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October 22, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 6:39 pm
October 22, 2009

One Ultrarunning Problem, Solved for Good


GETTING serious about a sport can mean doing the previously unthinkable. Swimmers shave their bodies sleek. Cyclists take blood-boosters. And ultramarathoners have their battered toenails surgically removed — for good.

Toenail removal is not for the faint of heart, but it can be a big relief to people who compete in 50- or 100-mile races. Even the most hardened ultramarathoners, for whom 26.2 miles is a warm-up, can be distressed by bleeding under a nail or a loose nail that bangs repeatedly against the front of a shoe.

“From my experience, it’s the hard-cores” who choose to go without toenails, said Dr. Paul R. Langer, a Minneapolis podiatrist who has been on the medical team for a 250-kilometer 7-day race through the Gobi Desert. “Even within the ultra community, less than 10 percent or maybe even 5 percent are permanently removing their toenails.”

The average marathoner suffers from plenty of black-and-blue nails, but doesn’t sign up to have acid poured onto a nail bed for permanent removal.

Ultramarathoners, who number more than 17,000 nationwide, according to UltraRunning magazine — “appear crazy sometimes, but they are great strategists,” said Dr. Robert M. Conenello, a sports podiatrist who tended to contestants of a multiday race in the Sahara. “A lot of them look at their toenails as useless appendages, remnants of claws from evolutionary times long ago. I’ve heard them say, ‘Toenails are dead weight.’ ”

The most utilitarian of ultramarathoners remove the offending toenails and keep problem-free ones. Then they sport a checkerboard look in sandals.

But the practice strikes some runners as overkill. “You know any sport has gone off the rails when you have to remove body parts to do it,” said Christopher McDougall, the author of a recent book about ultrarunning called “Born to Run.”

Ultramarathoners tend to keep quiet about toenail removal, Mr. McDougall said, because they “tired of being freaks, and they don’t want to add anything more freakish to their résumé.”

Marshall Ulrich of Idaho Springs, Colo., who had all his toenails surgically removed in 1992, has become a example for the practice. He used to stop mid-race to poke a hole in a throbbing nail to relieve pressure. Now, he said, toenails are “one less thing to have to deal with.”

(You might consider streamlining, too, if, like Mr. Ulrich, you ran the sweltering Badwater Ultramarathon without a crew supplying water and food. Instead he hauled his own supplies in a cart for all but 11 of 146 miles.)

Mark Macy, a fellow ultrarunner, used to tease Mr. Ulrich about his curious-looking toes. “It looks like he has a bunch of bald-headed little men at the end of his feet,” said Mr. Macy, a lawyer in Denver.

But about five years ago, some of Mr. Macy’s own toenails grew back mangled, and he decided that permanent removal made sense. He now has only two nails per foot. “You eliminate one source of constant aggravation,” he said.

Plenty of distance runners lose their toenails repeatedly. For some, it can be a badge of honor, proof of miles logged and the repetitive toe-banging they have endured. The proud wear hats and T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Toenails are for sissies.”

Some marathoners have their nails temporarily removed by a podiatrist if they are ingrown or dangling precariously. For them, the leap to permanent removal isn’t inconceivable.

Take Dr. Lisa Bliss, who won Badwater, the 135-mile race in Death Valley, in 2007, two years after having her two big toenails permanently removed. Previously, she had four times had a podiatrist cut away two misshapen nails that had grown back — painfully — into the nail bed instead of lying flat. So, she figured, why not just get rid of the nails?

Her online photo diary of the procedure — which is not for the squeamish — has become a forum for people who are trying to decide if the pain and weeks of recovery are worth it.

Dr. Bliss, from Spokane, Wash., still wears open-toed sandals and says that her nails “look better now than when they were black and blistered, and half falling off.”

The podiatrists interviewed for this article said that permanent toenail removal should be a last resort. Many blackened toenails can be solved by wearing shoes that aren’t too snug, or ones that accommodate the foot swelling that’s the norm with long distances, or by filing the nails flat on top.

However, advice for the average marathon runner who runs on pavement may be of little use to ultramarathoners, who run on trails and downhill slopes that jam their toes against the fronts of their shoes. “When you run that far and for that long, something is bound to happen,” said Dr. Jamie Yakel, a sports podiatrist in Denver.

Run enough 100-milers, go up and down enough mountains on manpower alone, and a full set of toenails starts to seem like a luxury. “Once you lose the nail once, it never adheres to the nail bed like it once did,” Dr. Langer said. “That’s why someone might be prone to the same nail getting beat up over and over.”

Permanent removal carries risks. Sometimes a bulbous shape will form on the toe tip, Dr. Langer said, making nerves more sensitive and leaving the toe vulnerable to sores or calluses.

And, in some rare cases, toenails grow back even after surgery to do away with them. Mr. Macy’s big toenails started to return, and he got rid of them a second time. “Mine just keep coming,” he said ruefully.

Still, for some, the surgery is worth it. “It sounds bad, but it’s really not, because it solves all your problems,” said Roy Heger of Medina, Ohio, an ultramarathoner who had his big left toenail permanently removed to avoid mid-race patch-ups at medical tents.

Dr. Conenello, who once had a patient fly from Russia to his practice in Orangeburg, N.Y., for a permanent removal, said, “I’ve never had a patient have any regrets.”

Other runners rule out permanent removal. “My toenails are terrible,” said Tia Bodington, the editor of UltraRunning magazine, who recalled talking with a colleague, Lisa Henson, after the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. “I was going to get a pedicure, but I only had three toenails, and Lisa only had four,” Ms. Bodington said. “We had a great laugh about it.”

That does not mean she wants to part with her nails for good. “I personally cannot make that jump,” she said.


Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 6:39 pm

Cheer Up, DC Will Never Be Cool

Everyone in New York is sad because DC is so much cooler now, because we lost all the money and they have President Cool Guy. Well don’t worry. DC still sucks.

DC isn’t cool. It’s boring. The hip and cool new DC residents brought to town to work for the Obama administration? Uh, they’re “hip” and “cool” in a really, really relative sense. Like, cooler than 50-year-old Heritage Foundation senior research fellows.

DC is boring. It’s small: 591,833 residents, with a “daytime population” of a million. (Some like to enlarge the “metro area” to include Baltimore, making it the fourth-largest such area in the country, which is like claiming Philly is a part of New York) And if you’re counting the whole metro area, you’re counting people who live in the least cool places in America: the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Sure, 30 years ago DC had Bad Brains and Minor Threat, and today it still has, uh, Ian Svenonius (the Sassiest Boy in America!), but the intervening years have gentrified the hell out of a quarter of the city proper and kept the rest in abject urban poverty, more or less. Not a great recipe for “cool”!

There’s no “creative class” of monied young jerks showing up in DC with the express purpose of wasting their funds making indie dance music, starting literary journals, or even buying researching jobs at Vanity Fair. The biggest celebs are TV pundits. There is no DC equivalent of a Beatrice Inn, except maybe the entirely non-exclusive (and so old!) Cafe Milano.

And even if we’re just talking about DC stealing New York’s thunder with the death of the financial sector, trust us: they’re not going to enjoy the spoils of obscene imaginary wealth with the same flash as our bankers once did.

Your DC congressional staffer is typically a well-meaning (or formerly well-meaning) dork who dresses and drinks like he did in college. Or they’re just fratty assholes. The career bureaucrats managing the money at Treasury and the Fed? No bonuses = no bottle service (this is a pretty good argument for moving all the money to DC actually, btw).

(There is still a lot of cocaine, though.)

Just today, Lady Peggy Noonan summed up her own warped interpretation of the mood of New York: “And now Washington becomes the financial capital of the country, of the world. Oh, what a status shift. Oh, what a fact.”

Well, if New York is no longer America’s financial capital because all the banks have been nationalized, that probably means DC is not actually the world’s financial capital, so much.

(In fairness, the Air and Space Museum is pretty cool.)

Send an email to Alex Pareene, the author of this post, at alexp@gawker.com.

October 20, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 7:11 pm


That Tune, Named

How does the music-identifying app Shazam work its magic?

By Farhad Manjoo
Posted Monday, Oct. 19, 2009, at 5:14 PM ET

Shazam is the closest a cell phone can come to magic. Say you’re in a restaurant, a song comes on, and you can’t quite place the tune. In the past, your options were limited; you could try asking your spouse or the waiter for a clue, but that approach risked revealing your ignorance. (That’s “Sex Machine,” dumb ass.) Shazam—which launched in the United Kingdom in 2002 as a call-in service and became widely known in the United States last year when it hit the iPhone—solves the dilemma in a few clicks. Press a button on your phone, and in seconds you’ll get the artist and song title. Other than playing video games, it’s the most useful thing you can do on your phone.

Last week, Shazam announced that more than 50 million people worldwide have used the service—up from 35 million at the start of the year. The company also said that it’s received an undisclosed investment from the fabled Silicon Valley venture-capital firm KPCB. Shazam’s success seems justified—it’s the one app you can show to iPhone skeptics to get them to reconsider their position (though Shazam is also available on Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and pretty much any other phone). Yet for all the acclaim it garners, Shazam’s inner workings are pretty mysterious. How does it actually ID your song? How does the company make money? (Here’s one hint: iPhone users should expect to see a pay version soon.) And what are the long-term prospects for a firm whose sole purpose is satisfying an acute, very occasional need?

First, a short explanation of how Shazam works. The company has a library of more than 8 million songs, and it has devised a technique to break down each track into a simple numeric signature—a code that is unique to each track. “The main thing here is creating a ‘fingerprint’ of each performance,” says Andrew Fisher, Shazam’s CEO. When you hold your phone up to a song you’d like to ID, Shazam turns your clip into a signature using the same method. Then it’s just a matter of pattern-matching—Shazam searches its library for the code it created from your clip; when it finds that bit, it knows it’s found your song.

OK, but how does Shazam make these fingerprints? As Avery Wang, Shazam’s chief scientist and one of its co-founders, explained to Scientific American in 2003, the company’s approach was long considered computationally impractical—there was thought to be too much information in a song to compile a simple signature. But as he wrestled with the problem, Wang had a brilliant idea: What if he ignored nearly everything in a song and focused instead on just a few relatively “intense” moments? Thus Shazam creates a spectrogram for each song in its database—a graph that plots three dimensions of music: frequency vs. amplitude vs. time. The algorithm then picks out just those points that represent the peaks of the graph—notes that contain “higher energy content” than all the other notes around it, as Wang explained in an academic paper he published to describe how Shazam works (PDF). In practice, this seems to work out to about three data points per second per song.

You’d think that ignoring nearly all of the information in a song would lead to inaccurate matches, but Shazam’s fingerprinting technique is remarkably immune to disturbances—it can match songs in noisy environments over bad cell connections. Fisher says that the company has also recently found a way to match music that has been imperceptibly sped up (as club DJs sometimes do to match a specific tempo or as radio DJs do to fit in a song before an ad break). And it can tell the difference between different versions of the same song. I just tried it on three different versions of “Landslide”—the original by Fleetwood Mac and covers by the Smashing Pumpkins and the Dixie Chicks—and it nailed each one.

Fisher declined to tell me Shazam’s overall hit-and-miss rate. All he would say is that the service is good enough to keep people coming back for more—the average user looks for songs eight times a month. The most common reason Shazam fails to identify a song is that it doesn’t have enough data. The system needs at least five seconds of music to make a match, and sometimes people turn it on just as the song is ending. There are also frequently errors when people look up live performances—if you hold up your phone to your TV during the musical segment on Saturday Night Live, Shazam will most probably fail to ID the song. (If you do get a match from SNL, you’re probably watching that episode with Ashlee Simpson—Shazam is a great way to catch lip-syncers in the act.) Fisher says that Shazam is technically capable of working on live performances, but they’ve turned off that ability for what he terms “business reasons.” “Right now people trust the brand—trying to match live songs wouldn’t get very high accuracy,” he says. (If you’ve got a tune stuck in your head, try using Midomi, a rival of Shazam’s that can ID songs based on your humming or singing.)

Shazam’s iPhone version has been a blockbuster, but it still represents just 20 percent of the service’s customer base, which spans more than 150 countries and pretty much every mobile carrier in the world. The iPhone version also marked a departure for the company—it was the first version that Shazam offered for free. Fisher says this proved to be a good idea; it brought Shazam instant renown, and the company now has enough of a customer base that it can make decent money through in-app ads and by getting a cut of each song purchase people make through the app. But staying fully free forever isn’t sustainable, Fisher says. The company recently unveiled a Windows Mobile version of its app that operates under a “freemium” pricing model—users who download the free version can search for five songs a month, while a premium version that goes for a one-time fee of $5 will allow unlimited song searches. Fisher says that the $5 version for the iPhone (and most other platforms) will launch by the end of the year.

