If you bury a loved one in your garden, make sure you tell the authorities

May 31, 2015

I first came across Caitlin Doughty in an interview she gave on NPR’s Fresh Air last year. Doughty who was born in Hawaii 1984, is an American mortician, author, blogger, and YouTube star. In 2014 her book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory came out. I had been meaning to read the book ever since I heard the NPR interview and last week I finally got round to it.

The book, part memoir, part manifesto, tells about her experiences in the funeral industry. She had an unlikely route to her chosen career. At university she had studied medieval history. On graduation she moved to San Francisco in 2006, where at the age of 23, she found a job at Westwind Cremation & Burial. Her job involved picking up corpses from homes and hospitals, preparing them for viewings, cremating them, and finally delivering the ashes to the families. Despite her lack of experience, she was able to cope with being thrown in at the deep end. The opening chapter begins with her first day at work and having to shave a corpse.

But as I said her book is also one which seeks to bring about change. Critiques of the funeral industry are not new. Just over half a century ago Jessica Mitford wrote The American Way of Death, an exposé of the funeral home industry in the United States. Mitford argued that death had become too sentimentalized. More importantly it had become highly commercialized, and funeral homes were systematically overcharging customers, making them pay far more than necessary for the funeral and other services.  Doughty has sympathy with Mitford’s view. She cites the example of Dr. Hubert Eaton and his Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, the first of a chain of cemeteries in Southern California. An article in a 1959 issue of Time called Forest Lawn the “Disneyland of Death”. The cemetery, which attracts over a million visitors per year, is the resting place of many stars including Clark Gable, James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Pickford, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, W.C. Fields, Sammy Davis Jr., Walt Disney and Nat King Cole. Dr. Eaton was convinced that most current cemeteries were “unsightly, depressing stoneyards”.  He wanted to create one that would reflect his optimistic beliefs. His vision would become highly influential.

But, Doughty’s critique of funeral practices is different to Mitford’s. She wants to see more honesty about death in our culture. She believes that death has been hidden from our lives for too long. We need to be able to talk about it in a more open, honest way. That death is hidden is true. However, I am relieved that we are not living in the medieval period, where death was all around us.

Doughty sees modern crematories as impersonalised, industrial environments. She describes the body going into large industrial machines. She was often alone; the victim’s relatives were nowhere to be seen. From my limited experience in the UK and Spain this is not the way it is done in Europe. There were occasions, known as witness cremations where the families were present. She sees this as a vital part of the process, the family sitting there, spending the final moments with their loved one. Finally they pushed the button to send the body into the flames. Doughty thinks that this was an incredibly powerful experience for the family because they took responsibility for the body.

Doughty is not a fan of embalming. She talks about how the American funeral industry was essentially built on is the practice. She feels that we should be moving towards not embalming unless it’s absolutely necessary.  It is an “unnatural” process, and can be an expensive for the family. She prefers a more natural approach big vault and caskets are also superfluous. The body can go straight into the ground in a shroud or decomposable casket, allowing it to go back into the earth. She also is an advocate of having the body at home, bypassing the funeral director and the mortuary entirely. In this way you will see keep it in your home, you get to see it change in little, subtle ways. You can see almost the life leaving as the body gradually grows colder. This person that was a part of your community and a part of your life is no longer going to be around. I am not sure I could get used to this idea.

The Guardian did a piece last year, Avoid the funeral sting: how to die for less than £1,000, which looked at how to spend less than the £3,456, which the average funeral now costs. According to the article, prices had risen more than 80% in the previous ten years. Once you include the extras such as flowers, wreaths, catering and venue hire, somewhere in the region of £2,000, you are talking of a figure approaching £5,500. The newspaper has an alternative including cardboard coffins.

The ultimate free funeral is to bury your loved one at home, perhaps in nothing more than a blanket. You do need to own the land outright – it cannot be mortgaged – and an amendment needs to be added to property deeds. You do not even need to advise your local authorities. However, this may be a good idea as this warning from the Natural Death Centre illustrates:

As private land burial is not a common event, it is quite likely to attract attention and if you give your local police advance notice of the funeral they will not be wrong-footed into suspecting some improper act.”

