Thursday, April 21, 2005



It's time for me to say that I don't have time for regular posting right now, and I probably won't have time for at least several more weeks. I've taken down the post I started on earlier this week until I have time to finish it.

I'm always grateful when you stop by at Mode for Caleb. I hope that if you do not already use some kind of blog aggregator, you will consider doing so. That way you can find your way back here when I do. I may have a post now and then in the next month, but for now and in the immediate future, I have to pull back here in order to give attention to other things. To paraphrase the Epictetus quote I clipped last week, in order to be who I want to be, this is what I have to do.

Saturday, April 16, 2005


Bad idea, Starbucks

In this New York Times story, I read with shock and amazement that Starbucks is planning to install automated espresso machines in its stores:
n the United States, purveyors of specialty coffee - caffè lattes and the like - net $8.4 billion a year, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a sponsor of this weekend's event. The spread of Starbucks is a big reason for that sum, which is more than in any other country. But no Starbucks barista has ever won a United States championship, much less the world title.

This is a point of pride for independent baristas like Ms. Tran, who works as the lead trainer for Zoka Coffee, a small Seattle company that can now claim two national champions. Zoka's owner, Jeff Babcock, who hired Ms. Tran shortly after she won the national competition, said, "I can't compete against a great big company, so I beat them in the quality sector."

Mr. Babcock added, with some competitive glee, that his strategy of quality outperformance would only be helped when Starbucks moves to automated espresso machines that tamp and pour espresso shots on their own, leaving the Starbucks barista to just push a button and steam some milk. Lara Wyss, a spokeswoman for Starbucks, said an automatic machine would soon be in each of the company's 6,800 American stores.

"What we find is that it's able to pull a more consistent shot," Ms. Wyss said, "and that it is a great cup of coffee."

Mr. Babcock, a man who drinks coffee as if it were wine, sniffing before sipping, could only, well, sniff at that idea.
I second that sniff. I have a hard time reconciling this shift with the bright-eyed coffee idealism of Staburcks CEO Howard Schultz, who wrote in his 1997 book, Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, that "nothing matters more in our business than the taste of the coffee. ... Coffee is easily ruined. Even if you buy the right beans, they can go stale on the shelf, be under- or over-roasted, brewed improperly, or served lukewarm. We are fastidious about making sure nothing goes wrong any step of the way." Fastidious no more, I suppose -- unless you think serving latte out of the equivalent of a push-button vending machine is being fastidious about the taste of coffee. I can only wonder what the people at Starbucks Gossip will have to say about this.

Aside from the quality control issues here, will this complicate the question of how much to tip baristas?


Belated Friday shuffle

1. "The Unforgettable Fire," by U2, from The Best of 1980-1990
2. "Kite Song," by Patty Griffin, from Impossible Dream
3. "I Miss Being Mrs.," by Loretta Lynn, from Van Lear Rose
4. "In My Place," by Coldplay, from A Rush of Blood to the Head
5. "Take Me for Longing," by Alison Krauss & Union Station, from New Favorite
6. "Each Coming Night," by Iron & Wine, from Our Endless Numbered Days
7. "Blame It On Me," by Alana Davis, from Blame It On Me
8. "What Is It," by Cassandra Wilson, from a Paste Magazine sampler
9. "Lucky," by Radiohead, from OK Computer
10. "As You Do," by Castanets, from a Paste Magazine sampler

Bonus: I've also been listening to the three new CDs I bought last night (my music buying habits are cyclical: long droughts followed by torrential purchases): the new albums from Beck, The Arcade Fire (not really new, I guess, but new to me), and The Doves.

By the way, for interested fans of Iron & Wine, Scrivener (he of the green coiffure) has a review of a recent concert by Sam Beam in Atlanta.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2005


A Prayer in Spring

By Robert Frost

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid-air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.


Tuesday, April 12, 2005


Linkity link

I'm way behind on linking to these, but two recent essays by Scott McLemee and Adam Kotsko deserve to be read together. In their own ways, both argue that the routinization of academic life in philosophy or theology (Kotsko) and literary studies (McLemee) is inimical to finding answers for the "big" questions that draw us to these subjects in the first place. I think the risk of deadening routinization is often especially high in history, in which adding lines to the CV often means filling the gaps in the historiographical wall. (How many introductions to history books, dissertations, and articles contain some version of this locution: "But what no one has considered ..." or "Yet we still lack an account of ...")