The company is also planning to add a lot more services to its apps—a recommendations engine, a way to let you share your musical tastes with your friends, and charts that show the songs that people are searching for. Every Monday, Shazam sends out its charts to record labels, and execs have been known to sign artists based on the data. This has led to a new way for artists to break into the mainstream: getting featured in TV ads. In 2005, for instance, Volkswagen ran an ad in Europe for the Golf GTI that featured a remixed version of “Singin’ in the Rain” by Mint Royale. The song inspired a lot of searching on Shazam—and prompted the band’s label to release the track, which then shot to the top of the European charts. “We probably see that at least once a month around the world,” Fisher says. In other words, Shazam doesn’t only help an audience find music. Sometimes it helps music find an audience.

Farhad Manjoo is Slate‘s technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can e-mail him at farhad.manjoo@slate.com and follow him on Twitter.

Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2232914/

October 19, 2009

Ride at your own risk

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 10:00 pm

WASHINGTON – Since 2004, Metro bus drivers and train operators have been cited more than 4,000 times for endangering the lives of their passengers. The incidents of dangerous and sometimes illegal behavior include speeding in residential neighborhoods at more than twice the posted speed, running red lights and collisions with pedestrians, bicycles and even a wheelchair.

In addition to the daily occurrences of unsafe behavior by the operators, records obtained by WTOP through a public records request show there have been hundreds of cases of unprofessional behavior, ranging from physical altercations with passengers to bus drivers urinating into random containers on their buses. See a spreadsheet of the offenses, broken down by year.

Records show 246 documented cases of bus and train operators being rude to passengers. They include pushing a senior citizen to the floor, refusing to provide services to senior citizens and disabled passengers and hitting a passenger who was holding a small child.

Despite the number of documented infractions, Metro has fired only 18 operators over this same time period.

Emeka Moneme, Metro’s chief administrative officer, does not condone the behavior and says Metro can do better, but says the numbers have a positive side as well.

“The majority of our employees every day go about doing their jobs in the safest manner they can. That’s something we know and the numbers frankly bear that out,” Moneme says.

Metro General Manager John Catoe declined to be interviewed for this series, citing possible conflicts of interest since he decides many of the disciplinary cases.

Moneme says in every incident Metro has investigated and taken the appropriate action. Records show over the years, many of the operators were suspended, and many had to go through re-training sessions before they were allowed to return to service.

As to why so few operators have been fired over the years, Moneme says management is working to modify the disciplinary policy.

“We’ve been trying to find a way to match up the level of discipline with the offense,” Moneme says.

He points to the recent zero tolerance policy on distracted driving. The disciplinary records show more than 600 incidents of distracted driving, ranging from cell phone use to watching television while driving.

When asked about the behavioral issues, such as bus drivers urinating into containers on their buses including one instance of a driver caught urinating into a Doritos bag, Moneme would not speculate as to why drivers did so, but again said the behavior was not acceptable.

“It’s obviously not behavior that is condoned by the management of Metro.” Moneme says.

“We are obviously working very closely with all of our employees to make sure that we do follow and adhere to those standing operating procedures and make sure they operate their bus in a manner that’s expected and safe and customer friendly.”

There were several reports of operators driving so recklessly that wheelchairs tipped over on their buses. The records also show numerous cases of Metro operators refusing to provide services to senior citizens and disabled passengers. Moneme says Metro is committed to providing senior citizens and disabled residents the mobility they need.

“We want their ridership and we want them to feel safe and secure on our system. We are hearing you. Obviously, it’s being captured in the documents WTOP requested and we are taking action.”

Moneme acknowledges the records indicate that Metro can do better but says an average of three incidents of unsafe operating a day isn’t that bad compared to the size of the system.

“If you do break it down on a per day basis, in terms of bus operations, we’re talking about 1,200 buses covering a 1,500-square-mile service area providing 20 hours of service per day to almost a half a million people.

“In that broader context, it’s undeniable the system is incredibly safe in terms of the incidents we’ve received and done something about. Do we accept that that’s acceptable? Absolutely not. We want to do better and we want all of our employees to recognize that they have a personal responsibility to make sure they come back with no violations. I hope our riding public understands that’s the expectation and that’s the standard. Transit service is a very safe way to get around the region.”


Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 5:41 pm
October 18, 2009
Op-Ed Guest Columnist

Rebranding America


A FEW years ago, I accepted a Golden Globe award by barking out an expletive.

One imagines President Obama did the same when he heard about his Nobel, and not out of excitement.

When Mr. Obama takes the stage at Oslo City Hall this December, he won’t be the first sitting president to receive the peace prize, but he might be the most controversial. There’s a sense in some quarters of these not-so-United States that Norway, Europe and the World haven’t a clue about the real President Obama; instead, they fixate on a fantasy version of the president, a projection of what they hope and wish he is, and what they wish America to be.

Well, I happen to be European, and I can project with the best of them. So here’s why I think the virtual Obama is the real Obama, and why I think the man might deserve the hype. It starts with a quotation from a speech he gave at the United Nations last month:

“We will support the Millennium Development Goals, and approach next year’s summit with a global plan to make them a reality. And we will set our sights on the eradication of extreme poverty in our time.”

They’re not my words, they’re your president’s. If they’re not familiar, it’s because they didn’t make many headlines. But for me, these 36 words are why I believe Mr. Obama could well be a force for peace and prosperity — if the words signal action.

The millennium goals, for those of you who don’t know, are a persistent nag of a noble, global compact. They’re a set of commitments we all made nine years ago whose goal is to halve extreme poverty by 2015. Barack Obama wasn’t there in 2000, but he’s there now. Indeed he’s gone further — all the way, in fact. Halve it, he says, then end it.

Many have spoken about the need for a rebranding of America. Rebrand, restart, reboot. In my view these 36 words, alongside the administration’s approach to fighting nuclear proliferation and climate change, improving relations in the Middle East and, by the way, creating jobs and providing health care at home, are rebranding in action.

These new steps — and those 36 words — remind the world that America is not just a country but an idea, a great idea about opportunity for all and responsibility to your fellow man.

All right … I don’t speak for the rest of the world. Sometimes I think I do — but as my bandmates will quickly (and loudly) point out, I don’t even speak for one small group of four musicians. But I will venture to say that in the farthest corners of the globe, the president’s words are more than a pop song people want to hear on the radio. They are lifelines.

In dangerous, clangorous times, the idea of America rings like a bell (see King, M. L., Jr., and Dylan, Bob). It hits a high note and sustains it without wearing on your nerves. (If only we all could.) This was the melody line of the Marshall Plan and it’s resonating again. Why? Because the world sees that America might just hold the keys to solving the three greatest threats we face on this planet: extreme poverty, extreme ideology and extreme climate change. The world senses that America, with renewed global support, might be better placed to defeat this axis of extremism with a new model of foreign policy.

It is a strangely unsettling feeling to realize that the largest Navy, the fastest Air Force, the fittest strike force, cannot fully protect us from the ghost that is terrorism …. Asymmetry is the key word from Kabul to Gaza …. Might is not right.

I think back to a phone call I got a couple of years ago from Gen. James Jones. At the time, he was retiring from the top job at NATO; the idea of a President Obama was a wild flight of the imagination.

General Jones was curious about the work many of us were doing in economic development, and how smarter aid — embodied in initiatives like President George W. Bush’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corporation — was beginning to save lives and change the game for many countries. Remember, this was a moment when America couldn’t get its cigarette lighted in polite European nations like Norway; but even then, in the developing world, the United States was still seen as a positive, even transformative, presence.

The general and I also found ourselves talking about what can happen when the three extremes — poverty, ideology and climate — come together. We found ourselves discussing the stretch of land that runs across the continent of Africa, just along the creeping sands of the Sahara — an area that includes Sudan and northern Nigeria. He also agreed that many people didn’t see that the Horn of Africa — the troubled region that encompasses Somalia and Ethiopia — is a classic case of the three extremes becoming an unholy trinity (I’m paraphrasing) and threatening peace and stability around the world.

The military man also offered me an equation. Stability = security + development.

In an asymmetrical war, he said, the emphasis had to be on making American foreign policy conform to that formula.

Enter Barack Obama.

If that last line still seems like a joke to you … it may not for long.

Mr. Obama has put together a team of people who believe in this equation. That includes the general himself, now at the National Security Council; the vice president, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; the Republican defense secretary; and a secretary of state, someone with a long record of championing the cause of women and girls living in poverty, who is now determined to revolutionize health and agriculture for the world’s poor. And it looks like the bipartisan coalition in Congress that accomplished so much in global development over the past eight years is still holding amid rancor on pretty much everything else. From a development perspective, you couldn’t dream up a better dream team to pursue peace in this way, to rebrand America.

The president said that he considered the peace prize a call to action. And in the fight against extreme poverty, it’s action, not intentions, that counts. That stirring sentence he uttered last month will ring hollow unless he returns to next year’s United Nations summit meeting with a meaningful, inclusive plan, one that gets results for the billion or more people living on less than $1 a day. Difficult. Very difficult. But doable.

The Nobel Peace Prize is the rest of the world saying, “Don’t blow it.”

But that’s not just directed at Mr. Obama. It’s directed at all of us. What the president promised was a “global plan,” not an American plan. The same is true on all the other issues that the Nobel committee cited, from nuclear disarmament to climate change — none of these things will yield to unilateral approaches. They’ll take international cooperation and American leadership.

The president has set himself, and the rest of us, no small task.

That’s why America shouldn’t turn up its national nose at popularity contests. In the same week that Mr. Obama won the Nobel, the United States was ranked as the most admired country in the world, leapfrogging from seventh to the top of the Nation Brands Index survey — the biggest jump any country has ever made. Like the Nobel, this can be written off as meaningless … a measure of Mr. Obama’s celebrity (and we know what people think of celebrities).

But an America that’s tired of being the world’s policeman, and is too pinched to be the world’s philanthropist, could still be the world’s partner. And you can’t do that without being, well, loved. Here come the letters to the editor, but let me just say it: Americans are like singers — we just a little bit, kind of like to be loved. The British want to be admired; the Russians, feared; the French, envied. (The Irish, we just want to be listened to.) But the idea of America, from the very start, was supposed to be contagious enough to sweep up and enthrall the world.

And it is. The world wants to believe in America again because the world needs to believe in America again. We need your ideas — your idea — at a time when the rest of the world is running out of them.

Bono, the lead singer of the band U2 and a co-founder of the advocacy group ONE and (Product)RED, is a contributing columnist for The Times.

October 15, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 9:52 pm

Chamber of Horrors

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce must be stopped. Here’s how to do it.

By Eliot Spitzer
Updated Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009, at 1:23 AM ET

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce—the self-proclaimed voice of business in Washington—has been wrong on virtually every major public-policy issue of the past decade: financial deregulation, tax and fiscal policy, global warming and environmental enforcement, consumer protection, health care reform …

The chamber remains an unabashed voice for the libertarian worldview that caused the most catastrophic economic meltdown since the Great Depression. And the chamber’s view of social justice would warm Scrooge’s heart. It is the chamber’s right to be wrong, and its right to argue its preposterous ideas aggressively, as it does through vast expenditures on lobbyists and litigation. Last year alone, the chamber spent more than $91 million on lobbying, and, according to lobby tracker Opensecrets.org, it has spent more than twice as much on lobbying during the past 12 years as any other corporation or group.

The problem is, the chamber is doing all this with our money. The chamber survives financially on the dues and support of its members, which are most of America’s major corporations listed on the stock exchange. The chamber derives its political clout from the fact that its membership includes these corporations. Yet we—you and I—own the companies that support the chamber and permit it to propagate its views. Our passive, permissive attitude toward the management of the companies we own has enabled the chamber to be one of the primary impediments to the reform of markets, health care, energy policy, and politics that we have all been calling for. It is time for that to change.

How, you might ask, do we own these companies? Public pension funds and mutual funds are the largest owners of equities in the market. They are the institutional shareholders that have the capacity to push management—and the boards of the corporations. Yet the mutual funds and pension funds have failed to do so. They have failed to control the management of the companies they own because the actual owners of those mutual funds and pension funds—you and I—have failed to raise our voices. We haven’t even asked questions.

Mutual funds, until recently, didn’t even disclose how they voted the proxies of shares they owned. When asked why not at a forum I was part of several years ago, the general counsel of one of the largest mutual fund companies tried to explain that it would be too expensive to make such disclosure. The answer was patently ridiculous, and it hid the much more important reason for nondisclosure: Mutual funds rarely if ever want to vote in opposition to management because mutual funds want to be included among the list of 401(k) options the company chooses for its employees. Mutual funds make money by increasing the size of the portfolios they manage, and if management knocks them off the 401(k) list, they will lose that revenue stream. This basic conflict of interest has neutered mutual funds. They are not meaningful checks on corporate mismanagement.

