Adult Onset Atheist

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Talking about boxes

In an emotional conversation that proves injurious the responsibility to have prevented harm lies with the converser whose words caused the injury. Live long enough and your words will hurt someone by accident, and the immediate response, at least for me, is to decry the hurt as foul since the words that caused it were not motivated by malice or evil intent.

I was thinking recently about the process of stumbling through emotional conversations with people. Everyone with emotions and the ability to communicate has them. Parents, especially awkward parents like myself, have a lot of them. They are great and wonderful elements of the human condition … except when they are not.

“ I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant” -- Alan Greenspan
“I know you think you believe you understand what you thought I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is exactly what I meant.” -- Richard Nixon

It is hard to take responsibility for this accidental hurt as it just doesn’t make sense. We can understand how it is important to take responsibility for injury in many accident scenarios; for instance if we drive over someone on a bike because we didn’t see them while pulling out from a parking space we should know it is our fault since we took on the responsibility associated with steering a multi-ton chunk of propelled metal. Words are just air and the interpretation is done without input of the speaker, so it is like the above described accident without a car or bicycle or visible injuries; Just two people standing around in a parking space until one of them realizes they hurt.

Further complicating things are the natural way many (most?) people react when they are hurt. I’ve lashed out when hurt, and I suspect you have to; those words ARE meant to hurt. How can you reasonably take responsibility for accidentally hurting someone who is actively trying to hurt you in retaliation? Sometimes it is actually impossible to cut through the retaliation to be reasonable and responsible. There are even some people who reflexively lash out ten times as hard as they think that they have been attacked. Sometimes there is just too much crazy to reconstruct a dialog where anyone can be a responsible adult, and you can only hope for space and time to let the flames die down.

Time is what is recommended by people that actually study communication between people. There are thousands of people who insist that they have studied communication between people enough to have a useful opinion, but most of them have just repeated threadbare factoids enough to become convincingly self-delusional. There are groups that have conducted reasonably scientific studies on people attempting to communicate, and even attempting to communicate as a core element of an emotional relationship. The Gottman institute has been studying relationships for years, and have published reams of data suggesting an over 90% correlation between certain communication skills and the ability to form lasting emotional partnerships. There are many people who will insist that the key to a relationship's success lies in something magical; actually magical and not something that just feels magical. The keys can be in astrology or prayer or a special spell said during a astronomic event (like the upcoming total solar eclipse?), but when asked for data there standard answer is that "There are some things that science can't explain". However, science has explained a lot about the emotional interaction of people, and it is nowhere near as complex or magical as humans themselves are. Much can be understood by looking at two factors common to many scientific inquiries: Data and Signal Processing. Or, as generally described at the level of interpersonal communication: Talking and Listening.

Talking about talking about stuff is a little too meta for most conversations, and few people are as luck as I am to have a partner who almost enjoys the strange aftertaste of a self-referential romp through a conversation about the structure of the conversation itself.

The magic amount of time that is recommended by these conversationologists is 20 minutes. For a short period of time in my life I did chimney repair, and I was cautioned never to actually provide a time estimate to a customer when I called them up to tell them I was running late: “Just tell them 20 minutes because most everyone will wait for 20 minutes even if it ends up being almost 2 hours”. I think there is something physiological that happens in the human body that flushes out the hormonal context or filter that prevents rational conversation after there has been an insult; even a minor insult like not showing up to do a job at the time you said you would.The amount of time it takes that physiological process to occur is about 20 minutes.

The instant you read the word “hormones” it is likely that you thought I was talking about females. There is a difference between how females and males interact in conversation, but it is a statistical difference where the mean of responses given by one gender in a sample set is more likely to display a identifiable type of conversational behavior than the mean of the responses by the other gender in that sample set. This does not provide much guidance in any individual conversation as all conversational behaviors can be common in both genders, and there are statistical outliers of either gender that either engage in any particular conversational behavior a lot or hardly at all. If you are letting your understanding of the statistics of populations drive your individual conversations instead of actively listening to your conversational partner then you should really get more practice talking to actual humans.

The other problem in misinterpreting my dropping of the word “hormone” as a slur against feminine conversational stereotypes is that the most severe form of hormone-induced irrational conversational constitution, called “flooding” to conjure up the image of hormones filling up the skull with liquid confusion, is much more common in men. Studies suggest that “flooding” emotional events precede many domestic violence situations where a male is being violent towards their intimate partner. This does not mean that a man who floods will be violent; everybody floods and most people are never violent at all towards their intimate partner. I “flood”. You “flood”. There are people who say they don’t “flood”, but they are lying.

