Daily Office:
Friday, 9 July 2010


¶ Is Starbucks poised to bring good wine to a corner near you? At The Awl, Nilay Gandhi reads some very tender tea leaves — we’re only talking about a couple of locations in Seattle so far — but sees a juggernaut at the bottom of the cup  — er, stem.

According to the Seattle Times, future stores will be branded Starbucks. The ungendered PR entity behind the curtain added that the next iteration of Olive Way, Seattle’s next store to transition to alcohol, “will be a traditional Starbucks location that will reflect the character of the surrounding neighborhood and help to reduce environmental impacts.” I didn’t really ask about the environment, but it’s nice to know they care.

You can see the dissonance building, even from their language. How could such a powerful, 18+ billion-dollar company often more concerned with sounding right than being right, possibly pull this off? They have enough money to do whatever they want, but why?

Here’s where I start to buy the corporate speak. They’re doing it because we need it. Because wine bars outside of wine country in America generally fall into two categories: terrible and privileged.


¶ The BAM retrospective of Cary Grant’s movies spurs Aaron Cutler to post some interesting commentary on Grant’s physicality — his command of space. (The House Next Door)

David Thomson is right when he claims that Grant was Hepburn’s best screen partner, as they dash like Formula One cars trying to outrace each other (by contrast Hepburn’s later costar, Spencer Tracy, moves like a Winnebago). Grant’s tendency to flip his lid and flee, and flee expressively—leaping full into the air spread like a trampoline—made him ideal for screwball comedies, one of the most popular film genres of the ’30s and early ’40s, whose essence consisted of strong women assaulting men. Grant and his best screwball partners—Hepburn, Irene Dunne, and Ginger Rogers—altered each other physically, and the physical shifts suggest relationship shifts. (An example from Monkey Business: Grant stands above a seated Rogers, dictating, until she gets up dancing, and he bends a little following her.)

In film, the way that people move in relation to each other often suggests the power between them. The tension of watching Grant in comedy comes from watching him try to control space, and the joy comes from watching him adjust or even break his space once another person invades it. The fact that the other person is usually female makes the threat explicitly sexual, but a physical relationship is always simultaneously a sexual one, especially for someone both as free in his movements and as possessive of his clothes as Grant is. Pauline Kael once noted that the most tender relationship in a Cary Grant movie—and, by no coincidence, the most harmonious sharing of space—isn’t between Grant and a woman, in fact, but between Grant and his Indian manservant in the adventure film Gunga Din.


¶ Simon Johnson puts his finger on the reason why the United States is not a good environment for globally competitive American banks. (The Baseline Scenario)

The problem with this approach is that there is a fundamental and widening gap between how banks are seen in the United States compared with other leading countries.  To some extent this is about tradition – from the early 19th century the US has a long history of suspicion regarding the political and economic power of banks, whereas Germany has tended to have a more cooperative relationship between the state and big banks.  It is also about what we think government should do – our “pro-banking” group in government draws a lot of support when it insists that the federal authorities should not run banks, but in France there is much less reluctance to mix politics and financial business.

Government support for big American banks is unstructured and unofficial. This means that problems can get very big before bankers call for help. It also explains why so few Americans understand the “bailouts,” why they were necessary, and how they could have been more effective.


¶ Fruit flies are adapting to the threat of parasitic nematodes, but the adaptation is parasitic as well, and does not involve the flies’ genes. It’s a  bacterium called Spiroplasma, long resident in fruit flies, that has undergone the evolution. Brandom Keim reports on the findings at Wired Science.

The pattern fits with what’s predicted by traditional evolutionary theory: A beneficial mutation arises, confers a reproductive advantage, and over time spreads through a population — except that the adaptation isn’t genetic, but bacterial. Microbes can be passed from mother flies to offspring, but also carried by mites between flies, and even between species.

This kind of evolution “allows an adaptation in one species to be moved to another species,” said Yale University evolutionary biologist Nancy Moran, who was not involved in the study.

According to Moran, the spread of beneficial bugs gives animals a version of the horizontal gene transfer present in ultra-adaptable bacteria, which can pick up new genetic material over the course of their lives. “This is a way that animals can steal adaptations from each other and from other branches of the tree of life,” she said.

The point of this hour’s link is to remind you of the difficulty of thinking about evolution.


¶ In “Dictionary Therapy,” Dominique Browning captures the “torpor” and “lassitude” of Northeast Corridor weather this week — and finds solace in the pages of a book that we used to take for granted. (Slow Love Life)

And lassitude–a feeling of weariness, diminished energy, or listlessness. Well, I did stay up until 2 in the morning, reading Patricia Cornwell and eating graham crackers. Then I woke at 5:30, wondering how men become murderers and torturers of women. And, I was annoyed by the sharp crumbs in my bed. No wonder I am listless, and becalmed. But there on the page before me is a picture of a white-haired gent working wood with a lathe; his concentration is admirable, and so are his glasses. This picture must be from the fifties or sixties. He looks nice, not at all like a murderer, but like the sort of guy who might make a table for his children, a table that they would pass on to their children. They would reminisce about his workbench, and how neatly organized it was, and how he took such care of his tools…and now that he is too frail to make furniture, they have no idea what to do with all that equipment, those jars of nails, the thirty different screwdrivers. Why didn’t they learn more from him when he was around to teach them?

But there, hovering over the man and his lathe, is lateen, (rigged with a triangular sail), for those days during which one is not becalmed. Meaning, there’s hope for me yet. But better words–and better bedtimes, and better eating habits, and better reading habits–would help. For now, the dictionary is a good start.


