Hexbyte  Hacker News  Computers The Ripple Effect of Death in a Hotel

Hexbyte Hacker News Computers The Ripple Effect of Death in a Hotel

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Content warning: this article explores in detail suicidal ideation and methodology.

In 1912, the Washington Post reported that an “Esthetic Nobleman” named Count August Seymore had planned to construct a “hotel for suicides” in the nation’s capital. This building, according to the count, would be a “haven for the depressed and weary of life.” Once the disillusioned guest had checked into his “eternal rest room,” taken the complimentary sedative, and pressed a bedside button to indicate his readiness, the desk clerk would discreetly turn on a gas tap in his room (thereby ensuring none of the furniture or carpets will be “spoiled by grewsome gore”). A crematorium on the roof would assist in disposing of the guests’ bodies, its furnace providing the hotel with a cheap and handy source of power.

Unsurprisingly, this imaginative scheme came to nothing, and the next time Count Seymore appeared in the newspapers, he was spending an hour a day in the window of a department store in Pittsburgh “demonstrating the correct method of wearing clothes.” Within a year he had moved on to a new obsession—the reanimation of the dead. Yet the count’s “suicide hotel” does make a certain kind of sense, if only in its acknowledgment of the fact that it’s much easier for people who want to commit suicide to do so in a private place away from home. And what place could be more private than a hotel?

This conceit forms the basis of The Suicide Club, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1878 trilogy of short stories involving a secret society for those who “have grown heartily sick of the performance in which they are expected to join daily and all their lives long.” As one of the society’s members explains, “We have affairs in different places; and hence railways were invented. Railways separated us infallibly from our friends; and so telegraphs were made that we might communicate speedier at great distances. Even in hotels we have lifts to spare us a climb of some hundred steps.” The ultimate convenience—a key to “Death’s private door”—is provided to all members of the Suicide Club.

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Outside of fiction, those seeking a key to “Death’s private door” will often register, with brave equanimity, at a hotel. There are various reasons for this, some emotional and others practical, but, to put it bluntly, at home people get suspicious. They want to know why you’re not sleeping, why you’re drinking so much, why you suddenly need a gun. Away from home, there’s far less chance of being interrupted. And even if they’re the reason for your suicide, do you really want your family cleaning up the mess?

According to a 2006 study by a pair of psychiatrists, the risk of suicide among hotel guests is much higher if they’re local residents. In some cases, suicide notes explain the choice of location. One man mentioned the desire to conceal the act from his daughter; another hoped to avert exposure in local media. In cases where no note is left, the authors assume the choice of a hotel is a way of “diminishing the chances of rescue and treatment.” Their study found that hotel suicides were slightly younger than average, but “maintained the male preponderance of suicide in the general population.” (The researchers also noted that suicidal men who are widowed or have never been married have less use for hotels, because “this population tends to live alone more frequently and could be less likely to need to implement strategies to reduce chance of rescue.”)

Those seeking a key to “Death’s private door” will often register, with brave equanimity, at a hotel. There are various reasons for this, some emotional and others practical, but, to put it bluntly, at home people get suspicious.

For hotel managers, dealing with suicide has always been an occupational hazard, though the cleaning staff usually bears its immediate impact. Casino hotels in particular have a higher than average suicide rate. More people kill themselves every year in Las Vegas than in any other place in America. The big Vegas hotels are suicide magnets—partly, though not exclusively, for those who’ve lost their life savings at the gaming tables. For this reason, most Las Vegas hotel rooms have neither balconies nor windows that open more than the inch or two that will permit the minimum required ventilation.

The suicidal leap has many advantages: you cannot change your mind, nor can you be interrupted halfway through; and, as long as the building is high enough, the jump is reliably fatal. In effect, however, the result of “plunge-proofing” Las Vegas hotel rooms has mostly been to drive would-be jumpers to a more public location, such as an interior atrium. In consequence, employees are instructed to be alert for guests who appear agitated and distraught, or for anyone lingering suspiciously in an elevated place. Such vigilance may appear altruistic, but human kindness is often simply a side effect of liability prevention. Suicides are bad for business, and in many cases, hotel proprietors can be held responsible for the damages.

According to an article entitled “How to Properly Respond to a Guest Death in Your Hotel,” published in a journal for hotel managers, one of the major problems of a hotel suicide is what the article’s author refers to candidly as “the gore factor.” “Think of a guest jumping from a balcony and landing in the atrium-style lobby or on the hotel’s sidewalk and I am sure you understand what I mean,” the author explains. “It will be messy and guests will be sickened if they witness the impact or see the impact site.” He goes on to suggest that hotel managers keep “very large dark-colored tarps made of impermeable material” readily available in case such a situation should arise, and advises that “management and security must uphold the utmost discretion in order to maintain some semblance of dignity for the decedent, the decedent’s family, and the reputation of the hotel.”