SO, if you’ve hurt someone and are not sure what you have done you can back off for 20 minutes to see if you can reconnect to find out what caused the injury in the first place, and then try the conversation again… only carefully. If you try something like this in the parking accident scenario you would effectively be backing back over the bicycle a second time; make sure that you don’t just re-create the injurious utterance the second time around.

Luckily the way people get hurt by accident in a conversation is usually quite simple. People don’t usually try to be hurt in a conversation and so the hurts fall into causation categories that are embarrassingly simple. I personally like to think that my mind, which can nurture ideas of intricate and sublime beauty, must fail with some elegant and impenetrable complexity. However, most –if not all- negatively-interpreted conversations fall into three different types:

Criticism: You know that important observation about a critical defect in your partner that your partner needs to know about right now? How about that annoying behavior that they need to be reminded about if they are ever going to stop it? If so you should really ask yourself if you are an a**hole and are not just accidentally irritating the people you interact with. How about when you come up with some epiphany about how people, like yourself even, work? Look at this very blog post; someone could see this as being about them and be very upset with me. Criticism can be any factual statement that can be interpreted as being about a person.

Contempt: This can be a tone of voice. Humor can go terribly wrong. It is very easy for a one-sided snarky blog rant to be taken the wrong way, or an email that muses over things in a disaffected tone can be seen as insulting. Of course in these instances a person who doesn’t actively want to be hurt can just re-read the material until their impression of an attack fades. There are some advantages to written correspondence.  In the case of a conversation a self-deprecating joke or misplaced laugh can be seen as a clear announcement of outright mockery and contempt.  Also, watch your body language.

Blame: Do you really need to know whose fault something is, and do you need to announce your findings to the person whose fault it is? If so then you shouldn’t be surprised that you are causing irritation. It is more common, though, to reflexively deflect possible blame. Saying “I didn’t do whatever” does not directly place blame unless it is heard through something like the “I’m the only other person in this conversation” filter. Be cognizant of where blame goes if you deflect it.

“If I am not what you say I am, then you are not who you think you are.” -- James Baldwin

Another problem is that humans are not exactly in control of what we say. Due to nuances in the arrangement of those elements in the brain where we decide what we are going to say and those elements that craft the way we say it we are actually not fully aware of what we are saying until we are saying it. Using a complex playback device perfectly tuned to the spacing of an individual’s spoken words it is possible to convince them that they have actually said things that they have not said. Let me restate that for clarity: even after a person has planned out what they are going to say and then crafted the way they will say it the very brain that did the planning and crafting can be convinced that something entirely different happened if they hear something different.

If such whacky dependencies are occurring inside your own brain then isn’t it of no surprise that someone listening with a different brain can hear something hurtful? Of course not! However, it is deceptively enticing to reason that it was the person who got hurt who chose to interpret something in a way that caused them to be hurt. With a very small adjustment to what one defines as a “choice” that interpretation is demonstrably true. But blaming someone who is hurting for their hurt doesn’t reduce the hurt at all, and should leave both members of the conversation sitting around in their metaphorical parking space wondering what they are doing there.

Monday, July 10, 2017

New record for Arctic sea ice minimum?

The planet continues to warm as the US pulls out of climate change accords and popularizes fuzzyheaded thinking about what constitutes knowledge about climate change. I have stated several times that my favorite dataset for tracking warming trends is sea ice levels in the Arctic and Antarctic. The Antarctic has been more dramatic this year, and sea-ice there continues to be at historic lows, but it is the Antarctic winter so the Arctic is where the effect of greenhouse warming should right now be more dramatic. I thought it might be nice to check in with the Arctic sea ice data.

The sea ice in the Arctic has been retreating at around 82 thousand square kilometers a day for the past month or so, and in June averaged 11 million square kilometers. This means that the sea ice retreat is tracing almost the same curve as seen for June and July in 2016, 2014, 2013, 2012 (the current record low year for sea ice), 2011, 2010, and 2007 (Second lowest sea ice year ever) . The geography of the Arctic Sea constrains sea ice dispersal for a short period during the Arctic summer so the tight grouping of sea ice retreat curves is not terribly shocking. However, the fact that these midsummer levels are close [6.4 million square kilometers on 1 August 2012, and the 1981-2010 median minimum is 6.3 million square kilometers on 18 September] to the minimum 1981-2010 median minimum levels (minimums usually occur in late September) is shocking. This is the new normal.