The comptrollers and treasurers who run public pension funds (often elected officials), have also failed to flex their political muscles. The passivity of the publicly elected officials who have the capacity to raise these issues has been a bit surprising.

So what should be done? The issue of passive institutional ownership is one of the most vexing and serious problems in American business. Expecting CEOs and boards to run companies properly without our input is a prescription for failure. But at least on the one issue of corporations playing politics with our money through support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there is an easy answer.

The elected comptrollers and treasurers who agree—as a vast majority will—that the Chamber of Commerce has a distorted view of both economic and political policy should demand that each company in which they own stock drop its membership in the chamber. If the CEO doesn’t agree, the public pension funds should pressure the board to drop the chamber membership. If one activist state comptroller begins to build this coalition, the other state pension funds will follow.

In recent weeks, Apple and two energy companies—PG&E and Exelon—have defected from the chamber, objecting to its environmental policies. The Wall Street Journal editorial page of course views this bit of wisdom as heresy and counter to shareholder interest.

If elected comptrollers and treasurers do take a stand against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, expect a hue and cry from the typical voices. They will complain that elected comptrollers and treasurers are injecting politics into corporate management. To which the answer should be: No, they are trying to take politics out of it! It is corporate leadership, through its support of the chamber, that has injected politics into the corporations that we own. We are reminding corporate leaders that they are our fiduciaries. As long as the chamber and the CEOs who are supposed to be our representatives are using our money to be overtly political, it is our duty to respond. If we are passive, we permit the chamber to hijack our funds and companies to support positions antithetical to our own views. Waking pension funds and mutual funds from their slumber on this relatively easy issue might finally begin the necessary process of fixing mismanaged corporations.

Eliot Spitzer is the former governor of the state of New York.

Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2232441/

October 6, 2009

sooooooo many reasons I don’t eat beef

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 6:27 pm
October 4, 2009

E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection


Stephanie Smith, a children’s dance instructor, thought she had a stomach virus. The aches and cramping were tolerable that first day, and she finished her classes.

Then her diarrhea turned bloody. Her kidneys shut down. Seizures knocked her unconscious. The convulsions grew so relentless that doctors had to put her in a coma for nine weeks. When she emerged, she could no longer walk. The affliction had ravaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed.

Ms. Smith, 22, was found to have a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to the hamburger that her mother had grilled for their Sunday dinner in early fall 2007.

“I ask myself every day, ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why from a hamburger?’ ”Ms. Smith said. In the simplest terms, she ran out of luck in a food-safety game of chance whose rules and risks are not widely known.

Meat companies and grocers have been barred from selling ground beef tainted by the virulent strain of E. coli known as O157:H7 since 1994, after an outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants left four children dead. Yet tens of thousands of people are still sickened annually by this pathogen, federal health officials estimate, with hamburger being the biggest culprit. Ground beef has been blamed for 16 outbreaks in the last three years alone, including the one that left Ms. Smith paralyzed from the waist down. This summer, contamination led to the recall of beef from nearly 3,000 grocers in 41 states.

Ms. Smith’s reaction to the virulent strain of E. coli was extreme, but tracing the story of her burger, through interviews and government and corporate records obtained by The New York Times, shows why eating ground beef is still a gamble. Neither the system meant to make the meat safe, nor the meat itself, is what consumers have been led to believe.

Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.

The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.

Using a combination of sources — a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.

Those low-grade ingredients are cut from areas of the cow that are more likely to have had contact with feces, which carries E. coli, industry research shows. Yet Cargill, like most meat companies, relies on its suppliers to check for the bacteria and does its own testing only after the ingredients are ground together. The United States Department of Agriculture, which allows grinders to devise their own safety plans, has encouraged them to test ingredients first as a way of increasing the chance of finding contamination.

Unwritten agreements between some companies appear to stand in the way of ingredient testing. Many big slaughterhouses will sell only to grinders who agree not to test their shipments for E. coli, according to officials at two large grinding companies. Slaughterhouses fear that one grinder’s discovery of E. coli will set off a recall of ingredients they sold to others.

“Ground beef is not a completely safe product,” said Dr. Jeffrey Bender, a food safety expert at the University of Minnesota who helped develop systems for tracing E. coli contamination. He said that while outbreaks had been on the decline, “unfortunately it looks like we are going a bit in the opposite direction.”

Food scientists have registered increasing concern about the virulence of this pathogen since only a few stray cells can make someone sick, and they warn that federal guidance to cook meat thoroughly and to wash up afterward is not sufficient. A test by The Times found that the safe handling instructions are not enough to prevent the bacteria from spreading in the kitchen.

Cargill, whose $116.6 billion in revenues last year made it the country’s largest private company, declined requests to interview company officials or visit its facilities. “Cargill is not in a position to answer your specific questions, other than to state that we are committed to continuous improvement in the area of food safety,” the company said, citing continuing litigation.

The meat industry treats much of its practices and the ingredients in ground beef as trade secrets. While the Department of Agriculture has inspectors posted in plants and has access to production records, it also guards those secrets. Federal records released by the department through the Freedom of Information Act blacked out details of Cargill’s grinding operation that could be learned only through copies of the documents obtained from other sources. Those documents illustrate the restrained approach to enforcement by a department whose missions include ensuring meat safety and promoting agriculture markets.

Within weeks of the Cargill outbreak in 2007, U.S.D.A. officials swept across the country, conducting spot checks at 224 meat plants to assess their efforts to combat E. coli. Although inspectors had been monitoring these plants all along, officials found serious problems at 55 that were failing to follow their own safety plans.

“Every time we look, we find out that things are not what we hoped they would be,” said Loren D. Lange, an executive associate in the Agriculture Department’s food safety division.

In the weeks before Ms. Smith’s patty was made, federal inspectors had repeatedly found that Cargill was violating its own safety procedures in handling ground beef, but they imposed no fines or sanctions, records show. After the outbreak, the department threatened to withhold the seal of approval that declares “U.S. Inspected and Passed by the Department of Agriculture.”

In the end, though, the agency accepted Cargill’s proposal to increase its scrutiny of suppliers. That agreement came early last year after contentious negotiations, records show. When Cargill defended its safety system and initially resisted making some changes, an agency official wrote back: “How is food safety not the ultimate issue?”

The Risk

On Aug. 16, 2007, the day Ms. Smith’s hamburger was made, the No.3 grinder at the Cargill plant in Butler, Wis., started up at 6:50 a.m. The largest ingredient was beef trimmings known as “50/50” — half fat, half meat — that cost about 60 cents a pound, making them the cheapest component.

Cargill bought these trimmings — fatty edges sliced from better cuts of meat — from Greater Omaha Packing, where some 2,600 cattle are slaughtered daily and processed in a plant the size of four football fields.

As with other slaughterhouses, the potential for contamination is present every step of the way, according to workers and federal inspectors. The cattle often arrive with smears of feedlot feces that harbor the E. coli pathogen, and the hide must be removed carefully to keep it off the meat. This is especially critical for trimmings sliced from the outer surface of the carcass.

Federal inspectors based at the plant are supposed to monitor the hide removal, but much can go wrong. Workers slicing away the hide can inadvertently spread feces to the meat, and large clamps that hold the hide during processing sometimes slip and smear the meat with feces, the workers and inspectors say.

Greater Omaha vacuums and washes carcasses with hot water and lactic acid before sending them to the cutting floor. But these safeguards are not foolproof.

“As the trimmings are going down the processing line into combos or boxes, no one is inspecting every single piece,” said one federal inspector who monitored Greater Omaha and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The E. coli risk is also present at the gutting station, where intestines are removed, the inspector said

Every five seconds or so, half of a carcass moves into the meat-cutting side of the slaughterhouse, where trimmers said they could keep up with the flow unless they spot any remaining feces.

“We would step in and stop the line, and do whatever you do to take it off,” said Esley Adams, a former supervisor who said he was fired this summer after 16 years following a dispute over sick leave. “But that doesn’t mean everything was caught.”

Two current employees said the flow of carcasses keeps up its torrid pace even when trimmers get reassigned, which increases pressure on workers. To protest one such episode, the employees said, dozens of workers walked off the job for a few hours earlier this year. Last year, workers sued Greater Omaha, alleging that they were not paid for the time they need to clean contaminants off their knives and other gear before and after their shifts. The company is contesting the lawsuit.

Greater Omaha did not respond to repeated requests to interview company officials. In a statement, a company official said Greater Omaha had a “reputation for embracing new food safety technology and utilizing science to make the safest product possible.”

The Trimmings

In making hamburger meat, grinders aim for a specific fat content — 26.6 percent in the lot that Ms. Smith’s patty came from, company records show. To offset Greater Omaha’s 50/50 trimmings, Cargill added leaner material from three other suppliers.

Records show that some came from a Texas slaughterhouse, Lone Star Beef Processors, which specializes in dairy cows and bulls too old to be fattened in feedlots. In a form letter dated two days before Ms. Smith’s patty was made, Lone Star recounted for Cargill its various safety measures but warned “to this date there is no guarantee for pathogen-free raw material and we would like to stress the importance of proper handling of all raw products.”

Ms. Smith’s burger also contained trimmings from a slaughterhouse in Uruguay, where government officials insist that they have never found E. coli O157:H7 in meat. Yet audits of Uruguay’s meat operations conducted by the U.S.D.A. have found sanitation problems, including improper testing for the pathogen. Dr. Hector J. Lazaneo, a meat safety official in Uruguay, said the problems were corrected immediately. “Everything is fine, finally,” he said. “That is the reason we are exporting.”

Cargill’s final source was a supplier that turns fatty trimmings into what it calls “fine lean textured beef.” The company, Beef Products Inc., said it bought meat that averages between 50 percent and 70 percent fat, including “any small pieces of fat derived from the normal breakdown of the beef carcass.” It warms the trimmings, removes the fat in a centrifuge and treats the remaining product with ammonia to kill E. coli.

With seven million pounds produced each week, the company’s product is widely used in hamburger meat sold by grocers and fast-food restaurants and served in the federal school lunch program. Ten percent of Ms. Smith’s burger came from Beef Products, which charged Cargill about $1.20 per pound, or 20 cents less than the lean trimmings in the burger, billing records show.

An Iowa State University study financed by Beef Products found that ammonia reduces E. coli to levels that cannot be detected. The Department of Agriculture accepted the research as proof that the treatment was effective and safe. And Cargill told the agency after the outbreak that it had ruled out Beef Products as the possible source of contamination.

But federal school lunch officials found E. coli in Beef Products material in 2006 and 2008 and again in August, and stopped it from going to schools, according to Agriculture Department records and interviews. A Beef Products official, Richard Jochum, said that last year’s contamination stemmed from a “minor change in our process,” which the company adjusted. The company did not respond to questions about the latest finding.

In combining the ingredients, Cargill was following a common industry practice of mixing trim from various suppliers to hit the desired fat content for the least money, industry officials said.

In all, the ingredients for Ms. Smith’s burger cost Cargill about $1 a pound, company records show, or about 30 cents less than industry experts say it would cost for ground beef made from whole cuts of meat.

Ground beef sold by most grocers is made from a blend of ingredients, industry officials said. Agriculture Department regulations also allow hamburger meat labeled ground chuck or sirloin to contain trimmings from those parts of the cow. At a chain like Publix Super Markets, customers who want hamburger made from whole cuts of meat have to buy a steak and have it specially ground, said a Publix spokeswoman, Maria Brous, or buy a product like Bubba Burgers, which boasts on its labeling, “100% whole muscle means no trimmings.”

To finish off the Smiths’ ground beef, Cargill added bread crumbs and spices, fashioned it into patties, froze them and packed them 18 to a carton.

The listed ingredients revealed little of how the meat was made. There was just one meat product listed: “Beef.”

Tension Over Testing

As it fed ingredients into its grinders, Cargill watched for some unwanted elements. Using metal detectors, workers snagged stray nails and metal hooks that could damage the grinders, then warned suppliers to make sure it did not happen again.

But when it came to E. coli O157:H7, Cargill did not screen the ingredients and only tested once the grinding was done. The potential pitfall of this practice surfaced just weeks before Ms. Smith’s patty was made. A company spot check in May 2007 found E. coli in finished hamburger, which Cargill disclosed to investigators in the wake of the October outbreak. But Cargill told them it could not determine which supplier had shipped the tainted meat since the ingredients had already been mixed together.

