Daily Office:
Wednesday, 22 September 2010


¶ Here’s a “big government” story for you: for over twenty years, the federal government has dragged its feet about Jack DeCoster’s atrocious record as an egg-poisoner, forcing the states to adopt a patchwork of partial solutions. Mr DeCoster has only now been summoned to account for himself before Congress. Whatever he has to say, it will be the testimony of a man with friends in “big government.” (NYT)

Mr. DeCoster’s frequent run-ins with regulators over labor, environmental and immigration violations have been well cataloged. But the close connections between Mr. DeCoster’s egg empire and the spread of salmonella in the United States have received far less scrutiny.

While some state regulators took steps to clamp down on tainted eggs, the federal government was much slower to act, despite entreaties from state officials alarmed at the growing toll.

Farms tied to Mr. DeCoster were a primary source of Salmonella enteritidis in the United States in the 1980s, when some of the first major outbreaks of human illness from the bacteria in eggs occurred, according to health officials and public records. At one point, New York and Maryland regulators believed DeCoster eggs were such a threat that they banned sales of the eggs in their states.

“When we were in the thick of it, the name that came up again and again was DeCoster Egg Farms,” said Paul A. Blake, who was head of the enteric diseases division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the 1980s, when investigators began to tackle the emerging problem of salmonella and eggs.

By the end of that decade, regulators in New York had forced Mr. DeCoster to allow salmonella testing of his farms and, along with other states, pushed the egg industry in the eastern United States to improve safety, which led to a drop in illness.

But the efforts were patchwork. For example, Iowa, where Mr. DeCoster has five farms tied to the current outbreak, required no testing.


¶ The Liberace Museum in Las Vegas is closing — as how could it not? Most Americans alive today can’t remember the phenomenon personally, and unless they’re charged by actual memories, the entertainer’s relics become lifeless dreck. Stephany Anne Golberg reanimates Liberace just long enough to remind us what he was really all about. (The Smart Set)

“Even in this abstract atomic age, where emotion is not fashionable, Chopin endures,” the acclaimed pianist Arthur Rubinstein once said, knowing that even when people are embarrassed by it, emotion never goes out of style. Liberace knew this better than anyone. He was never ashamed of emotion. Whatever his personal fears, onstage you saw a man almost completely devoid of shame. Because shame, Liberace knew, is death to magic. In a performance, shame breaks the spell, turns up the lights and exposes us all. When a performer feels shame, it takes us collectively outside the moment, makes the audience worry about tomorrow, fear what’s going to happen next. Don’t be afraid, Liberace told us when he performed. Everything that you want is here. Focus on the sparkles, the fairytale. Let’s not worry about tomorrow. Let us live in the enchantment of now. Scott Thorson, Liberace’s former companion and lover, once told Larry King that he believed Liberace’s fans wouldn’t have cared if he came out of the closet. I believe he’s right. To be ashamed of Liberace would have meant living outside his world, and his fans loved him too much for that.

In a way, Liberace the man was quite plain. Scott Thorson said Liberace spent his quiet time puttering about the house, picking up dog doo doo in the yard. If Liberace weren’t so genuinely private, I think he would have invited us all into his home. Instead, he created the Liberace Museum — a fantasy on the corner of East Tropicana Avenue and Spencer Street — and invited us into his dreams. Liberace made himself into a living present, like one of those ladies who jump out of a giant cake. He wrapped himself in ribbons, placed himself into a gift box — the Liberace Museum — and gave himself away. Liberace’s museum was never a memorial to his life, but an extension of it. Which is why, to those last few who care, its closing feels like a second (and likely final) death of the man himself.

Every time I listen to “Étude Op. 10, No. 12 in C Minor,” I hear the Funny Valentine in it. And every time I watch the Funny Valentine/Chopin Medley performance, I feel I am watching a complete expression of Liberace: funny, gaudy, sad, beautiful, stupid, simple, extraordinary. It is the denouement of an entire life’s work. In the Funny Valentine/Chopin Medley, Liberace shows us something quite rare: a performer who has given you his all, and has taken you to the end of himself.


¶ You may know that Jeffrey Stephan, a former executive at GMAC, has confessed that he “robo-signed” foreclosure-related affidavits despite the fact that he had none of the personal knowledge required to validate such documents. (This makes Mr Stephan one whopping perjuror.) GMAC’s successor, Ally Capital, has responded by halting foreclosures. Or has it? We’ve read Yves Smith’s probe of the fiasco with cold-fusion despair — what can be expected of financial companies, and yet how are we ever to extricate ourselves from their muck? — but we’re going to let Felix Salmon point the moral of the tale.

All of this is complicated, too, by the fact that the US Treasury owns 56.3% of Ally. At most banks, it’s generally assumed that the shareholders just want to see the maximum possible returns, over the long run. That’s not a safe assumption, however, when your shareholder is Treasury, which has been ploughing billions of dollars into schemes designed to prevent evictions.

It would be wonderful if GMAC could take the high road here, and act with full transparency in a manner consistent with the best possible practices that Treasury would like to see in the mortgage market. Judging by its press release, there’s not much indication that’s happening yet. But maybe a couple of phone calls from Washington might change its mind. I wonder how Elizabeth Warren is settling in to her new job.


¶ The idea of a self-organizing system of traffic lights — one that responds to actual traffic conditions instead of working from a timer — is very, very cool, of course. But marks the story for us is the deeper and wider trend that stories such as this reflect. We are moving away from the authority of binary systems (yes/no; right/wrong; on/off) and toward the understanding of live complexity. In other words, We’re learning who we really are, and not trying to be something that we think we ought to be.

