New WrongPlanet.net Asperger’s Interviews: The creator of BitTorrent

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Bram Cohen

While reading an article entitled “The BitTorrent Effect” which appeared in the January 2005 issue of Wired Magazine, I was surprised to find out that the creator of BitTorrent, Bram Cohen, has Asperger’s Syndrome. After finishing this article, I became determined to track down Cohen and ask him some questions about how Asperger’s Syndrome has affected his very successful life. I finally found him on IRC and was able to interview him about how he has dealt with Asperger’s Syndrome. I’d like to thank Mr. Cohen for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer these somewhat personal questions.

Cohen started working on BitTorrent in April, 2001. Since the release of this technology in the summer of 2001, it has quickly grown into one of the most preeminent file distribution methods, especially among open source products such as Linux. The decentralized nature of BitTorrent allows an individual or company to share its files without needing to worry about bandwidth demands. Every client downloading a file from the network will usually donate part of its own bandwidth which, when added up with all the other donwloaders of the particular file, becomes quite a lot, making it much faster than technologies such as Gnutella (or Kazaa).

Because there is already a plethora of information about BitTorrent, this interview takes a different approach and focuses entirely on Cohen’s Asperger’s Syndrome. Cohen’s story is extremely inspirational to those of us who do have Asperger’s, and will probably be so even to those without Asperger’s Syndrome (Sorry, Asperger’s makes it hard for me to tell what other people will think, so I’m only guessing that it will be ;-). I know that many of you with Asperger’s Syndrome may be at a low point in life, but this is only temporary! Bram has been there too and now he is one of the most respected figures in the computer science field.

Bram Cohen

Bram Cohen

WrongPlanet.net: How has Asperger’s helped you with your programming?

 

Bram Cohen: Oh, heh, I dunno. I tend to get obsessed with technical problems, and have a very long attention span, which are obviously good traits for being a programmer, and seem like Asperger’s traits, but [because of] not having an almost-identical-except-no-asperger’s version of myself, it’s hard to compare.

 

WP: How was life at school?

 

BC: I hated school, and dropped out of college. I got picked on a lot in school, and had a lot of trouble making friends.

 

WP: I know the feeling.

 

BC: One thing about school – I always had this attitude that I was in school to learn, and attempted to do whatever was involved in that process, while school had this attitude that I was there to earn grades, which I couldn’t care less about. Unsurprisingly, my grades weren’t very good.

 

WP: That’s been true for me as well. I tend to have trouble focusing on anything that I’m not interested in. Do you have this problem?

 

BC: Yes, I’m extremely bad at working on things which seem pointless (uninteresting I can mostly deal with). It’s caused problems for me at some workplaces, particularly when the whole job was to maintain a garbage legacy codebase.

 

WP: So you taught yourself the languages that you know?

 

BC: My father taught me Basic and rudimentary C, I learned everything else on my own, including studying computational complexity on my own. That’s more a function of my age than anything else though – back when I was in school there were hardly any programming classes.

 

WP: How did you meet your wife? [Many of us with Asperger’s tend to have trouble with romantic relationships.]

 

BC: I met my wife because she knew someone I worked withh, I don’t want to go into more detail than that.

 

WP: I understand and that’s perfectly fine. How has Asperger’s influenced your attempts to find a job [or work at one]?

 

BC: In terms of work I’ve always had a Bad Attitude in that I won’t work anywhere which requires me to work strict hours or follow a dress code. I don’t know if that’s an Asperger’s thing or not, I think it’s just being reasonable.

 

WP: A lot of us would agree with you on that. Do you have anything else you’d like to add [about Asperger’s Syndrome in general]?

 

BC: About Asperger’s in general, I’d like to comment that I never really identified as having it until I started to learn some basic social signaling and realized just how bad my problems had been.

It’s very frustrating now, because I can remember events in my life well enough to be able to realize now what people were thinking at the time, even though I had no idea what was going on back then, but of course there’s no way of going back and explaining it to myself.

 

WP: A lot of people seem to feel that way when they find out later in life. What do you have the most difficulty with in social situations?

 

BC: There’s no single thing which causes problems, it’s a general missing skill set of being able to read faces, and being able to express thoughts on one’s own face properly (there are other social cues, of course, but in my case I learned starting with the face, and everything else was easy from there).

I still sometimes get tired and just completely lose it. I try to not make eye contact when that happens. Fortunately people are very accepting when one seems to ‘snap out of it’, so if I act weird around someone one day then reasonably interactive the next they generally figure that I was just tired or distracted or something

 

WP: This is totally unrelated and more of a question I ask to anyone I speak to: What operating system do you prefer?

BC: I hate dealing with computers in general, so I’m typically OS-agnostic, I’ve most recently been abused by a windows machine, so I hate that the most for the moment.

WP: Ha ha. Well I don’t want to take too much of your time away from you. Thanks for the help!

BC: You’re welcome.