“Our finished ground products typically contain raw materials from numerous suppliers,” Dr. Angela Siemens, the technical services vice president for Cargill’s meat division, wrote to the U.S.D.A. “Consequently, it is not possible to implicate a specific supplier without first observing a pattern of potential contamination.”

Testing has been a point of contention since the 1994 ban on selling ground beef contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 was imposed. The department moved to require some bacterial testing of ground beef, but the industry argued that the cost would unfairly burden small producers, industry officials said. The Agriculture Department opted to carry out its own tests for E. coli, but it acknowledges that its 15,000 spot checks a year at thousands of meat plants and groceries nationwide is not meant to be comprehensive. Many slaughterhouses and processors have voluntarily adopted testing regimes, yet they vary greatly in scope from plant to plant.

The retail giant Costco is one of the few big producers that tests trimmings for E. coli before grinding, a practice it adopted after a New York woman was sickened in 1998 by its hamburger meat, prompting a recall.

Craig Wilson, Costco’s food safety director, said the company decided it could not rely on its suppliers alone. “It’s incumbent upon us,” he said. “If you say, ‘Craig, this is what we’ve done,’ I should be able to go, ‘Cool, I believe you.’ But I’m going to check.”

Costco said it had found E. coli in foreign and domestic beef trimmings and pressured suppliers to fix the problem. But even Costco, with its huge buying power, said it had met resistance from some big slaughterhouses. “Tyson will not supply us,” Mr. Wilson said. “They don’t want us to test.”

A Tyson spokesman, Gary Mickelson, would not respond to Costco’s accusation, but said, “We do not and cannot” prohibit grinders from testing ingredients. He added that since Tyson tests samples of its trimmings, “we don’t believe secondary testing by grinders is a necessity.”

The food safety officer at American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year, said it stopped testing trimmings a decade ago because of resistance from slaughterhouses. “They would not sell to us,” said Timothy P. Biela, the officer. “If I test and it’s positive, I put them in a regulatory situation. One, I have to tell the government, and two, the government will trace it back to them. So we don’t do that.”

The surge in outbreaks since 2007 has led to finger-pointing within the industry.

Dennis R. Johnson, a lobbyist for the largest meat processors, has said that not all slaughterhouses are looking hard enough for contamination. He told U.S.D.A. officials last fall that those with aggressive testing programs typically find E. coli in as much as 1 percent to 2 percent of their trimmings, yet some slaughterhouses implicated in outbreaks had failed to find any.

At the same time, the meat processing industry has resisted taking the onus on itself. An Agriculture Department survey of more than 2,000 plants taken after the Cargill outbreak showed that half of the grinders did not test their finished ground beef for E. coli; only 6 percent said they tested incoming ingredients at least four times a year.

In October 2007, the agency issued a notice recommending that processors conduct at least a few tests a year to verify the testing done by slaughterhouses. But after resistance from the industry, the department allowed suppliers to run the verification checks on their own operations.

In August 2008, the U.S.D.A. issued a draft guideline again urging, but not ordering, processors to test ingredients before grinding. “Optimally, every production lot should be sampled and tested before leaving the supplier and again before use at the receiver,” the draft guideline said.

But the department received critical comments on the guideline, which has not been made official. Industry officials said that the cost of testing could unfairly burden small processors and that slaughterhouses already test. In an October 2008 letter to the department, the American Association of Meat Processors said the proposed guideline departed from U.S.D.A.’s strategy of allowing companies to devise their own safety programs, “thus returning to more of the agency’s ‘command and control’ mind-set.”

Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator with the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said that the department could mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as consumers. “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health,” Dr. Petersen said.

Tracing the Illness

The Smiths were slow to suspect the hamburger. Ms. Smith ate a mostly vegetarian diet, and when she grew increasingly ill, her mother, Sharon, thought the cause might be spinach, which had been tied to a recent E. coli outbreak.

Five days after the family’s Sunday dinner, Ms. Smith was admitted to St. Cloud Hospital in excruciating pain. “I’ve had women tell me that E. coli is more painful than childbirth,” said Dr. Phillip I. Tarr, a pathogen expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

The vast majority of E. coli illnesses resolve themselves without complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Five percent to 10 percent develop into a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can affect kidney function. While most patients recover, in the worst cases, like Ms. Smith’s, the toxin in E. coli O157:H7 penetrates the colon wall, damaging blood vessels and causing clots that can lead to seizures.

To control Ms. Smith’s seizures, doctors put her in a coma and flew her to the Mayo Clinic, where doctors worked to save her.

“They didn’t even think her brain would work because of the seizuring,” her mother said. “Thanksgiving Day, I was sitting there holding her hand when a group of doctors came in, and one looked at me and just walked away, with nothing good to say. And I said, ‘Oh my God, maybe this is my last Thanksgiving with her,’ and I stayed and prayed.”

Ms. Smith’s illness was linked to the hamburger only by chance. Her aunt still had some of the frozen patties, and state health officials found that they were contaminated with a powerful strain of E. coli that was genetically identical to the pathogen that had sickened other Minnesotans.

Dr. Kirk Smith, who runs the state’s food-borne illness outbreak group and is not related to Ms. Smith, was quick to finger the source. A 4-year-old had fallen ill three weeks earlier, followed by her year-old brother and two more children, state records show. Like Ms. Smith, the others had eaten Cargill patties bought at Sam’s Club, a division of Wal-Mart.

Moreover, the state officials discovered that the hamburgers were made on the same day, Aug. 16, 2007, shortly before noon. The time stamp on the Smiths’ box of patties was 11:58.

On Friday, Oct. 5, 2007, a Minnesota Health Department warning led local news broadcasts. “We didn’t want people grilling these things over the weekend,” Dr. Smith said. “I’m positive we prevented illnesses. People sent us dozens of cartons with patties left. It was pretty contaminated stuff.”

Eventually, health officials tied 11 cases of illness in Minnesota to the Cargill outbreak, and altogether, federal health officials estimate that the outbreak sickened 940 people. Four of the 11 Minnesota victims developed hemolytic uremic syndrome — an unusually high rate of serious complications.

In the wake of the outbreak, the U.S.D.A. reminded consumers on its Web site that hamburgers had to be cooked to 160 degrees to be sure any E. coli is killed and urged them to use a thermometer to check the temperature. This reinforced Sharon Smith’s concern that she had sickened her daughter by not cooking the hamburger thoroughly.

But the pathogen is so powerful that her illness could have started with just a few cells left on a counter. “In a warm kitchen, E. coli cells will double every 45 minutes,” said Dr. Mansour Samadpour, a microbiologist who runs IEH Laboratories in Seattle, one of the meat industry’s largest testing firms.

With help from his laboratories, The Times prepared three pounds of ground beef dosed with a strain of E. coli that is nonharmful but acts in many ways like O157:H7. Although the safety instructions on the package were followed, E. coli remained on the cutting board even after it was washed with soap. A towel picked up large amounts of bacteria from the meat.

Dr. James Marsden, a meat safety expert at Kansas State University and senior science adviser for the North American Meat Processors Association, said the Department of Agriculture needed to issue better guidance on avoiding cross-contamination, like urging people to use bleach to sterilize cutting boards. “Even if you are a scientist, much less a housewife with a child, it’s very difficult,” Dr. Marsden said.

Told of The Times’s test, Jerold R. Mande, the deputy under secretary for food safety at the U.S.D.A., said he planned to “look very carefully at the labels that we oversee.”

“They need to provide the right information to people,” Mr. Mande said, “in a way that is readable and actionable.”

Dead Ends

With Ms. Smith lying comatose in the hospital and others ill around the country, Cargill announced on Oct. 6, 2007, that it was recalling 844,812 pounds of patties. The mix of ingredients in the burgers made it almost impossible for either federal officials or Cargill to trace the contamination to a specific slaughterhouse. Yet after the outbreak, Cargill had new incentives to find out which supplier had sent the tainted meat.

Cargill got hit by multimillion-dollar claims from people who got sick.

Shawn K. Stevens, a lawyer in Milwaukee working for Cargill, began investigating. Sifting through state health department records from around the nation, Mr. Stevens found the case of a young girl in Hawaii stricken with the same E. coli found in the Cargill patties. But instead of a Cargill burger, she had eaten raw minced beef at a Japanese restaurant that Mr. Stevens said he traced through a distributor to Greater Omaha.

“Potentially, it could let Cargill shift all the responsibility,” Mr. Stevens said. In March, he sent his findings to William Marler, a lawyer in Seattle who specializes in food-borne disease cases and is handling the claims against Cargill.

“Most of the time, in these outbreaks, it’s not unusual when I point the finger at somebody, they try to point the finger at somebody else,” Mr. Marler said. But he said Mr. Stevens’s finding “doesn’t rise to the level of proof that I need” to sue Greater Omaha.

It is unclear whether Cargill presented the Hawaii findings to Greater Omaha, since neither company would comment on the matter. In December 2007, in a move that Greater Omaha said was unrelated to the outbreak, the slaughterhouse informed Cargill that it had taken 16 “corrective actions” to better protect consumers from E. coli “as we strive to live up to the performance standards required in the continuation of supplier relationship with Cargill.”

Those changes included better monitoring of the production line, more robust testing for E. coli, intensified plant sanitation and added employee training.

The U.S.D.A. efforts to find the ultimate source of the contamination went nowhere. Officials examined production records of Cargill’s three domestic suppliers, but they yielded no clues. The Agriculture Department contacted Uruguayan officials, who said they found nothing amiss in the slaughterhouse there.

In examining Cargill, investigators discovered that their own inspectors had lodged complaints about unsanitary conditions at the plant in the weeks before the outbreak, but that they had failed to set off any alarms within the department. Inspectors had found “large amounts of patties on the floor,” grinders that were gnarly with old bits of meat, and a worker who routinely dumped inedible meat on the floor close to a production line, records show.

Although none were likely to have caused the contamination, federal officials said the conditions could have exacerbated the spread of bacteria. Cargill vowed to correct the problems. Dr. Petersen, the federal food safety official, said the department was working to make sure violations are tracked so they can be used “in real time to take action.”

The U.S.D.A. found that Cargill had not followed its own safety program for controlling E. coli. For example, Cargill was supposed to obtain a certificate from each supplier showing that their tests had found no E. coli. But Cargill did not have a certificate for the Uruguayan trimmings used on the day it made the burgers that sickened Ms. Smith and others.

After four months of negotiations, Cargill agreed to increase its scrutiny of suppliers and their testing, including audits and periodic checks to determine the accuracy of their laboratories.

A recent industry test in which spiked samples of meat were sent to independent laboratories used by food companies found that some missed the E. coli in as many as 80 percent of the samples.

Cargill also said it would notify suppliers whenever it found E. coli in finished ground beef, so they could check their facilities. It also agreed to increase testing of finished ground beef, according to a U.S.D.A. official familiar with the company’s operations, but would not test incoming ingredients.

Looking to the Future

The spate of outbreaks in the last three years has increased pressure on the Agriculture Department and the industry.

James H. Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute, a trade association, said that while the outbreaks were disconcerting, they followed several years during which there were fewer incidents. “Are we perfect?” he said. “No. But what we have done is to show some continual improvement.”

Dr. Petersen, the U.S.D.A. official, said the department had adopted additional procedures, including enhanced testing at slaughterhouses implicated in outbreaks and better training for investigators.

“We are not standing still when it comes to E. coli,” Dr. Petersen said.

The department has held a series of meetings since the recent outbreaks, soliciting ideas from all quarters. Dr. Samadpour, the laboratory owner, has said that “we can make hamburger safe,” but that in addition to enhanced testing, it will take an aggressive use of measures like meat rinses and safety audits by qualified experts.

At these sessions, Felicia Nestor, a senior policy analyst with the consumer group Food and Water Watch, has urged the government to redouble its effort to track outbreaks back to slaughterhouses. “They are the source of the problem,” Ms. Nestor said.

For Ms. Smith, the road ahead is challenging. She is living at her mother’s home in Cold Spring, Minn. She spends a lot of her time in physical therapy, which is being paid for by Cargill in anticipation of a legal claim, according to Mr. Marler. Her kidneys are at high risk of failure. She is struggling to regain some basic life skills and deal with the anger that sometimes envelops her. Despite her determination, doctors say, she will most likely never walk again.

Gabe Johnson contributed reporting.