Helbing and his colleague Stefan Lämmer from the Dresden University of Technology in Germany decided to scrap the top-down approach and start at the bottom. They noted that when crowds of people are trying to move through a narrow space, such as through a door connecting two hallways, there’s a natural oscillation: A mass of people from one side will move through the door while the other people wait, then suddenly the flow switches direction.

“It looks like maybe there’s a traffic light, but there’s not. It’s actually the buildup of pressure on the side where people have to wait that eventually turns the flow direction,” says Helbing. “We thought we could maybe apply the same principle to intersections, that is, the traffic flow controls the traffic light rather than the other way around.”

Their arrangement puts two sensors at each intersection: One measures incoming flow and one measures outgoing flow. Lights are coordinated with every neighboring light, such that one light alerts the next, “Hey, heavy load coming through.”

That short-term anticipation gives lights at the next intersection enough time to prepare for the incoming platoon of vehicles, says Helbing. The whole point is to avoid stopping an incoming platoon. “It works surprisingly well,” he says. Gaps between platoons are opportunities to serve flows in other directions, and this local coordination naturally spreads throughout the system.

“It’s a paradoxical effect that occurs in complex systems,” says Helbing. “Surprisingly, delay processes can improve the system altogether. It is a slower-is-faster effect. You can increase the throughput — speed up the whole system — if you delay single processes within the system at the right time, for the right amount of time.”


¶ This just in! Commander Lightoller’s granddaughter tells why the Titanic hit the iceberg! 98 years later, his coverup is revealed! (Guardian; via The Morning News)

That Titanic hit the iceberg could be down to a misunderstanding. Because the ship sailed during the transition from sail to steam there were two different steering communication systems in operation: rudder orders for steamships, and tiller orders for sailing ships. “The two steering systems were the complete opposite of one another,” said Patten. “So a command to turn ‘hard a-starboard’ meant turn the wheel right under one system and left under the other.”

The man at the wheel, Quartermaster Robert Hitchins, was trained under rudder orders – but tiller orders were still in use in the north Atlantic. So when First Officer William Murdoch first spotted the iceberg and gave a ‘hard a-starboard’ order, a panicked Hitchins turned the liner into the course of the iceberg.

“The real reason why Titanic hit the iceberg is because he turned the wheel the wrong way,” said Patten. By the time the error had been corrected, two minutes had been lost. Nothing could stop the iceberg breaching the hull.


¶ Times columnist David Leonhardt explains why the Chinese renminbi exchange rate is more important than the Chinese say that it is, if less important than American businessmen claim. It’s a matter of little stimulus packages — if $10 million is your idea of “little.”

The car business makes for a good example of what might change and when. The industry may not seem typical of the China story, because it has more to do with American exports than Chinese imports. But exports probably matter more for American jobs anyway, given that low-end toy manufacturing in Guangdong Province isn’t moving to Alabama or Michigan.

Like other first-time visitors to China, I have been struck by the number of Buicks on the roads here. In one Beijing traffic jam, three different Buick minivans were idling in the lane next to mine. When was the last time you were surrounded by Buicks?

Unfortunately for American autoworkers, though, none of those Buicks minivans was made in the United States. Buick exports only the high-end Enclave sport utility vehicle to China and makes the rest of its vehicles locally, with a Chinese partner. BMW, similarly, makes the 3- and 5-series here but ships in the costlier 7-series and Z sports cars.

With a stronger renminbi, you could see how carmakers might draw the dividing line in a different place, especially as the Chinese car market grows. The highest-margin vehicles would no longer be the only ones that could support the higher labor and shipping costs — not to mention China’s 25 percent vehicle tariff.


¶ Inspired by Blake Butler’s compendium of books that David Foster Wallace held in high regard, M Rebekah Otto shares her disappointment with books recommended by writers whom she admires. (The Millions)

I suppose if I can find an author and grow to love them outside of a direct inheritance, maybe, too, I could reject select elements of my more obvious literary heritage. Hesitantly, I have begun to dismiss other favorites’ favorites. When a former student of his published David Foster Wallace’s syllabus, I promptly downloaded the PDF. As I read the list, I was very self-assured: I’d been meaning to read Waiting for the Barbarians!  I loved the Flannery O’Connor story he assigned (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”). He boldly included young contemporary writers like Aimee Bender and Sam Lipsyte. But Silence of the Lambs. Really? I would not follow him there. Maybe I am only disadvantaging myself. Silence of the Lambs may be the literary masterwork that could forever change my outlook on literature and fiction, just like Updike was supposed to.

Where I formerly swallowed recommendations whole, I now cull through them – not exactly on my own but in a more independent fashion. I find books, I do not just receive them. Or, I try to.

I am not a bad reader nor am I intellectually and creatively deficient, or, if I am, it is not because I do not like John Updike but for entirely different reasons.


¶ At the end of her warm review of Rebecca Traister’s Big Girls Don’t Cry, Connie Schultz offers some really, really good advice — plus a reminder that the young men who “radicalized” Traister’s feminism by denigrating Hillary Clinton are probably not themselves going to become any friendlier to the cause of women’s equality. (Washington Post)

Despite the setbacks and disappointments, Traister believes the 2008 presidential race breathed new life into the women’s movement, in part because a new generation came to own it. Such a youthful embrace of the women’s work yet to be done is exhilarating — for her generation and for mine.

And therein lies my only caveat, which Traister may see as a matronly reprimand: Do resist tagging all of us over-50 feminists as dour discards. Your youthful vision is better than our crinkled eyes for navigating the future, but we hold your history in our hearts. We are still in the fight, increasingly with men foolish enough to mistake a woman’s sags for surrender. We were once you, and one day you will be us.

Have a Look

¶ Seven Highly Effective Habits of Facebook. (PsyBlog)

¶ Der Tiefstapler. (Metamorphosism)

¶ Anti-Vampire gizmo. (Good)