The sea ice retreat traces for each of the past “new normal” years deviated starting around August 1st as the bulk of the Arctic sea ice began to disperse. Factors such as ice-dispersing weather events can cause instability in the measured ice extent when there is a lot more ocean for the ice to be pushed around in. Remember that sea ice is counted as extending over an area when it is covered by as little as 15% actual ice.

Another factor that impacts how the trace will behave after August 1st is, and this is actually why the data is interesting, how warm it has been in the Arctic. There are many agreagate data types designed to describe how warm the Arctic is in any given year. This month the National Snow and Ice Data Center provided an uncharacteristically simple data type. They called it Cumulative Freezing Degree Days (FDD). FDD is just the sum of daily mean temperatures below zero from the same date of the previous year. This year the July 1st (2016) to July 1st (2017) FDD is the lowest ever. This suggests that the post August 1st sea ice retreat trace will fall to a new record low.

Unfortunately data like the FDD are tied to point measurements, and local anomalies can make them less predictive of behaviors in bulk phenomena like sea ice coverage in the entire Arctic. So, while it is likely that we will hit a new low for Arctic sea ice coverage in late September, it is not certain that we will. What looks to be certain, however, is that we will hit a new record minimum some time in the near future.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Hot Alban Hefin

Today is the summer solstice for most of the world. In California the solstice actually occurred just before midnight, when, somewhere in the Middle East, the sun passed directly overhead. It was hot for the solstice in much of California as it had been hot all day, and the residual sun’s heat had not yet dissipated into the California desert night as the direct rays of the sun heated the deserts of Iran.

Just a few degrees north of the Tropic of Cancer in the Middle East is a weather station named Mitribah. Mitribah is in a desolate part of a desolate landscape, and it gets hot there in the summer. On July 21st 2016 the Mitrabah weather station may have recorded the highest temperature on earth ever reliably recorded. That temperature was a sweltering 54oC (129.2oF). Weather stations in Death Valley California may have recorded the same temperature, and have unreliably recorded a much higher temperature (56.7oC on 10 July 1913 at Furnace Creek Ranch), but the hot parts of Death Valley are quite a few meters lower than sea-level, and Mitrabah has an elevation of 119 meters.

It is hot in Mitribah today; temperatures were in the range of 40oC. It is even hotter in Death Valley; temperatures may hit 53oC there.

Today is the official solstice day here in Utah, even though it occurred just a little after midnight local time. It will be hot here; hot like Mitribah was today, not as hot as Death Valley. If I am lucky I will get out for a short lunchtime bike ride. Riding a bicycle in the super heat is an exercise in tempering one’s effort to minimize heat buildup while creating enough personal wind to generate evaporative cooling from high tech fabric and sweat. It only feels really hot when I stop.

If I was in Death Valley and catastrophically stopped while cycling I could suffer severe burns when I came into contact with the tarmac. In addition to “road burn” caused by abrasive removal of dermis I could actually suffer severe thermal burning from the hot asphalt. Black road surfaces can reach temperatures in excess of 70oC. Air temperatures around 70oC are sometimes used in saunas, but contact with a hot half melted tar surface transmits that heat to the skin very efficiently. When raised to temperatures in excess of 44oC most of the proteins in human cells begin to break down; this is colloquially known as “literally cooking”.

Most consumer electronic devices overheat long before they are exposed to ambient temperatures of 70oC. So even if you were lucky enough to crash in a part of the American desert where there was cell phone service your cell phone would have given up its own ghost after a few seconds of lying on the pavement next to your sizzling bacon-scented body.

Anyone who has been outside with other people when the air temperature in the shade exceeds 45oC knows that people start acting stupid. The brain generates a lot of heat and when the body cannot dissipate that heat properly people begin to misplace aspects of their cognition. Hallucinations are possible, but the whole experience is so unpleasant that I have never heard of anyone going in search of heatstroke for a recreational high.

It makes sense to blame the high temperatures on global warming. In fact it sounds like the two are causally linked by definition. However, these are excursion temperatures and the link is not direct enough to lead naturally to answers like “how hot can it get?” or “How many hot days can we expect?”. The expected answers of “Hotter” and “More” are glued together with a bunch of “I don’t really know”s that just don’t feel satisfying to me.

If the record high temperatures increase just shy of 10oC the environment will not just be irritating and dangerous; it will become unable to support human life. We will not pop like popcorn when we go outside, but we will need to hide from the great nuclear furnace in the sky by huddling in our cool caves in order to survive the day.

So…. I would love to wish you a happy summer solstice (Some people call it Litha or Alban Hefin), and hope you get outside for a bit, but not too long.