October 1, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 8:47 pm

October 4, 2009
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Understanding the Anxious Mind


Jerome Kagan’s “Aha!” moment came with Baby 19. It was 1989, and Kagan, a professor of psychology at Harvard, had just begun a major longitudinal study of temperament and its effects. Temperament is a complex, multilayered thing, and for the sake of clarity, Kagan was tracking it along a single dimension: whether babies were easily upset when exposed to new things. He chose this characteristic both because it could be measured and because it seemed to explain much of normal human variation. He suspected, extrapolating from a study he had just completed on toddlers, that the most edgy infants were more likely to grow up to be inhibited, shy and anxious. Eager to take a peek at the early results, he grabbed the videotapes of the first babies in the study, looking for the irritable behavior he would later call high-reactive.

No high-reactors among the first 18. They gazed calmly at things that were unfamiliar. But the 19th baby was different. She was distressed by novelty — new sounds, new voices, new toys, new smells — and showed it by flailing her legs, arching her back and crying. Here was what Kagan was looking for but was not sure he would find: a baby who essentially fell apart when exposed to anything new.

Baby 19 grew up true to her temperament. This past summer, Kagan showed me a video of her from 2004, when she was 15. We sat in a screening room in Harvard’s William James Hall — a building named, coincidentally, for the 19th-century psychologist who described his own struggles with anxiety as “a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach … a sense of the insecurity of life.” Kagan is elfin and spry, balding and bespectacled. He neither looks nor acts his age, which is 80. He is one of the most influential developmental psychologists of the 20th century.

On the monitor, Baby 19 is a plain-looking teenager, hiding behind her long, dark hair. The interview, the same one given to all 15-year-olds in the longitudinal study, begins with questions about school. She has very few extracurricular activities, she says in a small voice, but she does like writing and playing the violin. She fidgets almost constantly as she speaks, twirling her hair, touching her ear, jiggling her knee. “This is the overflow of her high-reactive nature,” Kagan told me, standing near the monitor so he could fast-forward to the good parts.

Here was a good part: The interviewer asks Baby 19 what she worries about.

“I don’t know,” Baby 19 says after a long pause, twirling her hair faster, touching her face, her knee. She smiles a little, shrugs. Another pause. And then the list of troubles spills out: “When I don’t quite know what to do and it’s really frustrating and I feel really uncomfortable, especially if other people around me know what they’re doing. I’m always thinking, Should I go here? Should I go there? Am I in someone’s way? … I worry about things like getting projects done… I think, Will I get it done? How am I going to do it? … If I’m going to be in a big crowd, it makes me nervous about what I’m going to do and say and what other people are going to do and say.” Baby 19 is wringing her hands now. “How I’m going to deal with the world when I’m grown. Or if I’m going to sort of do anything that really means anything.”

Her voice trails off. She wants to make a difference, she says, and worries about whether she will. “I can’t stop thinking about that.”

Watching this video again makes Kagan fairly vibrate with the thrill of rediscovery: here on camera is the young girl who, as an infant, first embodied for him what it meant to be wired to worry. He went on to find many more such children, and would watch a big chunk of them run into trouble with anxiety or other problems as they grew up.

The tenuousness of modern life can make anyone feel overwrought. And in societal moments like the one we are in — thousands losing jobs and homes, our futures threatened by everything from diminishing retirement funds to global warming — it often feels as if ours is the Age of Anxiety. But some people, no matter how robust their stock portfolios or how healthy their children, are always mentally preparing for doom. They are just born worriers, their brains forever anticipating the dropping of some dreaded other shoe. For the past 20 years, Kagan and his colleagues have been following hundreds of such people, beginning in infancy, to see what happens to those who start out primed to fret. Now that these infants are young adults, the studies are yielding new information about the anxious brain.

These psychologists have put the assumptions about innate temperament on firmer footing, and they have also demonstrated that some of us, like Baby 19, are born anxious — or, more accurately, born predisposed to be anxious. Four significant long-term longitudinal studies are now under way: two at Harvard that Kagan initiated, two more at the University of Maryland under the direction of Nathan Fox, a former graduate student of Kagan’s. With slight variations, they all have reached similar conclusions: that babies differ according to inborn temperament; that 15 to 20 percent of them will react strongly to novel people or situations; and that strongly reactive babies are more likely to grow up to be anxious.

They have also shown that while temperament persists, the behavior associated with it doesn’t always. Kagan often talks about the three ways to identify an emotion: the physiological brain state, the way an individual describes the feeling and the behavior the feeling leads to. Not every brain state sparks the same subjective experience; one person might describe a hyperaroused brain in a negative way, as feeling anxious or tense, while another might enjoy the sensation and instead uses a positive word like “alert.” Nor does every brain state spark the same behavior: some might repress the bad feelings and act normally; others might withdraw. But while the behavior and the subjective experience associated with an emotion like anxiety might be in a person’s conscious control, physiology usually is not. This is what Kagan calls “the long shadow of temperament.” The oldest high-reactive subjects in Kagan’s and Fox’s studies, like Baby 19, are in their 20s now, and for many of them, no matter how much they manage to avoid looking anxious to an outsider, fears still rattle in their skulls at 3 o’clock in the morning. They remain anxious just below the surface, their subconscious brains still twitchy, still hypervigilant, still unable to shift attention away from perceived threats that aren’t really there.

ANXIETY IS NOT fear, exactly, because fear is focused on something right in front of you, a real and objective danger. It is instead a kind of fear gone wild, a generalized sense of dread about something out there that seems menacing — but that in truth is not menacing, and may not even be out there. If you’re anxious, you find it difficult to talk yourself out of this foreboding; you become trapped in an endless loop of what-ifs.

“I was flesh bereft of spirit,” wrote the journalist Patricia Pearson in “A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours and Mine),” in a pitch-perfect description of this emotional morass, “a friable self, grotesque… I got an AIDS test. I had my moles checked. I grew suspicious of pains in my back. If I was nauseous, I worried about cancer and started reading up obsessively on symptoms. I lay in bed whenever I could, trying to shut up the clamor of terror with sleep.”

When the “clamor of terror” starts to interfere with functioning, as it did for Pearson when she was a crime reporter in her early 30s, worrying turns into a clinical anxiety disorder, of which there are several forms: panic, social anxiety, phobia, obsessive-compulsive, post-traumatic stress and a catch-all called generalized anxiety disorder. Taken together, they make anxiety the most common mental illness in America, affecting an estimated 40 million adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And that figure doesn’t even count the far greater swath who are garden-variety worriers, people who fret when a child is late, who worry when they hear a siren headed toward home, who are sure that a phone call in the middle of the night means someone is dead.

In the brain, these thoughts can often be traced to overreactivity in the amygdala, a small site in the middle of the brain that, among its many other functions, responds to novelty and threat. When the amygdala works as it should, it orchestrates a physiological response to changes in the environment. That response includes heightened memory for emotional experiences and the familiar chest pounding of fight or flight. But in people born with a particular brain circuitry, the kind seen in Kagan’s high-reactive study subjects, the amygdala is hyperreactive, prickly as a haywire motion-detector light that turns on when nothing’s moving but the rain. Other physiological changes exist in children with this temperament, many of them also related to hyperreactivity in the amygdala. They have a tendency to more activity in the right hemisphere, the half of the brain associated with negative mood and anxiety; greater increases in heart rate and pupil dilation in response to stress; and on occasion higher levels of the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine.

But having all the earmarks of anxiety in the brain does not always translate into a subjective experience of anxiety. “The brain state does not make it a disorder,” Kagan told me. “The brain state exists, and the statement ‘I’m anxious,’ exists, and the correlation is imperfect.” Two people can experience the same level of anxiety, he said, but one who has interesting work to distract her from the jittery feelings might do fine, while another who has just lost his job spends all day at home fretting and might be quicker to reach a point where the thrum becomes overwhelming. It’s all in the context, the interpretation, the ability to divert your attention from the knot in your gut. These variations also happen when someone grows up from an anxious infant to someone either fretful or tranquil. One aim of Kagan’s and Fox’s longitudinal studies is to watch how the life stories of these high-strung babies unfold.

The quintessential longitudinal study, the one often mentioned because it set the standard, is the Framingham Heart Study, which enshrined the idea of risk factors. It was through Framingham, for instance, that scientists learned that high blood pressure was a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, since it followed its subjects for long enough to detect that those who had high blood pressure in their 30s and 40s were more likely to have heart disease later in life.

But such studies draw conclusions about trends, not destinies. If someone with high blood pressure treats it early, the risk of heart disease can be reduced significantly. Similarly, if someone with an anxiety-prone temperament grows up in the right surroundings, he or she might never develop a full-blown anxiety disorder.

Kagan’s first exposure to longitudinal studies came shortly after he received his Ph.D. from Yale in 1954. He was working at the Fels Research Institute on the campus of Antioch College in Ohio, where a longitudinal study of middle-class children had been going on for nearly 30 years. He stumbled upon a gigantic room “loaded with prose summaries of what these children were like from the age of 1 month on,” he told me recently. He knew a treasure trove when he saw one.

Among these prose summaries, which ultimately Kagan and a colleague, Howard Moss, turned into the book “Birth to Maturity,” were descriptions indicating that babies had different innate temperaments. Kagan studiously ignored this finding; it didn’t fit with his left-leaning politics, which saw all individuals as born inherently the same — blank slates, to use the old terminology — and capable of achieving anything if afforded the right social, economic and educational opportunities. “I was so resistant to awarding biology much influence, I didn’t follow up on the inhibited temperaments I was seeing,” he told me. It took another 20 years of listening to arguments about nature versus nurture for Kagan finally to entertain the possibility that some behavior might be attributed to genes.

BY THE TIME Kagan moved to Harvard in 1964, the notion of an inborn temperament was on the ascent, in part because of the findings of Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas of New York University, who divided children into three categories: easy children, difficult children and those who were slow to warm up. Remembering the Fels data, Kagan embarked on his own longitudinal study of temperament. In 1979, he screened about 400 preschoolers, exposing them to new toys and new people in a laboratory playroom, videotaping them and coding their behavior. About 15 percent ended up in the group Kagan called “behaviorally inhibited”: wary, subdued, tending to hover near their mothers. Another 15 percent were “behaviorally uninhibited.” They were the fearless ones, who ran around trying to play with every new toy and chatting happily with the examiner. When Kagan talks about such children, he uses one of his favorite words: “ebullient.”

Over the next five years, 107 of these children — half of them timid, half bold — came back to the lab for more testing. (To keep environmental differences to a minimum, Kagan restricted his sample to children who were white, middle class and healthy at birth.) Their behavior was again recorded and again coded. Temperament, it turned out, tended to be stable over those five years, at least in children who started out at the extremes. There was a shift toward the middle between ages 2 and 7, but only 3 of the 107 changed categories completely from uninhibited to inhibited or vice versa. In addition, the most inhibited 7-year-olds showed some physiological differences that indicated an exaggerated response to stress.

Kagan and his colleagues, Nancy Snidman and J. Steven Reznick, published their results in Science in 1988. The physiological measurements led them to believe something biological was at work. Their hypothesis: the inhibited children were “born with a lower threshold” for arousal of various brain regions, in particular the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the circuit responsible for the stress hormone cortisol.

Though its findings seem almost self-evident today, the Science paper made a splash at the time. “There are two kinds of great research,” Susan Engel, a developmental psychologist at Williams College, told me when I discussed Kagan’s study with her. “There’s research that is counterintuitive, that shows you something you’d never guess on your own, and there’s research that shows you irrefutably what you had an intuition about, something you thought was true but didn’t have evidence to support.” Kagan’s research was of the second type, she says: “a beautiful, elegant experimental demonstration of an old intuition.”

But these subjects were preschoolers when Kagan first met them, already too old for him to know how much to attribute to nature rather than nurture. Couldn’t the inhibited children somehow have been raised to be wary instead of born that way? So the following year, Kagan began a new study he said he hoped would minimize the effects of the environment. He recruited infants who were just 4 months old, planning to categorize them according to temperament and to follow them as they grew to see whether temperament in infancy predicted anything about subsequent personality.

How to measure temperament in babies so young, at an age when some parents are still wondering whether a smile means happiness or gas? Kagan couldn’t measure the amygdala directly, so he looked for signs of its rampant firing that would be meaningful — and measurable — in infants. Since projections from the amygdala connect it to brain regions that control motor activity and the autonomic nervous system (heartbeat, breathing and other involuntary actions), he reasoned that if the amygdala was highly reactive, it would show up as increased motor activity, fretting and crying, as well as increases in heart rate, respiration and blood pressure.

Showing that a few physical measurements could offer insight into a baby’s psyche was one of Kagan’s real contributions. “Where his work had so much depth was not only in the longitudinal follow-up,” says Joan Kaufman, a Yale psychologist who was a research assistant at Harvard when the study began, “but in thinking about the behavioral phenotype of an inborn temperament and really assessing it with such rigor.”

