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Mailing List Community Care

Clay Shirky recently published a missive titled “Group as User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software” that I almost dropped into the Distractions list, but then realized I wanted to write about in a little more detail.  Clay talks about mailing lists as one of the oldest forms of social software, and how they tend to become clogged with flame wars.  He makes the case that since flame wars are inevitable in a group setting, there should be mechanisms that help prevent and control the fires.  For the most part, I agree with him that some mechanisms would be a good idea.  I do not, however, accept that flaming is inevitable.

I can draw on personal experience to make this claim.  I’ve been responsible for a mailing list (css-discuss) for almost three years now.  In that time, the list grew so large that it started to overload its home, and had to migrate to a more capable host.  As of this writing, the membership list stands at 5,128 subscribed accounts.  That’s not a typo.  Bear in mind that any account that is disabled due to excessive bounces gets automatically removed after a couple of weeks, so the amount of deadwood is pretty low.

So, yeah, I know what it’s like to be a part of a very large mailing list community.  Over the lifetime of the list, we’ve had very, very few flame wars.  (Most of them have centered around font sizing, unsurprisingly enough.)  And what we call a flame war would hardly even raise an eyebrow in most online fora.  By the standards of the css-d community, any thread that contains more than two agitated posts is considered a flame war.  Posts where list members actually insult each other are rare as moon cheese.  Condescension is a little more common, but not by much.

We aren’t running magic software to make this happen; the list is running on Mailman 2.1b5.  What’s made the difference is me.

Warning!  Ego alert!  Ego alert!

Actually, not at all.  From the very first, I’ve worked hard to make sure list members understand the nature of the community.  It is not a democracy, and it isn’t an anarchy.  It’s a benevolent dictatorship.  This is no secret: I’ve said so on the list at least a couple of times.  I try not to wield the Brickbat Of Administrative Correction unless necessary, and when I do, I do so in as neutral and even-handed a manner as possible.  In the end, though, I make it very clear that within the confines of that community, my word is effectively law.  I decide what’s on topic, and what isn’t, and gently make my decisions known.  End of story.  When I call for a thread to end, it ends.  Or else.  If list members ask for changes to the list’s nature, as happens from time to time, I listen to their reasoning and then make a decision.  That’s it.

Maybe that all sounds like a guy on a massive power trip, but honestly, I’d much prefer that I didn’t have to make those calls.  I’d prefer to have a community where the members keep themselves in line.  That’s actually possible so long as the community is very small, and everyone both listens and is heard.  In a large community, it’s effectively impossible.  Even if 99% of the list membership is adult, the 1% can ruin things for everyone else.  On css-d, a 1% flame rate would mean 50 members were out of line.  In absolute terms, that’s unacceptable.  Thus I actively watch and chaperone the list.  I also wrote some material enumerating the policies, how to avoid being offended, and the right way to answer questions.  People really like that material.  I’ve been asked permission to re-use that material several times.

I also participate in the community as best I can, setting an example for how questions should be answered and list members should act.  Of late, I’ve been too swamped to offer more than token participation on the list, which is why I just yesterday selected four list members to be moderators.  They’ll be helping with administrivia, but more importantly, will be helping to keep things on-topic and civil, although I honestly don’t expect them to have to work very hard at that last part.  Heck, I’ve been an absentee dictator for a couple of months now, and things have stayed mostly on-topic and very civil.  Basically, having put the effort into rolling this massive boulder in a certain direction, it kept going that way even when I stopped actively pushing for a while.  Just recently, things have started to deteriorate a bit.  That was a major impetus to get off my keister and pick some moderators.

So I guess my point is that there’s more to a community than its members.  The founder’s influence is strong, and if the community has someone (or several someones) actively in charge who can make my-way-or-the-highway decisions but still be reasonable about them, it can be kept very nearly flame-free.

Still, some of the ideas Clay discusses would be very useful, even in an already-civil environment like css-d.  He proposes, for example, adapting features of the Slashdot karma/moderation system to mailing lists.  In the css-d context, such a system would probably function more like the eBay “Rate This Seller” feature; for us, it would be a “Rate This Member” mechanism that could communally identify those who are helpful, knowledgeable, and so on.  Similarly, a “Rate This Thread” could be used to identify topics of interest as well as topics that nobody wants to hear about.  (Like font sizing.)  I believe that by getting distributed, evolving community input of that kind, the list would be strengthened and enriched.