I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that this is a depressing read. There is a serious critique, but it is delivered in a breezy style. The text is sprinkled with religious, cultural, anthropological, philosophical and mythological references. You can see some of them in this post. She has also founded The Order of the Good Death, a death acceptance organization in 2011. The organisation, which takes its name from the Brazilian Order of Our Lady of the Good Death held its first “death salon” in Los Angeles in 2013

Her YouTube series Ask a Mortician, which she began in 2011, humorously explores morbid and sometimes taboo death topics such as decomposition and necrophilia. At the moment she has more than 40 clips. the site, whose slogan is You got death questions, we got death answers, has had nearly three million views.

I will leave you with a link to a couple of the 44 videos on her YouTube channel:


Death trivia

May 31, 2015

Here is a selection of trivia from Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory:

In the first century CE, the Romans built tall cremation pyres from pine logs. The uncoffined corpse was laid atop the pyre and set ablaze. After the cremation ended, the mourners collected the bones, hand-washed them in milk, and placed them in urns.

During kotsuage (“the gathering of the bones”) the mourners gather around the cremation machine when the bones are pulled out of the chamber. The bones are laid on a table and the family members come forward with long chopsticks to pick them up and transfer them into the urn. The family first plucks the bones of the feet, working their way up toward the head, so that the deceased person can walk into eternity upright.

In the late 1800s, the citizens of Paris would come to the morgue by the thousands each day to view the bodies of the unidentified dead. Spectators lined up for hours to get in as vendors sold them fruit, pastries, and toys. When they reached the front of the line, they would be ushered into an exhibit room, where the corpses were laid out on slabs behind a large glass window. Vanessa Schwartz, scholar of fin-de-siècle Paris, called the Paris morgue “a spectacle of the real.”

High in the mountains of Tibet, where the ground is too rocky for burial and trees too scarce to provide wood for cremation pyres, Tibetans have developed another method of dealing with their dead. A professional rogyapa, or body breaker, slices the flesh off the corpse and grinds the remaining bones with barley flour and yak butter. The body is laid out on a high, flat rock to be eaten by vultures. The birds swoop in, carrying the body in all different directions, up into the sky. It is a generous way to be disposed of, the leftover flesh nourishing other animals.

The medieval church courtyard turned cemetery was the place to see and be seen. It was the centre of town life, a place of socialization and commerce. Vendors sold beer and wine to the crowds and installed communal ovens to bake fresh bread. Young lovers took nightly strolls; speeches were made to gathered crowds. The Council of Rouen in 1231 banned dancing in the cemetery or in the church, under pain of excommunication. To require such a forceful ban, it must have been a popular pastime. The cemetery was the venue where the living and the dead mingled in social harmony.

In Muslim communities, it is considered a “meritorious deed” to wash and shroud the dead in a ritual washing known as Ghusl. The person who performs the Ghusl is chosen by the dying man or woman themselves. Men are washed by men and women are washed by women. Selection is an honour and a sacred obligation to fulfil.

In 1961, a paper in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology laid out the seven reasons humans fear dying:

  1. My death would cause grief to my relatives and friends.
  2. All my plans and projects would come to an end.
  3. The process of dying might be painful.
  4. I could no longer have any experiences.
  5. I would no longer be able to care for my dependents.
  6. I am afraid of what might happen to me if there is a life after death.
  7. I am afraid of what might happen to my body after death.

One of Us: a chilling look at a massacre made in Norway

May 24, 2015

One of UsNordic noir has become all the rage in the last few years. But nothing from authors such as Mankell, Nesbo and Larsson or TV series like The Killing, The Bridge, or Mammon can compare to what happened in Norway less then four your years ago. I am referring to the case of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people on a tragic summer day in Oslo. I have just finished reading an account of these barbaric acts, One of Us by Asne Seierstad. The book actually came out in 2013, but it has just been translated into English, in an example of nominative determinism, by Sarah Death.