Kagan brought about 500 babies — as before, all white, middle class and healthy — into the laboratory, placed them in infant seats in front of a video camera and exposed them to a series of novel stimuli. He showed them a schematic face that emitted words in a synthetic voice designed to be what he called “discrepant but not terrifying.” He dangled a dancing mobile with plastic Winnie the Pooh characters — again, nothing scary, but something new. He brought to their noses a cotton swab that had been dipped in diluted alcohol. The battery of novel stimuli took 45 minutes. Some of the babies gazed contentedly throughout. Others were in constant motion, kicking and moving their arms fitfully, furrowing their brows, arching their backs or crying if they were really upset.

Kagan and his research assistants again looked at videotapes and coded movements and cries. Based on the final tally, each infant was categorized as either low-reactive, high-reactive or somewhere in between. The low-reactives were the classic easy babies, the ones who take unfamiliarity in stride. The high-reactives, among them Baby 19, thrashed and whimpered when exposed to the same unfamiliar things. It was clear, as they twisted about in their infant seats, that these babies were high-maintenance, difficult to comfort.

About 40 percent were low-reactive, and about 20 percent were high-reactive. Kagan brought most of them, as well as those with intermediate temperament, back for testing at ages 1 and 2. About half of them — primarily those at each extreme — returned for further testing at ages 4, 7, 11 and 15. That pattern continues to this day, even after Kagan retired in 2000 and handed over his records to a collaborator, Carl Schwartz, an adolescent psychiatrist at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital, who tested some of Kagan’s subjects when they were 18 or 21.

By the earliest assessments, certain patterns had already emerged. At age 4, children who had been high-reactive were four times as likely to be behaviorally inhibited as those who had been low-reactive. By age 7, almost half of the jittery babies had developed symptoms of anxiety — fear of thunder or dogs or darkness, extreme shyness in the classroom or playground — compared with just 10 percent of the more easygoing ones. About one in five of the high-reactive babies were consistently inhibited and fearful at every visit up to the age of 7.

“Fear is an incredibly heterogeneous construct,” says Daniel Pine, a child psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health. Pine collaborates on the two longitudinal studies at the University of Maryland, conducting psychiatric interviews and functional M.R.I. scans on subjects at several stages. “Fear of social things is different from fear of physical things.” The same brain circuitry is probably involved in both, he said, but different fears tend to show up at different points in development: fear of things like clowns, balloons or spiders emerging early in life; fear of things like social situations with peers emerging later. In addition, it’s relatively easy to avoid the physical things that frighten you; if you’re afraid of dogs, you can just take a different route to school to keep from passing that bull terrier down the street. It’s much harder to avoid social fears — you can avoid the dog on the way to school, but you still have to go to school.

The children tended to get a better grip on their fearfulness as they got older. By adolescence, the rate of anxiety in Kagan’s study subjects declined overall, including in the high-risk group. At 15, about two-thirds of those who had been high-reactors in infancy behaved pretty much like everybody else.

One such person was Mary, now a 21-year-old junior at Harvard, who was in the high-reactive group as a baby and was moderately fearful at ages 1 and 2. She didn’t think of herself as anxious, just dutiful. “I don’t stray from the rules too much,” she said when we spoke by telephone not long ago. “But it’s natural for me — I never felt troubled about it. I was definitely the kid who worked really hard to get good grades, who got all my homework done before I watched TV.” Mary also was an accomplished ballet dancer as a child, which gave her a way to work off energy and to find a niche in which she excelled. That talent, plus being raised in what Kagan called a “benevolent home environment,” might have helped shift Mary’s innate inhibition to something more constructive. If Mary’s high-reactive temperament is evident now, it comes out in the form of conscientiousness and self-control.

PEOPLE WITH A nervous temperament don’t usually get off so easily, Kagan and his colleagues have found. There exists a kind of sub-rosa anxiety, a secret stash of worries that continue to plague a subset of high-reactive people no matter how well they function outwardly. They cannot quite outrun their own natures: consciously or unconsciously, they remain the same uneasy people they were when they were little.

Most of the high-reactive kids in Kagan’s study did well in adolescence, getting good grades, going to parties, making friends. Scratch the surface, though, and many of them — probably most of them — were buckets of nerves. “It’s only the high-reactives who say, ‘I’m tense in school,’ ‘I vomit before examinations,’ ‘If we’re going on a class trip to D.C., I can’t sleep the night before,’ ” Kagan told me. “They don’t like it, but they’ve accepted the fact that they’re just tense people.” Invoking Jungian terminology, he called it the difference between persona (the outer-directed personality) and anima (the inner-directed thoughts and feelings). The persona can be controlled, but the anima often cannot.

Nathan Fox of the University of Maryland says that when the anima erupts in high-risk children, it often takes the form of excessive vigilance and misdirected attention. In the first of his two longitudinal studies of temperament, begun in 1989, he followed 180 children from the age of 4 months and gave them a set of neuropsychological tests when they were between 13 and 15. One test, called the spatial-cuing task, measures vigilance and the ability to disengage attention from a perceived threat. It shows two faces briefly on a computer screen, one on each side — the same face looking threatening on one side and pleasant on the other. The faces fade away, and an arrow appears on one side of the screen, sometimes on the side the threatening face had been on, sometimes on the other. The subject must notice the arrow and press a button to indicate whether the arrow points up or down.

Adults with clinical anxiety consistently are faster at pressing the correct button if the arrow is on the side of the screen where the threatening face had been, and slower if the arrow is on the other side. (Non-anxious adults show no such subconscious preference.) In the kids in Fox’s study, those who were born anxiety-prone — even the outwardly calm, well-adjusted ones — tended to perform this task like anxious adults, paying more attention to the threatening face whether or not they meant to.

A similar result came from another test Fox gave his subjects, called the potentiated startle response. In this test, teenagers are placed in front of a screen and told that when the screen is blue, there is a chance a puff of air will be blasted at their throats — a sensation that, Fox assured me, is surprising and uncomfortable but not painful. When the screen is green, they’re safe; they are told that no puff of air will ever come when the green screen is on. Then, to evoke a startle, the experimenter plays a loud noise and measures the teenager’s response (an involuntary eye blink). All subjects have a robust startle response when the blue screen is on, which reflects the fact that they are tensing up in anticipation of that uncomfortable air puff. But anxiety-prone kids startle just as much with the green, supposedly safe screen. They stay on guard, anxious and wired, even when the situation is not threatening. Again, this finding held no matter how the subjects behaved in real life — and no matter how they were feeling while the test was taking place.

Fox’s collaborator, Daniel Pine of the N.I.M.H., conducted functional M.R.I. scans on 27 of these study subjects when they were adolescents. While they were in the scanner, Pine showed them pictures of fearful faces. Sometimes he told them to try to measure how wide the nose was — in other words, to focus on a detail that is emotionally neutral. Other times he told them to think about how afraid they felt looking at the person in the picture.

Teenagers who were in the group at low risk for anxiety showed no increase in activity in the amygdala when they looked at the face, even if they had been told to focus on their own fear. But those in the high-risk group showed increased activity in the amygdala when they were thinking about their own feelings (though not when they were thinking about the nose). Once again, this pattern was seen in anxiety-prone youngsters quite apart from whether they had problems with anxiety in their daily lives. In the high-risk kids, even those who were apparently calm in most settings, their amygdalas lighted up more than the others’ did.

Temperamental type tends to reveal itself not only in functional M.R.I. scans but also in structural M.R.I.’s, which look at brain anatomy rather than activity. In 2007 Carl Schwartz, the Harvard psychiatrist who has taken over the follow-up work on Kagan’s two longitudinal studies, put 76 of Kagan’s study subjects in an M.R.I. machine. At the time, they were 18 years old. (Baby 19 was part of the sample; Mary was asked to participate, but she declined.) He found that the subjects who were high-reactors at 4 months tended to show significant thickening in the prefrontal cortex compared to those who were low-reactors. “This was amazing,” Schwartz told me. “The temperament they exhibited as infants still seemed to leave a fingerprint in the brain 18 years later.”

He is still trying to work out the exact meaning of this fingerprint; he cannot yet tell, for instance, whether a thicker cortex is a cause of a high-reactive temperament, or an effect, or something else entirely. One job of the prefrontal cortex is inhibitory, putting a damper on signals that come from the amygdala. Could it be that the cortex thickens more in the anxiety-prone as it is busy tamping down the overactive amygdala and growing new neural connections? Or does a thicker cortex come first, and contribute to a tendency to be anxious in the first place?

One way Schwartz tried to untangle his uncertainties was by winnowing from his sample the 14 subjects who had ever been given a diagnosis of social-anxiety disorder. What was left, presumably, were 62 young people who all functioned just fine, at least in the sense of never having suffered from social anxiety. Schwartz reviewed their brain images, and the difference between the cortical thickening in the high-reactive group and the low-reactives not only remained; it also became more pronounced. One explanation of this could be that a thicker cortex is protective in the anxiety-prone. He surmises that those 14 subjects who developed problems did so in part because their cortex was thinner, and the high-reactives who had avoided social anxiety had the thickest cortexes of all.

So what do these brain-anxious young people report about their state of mind? Anxiety, remember, can occur at three levels: brain, behavior and subjective experience. Were the ones whose brains looked anxious on the M.R.I. scans actually experiencing the sensation of being anxious?

This is a question the scientists struggle with, hampered as they are by peoples’ inability to report their own feelings accurately. Pine told me that his subjects often admit, after the fact, that they had been more afraid during the experiment than they said at the time — leaving him unsure what conclusions to draw. According to Kagan, the high-reactive temperament is characterized by a tendency to be supersensitive to your own body’s signals. Wouldn’t you expect, then, that anxiety-prone kids would have some insight into their own brains? Yet even in the high-risk subjects, objective brain state and subjective experience of anxiety still don’t always track.

It is also difficult to say whether high-reactive people are aware, more generally, that their brains are more tightly coiled than other people’s. “What people say about what they’re feeling is significant, but it is hardly the whole story,” Schwartz says. “Some of those kids probably do have a subjective awareness of their brain state; others who have equally large amygdala signals — depending on how they have adapted, how they’ve been brought up and supported — might have little awareness of it.” In some cases, he says, people might even have “reframed” certain physical sensations that could be considered symptoms of anxiety — like feeling jazzed up or having your pulse quicken — as “vaguely exhilarating or exciting.”

Studies like Pine’s and Schwartz’s might actually be revealing not an anxious brain at all but an experimental artifact, says the developmental psychologist Robert Plomin. Plomin, who runs a longitudinal twin study of genes and behavior at King’s College, London, agrees that anxiety does have a neurological fingerprint, but he worries about a disconnect between anxiety in the lab and anxiety as a quotidian experience. “Let’s say that in your real life you learn to manage your temperamental dispositions so you don’t freak out,” he said. “Let’s say you learn to take a deep breath, learn tricks to make yourself function better in life. But in the lab you’re not dealing with social situations you’ve learned to control. You’re just shown — boom! — some horrible picture of a bloody accident.” If your response to a brutal image is milliseconds faster than the response of someone who is more sanguine, Plomin asked, what does that really tell you about how your brain would respond in the real world to a worrisome situation?

To make the anxiety-provoking lab challenge more authentic and emotionally charged, Pine and his colleagues at the N.I.M.H., Eric Nelson and Amanda Guyer, concocted an elaborate experimental setup to persuade teenagers in a functional M.R.I. machine that their social status really is on the line: a fake Internet chat room. They created a set of potential chat-room partners for their subjects: smiley, fictitious teenagers, complete with sham MySpace pages. The setup was that the other kids would eventually tell the subjects in the scanner whether they did or did not want to chat with them. The scans were taken, then, while the subjects were lying still, awaiting the verdict. In a handful of pilot experiments, this has proved to be an emotionally significant challenge for teenagers with social anxiety. The anxious youngsters, while waiting to hear from one of the pretend teenagers they wanted to avoid, showed more reactivity in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Pine has conducted this same experiment on 40 of Fox’s longitudinal-study subjects and is currently analyzing the results.

Still, tracking the anxious mind, even with a more realistic experimental setup, means having the subject lie in an M.R.I. scanner, which is inherently not only artificial but also stressful. So Plomin’s point is interesting. Brain scans and other lab findings might reflect something deep and persistent going on in the anxious mind. But if you have learned to control your behavior, to structure your life so you can limit triggers and cope with your emotional skittishness, how much does it really matter?