¶ How Thaksin Shinawatra ruined Thailand for democracy — in one (longish) paragraph. James Stent reflects, at Reuters. Be sure to read the italicized section at the beginning, in which Mr Stent lays out his thinking in the 1990s, when it didn’t see anything like Thaksin coming.

Many of the elite of Thailand, believing in Thai particularism (of which more later), does not reflect on the implications of these historical processes of other countries. Thousands of Thais, mostly drawn from the elite and middle classes, were willing to devote their time and money to the illegal occupation of Government House and Bangkok’s two international airports. They felt that they “know better” what is good for the country, and that therefore an illegal coup and illegal take-over of public property were justified in the cause of preventing Thaksin and his supporters or nominees from ruling the country. When I suggested to some of these people that they were attempting through force to repudiate the results of a properly elected and constituted government, they would retort, “But, Jim, those voters are uneducated,” implying that one cannot leave decisions on who should run the country up to uneducated farmers. Of course, being uneducated does not equate to being stupid, nor does it mean that one is not capable of recognizing where one’s interests lie; moreover, if the majority of the country is uneducated, it makes one wonder what the government of the country had been doing over the previous half century if, in the course of economic development, it had neglected to direct sufficient resources to properly educate the majority of the country’s citizens. When pressed, these yellow shirt supporters would finally say to me, “Well, if democracy means that the majority of the people elect the government, then I am not in favor of that sort of democracy in Thailand.” At least that statement has the virtue of being candid, and it is exactly what the most right-wing faction of the yellow shirts, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), favors—curtailment of the political rights of the majority in favor of democracy guided by the elite. After all, this was arguably what had worked reasonably well over the previous half century prior to Thaksin, and probably was most successful under the leadership of Prime Mininster Prem in the 1980’s, when the country was peaceful, stable, and everyone was optimistic about the future of the country and in agreement on the directions of development under capable technocrats.


¶ On the off-chance that you’ve never given blurbs much thought, and still believe that the bits of puffery that well-known writers often write for their less well-known brethren are meaningful, Laura Miller has the antidote.

Most of the people involved in this system are well-meaning: Blurbers want to help other authors, publishers want to win more attention for their books, and authors want to do everything they can to prove that their publishers’ faith in their work has been justified. The result, however, is broken and borderline (sometimes outright) corrupt.

A few celebrated authors have made a point of regularly seeking out and championing books by writers with whom they have no connection — Stephen King is the most prominent example. (That said, I haven’t found King’s recommendations particularly useful.) But overall, blurbs just aren’t very meaningful. Yet, apart from a minority of skeptics, much of the public still seems to take them at face value. One British publisher claims to have seen research showing that as many as 62 percent of book buyers choose titles on the basis of blurbs.

Anecdotal evidence from online discussions and personal experience confirms this baffling preference. “I liked [Sara Gruen’s] ‘Water for Elephants,'” said a woman I spotted studying a copy of Lynn Cullen’s “The Creation of Eve” at my local bookstore, “so maybe I’ll like this one, too.” (Gruen called Cullen’s book “enormously satisfying.”) I haven’t read either book myself, so I can’t weigh in on any similarity between them; for all I know Gruen meant every word of that praise. But when I suggested to this reader that blurbs can be unreliable, she glanced at me as if I were the one with the ulterior motive, nodded vaguely and drifted away, book in hand.

Oh, well, maybe the antidote only works on readers.


¶ The crux of Arthur Kleinman’s achingly lucid essay on caregiving in general and his wife’s Alzheimer’s in particular is that we have to stop thinking of care as something that we’d rather not be bothered with. (Harvard; via  The Morning News)

Economists configure caregiving as “burden.” Psychologists talk about “coping,” health-services researchers describe social resources and healthcare costs, and physicians conceive it as a clinical skill. Each of these perspectives represents part of the picture. For the medical humanities and interpretive social sciences, caregiving is a foundational component of moral experience. By this I mean that we envision caregiving as an existential quality of what it is to be a human being. We give care as part of the flow of everyday lived values and emotions that make up moral experience. Here collective values and social emotions are as influential as individual ones. Within these local moral worlds—family, network, institution, community—caregiving is one of those things that really matters, but usually not the only thing.

As a scholar, I engage with other medical humanists to understand the dimensions of this moral activity—how it is experienced and organized. In part, I hope it can be better taught. I believe that what doctors need to be helped to master is the art of acknowledging and affirming the patient as a suffering human being; imagining alternative contexts and practices for responding to calamity; and conversing with and supporting patients in desperate situations where the emphasis is on what really matters to the patient and his or her intimates. A program of medical training that makes this happen, however it is innovated, should combine practical experience of caregiving for health catastrophes in homes and institutions, where students actually do those things that families do, with the knowledge that stands behind the art of medicine.

But here, I am writing principally about people like me who give care to loved ones who suffer the infirmities of advanced age, serious disabilities, terminal illnesses, and the devastating consequences of such health catastrophes as stroke or dementia.

 Faced with these crises, family and close friends become responsible for assistance with all the mundane, material activities of daily living: dressing, feeding, bathing, toileting, ambulating, communicating, and interfacing with the healthcare system. Caregivers protect the vulnerable and dependent. To use the experience-distorting technical language: they offer cognitive, behavioral, and emotional support. And because caregiving is so tiring, and emotionally draining, effective caregiving requires that caregivers themselves receive practical and emotional support.

Have a Look

¶ “Columbia? They let him teach at Columbia?!” The hilarious “trailer” for Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Super Sad True Love Story. (via  The Morning News)