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Today, people commit suicide in hotels for the same reasons they always did. While hotel managers rarely forget suicides on their premises, for obvious reasons they’re reluctant to release or even discuss statistics. However, Neal Smither, owner of the San Francisco–based company Crime Scene Cleaners, says that hotel and motel chains are his company’s biggest clients, and suicide cleanups provide most of his business. After Las Vegas, according to Smither, the region of the country with the most hotel suicides is the I-85 corridor between Alabama and the Virginias.

These days, it is companies like Crime Scene Cleaners, rather than the hotel’s housekeeping staff, that deal with the aftermath of suicides. Today, if a member of the staff encounters what appears to be a dead body in a hotel room, they are usually instructed to back out immediately and alert security. In most of the larger corporate establishments, staff members are given strict instructions not to speak about the incident. Once the coroner has arrived, the body has been removed (through the rear exit when possible), and the police have completed any necessary investigation, the room will be sealed and a professional crime-scene cleanup service brought in, with protective gear and special equipment, to make the room hygienic and presentable.

How long this takes depends on the method of death and the size of the room. Unfortunately for hotel owners, suicidal guests—since they know they will not be paying their bill—tend to choose large and luxurious rooms for their last night on earth. Most hotels err on the side of caution when such incidents occur, replacing the entire bed rather than just the linen and blankets, the whole carpet rather than just a stained rug; they may even replace drywall. Potentially hazardous material needs to be properly disposed of and the smell dissipated. Some hotels will bring in a priest to bless the room, not just for the sake of future guests but also for the benefit of housekeeping staff.

Human kindness is often simply a side effect of liability prevention. Suicides are bad for business, and in many cases, hotel proprietors can be held responsible for the damages.

Unfortunately, small, independent hotels that don’t have the financial resources or moral accountability of the larger chains continue to rely on their own staff to clean up after such events. I learned this from a Reddit forum called “Tales from the Front Desk,” where hotel employees share their tales of pitiless managers, indignant guests, and grueling shifts at minimum wage. “A guy committed suicide on my shift,” recalls a hotel maid. “Once the owner found out about how much it cost for professionals to clean up deaths like that, he just had the maintenance guy flip the mattress.” A housekeeper describes how, in her first days on the job, a guest committed suicide using a gun placed under his chin while he was lying in bed. After the body had been removed, her boss asked for a volunteer to clean the room; wanting  to make a good impression, she took the job. Before she went inside, she writes, a detective handed her two bags: one for any pieces of body matter she came across, and the other for the bullet, which was still missing. She did as she was asked, placing small scraps of flesh in a plastic bag while searching for the bullet (which turned up during the autopsy inside the corpse). “I still wake up from dreams where I am back in that room with those two bags,” she admits.

Even though larger hotel chains bring in professional cleaning teams to deal with the situation, coming unexpectedly upon a body is still a nasty shock. A desk clerk writes that he, his coworker, and his boss have all walked into guest rooms only to find “brains and blood everywhere.” A porter who works in a Washington, D.C., hotel recalls “a guy who broke down the roof door one night, jumped off, and landed on the second story, smashing into the window. In a room full of kids at 1am.” Another desk clerk remembers how he “watched a jumper hit the ground from 20 stories up . . . I was traumatized.” And yet business must go on as usual: “Still I am expected to smile all night, preen like a peacock, and try not to cringe when some guy tries to dispute his adult movie charges that he clicked on ‘by accident.’”

In his well-known essay “The Jumping-Off Place,” first published in the New Republic in 1931, the writer Edmund Wilson described the Coronado Beach Hotel in San Diego as “the ultimate triumph of the dreams of the architects of the 80s,” contrasting its fabulous façade with the grim truth that San Diego had, for a time, become the suicide capital of the United States. The coroner’s reports, Wilson wrote, made melancholy reading, for they contained “the last futile effervescence of the burst of the American adventure.” In San Diego, they stuff up the cracks of their doors and quietly turn on the gas; they go into their back sheds or back kitchens and eat ant-paste or swallow Lysol; they drive their cars into dark alleys, get into the back seat and shoot themselves; they hang themselves in hotel bedrooms, take overdoses of sulphonal or barbital; they slip off to the municipal golf-links and there stab themselves with carving-knives, or they throw themselves into the bay . . .