THE BEHAVIORAL STRAND of the brain-behavior-experience triad is the one that seems most amenable to intervention, and scientists are now investigating how it is that two-thirds of those with a high-reactive temperament manage to avoid trouble. Many environmental factors no doubt come into play — some of them malleable, some less so. In Kagan’s first study, for instance, he found that birth order seemed relevant. Behaviorally inhibited children were much more likely to have older siblings: two-thirds of them did, compared with just one-third of the uninhibited children. Could having older siblings, he and his co-authors wondered, mean being teased and pushed, which becomes a source of chronic stress, which in turn amplifies a biological predisposition to inhibition? Kagan never replicated this finding, as intriguing as it was — which shows how difficult it can be to tease out which environmental factors are relevant, and which turn out to be incidental. Fox, meanwhile, noted that the high-reactive babies who went to day care when they were young were significantly less fearful at age 4 than were the high-reactives who stayed home with their mothers.

Attempts to see what kind of parenting works best with an anxiety-prone temperament leave almost as many questions asked as answered. Which is better for a fearful, high-strung child — a parent who coddles the child and says everything will be all right, or a parent who sets firm, strict limits and has no tolerance for skittishness? You could picture it as going either way, really. On the one hand, it might be good to shield children from the things that worry them. On the other hand, it might be better to urge them, maybe even force them, to confront the things they dread.

Scientists from both Kagan’s and Fox’s labs have looked at this question in a systematic way, and they have come up with two somewhat different findings. Both studies involved a series of home visits and hours of videotapes of mother-baby interactions. But one study, by Kagan’s graduate student Doreen Arcus in the early 1990s, found that what seemed to be best for high-reactive babies were mothers who set firm limits and did not rush too quickly to comfort them when they cried. And the other, by Fox’s postdoctoral fellow Amie Ashley Hane a decade later, found something slightly different: that the best fit for high-strung babies were sensitive mothers, who met their fearful children on their own terms and interacted with them in a way that was accepting and supportive without being intrusive. Sometimes, of course, there’s a fine line between firm and hardhearted, and a fine line between supportive and intrusive. This makes it especially tough to turn research findings like Arcus’s and Hane’s into clear guidance on how best to care for a fretful child.

The best outcome, however it happens, is to rear a child who learns to wrestle his demons on his own. Some children figure out themselves what works best. “Inner struggles pulled at me for years until I was able to just let go and calm myself,” wrote one of Kagan’s high-reactive study subjects in an essay, revealing a wisdom far beyond his 13 years. “For example, when I first heard about the anthrax in Washington, I began to have an upset stomach. I realized it was simply because of my anxiety that I was feeling sick. As soon as I realized that, the stomachache went away. Because I now understand my predisposition toward anxiety, I can talk myself out of simple fears.” There are many adults, anxious or not, who can’t control their own interior monologues as well as this boy can.

For the children who need help grappling with their fears, some psychologists try to intervene early, with programs that give worried children tools for quieting the scary thoughts in their heads. Kids are often taught the same skills that anxious adults are, a variation on cognitive behavior therapy, designed to stop the endless recursive loop of rumination, replacing it with a smart, rational interior voice. In a way, it’s teaching anxious people to do what non-anxious people do naturally.

“I joke a lot about my anxiety,” wrote a young woman named Brittany on the group blog We Worry, part of a thriving community of anxiety blogs. “And there are times I do find it funny. I can do this because there is that voice in my head that tells me what I’m worrying about is irrational. But then I worry about worrying about irrational things. It is a never-ending cycle.” She might laugh at herself, she wrote, but life can get “overwhelming to me sometimes. Things that don’t even register to most people are uphill battles for me.”

Even those with normal, run-of-the-mill fretfulness — not a clinical anxiety disorder like Brittany’s — struggle to outsmart their brooding. “I have a friend who’s a clinical psychologist, and we talk about this a lot — what people do on their own to make themselves less anxious,” said Engel of Williams College, who is writing a book about temperament called “Red Flags and Red Herrings.” Engel said she is by nature very anxious, as is the eldest of her three sons. “The way we deal with it is that we both get everything done in lots of time. We can’t stand the anxiety of a looming deadline; we’re so worried about being late that we do it five days early.” This is one way to alleviate anxiety, she said. “There are other things we could do. We could drink, we could procrastinate, we could pretend we don’t have the deadline. I guess we both happen to be lucky that our method is adaptive.”

This kind of adapting might have something to do with intelligence, says Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard and author of “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.” He says he believes, based on pure conjecture, that people with higher intelligence are better at overcoming their anxious temperament and more likely to “see their own worry list as a problem to be solved, minimizing unnecessary anxiety while still being anxious enough to get things done.” At least one study lends support to Pinker’s impression. In a 2004 article called “Can Worriers Be Winners?” two British scientists gave personality questionnaires to a group of financial services managers and found that those who reported themselves as scoring high on anxiety traits, like being nervous about performing well on the job, turned out to be better employees, but only if their worrying was accompanied by high cognitive ability.

Fox said that what distinguishes the high-reactives who learn to adapt from those who don’t often comes down to something simple, like finding one or two supportive friends — or, like Mary and her ballet, finding something they’re good at and can feel self-confident about. But there could be some physiological differences between the adapters and the nonadapters, too. Baby 19, for instance, ran into some problems as she grew up. At a year old, she was one of the most fearful children in Kagan’s study, and she had an episode of depression in middle school and a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder as a teenager. While these could have been related to any of a number of environmental factors, including a broken home, they could be related too to something curious that turned up in the brain scan Schwartz did on Baby 19 when she was 18 years old.

When Baby 19 was in the functional M.R.I. scanner and shown a series of unfamiliar faces, Schwartz said, her amygdala was highly reactive — about three times as much as that of a typical low-reactor. This was what Schwartz expected in someone with her temperament and psychiatric history. More surprising, though, was how her prefrontal cortex appeared on the structural M.R.I. scan. Rather than the thickened cortex that so many young adults with her temperament had, Baby 19’s was relatively thin.

“This is the brain area implicated in emotional regulation,” Schwartz told me. Could it be that in her case, her thin cortex was unable to regulate excessive activity in the amygdala, leading to more problems than someone with a thicker cortex would encounter? “At the level of an individual, it’s always a bit dangerous to draw conclusions,” he said. “In fact, it’s pretty much impossible. But maybe one thing that affects outcome is whether the genes that contribute to these two areas, the amygdala and the cortex, travel together or separately.” Maybe a high-reactive person with a jumpy amygdala can manage to avoid the behavioral and subjective experience of anxiety because of a strong cortex that can quiet the overactive brain. But in Baby 19’s case, the jumpy amygdala might instead have been accompanied by a cortex less able to mount an inhibitory response. “Maybe when those things occur together,” Schwartz said, “your outcome is that you have a little bit more trouble.”

LOOKING AT THE neurology of anxiety raises the inevitable question of why a trait that causes so much mental anguish would have evolved in the first place. For the species as a whole, it is most likely an advantage to have some group members who are hypervigilant and who see everything as a threat, always ready to sound an alarm and leap into action. For the individual, though, being inhibited can mean having fewer mating opportunities, not to mention the psychic burden, wearing yourself ragged with a brain that’s always on high alert.

In the modern world, the anxious temperament does offer certain benefits: caution, introspection, the capacity to work alone. These can be adaptive qualities. Kagan has observed that the high-reactives in his sample tend to avoid the traditional hazards of adolescence. Because they are more restrained than their wilder peers, he says, high-reactive kids are less likely to experiment with drugs, to get pregnant or to drive recklessly. They grow up to be the Felix Ungers of the world, he says, clearing a safe, neat path for the Oscar Madisons.

People with a high-reactive temperament — as long as it doesn’t show itself as a clinical disorder — are generally conscientious and almost obsessively well-prepared. Worriers are likely to be the most thorough workers and the most attentive friends. Someone who worries about being late will plan to get to places early. Someone anxious about giving a public lecture will work harder to prepare for it. Test-taking anxiety can lead to better studying; fear of traveling can lead to careful mapping of transit routes.

Kagan told me that in the 40 years he worked at Harvard, he hired at least 200 research assistants, “and I always looked for high-reactives. They’re compulsive, they don’t make errors, they’re careful when they’re coding data.” He said he would bet that when the United States sends people up in space, the steely, brave astronauts were low-reactive as infants, and the mission-control people down on the ground, doing the detail work that keeps the craft aloft, were high-reactive.

An anxious temperament might serve a more exalted function too. “Our culture has this illusion that anxiety is toxic,” Kagan said. But without inner-directed people who prefer solitude, where would we get the writers and artists and scientists and computer programmers who make society hum? Kagan likes to point out that T. S. Eliot suffered from anxiety, and that biographies indicate that he was a typical high-reactive baby. “That line ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’ — he couldn’t have written that without feeling the tension and dysphoria he did,” Kagan said.

These are overgeneralizations, of course. And they’re easy to shoot down with exceptions. But all the exceptions mean, really, is that the link between neurology and behavior is complicated. There may well be hundreds of different temperaments, and these studies have investigated only two — the most stable and most amenable to measurement, but still just two. If it were as simple as saying that a high-reactive infant will become a behaviorally inhibited child who will become an anxious adult, all the scientific work on temperament would amount to little more than charting horoscopes.

The predictive power of an anxiety-prone temperament, such as it is, essentially works in just one direction: not by predicting what these children will become but by predicting what they will not. In the longitudinal studies of anxiety, all you can say with confidence is that the high-reactive infants will not grow up to be exuberant, outgoing, bubbly or bold. Still, while a Sylvia Plath almost certainly won’t grow up to be a Bill Clinton, she can either grow up to be anxious and suicidal, or simply a poet. Temperament is important, but life intervenes.

As for Baby 19, she has not yet gone against type, and odds are she never will. She is in college and doing pretty well, Kagan told me. But her temperament still comes through in her personality. Kagan said Baby 19 tends to be “dour” and “melancholy.” And she is still, and probably always will be, a worrier.

Robin Marantz Henig is a contributing writer. Her last article for the magazine was about the federal effort to diagnose mysterious diseases.

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 8:46 pm

Positively Hush With Power
Whisper-Quiet Hill Aides Must Speak Up Without Standing Out

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009


The Whisper Brigade assembles itself on stackable plastic chairs, arranged in rows behind the senators.

Sixty-three ear-side seats.

The 23 senators, in their cushy leather swivel-thrones, postulate into microphones, gnashing over the details of this epic health-care bill consuming Washington, now deep into Week 2 and dragging into the longest Senate Finance Committee set-to in 15 years. The whisperers have their say, but almost exclusively into the senators’ ears. Prompting, hinting, tipping — a parallel dialogue, public speaker to private thinker, strictly off-mike.

There’s Bill Dauster, all lanky arms and legs, stooping so low his tie drags across the left shoulder of the chairman, Max Baucus of Montana. There’s Mark Hayes saying something that makes Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s eyebrow arch.


That’s D-a-u-s-t-e-r and H-a-y-e-s, and Liz Fowler and Kate Spaziani, and Jocelyn Moore, too. Not necessarily marquee names outside the capital, but outsize players in the inside game — an exercise in fine-print and lawyerly know-how, late-night prep sessions and numbing details. (The committee opened proceedings last week with 564 amendments to contemplate!)

In this city of aides, the split goes like this: 535 members of Congress out front; more than 10,000 staffers in back. (This being staffer culture, who gets counted as “staffer” is itself intensely debated.) The many organize themselves to serve the few. Unwritten rules and traditions have evolved and they have one theme: deference.

Yet sometimes, when the city’s attention is drawn to a single room, as it is right now, the deferential get nudged, whether or not they like it, into view. They’re the ones in the upper corners of the television screen, when the camera zooms in to Washington’s high-stakes legislative obsession of the moment. The ones leaning forward. The ones at the top of the staffer organizational charts. The ones with all the degrees — Dauster’s a lawyer — and, in some cases, the ones with all the interesting résumés — Spaziani, Sen. Kent Conrad’s senior health policy aide, is a former health-care lobbyist, and Fowler gets knocked around a bit in the blogosphere because she was a public policy VP for the insurance giant WellPoint before becoming Baucus’s senior counsel.

This can be an uncomfortable setting for the backstage operators to become faces du jour. With some notable exceptions, most staffers are doing everything they can to stay off camera. It’s the preferred ethos of the Washington staffer — do the homework, don’t seek the glory . . . or else.

In other words, never ever upstage the boss.

Russ Sullivan, the Finance Committee’s Democratic staff director, goes so far as to train staffers how to disappear when the full Senate meets in chamber. He has mapped what he calls “safe spots,” the margins where a staffer can chill without being seen by the camera.

But there’s no hiding in Hart 216, focal point for the past two weeks of all things single-payer, public option and employer mandate. In the hearing rooms, the camera sees all. Mostly it sees faces striving to affect no emotion, to convey no hint of opinion, attitude, pique or glee. Blank is best.

