Thursday, July 27, 2017

Love, Murder, Suicide

Yesterday a friend of mine was murdered.

There are so many things that are happening in the world that some 63-year-old man bashing in the head of his middle aged girlfriend in an out-of-the way West Virginia home barely claws its way into local news. There is a family bereft of their flame-haired matriarch, and scores of people who have suddenly lost a good friend. Not just an acquaintance that is so cordial that they earn the title “friend”, but an honest-to-goodness good friend. She was a close friend of my younger sister. I was not a close friend of hers, but a couple years ago I reached out for help with a complex emotionally-charged issue that I needed to handle remotely, and she answered the phone and honestly tried to help; many people I called wouldn't even answer the phone.  She was not my close friend, but she was a good friend, and I will miss her. 

Her death, for those who did not know her, will quickly fade into the overwhelming statistical cloud of intimate partner violence (IPV) data. Homicide is the leading cause of death for women under the age of 44; she was older than that, but the impact of homicide on the mortality of older women is still shockingly high. Nearly half of all female homicide victims are killed by a current or former male intimate partner. This is a blog post, not an intimate recollection of her life, so it will wade into these inhuman statistics about human society. 

 My friend, the victim, went on her first date with her murderer around the time of his 60th birthday, and shortly thereafter they would become a couple. Shockingly close to three years later he would kill her. My friend posted many of those annoyingly cute love memes on his facebook timeline over those three years. I’m sure she meant them in the most profound way, but some now appear creepy:

“Anyone that really gets to know me either falls in love with me or wants to murder me. Sometimes both.” Text from a meme posted on murderer’s timeline by victim on 18 October 2016

This morning the murderer was found dead in his jail cell. I don’t know if this snuffs out the possibility of justice with additional tragedy. My feeling is that this is so awful a situation that it will remain a festering wound until all those touched by it are gone. Before his death the murderer confessed to a three day yelling match that only ended when he shoved her into a wall.  The case is essentially closed, and there is no reason to exhaustively determine what additional physical abuse preceded the killing blow.  The case may be closed, but the profound wounds are fresh and open.  Closure is not an option anywhere this side of the horizon.

About a week ago (21 July 2017 MMWR 66(28); 741–746) the CDC published a report on female homicide rates. The list of statistics it presented is a black hole of despair carved out of the heart of our society. 18.3% of female victims were part of a homicide-suicide incident. By race/ethnicity, non-Hispanic black women had the highest rate of dying by homicide (4.4 per 100,000), followed by AI/AN (4.3), Hispanic (1.8), non-Hispanic white (1.5), and A/PI women (1.2). Firearms were used in 53.9% of female homicides; sharp instrument (19.8%); hanging, suffocation, or strangulation (10.5%); and blunt instrument (7.9%). Approximately 15% of victims of reproductive age (18–44 years) were pregnant or ≤6 weeks postpartum.

My friend will not be a part of these statistics unless there is another study in the future and she becomes part of the random sample set. We do not track this information as a normal course of maintaining our society. I think it is something we should demand to know, and force ourselves to be aware of.

IPV is a worldwide problem. The USA is not at the top in terms of overall IPV, but we rank near the top for IPV homicides. There are –unsurprisingly- reporting problems, but clearly the impact of IPV as defined by the WHO is a major damaging influence on our social structure everywhere.

“One of the most common forms of violence against women is that performed by a husband or intimate male partner. Although women can be violent in relationships with men, and violence is also found in same-sex partnerships, the overwhelming health burden of partner violence is borne by women at the hands of men.
Intimate partner violence includes acts of physical aggression, psychological abuse, forced intercourse and other forms of sexual coercion, and various controlling behaviours such as isolating a person from family and friends or restricting access to information and assistance.” -- 2002 WHO fact sheet

Knowledge about IPV has become somewhat devalued in the USA. Men’s right’s advocates have seized upon a questionable CDC telephone poll published in 2011 that suggests that men are “made to penetrate” by women at rates similar to women being raped by men; this poll is questionable as it is not verified by independent studies. Victim advocates have sought to sensitize the justice system to the type of sexual harassment that leads to IPV by lowering the bar of stalking to transmitting two or more unwanted emails without a requirement for them to be threatening, intimidating or violent. This means that there is a grey area of interpretation where IPV can be more easily dismissed as being like the simply unfortunate interactions that are lumped into its definition. The fact is that the vast majority of interpersonal relationships do not include any of what any reasonable person would call IPV.

My friend’s murder did not precipitate out of a social data set that includes some guy’s uncomfortable intercourse and another person’s two uncomfortable emails. She should not be used as an anecdote to amplify the queasy feeling common with the termination of an unfortunate relationship. She is dead, and her death is an unambiguous tragedy.

This does not mean that legal tools are not critical in addressing IPV. In many parts of the world domestic violence is not criminalized at all. Limiting access to firearms and increasing offerings of group-format counseling sessions for abusers are both considered worthwhile policies. Perhaps more useful policies could be developed by understanding the causal link between statistically correlated traits of abusers like: low income, low academic achievement, and excessive alcohol consumption.

Even if you don’t have the faintest idea who my friend was you will be impacted by IPV. I hope you are not a victim. I hope even more that you are not an abuser.

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.