It would be interesting to add such features, but in the current environment, I don’t see a way to do so—and, let’s face it, I’m not the world’s most proficient programmer.  Right now it’s mostly something to keep in mind for the future.  Especially if you happen to be working on mailing list software.

Behind The Beauty, Cracks Appear

This one is going out to all the social conservatives in the room.

Congratulations, people!  You’ve managed to strike a blow for the promulgation of promiscuity and the diminishment of the American dream.  That was the point, wasn’t it?

Yes, I’m referring to the eleven state issues that passed a week ago, each and every one declaring marriage to be the union of a man and a woman, period, move to France if you don’t like it, end of story.  Here in Ohio, we passed one of the most stringent versions by amending our state constitution to define marriage that way, and also to prohibit the granting of equivalent legal status to any other kind of union.  Which means that not only can gays not get married in Ohio, but their domestic partners can’t be granted any of the rights and priveleges that marriage confers even by means of a civil union or some other not-marriage-in-name-only device.  The same is true for heterosexual domestic partners.  You’re either married, or you’re out of luck.  And if you’re gay, well, it would seem you’re just plain out of luck.

So yes, that’s right, oh noble defenders of morality, by enshrining your discomfort with homosexuality, you’ve done your level best to promote continued homosexual promiscuity.  After all, American society is pretty clearly telling gays that they shouldn’t ever hope to have a long-term committed relationship recognized by the state.  So is it any wonder that they don’t tend to form such relationships?  There are, of course, exceptions; I know of at least one gay couple that’s been together for a decade and a half now.  But they aren’t legally married, nor can they be so long as they live in this state, or really almost anywhere in this country.  The message is loud and clear.

As for the American dream, well, your crusade has tarnished that as well.  Remember “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”?  So much for the last of the three.  When two people love each other enough to commit their lives to each other, why should anyone else stand in the way of their happiness?  And yet we do, as a society.  In the name of our discomfort, we impair their happiness.  Life and liberty are still mostly assured, although it’s likely Matthew Shepard would choose to disagree, if only he could.

I know that I’m generalizing here, but at the same time, this is what our democratic process has delivered.  If a vote is the voice of the people, they’re saying something that tastes like ashes to me.  It’s the same process that blocked interracial marriages for so many years.  It’s about as right now as it was then.

You know, according to the CIA World Factbook, the population of the United States in 2003 was 290,809,777.  According to the ratios documented in multiple studies, approximately 29,080,977 of those Americans are homosexual.  The total membership of the largest Baptist churches in the United States, by comparison, was about 29,553,000—roughly the same size as the homosexual population.  (And of couse there are people who are members of both sets.)  Since we’re all apparently willing to prohibit small minorities from marrying, I say we define marriage to be a union between a man and a woman, neither of whom is Baptist.  Sound fair?

Yeah, I thought you’d feel that way.

  (Ed. note — it has been pointed out that the 10% figure is no longer accepted.  Unfortunately, there is not much in the way of firm data on the actual percentage of homosexuals in the American population.  One source describes research which gives a variety of numbers that can, depending on one’s definition of “gay”, yield figures anywhere from 4.2% to 13.4% of the population.  The abstract point being made still stands regardless of the exact numbers, but the original inaccuracy is regretted.)

I’ve had some friends ask me when I’ll be moving, and I can no longer answer “I don’t plan to”, because I’m just not sure any more.  The problem isn’t Cleveland, of course.  Sure, we have problems hereabouts, but this is a relatively tolerant corner of the state.  The particular suburb in which I reside, Cleveland Heights, had the first voter-approved domestic partner registry in America.  Our street had about two dozen Kerry signs and one Bush sign, but so far as I know nobody gave the Bush folks a hard time.  Heck, the guy who mowed “BUSH” into his lawn the next street over was talked about with neighborly amusement and a touch of admiration toward his level of dedication.  Nobody proposed running him out of town.  We didn’t even call him names, or speak with derision.  We generally live and let live around here.  That’s kind of a liberal trait, actually—at least, among the liberals I know.  And I know a lot of them.