In making bricks to fill these gaps, we often lose sight of what we're trying to build, or start to accept the illusion that history is about building some superstructural synthesis. But I also find that when historians do confront the "big" question of why we study the past at all, we usually punt to the philosophers. Most of our big, animating professional questions are about how to do history (from the bottom up? with numbers or pictures? within national frameworks or transnational frameworks?) and only implicitly offer answers to the question of why doing history is useful. What do we hope to gain by being historians? And if we don't have an answer to that question, then McLemee's question applies equally well to us: "Why is the profession of [history] what you are doing with your life?"

* * *

I've linked before to the discussion about "higher brain death and personhood" going on between Brandon at Siris at Chris at Mixing Memory. The discussion continues, and it is really a model of engaged and respectful philosophical debate. You can start by following the catalog of links here, which catches you up on Parts 1 and 2. Then move on to Part 3. Fine arguments have been offered on both sides, and I'm still unsure where I stand.

* * *

Mel at In Favor of Thinking is celebrating her one-year blogiversary, and she has a post on her blogging experience that pretty closely captures how I feel about this thing we do.

* * *

There's an interesting article about Google at Inside Higher Ed, which apparently some librarians call a "disruptive search technology." I tend to agree with those in the article who say that Google does not do away with the need for librarians or teachers who can serve as "strategy coaches." Google can actually lead to less focused or sloppier research because it is so deceptively simple: just type a few words in a box and get a jackpot of returns. Judging from the kinds of searches that bring people to Mode for Caleb, many searchers give little thought to the way Boolean operators or quotation marks work in a search string.
Sweeney compared searching in Google to the kind of video and other gaming that many young people do, where once a user achieves a certain level of success, “you can move on to the next level."
That may be overly optimistic. How many "young people" ever try to move to the "next level" on Google? I suspect most searchers never investigate what kinds of options an advanced search makes possible, and even if they went to the advanced search page, this doesn't mean they know how to utilize the tools that are available there. That's why librarians and "search coaches" are not going to be expendable anytime soon.

Although I realize these generalizations about Googlers are unscientific, I'm drawing partly on my experience teaching a three-week intersession course to undergraduates at Hopkins on "Online Research." I'm teaching the course again next month, so suggestions for reading or links on these subjects would be most welcome.

Monday, April 11, 2005


Tipping for coffee

Earlier this afternoon, I took advantage of the beautiful spring weather to walk across the street for a cup of coffee. A new coffee shop recently opened here with an interesting backstory. It's a project of Next Shift Enterprises, a business group that helps minor league hockey players transition from the sport into the business world. It's a good coffee shop, made better by the fact that it is within walking distance.

While ordering my drip coffee, I had my usual awkward moment where I try to decide how much to put in the tip jar. I'm wondering whether my readers tip for coffee. On the one hand, it seems like a nice thing to do. On the other hand, if you get back a few coins of change like I did today, it almost seems insulting to drop such a paltry sum into the can. I discovered a lengthy and often hysterical (in the non-funny sense of the word) comment thread on this subject at the Starbucks Gossip blog, on which the consensus seems to be that baristas are just doing their job and thus don't deserve one more red cent of the customer's hard-earned cash. The militant stinginess in many of these comments kind of misses the point of tipping, I think: it is a gratuity after all, which means it is a gift in the purest sense of the word. Unless you are dining out at a place where tips are factored into wages, a tip is not compensation.

So I'm happy to give a little for my ambrosial brew, but I'm always unprepared when the moment comes. What I drop in the tip jar ends up being a few coins of change or nothing at all. Does anyone have some rough and ready etiquette to guide tipping for coffee?

P.S. Paul Musgrave has a congruent post about cultural variations in tipping practices. I'll limit my question here to tipping for coffee in the United States.

P.P.S. Evan Roberts at Coffee Grounds offers his take and very ably summarizes the Starbucks anti-tipping thread I linked above. I think we can all agree that Evan is the expert here, given the name of his blog. Also, he knows how to serve coffee.

Sunday, April 10, 2005


Boston Review issue

In the current special issue of the Boston Review, there are several articles -- two by historians -- on "The Believers." As Henry Farrell points out, the articles feature "lots of interesting argument about the relationship between religion and the left." I have some thoughts on the articles posted over at Cliopatria.