The Norwegian journalist, who specialises in accounts from war zones, is perhaps most famous for The Bookseller of Kabul. In this work she tells the story a bookseller, Shah Muhammad Rays (whose name she changed to Sultan Khan), and his family in Kabul, Afghanistan. Using a novelistic approach, she describes the character and the daily issues that they face. It was a fantastic read. But it was also controversial in that it did rather invade the privacy of Rais. The bookseller felt things revealed about him in Seierstad’s book had made life for him and his family unsafe in Afghanistan. Another criticism is that she could not speak Pashto and this would have made it difficult for her to follow what was going on.

One of Us may prove controversial too, but once again it’s a magnificent read. Although she does a fantastic job of bringing the victims alive, the principal focus of the book is inevitably the life of Anders Breivik. He did not have a deprived childhood. Indeed, his father was a diplomat. But he was not a wanted child. His father abandoned him as a child and his mother, a depressive who grew up in a violent and unloving home, was simply unable to cope with parenthood.

We read about his schooldays and his time as a graffiti artist. His academic record was undistinguished, but he had some successful business ventures, including one selling bogus diplomas online. He couldn’t deal with Norway’s liberated women and instead contacted a mail-order bride who arrived from Belarus. She quickly fled back home. He was deemed unfit to do his military service and he made an unsuccessful attempt to join the Freemasons. Then his businesses went belly-up and Breivik was back at home his mother. It was here that he got hooked to World of Warcraft, which he would often play for 18 hours a day.

At this time that he also found his far-right ideology. He spent some time in the right-wing, anti-immigration Progress Party, but he was unable to climb up the greasy pole. Instead, he created a deadly persona – the Knight Templar Commander of the anti-communist resistance movement against the Islamisation of Europe and Norway. He set out his views in his magnum opus, 2083: A European Declaration of Independence written with his English pseudonym Andrew Berwick. In reality it was a 1,518-page manifesto that had been cut and pasted from the anti-immigrant and racist sites. His influences included the English Defence League, Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller and a Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller and a fellow Norwegian known as Fjordman. The year 2083 was an allusion to the Battle of Vienna in 1683 in which the Ottoman invaders were repelled at the gates of the city.

Seierstad spends a lot of time describing Breivik’s incredibly meticulous preparations. We learn how he rented an isolated farm and began to assemble his bomb and collect his armaments. It reads like a dark episode of Breaking Bad”

At the heart of the book are the 70 pages where she describes what happened on Friday July 22 2011. First he detonated a homemade bomb in central Oslo, outside the prime minister’s office, killing eight. He then set off to a Young Socialists’ camp on the wooded island of Utøya. There, over the course of more than an hour, he systemically gunned down everyone he could. Most of his victims were teenage members of the governing Labour Party, future leaders of the country. Breivik methodically shot 11 children playing dead. Here is a part of Seierstad’s description of the killing:

Breivik went into the building. The walls were covered with posters of AUF [the Young Socialists’ organisation] slogans from over the years. In the corridor there were hundreds of shoes and boots, as no outdoor footwear was allowed in the meeting rooms.

He went calmly into the first room, known as the small hall. He paused for a moment in the doorway to get an overview. The youngsters looked at him, awaiting instructions.

He went over to a group and started shooting.

Several fell to the floor.

Ha, they’re faking it, ran through his head. He calmly went round to each of them in turn and ended their lives with a shot to the head.

Some of the youngsters were screaming, standing still as if glued to the floor. They stared at him fixedly, unable to run away, escape, save themselves.

How weird that they’re just standing there, thought Breivik. I’ve never seen that in a movie.

Then he aimed his pistol at them.

Some of them begged for their lives. ‘Please don’t shoot!’

But he always did.

He shot one girl in mid-scream. His pistol was almost touching her face. He fired into her open mouth. Her skull shattered, but her lips remained unharmed.

_____

 By the time he gave himself up to Norwegian special forces, he had killed 69 people, the vast majority of whom were teenagers; his youngest victim had just turned fourteen.

Breivik may or may not be a madman. The court psychiatrists in Oslo differed on this. In the end it was decided that he was not. I tend to agree with this diagnosis. Just because someone has sick ideas, does not make him a madman. But it is true that the criteria for what criminal insanity are rather confused. In fact, it is not a medical question but a legal one. I will have to do a post about this another day.