The problem isn’t even Ohio.  Yes, this state collectively told gays (and unmarried heterosexual couples) that we don’t much like their kind.  So did ten other states.  Right now, the same would happen just about anywhere in America.  So the problem seems to be America, or maybe just Americans.  Either way, there’s something about homosexuals getting married that a whole lot us just can’t stomach.  I don’t know what it is about this issue that has everyone’s panties in a bunch, and to be frank I’m not sure I much care.  When I’m this far out of touch with so many of my fellow countrymen, maybe it’s time to consider leaving.  After all, if the majority is always sane, then I’m the one who’s wrong here.

It isn’t that easy, of course.  I have no real wish to leave behind the country of my birth; I have great affection for America, and deeply believe in the principles on which it was founded, in a time when so many people seem to feel otherwise.  It grieves me to think of my country as being on the wrong track, but I do.  And then there’s my family to think about, but that actually deepens the quandry.  I don’t exactly want to ask them to move over a point of principle, but at the same time, I’m not at all sure I want to raise my children in a country that seems to have become so shamefully intolerant and narrow-minded.  Kat and I will set for them the best example we can, but when it’s us against the body politic, well, we’re just a little outnumbered.  We might be better served to find a society that will support our beliefs, instead of one that opposes and belittles them.

This isn’t an attack on America, and it isn’t a promise to leave, and it isn’t a story with any kind of decent ending.  It’s a glimpse into one citizen’s inner disappointment.  It’s an attempt to exorcise some of my frustration, and to plead a case, however clumsily.  It’s a lament for a noble dream, one we seem to have forgotten in the heat and noise of our harried, fearful lives.

I wish I could end with a flourish, or even better, with an answer, a call to action.  All I have is a sorrowful shake of my head and a small shrug of resignation.

They Got It Fixed Right On

This morning, as I pulled records for my show, the host before me asked if I had a special theme in mind.  “Nope,” said I; “the next thematic show won’t be until October 20th, which is Jelly Roll Morton’s birthday.  Nothin’ better than two hours of Jelly Roll.”

And then the double entendre hit me.

See, “jelly roll” was once upon a time a slang term for, to put it politely, female genitalia.  This was the case when he took on the moniker, in fact.  It’s sort of the circa-1900 equivalent of “Pussy Galore”.

There’s a tendency to think of earlier eras as being more innocent, more pure in some way.  They weren’t.  Not even close.  If you’re looking for a time when salacious puns and obvious, racy double entendres didn’t exist, you’re going to have to go back to the time before humans invented language, if not further.

Consider for a moment the first two verses and chorus of “They Got It Fixed Right On”, recorded by Georgia Tom Dorsey in 1930:

A girl with a Ford and a guy named Jim
He liked her and she liked him
Ford broke down in a quiet park
Didn’t get home ’till after dark

But they got it fixed, ain’t no doubt
Nobody knows what it’s all about
Too bad that the news got out
But they got it fixed right on

Well, Peg Leg Sam had a girl named Sue
She broke his peg leg half in two
Only way to fix the leg
Was to have his gal take a whole lot of peg

It starts out relatively tame, of course, but the second verse doesn’t leave a whole lot to the imagination, now does it?  I’m not even sure it qualifies as a double entendre, which I usually think of as being at least somewhat coy.  And remember, this is from 1930.  It isn’t quite as direct as “gonna have you naked by the end of this song”, nor as crude as “I wanna f— you like an animal”— but it isn’t exactly “Tea For Two”, either.

I’m not about to claim that this is the only example of saucy songwriting from the era, either.  Cliff Edwards, better known as Ukelele Ike and the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, made a career of racy songs like “I’m A Bear In A Ladies’ Boudoir” and “I’m Going To Give It To Mary With Love”.  That was also the time when Mae West was saying things like “Let’s forget about the six feet and talk about the seven inches” in her movies.

Back to Georgia Tom, though.  A later verse keeps up the laciviousness levels:

A girl went into the butcher’s shop
Grabbed the butcher’s big ham hock
Butcher knocked her off her feet
She missed his bone but she got his meat

I’ve played this song on my show a few times.  One of those times, a fellow programmer came into the studio and said, “Are you sure the FCC will let us air this?”  It seemed unlikely at the time that they’d fine or otherwise penalize us for a song recorded in 1930, but now I’m not so sure.  After all, if Janet Jackson’s nipple can cost CBS approximately $1.1 million per second, who knows?