Friday, April 08, 2005



"You must treat the days respectfully, you must be a day yourself, and not interrogate life like a college professor. Every thing in the universe goes by indirection. There are no straight lines."

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"The English snub my new book; as indeed they have all its foregoers. Only now they say, that this has less vigour & originality than the others. Where then was the degree of merit that entitled my books to their notice? They have never admitted the claims of either of them. The fate of my books is like the impression of my face. My acquaintances, as long back as I can remember, have always said, 'Seems to me you look a little thinner than when I saw you last.'"

-- Emerson

* * *

Excerpts from E.M. Forster's A Passage to India.

"They did not part for a few minutes, but the conversation had become unreal since Christianity had entered it. Ronny approved of religion as long as it endorsed the National Anthem, but he objected when it attempted to influence his life. Then he would say in respectful yet decided tones: 'I don't think it does to talk about these things, every fellow has to work out his own religion,' and any fellow who heard him muttered 'Hear!'"


"'But wasn't Akbar's new religion very fine? It was to embrace the whole of India.'

'Miss Quested, fine but foolish. You keep your religion, I mine. That is the best. Nothing embraces the whole of India, nothing, nothing, and that was Akbar's mistake.'

'Oh, do you feel that, Dr. Aziz?' she said thoughtfully. 'I hope you're not right. There will have to be something universal in this country -- I don't say religion, for I'm not religious; but something, or how else are barriers to be broken down?'

She was only recommending the universal brotherhood he sometimes dreamed of; but as soon as it was put into prose it became untrue."


"Nothing enrages Anglo-India more than the lantern of reason if it is exhibited for one moment after its extinction is decreed. All over Chandrapore that day the Europeans were putting aside their normal personalities and sinking themselves in their community. Pity, wrath, heroism, filled them, but the power of putting two and two together was annihilated."

* * *

"First, say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do."

-- Epictetus

* * *

"The truth is that our friends -- and our enemies -- always know us better than we know ourselves. There are, to be sure, a few corrective touches to their picture of us which only we can add, and these, as a rule, are concerned with our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses."

-- W. H. Auden

" ... it is precisely the introverted intellectual character who stands most in need of the ecclesiastical routine both as a discipline and as a refreshment."

-- Auden


Friday shuffle

1. "What Would You Say," by Dave Matthews Band, from Under the Table and Dreaming
2. "Receiver," by Hem, from Eveningland
3. "Evil Man," by Shelby Lynne, from Identity Crisis
4. "Crazy," by Alana Davis, from Blame It On Me
5. "Freedom Hangs Like Heaven," by Iron and Wine, from Woman King
6. "Further," by The Moon Seven Times, from Sunburnt
7. "Transmission C," by The Incredible Moses Leroy, from a Paste Magazine sampler
8. "Every Part of Me," by Sam Roberts, from a Paste Magazine sampler
9. "Special," by Wilshire, from a Paste Magazine sampler
10. "All They Ever Do Is Talk," by Earlimart, from Treble & Tremble

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Strength and weakness

One of the things I've heard a lot in the last few weeks (most recently in President Bush's statement on the death of the Pope) is that a "culture of life" is one in which the "strong protect the weak." On the one hand, I'm all for the strong protecting the weak -- or, at least, I know I'm not in favor of the strong preying on the weak. But on the other hand, the way other people have been using this phrase in connection with cases like Terri Schiavo's troubles me. Maybe it's the constant repetition of the words that makes them start to sound strange in my ears, the way you sometimes realize that a perfectly ordinary word sounds weird. Like "that." That. That. That. Weird word.

When you see a relationship in which one party is strong and the other is weak, you could be looking at a healthy, protective relationship -- a father or mother caring for an infant child is perhaps the paradigmatic example of this good kind of strong-weak relationship, and I presume it's the one that "culture of life" spokespeople like President Bush have in mind. But asymmetrical power also happens to characterize violent relationships. It thus needs to be constantly kept in mind that relationships of violence and protection share a common feature: both occur in relationships where all the strength is on the side of one party. Indeed, there is often a razor thin line between the rhetoric of violence and the rhetoric of protection. Witness how the axiom that the "strong protect the weak" is sometimes used to rationalize going to war against the weak, for their protection of course.