What did surprise me was the sheer ineptitude of the Norwegian authorities. I do realise that Norway is a country with a very low crime rate, but that cannot excuse all the mistakes that were made. As well as gross incompetence, there seems to have been weak leadership, an inadequate allocation of resources, and ultimately an absurd level of risk aversion on the part of the Norwegian government and police. It was a litany of failure. Here is a brief sample:

  1. The police received tip-off with a description of Breivik and his vehicle registration number just eight minutes after the bomb went off. It was put on a post-it note, but this was ignored.
  2. They had no operational helicopters. The police forces in Norway only operate a single helicopter, and it was not available in July. In the UK the police forces have 39.
  3. The rescue team loaded the entire unit onto a small boat on the lake to get to Utøya Island By trying to take everyone at once they nearly ended up sinking the boat.  It would have been more logical to transport three or four team members at a time.
  4. There are even accusations that the police had waited until Breivik had finished his killing spree before moving in to arrest him.

In August 2012 Anders Behring Breivik was convicted of mass murder, causing a fatal explosion, and terrorism. He was finally sentenced to 21 years in prison, Norway’s maximum sentence. But this is renewable. There is always the danger with this type of book that you give the terrorist the oxygen of publicity.  Now locked up, Breivik is continually complaining that the conditions he has to live under are torture. One list of 12 demands to prison authorities included easier communication with the outside world and a PlayStation 3 to replace the PlayStation 2 in his cell, because the PlayStation 3 offered more suitable games.

However, in the end, it’s the victims and their families that Seierstad cares about; two of the victims she focuses on are Simon Sæbø and Bano Rashid. Simon, a highly political young Norwegian, had ambitions to climb the ranks of the Labour Party. Bano, the daughter of Kurdish refugees, was desperate to assimilate and succeed as a Norwegian. The reader comes to know their families and their lives, you feel close to them, but you know that their lives will inevitably be cut short. Seierstad interviewed the parents and friends of Breivik’s victims, and the survivors who witnessed the horrors of that day on the island. It was a chastening experience:

To meet the parents, to feel their pain, they were not much older than me. I spent so much time with them, it was quite an experience. I learnt a lot through it. I learnt about sorrow.”

Breivik seemed only to want for the world to know his name. He certainly achieved this. Fortunately he ended up strengthening the resolve of the people he sought to terrorise. There is much in his profile that echoes the jihadi killers. Indeed, he told his police interrogators that he was actually inspired by the fighting spirit of al-Qaida. There are also parallels with Timothy McVeigh and the Columbine high school killers.

When you read this type of book, you find that there are no easy answers. The one of us in the title of the book could refer to any of the victims, but also to the killer. This event was particularly shocking in Norway, a country which averages less than 50 murders a year. Norwegians feel proud of this and the restrained reaction after the massacre. I will close with a quote by Henning Mankell, the author behind Wallender in an opinion piece he wrote in the Guardian just three days after the events:

It may be impossible to completely defend oneself and one’s country against these actions, but we must try. We must defend the open society, because if we start locking our doors, if we let fear decide, the person who committed the act of terror will win. He will have injected fear into our community. As Franklin D Roosevelt put it: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”


Anders Breivik’s father

May 24, 2015

One of the things I love about the internet is the way that it helps make the reading of a book more intense. Here is a YouTube video of Breivik’s father:


The Gloria Gaynor effect: are entrepreneurs deluded?

May 17, 2015

During World War II military engineers wanted to figure out how to make bomber planes safer for the pilots who risked their lives to fly them. These bombers were the fundamental to the allies’ strategic bombing, yet they were constantly being shot down over enemy territory. When the engineers looked at returned planes, they saw that bullet damage clustered in three main places: the wings, the body, and the rear gunner. These were the places they suggested be reinforced with extra armour. Fortunately for the army could call on the help of a statistician named Abraham Wald. His brilliant insight was that the holes from flak and bullets on the bombers that did return represented the areas that were actually able to take damage; a plane could get hit multiple times in the wings, body, and rear gunner and still continue flying. It was the planes that hadn’t returned that held the key to understanding where the problems lay –  it was the rest of the plane that needed reinforcement. I read this story on David McRaney’s blog You Are Not So Smart. It illustrates a logical fallacy known as survivorship bias.