I know a girl in a pastry shop
Selling those doughnuts and lollipops
Preacher came down to save her soul
She asked him to fix her jelly roll

There’s that jelly roll again, and being offered to a preacher, no less.  If only the kids today behaved more properly and showed some respect for public decency, just like their forebears did, eh?

It’s long been the case that one of the things I love about my show is that I don’t have to worry about previewing the songs.  After all, how much trouble could I get into for playing Billie Holiday or Louis Armstrong?  Plenty, as it turns out.  The original recording of “My Sweet Hunk o’ Trash”, a duet between those two, is included on a Billie Holiday collection we have at the station.  In this version, as Billie sings one of the verses, Louis intersperses comments between her lines (a common practice).  One of his responses is “F— ‘em, baby”.  This was in 1944, and Decca records planned to release the song.  Only public complaints from Walter Winchell prompted them to change the line to “How come, baby” in the released song.  The compilation has the original.

So there’s one song I can’t actually air, despite it being recorded half a century ago.  That’s pretty clear.  Although, last I checked, classic rock stations could still get away with airing The Who’s “Who Are You?”, which features the very same ‘naughty word’.  But never mind that now; double standards are, like double entendres, very much par for the human course.  What worries me is the songs that flirt with the line between indecency and obscenity, like “They Got It Fixed Right On”.  Or, for that matter, the 1947 Dinah Washington number “Long John Blues”.

I’ve got a dentist who’s over seven feet tall
Yes I’ve got a dentist who’s over seven feet tall
Long John they call him, and he answers every call

Well I went to Long John’s office and told him the pain was killin’
Yes I went to Long John’s office and told him the pain was killin’
He told me not to worry, that my cavity just needed fillin’

He said “when I start drillin’, I’ll have to give you novocaine”
He said, “Yes, when I start drillin’, I’ll have to give you novocaine
Cause ev’ry woman just can’t stand the pain”

He took out his trusted drill
And he told me to open wide
He said he wouldn’t hurt me
But he’d fill my hole inside
Long John, Long John, you’ve got that golden touch
You thrill me when you drill me, and I need you very much

When he got through, he said “Baby that will cost you ten”
Yes when he got through, he said “Baby that will cost you ten
Six months from now, come back and see me again”

Say you’re supposed to see your dentist
‘Bout twice a year, that’s right
But I think I feel it bobbin’
Yes I’ll go back there tonight
Long John, Long John, don’t ever move away
Say I hope I keep on achin’ so I can see you every day.

These days, it’s hard to know what can get you in trouble; even a spot of dental work, we discover, just isn’t safe.  And twice in this entry, I’ve sanitized a certain word beginning with the letter “F” because I know many readers come here from work machines, and I don’t want to be responsible for getting them in trouble with their content filter administrator, let alone their boss.  Some people, upon tripping the content filter, have to fill out paperwork explaining the nature of the site they visited, why it had a Bad Word(tm) on it, and why they shouldn’t be reprimanded or fired as a result.

You’d think we’d have grown up a little more by now.

Reagan’s Dead? Really?

Okay, Ronald Reagan died.  I got it the first six hundred times.  I grew up in the Eighties; I remember the Reagan years quite clearly.  He did a lot of good things, a lot of bad things, and a lot of ambiguous things while President, just like every other President I can remember, but frankly, at this point I think people are starting to go a little overboard.  As usual, Jon Stewart nailed it squarely (if I may paraphrase): “The ones I pity in all this are Ford and Carter. Because they’re watching this and thinking, ‘When I die, no way am I getting that.’  My advice to them: die while saving a baby.”

Still, I think the way the Liberal Media has totally ignored his death is just a travesty, don’t you?

Electron Opiate

Television possesses a scary, scary power.

All day today, Carolyn was in a cranky mood, no doubt because yesterday she got her six-month vaccination shots.  As the day wore on, she was less and less amenable to distraction.  We tried feeding her dinner, and that worked for a while, but then she started crying.  We switched to toys, and that was good for a few minutes before the sad face returned.  Kick-and-play seat, no good.  Jumping chair, nothing.  Walking around while bouncing her in my arms kept her to a minimal crank, but stopping for more than a minute caused the crank to escalate fairly rapidly.

