing I could find about them now that I had my very own pip-boy.  There was so much good infor­ma­tion avail­able just one modem dial away. The bul­letin boards had every­thing I needed to lose myself in some­thing I con­sumed like food or water.  Hardware, Software, C++, Z80, 68k. It was my first true love.

Malice Mizer

My second cal­cu­lator was Visual Kei and Jrock. Visual Kei was the Japanese hybrid of visual artistic pre­sen­ta­tion and music pop­u­lar­ized by bands like Malice Mizer, X‑Japan, and Dir en Grey. These “boy bands” would often com­bine rock and punk-infused gothic pieces with oper­atic vocals, all while dressed in elab­o­rate cos­tumes, suits, dresses and makeup. Albums were released with photo books and art house music videos and each albums new aes­thetic tied in to the musics con­cept. The com­fort of the all-consuming obses­sion, and the stim­u­la­tion of going all-in was life-saving.  Even when the ini­tial drive even­tu­ally sub­sided, I could always think fondly of these things. Eventually I didn’t have any more cal­cu­lator emu­la­tors on my com­puter, and I didn’t carry my TI-89 with me any­where. But I’ll always be proud of that focus, that quest for knowl­edge and analysis.

I’ve had cal­cu­la­tors that I was less proud of.  Halo: Combat Evolved comes to mind. Don’t get me wrong, I deeply enjoyed Halo, and the sto­ries, and books, and lore, and the ARG called, “I love bees.”  But it doesn’t have the same uni­versal appli­ca­tion as many of the others did. This sig­nif­i­cantly dimin­ished the utility of my obses­sion. Halo 5: the Guardians didn’t really help, either.

Music gave me long-term artistic skills and some unique quirks (like my love for Japanese music from the 90’s) that I still find useful to this day. I never would have imag­ined playing, touring, and recording in a band full time, and I may have never expe­ri­enced that had I not already found what music could offer me.  Costume skills and makeup were a huge plus. And karaōke in another lan­guage is usu­ally a hit at already-awkward social events. Either that, or it seems super weird to people who have never heard it.

Theater was a truly useful cal­cu­lator for me. I threw myself into the impos­sible task of acting, and the beau­tiful chal­lenge of writing and directing, or the prac­tical skills of tech work.  It was a col­lec­tion of skills that I sorely needed.

But I wasn’t immune to the adverse effects of bad cal­cu­la­tors. Ayn Rand, nihilism, and edgy online cul­ture.  I’m lucky to have sur­vived that one. Thankfully it just didn’t add up the deeper I got into things. That’s really a very long con­ver­sa­tion that I may not be up for at this time.

Pepe Hands

This does, how­ever, bring me to a very serious ques­tion I have been asking myself.  What hap­pens when you can’t solve the deepest prob­lems with your cal­cu­lator? What hap­pens when no one wants to listen to you, the dig­ital rein­car­na­tion of Chicken Little?

I’ve been con­cerned that I may be moving closer than I wish to a new focus. With stakes that are much higher than the tem­po­rary vic­tory of the Covenant until I respawn.  How does one keep their mental health in tact when the lit­eral fate of the planet is under direct threat?  How does humanity address the rise of fas­cism around the globe? How do we deal with the tremen­dous increase in wealth inequality?

For everyone else, this cal­cu­lator is just a tool.  For the people in the world caught in my sim­plistic metaphor, they can put it down.  They can take the bat­teries out. They can decide they don’t care about it. But what hap­pens when my mono­mania grabs hold of some­thing serious?  I don’t pre­tend to have solved all of the prob­lems, but from my per­spec­tive it seems that most people just don’t care at all.

We have seen extreme right-wing terror across the world, we have made excuses for injus­tice across the globe.  We have sup­ported and upheld unjust hier­ar­chies. Should I have just picked a new, shinier cal­cu­lator, or am I cursed with this mono­mania to be a mon­u­ment to all your sins?

I’m still learning the ropes, either as a figure of speech or on the fig­u­ra­tive ship of life’s journey.  I would like to hope that some of the folks reading this can relate, even if it’s just a little bit. You’ve prob­ably met someone just like me who would love to talk about how long it took Data to get the joke from the Farpoint mis­sion.  The one friend who knows about every time John Lennon cut his hair. Ok, maybe that last one took things too far.

I don’t mean to insin­uate that I am to be defined by my serial obses­sions.  It’s quite dif­ferent. I found these things and some­thing res­onated with me to the point that I devoted time, and effort, and resources to pursue these things.  Often times, this means sac­ri­ficing appearing cool, or depri­or­i­tizing var­ious social func­tions to climb that bizarre hier­ar­chical tree.

Do you have a cal­cu­lator or two in your pock­etses?  Do you find your­self relieved as you throw 100% of your­self at a topic, task, or hobby?  Who can deny the incred­ible engi­neering of trains and air­craft? Do you love watching Friends or Seinfeld and know every single episode and every­thing about the actors involved?  Sports stat god? Resident expert on Andy Warhol or Gustav Klimt?

Calculators come in every shape and size. Your pas­sions and obses­sions will carry on with you throughout your life. Don’t be ashamed of them (at least most of the time). Look at what they show you about life and the world and rejoice in your mind.  There is absolutely a good reason why some­thing left that mark on you.

Wear it proudly.

Ruined Panopticon
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  1. I really enjoyed reading this! You illus­trated autistic spe­cial interest so well, both the pos­i­tive and the neg­a­tive.
    My favorite “cal­cu­la­tors” have been guitar and singing, the­atre, and books. I had an unfor­tu­nate emo girl phase “cal­cu­lator” in high­school, but thank­fully that one passed .

  2. What a great article. I love the metaphor of a cal­cu­lator being used to describe are mon­ma­ni­acal quests. Also love the psue­donymn “Ruined Panopticon”. Had to google that one. It’s metaphor is also not lost on me. And now some google alghorithm is won­dering how my searching for it relates to my per­cep­tion of their “all-observing eye”. Quest on, my friend. Quest on

  3. I am absolutely blown away by these won­derful arti­cles! I am a reformed Autism Speaks mama, and I can’t tell you how helpful it has been to be made aware of my igno­rance. My son is 17 (18 in June) and we have had some awe­some talks about his future and where HE wants to be. I am reading every article and strive to do better in lis­tening to my son. Thank you for helping me under­stand!!!!!!!

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