Still, late one night, the camera sees Dauster mouthing lines in Baucus’s ear, almost Cyrano de Bergerac-style. It sees Moore leaping out of her seat when Sen. Jay Rockefeller bellows “not true” in response to Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s assertion that Rockefeller’s public-option health plan has a government administrator. A tap on the shoulder by Moore. A quick whisper, and Rockefeller is suddenly pivoting. Well, “technically,” there is an administrator, he acknowledges.

Maybe that’s why a seemingly grateful Rockefeller gets all worked up when talking about Moore and the rest of his staff, calling them “monumental and transcendental” during a quick chat in the hallway after his public-option amendment was defeated.

“The staff is the whole ballgame,” Rockefeller insists.

Moore, standing a respectful couple steps away, just smiles. She’s clamping her lips together so tightly — as if she’s afraid a stray word might escape without her catching it in time. Officially, if there was any doubt, she’s got nothing to say.

No way is she going to upstage the boss, even if it looks to all the world like she probably saved him only a few minutes before.

Just in case that rule wasn’t crystal clear, some senators are happy to give a reminder. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who also saw his own public-option proposal shot down moments earlier, says his staff does “a great job” passing notes and whispering in his ear. “But most of what I say is just spontaneous.”

And there’s the tricky balance for the whispering-aide set. Keep the boss up to date. Make sure the senator gets a reliable vote count, the inside skinny, the best analysis of the bill’s minutiae, the implications of other senators’ amendments, the lowdown on the constituent calls coming into the office. But be discreet; don’t do anything to suggest you’re the brains behind the power.

Still, one can’t help but wonder, sometimes, if the smartest people in the room aren’t the ones being addressed as senators but the whisperers behind them.

“You don’t want to be talking in your boss’s ear every second,” says Sheila Burke, a former deputy staff director of the Finance Committee and chief of staff for former senator Bob Dole of Kansas. “You don’t want your boss to look like a puppet.”

Ah, but it’s not such a bad thing for the aide to be snapped talking in the ear of the powerful. Those images are the currency of status in this city, living perpetually on the walls of Capitol Hill homes and big corner offices, testaments to your time in the trenches before you moved onward and upward.

Abundant camera time, though, creates many opportunities for wardrobe malfunctions, especially when the schedule is as grueling as the marathon sessions now being held on health care. The staff is usually there long after the senator goes home.

So it was that Sullivan, after another long night of zipping things up for the committee, showed up the next morning with a suit jacket that was one color and slacks that were, well, another shade. (Thankfully, he had left the matching jacket out in the car.) Lindy Paull, a former chief of staff for the joint committee on taxation, still gets teased about showing up once with one black shoe and one blue shoe, each heel a different height. She had no time to remedy the situation, and teetered through the hearing.

TV exposure conferred spiritual benefits for Hayes — he got well wishes from the preacher during a service at his United Methodist church in Alexandria. And, of course, there are the “Mom calls.” Burke’s ordered her to “comb your hair!” Racquel Russell, a 30-year-old aide whom Sen. Thomas Carper’s staff calls their “health guru,” has managed to pass the mom test in the coiffing department, but wouldn’t you know that the proud mom would still want more?

“You need to smile more!” Mom — Leonie Laing — declares from Florida. To which daughter invariably replies: “Mom! This isn’t a beauty pageant!”

More terrifying than the prospect of displeasing C-SPAN-monitoring moms is the risk of leaving your senator hanging. Staffers have night sweats about this, and it’s one of the reasons they can be seen struggling into the room with sloshing piles of sticky-noted binders. Russell calls these her “security blankets,” just in case she’s forgotten something, even after playing and replaying every possible scenario back in the office with her colleagues.

Interrupting one’s senator is a protocol problemo — generally, a big no-no. But there are moments when it can’t be avoided. Bill Hoagland, who spent more than two decades as a top aide to former New Mexico senator Pete Domenici, was once forced to delicately butt in on his boss to let him (and him alone) know someone was on the phone — the president of the United States of America. Seems Ronald Reagan wasn’t happy with what he was watching on his television during a markup of a bill to cut defense spending.

Hoagland, now a lobbyist for Cigna Corp., has faced off with many of the aides arrayed around the Hart 216 horseshoe these days. Hoagland jokes that his Budget Committee days were like “The Bill and Bill Show” because he worked with Republicans on the committee while Bill Dauster worked with the Democrats.

Dauster, who has a thick gray beard and glasses, is undeniably the breakout star of this year’s spectacle. As the committee’s deputy staff director, he sits just behind Baucus, where much of the action is taking place. On Dauster’s left is Fowler, whom Hoagland calls a health-care whiz kid. She’s a triathlete whose fingers are perpetual motion machines, in almost constant touch with her BlackBerry. She’s buff enough to engage in “the committee-room squat” — a position beside the principal, held for minutes on end.

They don’t make staff chairs big enough for a Bill Dauster; he’s got basketball-player wingspan. Acts of contortion are required for him to make the rounds among staffers to gather reconnaissance. He pretzels up those long limbs to avoid towering over the senators when he’s gathering proxy votes down the row.

Hoagland, his friend and old foil, places Dauster “left of center” on the political spectrum. The word “legend” gets thrown around a lot when Hill types talk about Dauster, who has been working in Congress since 1986, except for some brief detours, such as a stint at the White House and some time on then-Sen. Paul Wellstone’s presidential exploratory committee. He’s one of those guys who seems to know all the answers, a trait prized above all. But he isn’t one to grab a microphone during a hearing — when Baucus asked him to step down to the witness table, he cracked that it might have been his first time on that side of the conversation.

For all of Dauster’s fade-into-the-background ways inside the Capitol, boy, can he cut loose outside of it. He has a Web site called A Progressive Voice to archive all his quipstering, an anthology of one-liners that might have spiced up some of the duller moments during the past two weeks of marathon health-care debating. In speeches, he has noted that “Congress does do a lot that’s worth making fun of” and that “stupidity is not a disqualification for Congress,” a notion that he backed up in bipartisan fashion by invoking Grassley’s observation that “a lot of nuts get elected to the United States Senate.”

In 2006, Dauster told an audience that “Ambrose Bierce defined a ‘day’ as ‘a period of twenty-four hours, mostly misspent.’ Bierce could well have been speaking of an average day in the administration of President George W. Bush.”

Maybe Dauster needs his own show. But, over at Hart, it’s a Baucus production. Dauster always plays the straight man.

Researcher Alice Crites and staff writer Dana Milbank contributed to this report.

September 29, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 8:05 pm

Albright’s Pin Diplomacy
by Rebecca Dana
September 27, 2009 | 9:32pm

The former secretary of State, who once telegraphed diplomatic messages by wearing carefully selected pins, talks to Rebecca Dana about her new book on her extraordinary pin collection, Sarah Palin’s pins, and more.

Madeleine Albright was sitting in a corner office on the eighth floor of the Museum of Arts and Design one recent afternoon, enjoying the view of Central Park on a glorious September day. She wore a simple black pantsuit, a light dusting of makeup, and, on her left shoulder, some serious bling: a gleaming golden sunflower, covered in what looked like diamonds, about the size of a human fist.

This was not some ultra-precious heirloom brooch or delicate lapel pin. It was a statement piece worthy of the State Department. “It reflects my mood,” Albright says, cheerfully. “And it’s utilitarian in terms of being able to do carry-on luggage.”

Click Image to View Our Gallery of Albright’s Pins

Article - Dana Albright Pins Gallery Launch


The former secretary of State has been traveling a lot lately, facing down airport security with a bag full of colorful pins to brighten up her wardrobe. The accessory came to be her trademark during her years in the Clinton administration, when she developed a habit of wearing carefully selected pins to telegraph messages during diplomatic missions. “When I was in a good mood, I wore flowers and butterflies and suns,” she says, “and when we were about to do something nasty, I had bugs and bees and things like that.”

In association with the Museum of Arts and Design, Albright has a new exhibit and book out this week showcasing about 200 highlights from her vast collection and telling the story of how many were acquired and when they were worn. The project is called Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, a reference to a little quip she used to make to reporters, a callback to the first President Bush’s famous “Read my lips…” line.

Albright has about 300 pins in total, ranging from small, abstract designs to large, gem-encrusted zebras, lions, birds, and bugs. There is all manner of Americana, from “Vote for Jimmy Carter” and “Barack Obama for President” buttons to a bejeweled Mickey Mouse, with a pearl on his head, bells on his feet, and a shiny Uncle Sam top hat in his right hand. There are at least eight spider pins, many dragonflies, frogs, pianos, leopards, wind instruments, bears, and turtles, plus a scorpion, a pink pig, and a big kangaroo (with a baby kangaroo in its pouch). There is a lovely blue pin in the shape of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a gold UFO with three aliens dangling from hooks.

“When I look at how many I have, I think, ‘Oh my goodness!’” Albright says.

Jewelry has been used in diplomacy at least since ancient Rome, when Cleopatra, no stranger to accessorizing, is said to have dropped a priceless pearl in a vat of acid on a challenge from Marc Antony. What distinguishes Albright’s collection from, say, the British crown jewels is its democratic character. She acquired her pins at flea markets, antique stores, and little boutiques, and chose them not because of their value as collectibles but because “some of them just speak to me and say: ‘Buy me! Buy me!’”

“Most of them are costume jewelry,” she says. “It’s not kind of an elaborate collection with fancy jewels. Most of the pins are replaceable in some form or another.”

Her interest in pins began innocently enough, when as a Wellesley girl she was “pinned” by her beau Joe Albright, a handsome Theta Delta Xi she’d met when both were working summer jobs at The Denver Post. Preferring pins to pearls or other accessories, Albright accumulated others over the course of her married life, including her most cherished one: a ceramic heart made by her daughter Katie at age 5, given to her on Valentine’s Day.

It was only after her divorce, when Albright began her career in government, that the pins took on additional meaning and collecting them became more of an active pursuit. As President Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations, and later as the first female secretary of State, she was “very conscious of being the only woman” and relied on the pins to bring some fun and femininity without drawing unwelcome scrutiny of her wardrobe.

“The hard part here is how to balance not having your clothes talked about and having some fun,” she says. “It’s a no-win. The truth is, I wished I had looked better in pants then. Because there are times that you—getting out of cars is not simple in a skirt. And sitting on a stage is not simple in a skirt. And getting on a helicopter is not simple in a skirt. I remember sitting on stages and pulling down my skirt and trying to figure out how to sit there. It’s a no-win situation. People would either say that my hems were too high or to low or whatever.”

Albright’s “pin diplomacy” began as an accident. During her term as U.N. ambassador, in the period following the first Gulf War, she criticized Saddam Hussein for refusing to fully disclose Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. In response to the criticism, an Iraqi state-run newspaper published a poem calling Albright an “unparalleled serpent.” “I happened to have a snake pin,” Albright says, “so from then on, I wore it when we were doing Iraq things. And I thought, ‘Well, this is fun.’ And so, when I was in New York, the mecca of everything, I went out and bought a bunch of costume jewelry that reflected, I thought, a bunch of what we were going to do.”

She wore a wasp pin to one round of negotiations with Yasser Arafat and a golden “peace dove” given to her by Yitzhak Rabin’s wife, Leah, to visit the victims of genocide in Rwanda. She wore an entire jazz band on her shoulder to a ceremony honoring Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Her staff had a pin made for her in the shape of a small cluster of mushrooms because, during a difficult period in Middle East peace talks, she used to brush off journalists’ questions by saying, “Sometimes diplomatic talks, like mushrooms, grow better in the dark.”

Though an avid pin-wearer herself, Albright says she found the controversy around whether Barack Obama wore a flag pin during his presidential campaign “crazy.” She had no comment on former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s elaborate use of pins during the campaign, including the ornate, jeweled American flag she wore to the vice-presidential debate. “I had more problems with being misquoted by her,” Albright says. (The reference is to a quote of Albright’s about there being “a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other,” which Palin repeated, changing “help” to “support.”)

These days, Albright has become so well-known for her pins, which she stores in a shoe bag in her closet when they’re not on display in a museum, that people come up to her in airports and on the street to talk about them. One of her most treasured pieces came from a man in New Orleans who lost his mother during Hurricane Katrina. The pin, made of amethysts and diamonds, was a gift from his father to his mother on their 50th wedding anniversary.

Now that many are in the exhibit, friends and strangers have been giving her “pity pins” to wear until her own are returned. “Yesterday, for instance, I was walking around and somebody gave me a pin that said, ‘Chicks Rock,’” she says. “So, I think that’s kind of fun.”

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.

For press inquiries, contact this writer at press@thedailybeast.com.


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