So, at last, in desperation, I put her in front of the television and started a Baby Einstein video.  From the moment the TV turned on, she calmed down.  We ran through the DVD twice, and she didn’t so much as fuss.  Even the end credits kept her captivated.  She stayed calm after the television was turned off, nursed, and went quietly to sleep.

This may be in part because it’s roughly the sixth time she’s seen the television on in our house, so there was a certain novelty factor involved.  If anything, this little episode has reinforced and deepened my determination to keep our children’s television exposure to a very bare minimum as they grow up.


A week ago, I published an entry that was two parts exploration and one part experimentation.  The experiment was to see how readers commented on a post of that nature, one that was potentially very inflammatory even though was not at all its intent.  The commenting ability is still new for me, and I’m working out how open I want to be about comments.  When I was writing the entry, I had in mind to not permit comments, realizing that it could easily draw a metric ton of flames, accusations, and other sundry ickiness.  At the last minute, I decided that it would be better to open comments and see what happened.  I’m well satisfied with the results, but have now closed comments on the entry (you can still ping it if you want).

I do want to follow up just a bit on some of the comments that were posted.  A few people said or implied that I should have picked a less volatile subject than intimate partner violence (IPV).  That’s just it, though: I didn’t pick the subject with an intent to post.  I was doing my own research, for my own information, and at the end of the process decided I’d share the results rather than just sit on what I’d learned.  Why?  I’ll quote myself:

…I was able to do some in-depth fact checking of my own in less than an hour, using nothing but Google and some well-chosen search terms, and obtain a more accurate picture of the world than I’d had before. I believe that this ability to self-inform is one of the most important and often underappreciated benefits of the Web. If nothing else, I’m glad I went on this particular search because it reminded me that the Web really is something worth fighting for, and that improving the Web is always an effort worth undertaking.

It was an aspect of the Web I’d rediscovered, and thought it was also important to share.  I’ve been doing this stuff for more than a decade now, and when I started my whole goal was to help put information online.  That’s why I wrote the HTML tutorials at CWRU—to make it easier for people to share information about whatever they knew best.  I’ve seen a resurgence of that impulse recently, with people blogging obscure fixes or problems they’ve encountered so Google will pick it up, and it will be there for the next person who needs it.  (See, for example,”Writing For Google” over at Daring Fireball.)  So if I can forget that the Web is an astonishing source of information, and need a reminder, maybe others could use the same reminder.

And why did I share so much detailed information on such a potentially sensitive subject?  I don’t think my points would have had the impact without the details.  That probably sounds like I was trying to use a touchy subject to raise my exposure, but that’s not it at all.  If I’d just posted to say, “I was curious about something and dug up a lot of information about it, and that’s what’s cool about the Web” it wouldn’t have had the same resonance.  Walking through the process and pointing to the sources I quoted established a context for my final points.  It was also the case that I believe I found some useful information about a very important subject, and was able to disseminate it further.

My thanks to everyone who contributed comments, especially those of you who pushed back a bit.  I’ll close with a favorite David Byrne lyric; make of it what you will.

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
—”Crosseyed and Painless”

My Dinner With Brian

I was back in the training groove this week, and on Monday morning one of the attendees had to duck out at one of the breaks.  “I have to talk with Brian, who’s consulting for us.”  I must’ve looked blank, because he said, “Brian Foy.  Do you know him?  Works with Randall Schwartz.”

I’ve been reading Brian‘s missives from Iraq on the O’Reilly Network for a year now, and was really psyched to meet him.  As it turned out, we both were planless on Monday night, so I picked him up at his hotel and blundered around the neighborhood until we found a Thai restuarant.  Over appetizers, Brian told me his wife (an opera singer) has been doing her own Web design for a while now, and was getting into CSS.  Then he mentioned buying the O’Reilly CSS book for her, and as he talked about why he’d bought it, I quickly realized that he’d picked it up because it was an O’Reilly book, and recommended.  He literally didn’t know he was having dinner with its author.

After a couple of minutes, I finally told him who’d written the book.  I should probably feel bad about not admitting it right away.  I wasn’t going to say anything here either, but he already blogged it, so… what the heck.

It was very interesting to talk about Iraq with someone who’d been there.  I was able to ask him the question I’ve wanted to have answered for a while: “How does the news coverage compare to what’s really going on over there?”