Survivorship bias happens we concentrate on the people or things that survived some process and inadvertently ignore those that did not because we do not see them. This can lead us to over-optimism. We find survivorship bias in many areas of life. In business finance failed companies are excluded from performance studies, skewing the results. They would be very different if we included the businesses that failed. I previously mentioned this fallacy in a post about Warren Buffet. In Fooled by Randomness, Nasseem Taleb pointed out that while Buffet might well be an accomplished investor, a large population of random investors would almost necessarily produce someone with his track records just by luck. Taleb talks of a massive game of Russian roulette in which we only see the survivors.

Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Zuckerberg, Charles Darwin, Woody Allen and Steve Jobs all failed to finish university. Richard Branson, Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers Quentin Tarantino, and Bobby Fischer didn’t even finish school. Should we then stop compulsory schooling after the age of fourteen? Part of this phenomenon may be that the ones who failed academically took more risks. If you have a degree from a top university, you can walk in to many lucrative jobs. You have less incentive to take risks. Nevertheless, what we are seeing here is survivorship bias. In the United States over a third of each enrolled class of university students. drop out before graduation. While there may be a handful of outstanding successes, they will inevitably be a small proportion of those who dropped out.

In his book The Art of Thinking Clearly Rolf Dobeli sums it up nicely:

Behind every popular author you can find a hundred other writers whose books will never sell. Behind them are another hundred who haven’t found publishers. Behind them are yet another hundred whose unfinished manuscripts gather dust in drawers. And behind each one of these are a hundred people who dream of—one day—writing a book. You, however, hear of only the successful authors (these days, many of them self-published) and fail to recognize how unlikely literary success is. The same goes for photographers, entrepreneurs, artists, athletes, architects, Nobel Prize winners, television presenters, and beauty queens. The media is not interested in digging around in the graveyards of the unsuccessful. Nor is this its job. To elude the survivorship bias, you must do the digging yourself.

I also think it is important to look at both success and failure. It is vital to see the cases where it all went wrong. Were they doing things do differently? There should be bestsellers by people who have failed, but we don’t want to hear those stories. There are no easy lessons, I am sure that if you visit the graveyard of failed individuals and companies, you will find that many of those there possessed many of the same traits of the winners. This make sceptical about those books like 7 Habits of Highly Successful People or the ones that tell us lessons from this company or that corporate leader. We would need to create 20 Facebooks, which would all employ slightly different strategies.

Now we come to the second part of my post: are entrepreneurs deluded? When you see the statistics for business failures you would have to ask why people would believe that they can buck this trend. Entrepreneurs must surely be more optimistic than the rest of us. They must have the ability to shut out all the things that can go wrong. This may or may not be a delusion, but we really do need to cherish entrepreneurs. They are the risk takers. When things go wrong, they will take a big hit. How different it is from those too-big-to fail banks we have had to bail out in the last few years.


Missing what’s missing: a video on survivorship bias

May 17, 2015

This a TED video from David McRaney of the You Are Not So Smart. blog.

 


The point of tipping

May 10, 2015

I’ve seen So-and-So with another man’s wife,

I’ve seen High Society eat with its knife,

I’ve heard the worst claret pronounced “nonpareil,”

I’ve heard the best Roquefort condemned for its “smell”. . . .

I’ve bowed and obeyed, and I’ve always agreed

My business to serve is, and not to take heed;

A quarter will cause me to doubt my own mind,

And after a half I am deaf, dumb, and blind.

A poem in the voice of a waiter from the turn of the last century

 _______

Tipping is a confusing, and paradoxical behaviour. We tip some people who provide services but not others. In the U.S. 31 different service professions are tipped, whereas In Japan this figure is four, and in Iceland it is zero. In Japan tipping is seen as an insult. It is assumed that we tip in order to encourage good service but we leave one only after the service has been given, when it is too late to change it, often to people who will never serve us again. Why do we engage in this apparently illogical behaviour?