It seems to me that even in the medical realm, the line between protection and abuse can be thin, although often we only recognize this in retrospect. The Hippocratic injunction to "do no harm" is important precisely because weakened patients are at the mercy of their doctors, and it's no coincidence that this latter phrase can have a menacing undertone. Sometimes in thinking that we are showing mercy, we can actually do harm.

So far, of course, I haven't said anything that "culture of life" proponents would disagree with. In the Schiavo case, for instance, the "culture of life" thing to do seemed clear to them: removing the feeding tube would be a clear instance of violence, of the strong failing the weak by using their power to withdraw nutrition. What troubles me, though, is that anyone can be absolutely sure that the opposite is not true: Schiavo's weakness, after all, is what enabled doctors to stab a tube into her stomach. Can we be absolutely sure that this exercise of power was not a violent one? (Stick with me for a moment.) Both leaving the tube in and taking the tube out are exercises of power, made possible by the doctors' strength and Schiavo's weakness. How do we know for sure that only one of these two exercises would have been protective, while the other was violent?

I imagine to many people it seems obvious that putting a feeding tube in a patient is clearly a case of the strong protecting the weak, since although it is an act made possible by the doctor's nearly absolute power over the body of the patient, it is done with the intention of preserving the patient's life. I don't want to overturn that idea completely, but I do think it should at least seem less obvious.

First, consider the history of medicine. There are many procedures, now thankfully obsolete, which seemed at the time like instances of the strong protecting the weak, but which turn out in retrospect to have been horrifying acts of violence. Take the once ubiquitous practice of "bleeding" patients, or using leeches. They seemed protective at the time, but now they would likely be ranked by most people as torture. (Tangential thought: keeping people on death's door alive is something that medical care shares in common with certain kinds of torture. That doesn't mean there are not clear and obvious ethical differences between medicine and torture. But the similarities should at least be kept in mind.) In sum, you don't have to be a devotee of Foucault to see that care for the body of another is closely related to the control of another body. Sometimes the passage of time makes what seemed like care start to seem like cruelty and control. The most civilized ways of treating diseases can later come to seem like madness.

I don't mean to sound like a medical Luddite. I have great faith in doctors and medical technology. But it seems reasonable, at least, to look at medicine -- and particularly end-of-life care -- with some skepticism. To many observers in the Schiavo case, it seemed clear, obvious, beyond doubt that we should deploy every technical method in our power (hint, hint) to keep Schiavo breathing. I guess I'm just saying that there may be hubris in this faith in our power. In his latest post, Timothy Burke reports about hearing Randall Terry on the radio, saying that (in Burke's paraphrase) "it was important to keep Schiavo alive because there might be medical technologies coming any day which would restore her consciousness or improve her condition." Shouldn't we at least also acknowledge that the day might also be coming when we look back in horror on the medical technologies we use now as a matter of course? Medicine does have an incredibly good track record of fixing its mistakes -- we don't bleed or leech people any more. But its progress is often dependent on identifying past conventions as mistakes. I wonder whether some future generations will be as aghast at our compulsion to keep people alive on machines as we are now aghast at the idea of letting blood to reduce fever. Again, I don't offer this as proof that feeding tubes are cruel or violent -- only that history warrants a certain amount of reasonable skepticism about the ways in which we use technological power over bodies that cannot resist our intrusions.

A second general rule that's been bouncing around in my mind: What the strong see as protection, the weak often see as domination. That should at least be borne in mind here too. Imagine a pathologically protective father, who in the interest of keeping his son safe, keeps the child under lock and key for years. Interview the parent, and you'll hear someone saying that the strong should protect the weak. Look at all the dangers the child would face outdoors, and look at how physically secure he is indoors. But interview the child after the passage of years, and you'll hear a different story: about a parent who has crushed the autonomous life of the child. It wouldn't take many imaginary juries to rule that this relationship was abusive, perhaps even violent -- even though the father never laid a hand on his son to harm him, and even though his intentions were protective. We would still be able to see that the father used his power to dominate his weaker son and deny him the measure of autonomy that all human beings have been given. Violence against another person does not just involve the infliction of physical pain; it also involves the curtailment of personal freedom. (Incidentally, make sure you find time to read this post by Michael Bérubé.)