“It’s horrible,” he said.  “We got CNN and Fox on the Armed Forces Network and they were both just terrible.”  He said that he’d literally been present for things that were being covered on TV by the time he got back to the barracks, and nobody ever accurately represented what had happened.  Not even close, apparently.  Brian made the observation that images are so overwhelming, so powerful, that the story was always driven by whatever footage had been shot.  Not by the actual event in its totality, nor the context.  Just the visual.

It wasn’t surprising to hear that, but it left me saddened and frustrated.

We Need Some References, STATS!

During a recent (somewhat contentious) debate, a friend tossed out the statistic that every nine seconds, a woman is beaten in the United States.  Later on, I did some math, and determined even if we assume that every one of those beatings is suffered by a different woman—that is, no woman is beaten more than once in a given year, which is most certainly not the case, but we’ll take it as a premise anyway—that means just over 3.5 million women are beaten every year.  That’s fairly shocking, if it’s true, since that’s about 2.5% of all females in the country (of all ages; there were approximately 144 million females in the U.S. as of March 2002, according to the Census Bureau document Women and Men in the United States: March 2002).

But is it true; or more appropriately, is it an accurate reflection of what’s really happening?  I started to wonder about this, because I have a tendency to question premises pretty closely.  What’s meant by “beaten”—does it include incidents where a single punch is thrown in anger, and instantly regretted?  Does it refer only to reported incidents, or is it based on both reported and estimates of unreported incidents?  Does medical attention have to be sought?  Does it include beatings of women by women, or is it only concerned with times when a man beats a woman?

So I turned to Google to do a little basic research.  The search “woman beaten every seconds” immediately turned up claims that varied from every nine seconds to every fifteen seconds.  That latter interval would mean that about 2.1 million women are beaten every year, again assuming every incident involves a newly beaten woman, which is quite a drop from 3.5 million.  I also found, a site that claims to “check out the facts and figures behind the news.”  They claim, in a list of what they term “commonly accepted fallacious statistics,” that the actual interval is every two minutes twenty seconds, based on a figure of “220,000 serious violent incidents” for calendar year 1999.  Which works out to every two minutes 23.34 seconds—if it’s true.

But is it?  Our friends at STATS aren’t much help, because they provide no direct reference for the figure, so there’s no easy way to check up on their methodology either.  Further obscuring the picture is that they don’t define a “serious violent incident.”  To reiterate some earlier questions, does it refer only to reported incidents, or is it based on both reported and estimates of unreported incidents?  Does medical attention have to be sought in order to count as a “serious” incident?  They aren’t saying, nor do they provide any links to more detailed information.

So I started digging a little more deeply, again through Google.  Eventually I found a document on “Intimate Partner Violence” (and more on that in a moment) at the Department of Justice that reports:

  • The number of female victims of intimate violence declined from 1993 to 1998.  In 1998 women experienced about 900,000 violent offenses at the hands of an intimate, down from 1.1 million in 1993.
  • In both 1993 and 1998, men were victims of about 160,000 violent crimes by an intimate partner.
  • Considered by age category, 1993-98, women ages 16 to 24 experienced the highest per capita rates of intimate violence (19.6 per 1,000 women).
  • About half the intimate partner violence against women, 1993-98, was reported to the police; black women were more likely than other women to report such violence.
  • About 4 of 10 female victims of intimate partner violence lived in households with children under age 12.  Population estimates suggest that 27% of U.S. households were home to children under 12.
  • Half of female victims of intimate partner violence reported a physical injury.  About 4 in 10 of these victims sought professional medical treatment.

So that gives us some actual numbers into which we can sink our calculators.  I’ll take one million as an average for the period 1993-1998, which is a crude but convenient measure.  That works out to a beating every 31.536 seconds; we’ll round down to every 31 seconds.

There are three things to note here.  One, this is “intimate partner violence,” which includes spouses, ex-spouses, boy/girlfriends, and ex-boy/-girlfriends.  It therefore doesn’t count random attacks like violent muggings, rapes by strangers, and so on.  Two, there were a million violent offenses, which does not necessarily mean a million different women, but there’s no way to measure that so we’ll continue to assume that every incident involves a different woman.  Three, it’s stated that about half of such violent incidents are actually reported to the police, which means there’s potential uncertainty in the data set.  The description of methodology restores some confidence; in the period 1993-1998, they interviewed “approximately 293,400 households.”  That’s a pretty good data set.

The report also states:

Women were more likely to be victimized by a nonstranger, which includes a friend, family member, or intimate partner, while men were more likely to be victimized by a stranger.

“More likely” doesn’t give us much of a handle on the proportion of intimate-to-stranger violence, unfortunately.  If intimate partner violence constitutes 55% of all violent crimes against women, that’s a much different story than if it’s 90%.  Furthermore:

Sixty-five percent of all intimate partner violence against women and 68% of intimate partner violence against men involved a simple assault, the least serious form of violence studied.

“Least serious” is a bit of a misnomer, in my opinion, since “simple assault” is later defined as:

Simple assault is an attack without a weapon resulting either in no injury, minor injury (such as bruises, black eyes, cuts, scratches, or swelling) or an undetermined injury requiring less than 2 days of hospitalization.  Simple assaults also include attempted assaults without a weapon. 

So a slap in the face is lumped in with a beating that leaves marks or requires up to two days in the hospital.  We’re also including incidents where a person (male or female) tried to attack a woman without making use of a weapon, but failed.  Or succeeded.  That’s a very, very wide range of incidents and types of violence.

Since the next step up in assault severity is aggravated assault, which includes incidents in which “the victim is seriously injured,” we could decide to count all non-simple assaults as serious violent incidents.  That would mean around 350,000 such incidents in a year, which is obviously higher than STATS’ figure of 220,000 for 1999.  Now, I suppose it’s possible that the figure dropped that much between 1998 and 1999, but I give such an occurence a probability somewhere around that of my being made the first astronaut to Mars.  So we’re still left wondering what “actual figure as estimated by the Justice Department” they’re using, since the actual figures I got from the Justice Department seem to have nothing to do with their figures.  (But at least I pointed you to my source, so you can check up on my assertions; see the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ main page on Intimate Partner Violence to get links to PDFs, Excel spreadsheets, the document I’ve been referencing, and more.)

At the end of all this, we seem to have arrived at an answer between the commonly-repeated figure of “every nine seconds” and STATS’ claim of every two-and-a-third minutes (which in turn leads me to harbor deep skepticism about their other claims, since their domestic violence number seems to be, well, fallacious).  As noted, the numbers I’ve been using all cover intimate partner violence.  I didn’t find similar information on other kinds of violence, although I’m sure it exists somewhere.  Once those incidents were added in, they would lower the average interval between beatings, although they couldn’t lower the interval all the way to nine seconds, or even fifteen.  To do that, there would have to be more stranger-perpetrated violence than intimate partner violence, which the report says isn’t the case.

So what’s my point?  I have three, as it happens.

My first point is that obtaining an accurate picture of the world is a messy, complicated business, and simple unattributed figures don’t help at all.  I’m not trying to say that violence against women isn’t a big deal: it is.  I personally think violence of any kind, no matter who is the victim and whom the attacker, is a big deal, and we should work to lessen such incidents.  I am saying that it may or may not be as bad as we think—and, in fact, the document I used states that intimate partner violence and homicides dropped over the covered period, despite the fact the national population was rising.  That says to me that we should work harder to figure out the causes driving that decrease, and exert more efforts along the same lines.  I’m not so naïve as to think we can ever totally eliminate violence, but we can and should do our best to get as close to that goal as we can.

My second point is that the news media don’t help at all in clarifying this stuff—no great shock there, I suppose, but it’s something that been bothering me more and more of late (as I wrote yesterday).  I previously linked to an article about the gross inaccuracies in reporting about the cost of the proposed missions to the Moon and Mars, and this is another example of how convenient, unexamined “facts” become common conversational currency.  I know I’ve heard the “every nine seconds” figure on the news, or at least a figure very much like it.

The third and perhaps most important point, and the one I found most personally fascinating, is that I was able to do some in-depth fact checking of my own in less than an hour, using nothing but Google and some well-chosen search terms, and obtain a more accurate picture of the world than I’d had before.  I believe that this ability to self-inform is one of the most important and often underappreciated benefits of the Web.  If nothing else, I’m glad I went on this particular search because it reminded me that the Web really is something worth fighting for, and that improving the Web is always an effort worth undertaking.

October 2014