Those who come to the city to escape from “ill-health and poverty, maladjustment and industrial oppression” discover that “having come West, their problems and diseases remain,” and that “the ocean bars further flight.” These lonely visitors soon realize that the “dignity and brilliance” of exclusive hotels like the Coronado are intended for out-of-towners and convention-goers, not locals with little left to live for. For such people, the hotels’ cruel opulence is often the final insult.


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From An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body and the BelvedereCourtesy of Henry Holt and Co. Copyright © 2018 by Mikita Brottman.

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The ‘Thanksgiving Effect’ and the Creepy Power of Phone Data

The ‘Thanksgiving Effect’ and the Creepy Power of Phone Data

If you didn’t know it before the Cambridge Analytica debacle, you do now: Your digital habits are dual-use data. One company might analyze them to recommend you TV shows, while another might try to leverage them to influence an election. The first scenario you might be OK with, the other not so much.

So, knowing what you know now, ask yourself how you feel about this: Your personal data, it seems, can also be used to infer how your politics affect your personal life, including things like the time you spend with your family during the holidays.

For a study published in this week’s issue of Science, UCLA economist Keith Chen and Washington State University economist Ryne Rohla combined smartphone-location data from more than 10 million Americans with precinct-level election results to quantify the impact of partisanship and political advertising on Thanksgiving dinners in 2016, on the heels of the presidential election. Among their findings: Democrats shortened their visits to Republican households by between 20 and 40 minutes; Republicans cut their time with Democratic hosts by 50 to 70 min; and mismatched families from areas with high political ad exposure spent even less time together.

The researchers’ results might not surprise you (2016’s election reportedly led many people to cut their Thanksgivings plans short), but their methods might: The smartphone data came from SafeGraph, a company that uses geolocation data from apps on your phone to maintain anonymized geospatial datasets for more than 10 million US smartphones. These data consist of “pings,” which give the locations of individual smartphones at specific moments in time. For their study, the researchers analyzed some 21 billion pings from November 2016 and 4.5 billion from November 2015.

You might be thinking: OK, that’s one kind of data, but it’s creepy to think that researchers could match my phone’s location with my political affiliation. Who the hell has that data? That’s where the election results come in. Chen and Rohla collected precinct-level polling data—the highest-resolution available—through internet scraping and by contacting secretaries of state, boards of election, and county clerks. Merging the two datasets was as simple as inferring the precinct and census block of each smartphone user’s home based on the location of pings logged between 1:00 am and 4:00 am in the weeks before Thanksgiving. People who live in the same precinct tend to vote for the same candidate. “So it turns out where your smartphone spends its time between 1:00 and 4:00 in the morning correlates pretty closely with who you voted for in the 2016 election,” says Chen. He and Rohla used the same method to determine where people traveled on Thanksgiving day.

With their merged data sets, the researchers were able to control for geographic and demographic factors. By comparing similar families to each other, Chen and Rohla showed that dinners attended by residents from opposing-party precincts in 2016 were 30 to 50 minutes shorter than same-party get-togethers. They were also able to compare behavior between years: In 2015, mismatched families still tended to spend less time together than matched ones, but the effect was more pronounced in 2016. And that was especially true when travelers and hosts hailed from media markets with lots of political television ads.

In short: It’s astonishing what you can infer about personal relationships from just a few datasets.

“What this study suggests is it may be possible to use new kinds of data to measure polarization,” says Brown University economist Jesse Shapiro, who was unaffiliated with the study. An expert in the data-driven analysis of partisanship, Shapiro says the field relies mostly on survey data and self-reports, which can be flawed. But Chen and Rohla’s approach could offer researchers a less-biased glimpse into people’s lives; it’s safe to assume the anonymous cell phone users whose geolocation data was used in this study did not intend to communicate their political leanings or family drama to a researcher. In going about their daily, personal business, Shapiro says, they were nevertheless communicating something about these private aspects of their lives.

That’s a thrilling possibility for social science researchers, who have grown increasingly interested in dissecting the link between things like social media use and society’s political divisions. Even tech companies are beginning to acknowledge the value of such research: Facebook recently pledged to provide select scientists unprecedented access to its troves of user data, to study the platform’s impact on democracy and elections. As Shapiro puts it: “It’s exciting to see new data employed creatively to measure polarization and political divisions in different ways, using data that until recently wasn’t accessible to researchers.”

But in the wrong hands, in the wrong context, a creative use of data can be both creepy and invasive. It stands to reason that if your data can be used to better understand human behavior it also be used to exploit it.

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