In raising these points, again, my point is to introduce some reasonable doubt into the idea that all medical interventions are examples of the strong protecting the weak. Relationships between the strong and the weak are often prone to violence -- either against the body or the will of the weak. And although we often hear from people like Randall Terry that we don't know what medicine might be able to accomplish, we seldom hear people tempering our faith in medical technology. Whenever we become confident that we know how to use our power for the betterment and protection of the weak, it's time to rein in our confidence by reminders about how power can be abused even by the good-intentioned. Violence is not less violent when the strong think they know what is best for the weak.

In the last few weeks, with all of the invocations of God's will for a "culture of life" and all the references to the strong and the weak, I've sometimes thought of Paul's "thorn in the flesh," an unidentified physical ailment mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:
Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, [9] but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. [10] Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
I can't put my finger on why, but the idea that weakness is strength seems worlds apart from the idea, trumpeted loudly by many Christians today, that the strong must protect the weak from every thorn of the flesh. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that we should not care for the sick and dying by alleviating their suffering. But there is a point at which describing ourselves as strong becomes a refusal to recognize our weakness, and a point at which that refusal becomes an idolatrous faith in our own sufficiency instead of the sufficiency of grace. Maybe that's the final reason why statements like President Bush's -- the "strong protect the weak" -- trouble me, for when repeated incessantly, that mantra starts to sound like a boast. How different would the "culture of life" look if its mantra was: Power is made perfect in weakness.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Meme alert

Sorry for the dearth of new posts. The muse and I have been going through a real rough spot lately. I give you, therefore, a meme, passed to me by Rob.

You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book do you want to be? There's another meme going around about books you're embarrassed not to have read. Fahrenheit 451 is one of mine, so I'm unsure what this question is getting at. I take it that books don't fare well in Fahrenheit: should the question read, "Which sadomasichistic book do you want to be?" I guess I'll pick The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. If I'm going to be a martyred book, I might as well be a book about a martyr who deeply feels his own unworthiness.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character? I'm drawing a blank here (told you the muse had left me), but since it's just a yes or no question, I'm going to guess "yes."

The last book you bought is? Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic. Now don't rush to judgment about Hopkins' history program. I did read this a couple of years ago for my qualifying exams. But it was time to own my own copy and, er, give it a closer reading.

What are you currently reading? Among other things, E. M. Forster's A Passage to India.

Five books you would take to a deserted island? I was really sweating this one until I realized that the question doesn't say I'll be stranded on the deserted island. So I'm going to interpret this loosely as, "Which five books would you take on a vacation to a deserted tropical paradise?" I'll pick, in no particular order: a Horace Rumpole omnibus by John Mortimer, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (the very worthy winner of the Pulitzer and the National Book Award this year), and three books I currently would like to read: Collected Works of Flannery O'Connor (received as Christmas present but still unopened), the rest of W. H. Auden's Forewords and Afterwords (a bedstand book right now that only gets a few pages at a time), and selections from Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics (to further my amateurish self-education in theology). All of this is premised, of course, on the assumption that I would be forced to take books with me to a tropical paradise: I can think of other things I'd rather do on such a vacation than sit on the beach and have passers-by kick copies of Barth at me (hat tip: Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society, paraphrased).

Who are you going to pass this to (three persons) and why? Tony at Storyteller's World, so he'll have something to distract himself with after returning from his retreat, Kristen, because I think she might take Gilead to a deserted island too, and Rob MacDougall, because he posts even less often than I do.

Friday, April 01, 2005


Friday shuffle

1. "Deserted Floor," by Mark Turner, from Dharma Days
2. "Impressions," by McCoy Tyner, from Infinity
3. "This I Dig of You," by Hank Mobley, from Soul Station
4. "No Room for Squares," by Hank Mobley, from No Room for Squares
5. "The Awakening," by Ahmad Jamal, from The Awakening
6. "You Stepped Out of a Dream," by Dexter Gordon, from A Swingin' Affair
7. "Once in a While," by Jimmy Smith, from Cool Blues
8. "Black," by Joe Henderson, from Mode for Joe (the namesake of this humble blog)
9. "The Party's Over," by Bobby Timmons, from This Here is Bobby Timmons
10. "A Tribute to Someone," by Herbie Hancock, from My Point of View

Sage full to overflowing, but no time to blog. Trying to finish an essay for deadline that you'll hopefully hear more about later. Been a busy week. Another incomplete sentence.

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