The majority of historians agree that tipping has its origins in an aristocratic custom which began in England early in the 17th century. On departing visitors were expected to leave an amount of money, known as a vail, to the servants. This practice then spread to coffee houses, then to other service providers and it was eventually exported around the world.

What is less clear is the origin of the word. Loyal readers of my blog will know that I am sceptical of folk etymology. There are a number of words which are said to have begun as acronyms Examples of this dodgy lexicography include posh (Port Out Starboard Home), cop (Constable on Patrol),  golf (Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden) and shit (Ship High in Transit) and the classic fuck (Fornicating Under Consent of King). The origin of tip as being To Insure Promptness is surely another case of this. The Latin word stips, which means a gift, is one possible source.

If there is country where tipping is deeply engrained, it is surely the United States. One estimate, which is from a years ago is that Americans tip for the value of approximately $40 billion. To put this in context the budget for NASA is under $20 billion. The fact that tipping is so prevalent in the States is somewhat paradoxical. Many see it as un-American, an undemocratic throwback to Europe and its class-riven society. Indeed, there has always been opposition to the practice. In 1904 William R Scott formed the Anti-Tipping Society of America, whose members had to take an Alcoholics Anonymous-style pledge to not tip anyone for 12 months. In 1912 another organisation, the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, joined the fray. There were also polemics written. In “The Itching Palm: A Study of the Habit of Tipping in America”, Rufus Scott, railed against tipping and the aristocratic worldview it represented. It was what they had left Europe to escape from. These campaigns bore some fruit. In the 1910s Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington State all brought in bans on tipping. However they would all be repealed the following decade. The campaigners would surely be distressed to see the $40 billion spent just over a century later.

Among economists there seems to be a division of opinions. . In a competitive labour market increased income through tipping will in the long run be offset by lower base wages Many see it as wasteful activity. However, not all economists look at it that way.

One group, from the free-market Austrian school, argue that tipping is a market-based solution to a problem of imperfect knowledge. A estaurateur would find it extremely laborious to monitor his entire staff so that he would be able to tailor the wages of waiters and waitresses to their courtesy with customers. One solution is to allow the customers themselves to evaluate their servers’ performance. This not only saves the employer time and money, but allows for the satisfaction of what will surely be heterogeneous preferences among customers. They also posit that as customers (especially male ones) reward physically attractive staff with higher tips, tipping can be understood as a discreet way of channelling the most “appropriate” personnel into this line of work.

This kind of rule mentioned above about male clients rewarding physically attractive staff with higher tips is I suppose not surprising. Here are a few more empirical observations:

Men’s appearance, is not so important.

Waiters get better tips from women than men.

Waitresses get better tips from men than women.

Blondes get better tips than brunettes.

Slender women get better tips than heavier women.

Large breasted women get better tips than smaller breasted women.

Women in their 30s get better tips than either younger or older women.

All these findings come from the work of Michael Lynn who has written more than 50 papers on tipping behaviour. A former bartender, busboy, and waiter, Lynn is currently the Burton M. Sack Professor in Food & Beverage Management at the Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. His oeuvre includes:

Reach out and touch your customer.

Gratitude and gratuity: A meta-analysis of research on the service-tipping relationship.

National personality and tipping customs.

Sweetening the till: The use of candy to increase restaurant tipping.

Are Christian/religious people poor tippers?

Clothing colour and tipping: An attempted replication and extension.

Lynn has carried out extensive of research looking at the size of tip and how it relates to the customer’s perceptions of service quality. There is a consistent relationship; people do tip more the better the service they get. But this correlation is rather weak, a mere 0.2. This apparently means about 4% of the variability of the differences in the percentage tips left by different dining parties can be explained by their service ratings.

The professor has also found that the prevalence of tipping decreases as the percentage of national GDP collected in taxes increases. In high-tax Sweden you generally don’t have to leave anything. If you want, you can leave a small tip of 5-10%, or round up the amount of the bill. The idea is that everyone should have a decent wage and so tipping is an extra, not an essential component of the server’s salary.

The likelihood that tipping will vanish is remote. We value people’s esteem and we want to look good and receive a nice smile as we leave the restaurant. I’ll leave you with this classic scene from Reservoir Dogs about tipping: