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Daily Office:


24 February 2010


Matins: At The Second Pass, Michael Rymer appraises David Aaronovitch's Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, and although he finds the book to be "hobbled," he reminds us that cracked explanations appeal by telling a good story.

The problem isn’t the sheer volume of information Aaronovitch layers on, but that he usually delivers it without creating any suspense. He tends to debunk theories as soon as he introduces them, which might make rational sense but doesn’t satisfy a craving for story. His treatment of the bizarre career of Georgy Leonidovich Pyatakov is an illuminating exception to this tendency. Pyatakov was a Trotskyite-turned-Stalinist-bureaucrat in the early Soviet period who systematically sabotaged his country’s burgeoning infrastructure and industry, disrupting train traffic and building a worker’s settlement near an industrial plant with the aim of endangering its residents’ health. Aaronovitch writes with a sense of urgency about Pyatakov’s clandestine meetings with Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s son, at cafés in Berlin and, later, with Trotsky himself in Oslo, and of a letter Pyatakov received that was carried from Germany in the bottom of a fellow dissident’s shoe. The tale is gripping, as any good conspiracy theory is, and it may penetrate some readers’ defenses. In the midst of reading about Pyatakov’s treachery, I had to flip back a few pages to confirm that Aaronovitch had introduced it as “the story that came out at the trial,” and not as genuine history.

Lauds: In one interview, or perhaps two, Ewan McGregor talks to the Wall Street Journal and to its popular-scene blog, Speakeasy, about working with Roman Polanski and his "upcoming projects."

Q Do you find yourself making a conscious choice between doing studio and independent films?

A I don’t think I have the luxury to. I’m probably drawn to independent films more than studio films, but I’m not offered many studio films. Every now and again, they’ll have a go with me, like in “Angels and Demons” or “The Island.” But now, studio films are either really high-budget, like your “Spider-Mans” and “Transformers,” or really low budget. The ones in the middle seemed to have disappeared a bit, and those are the ones where I was working. I’ve never been an actor that wonders why I wasn’t sent this script or that one. I get sent what I get sent, quite frankly, though I’m  trying to make more of an effort to find out whose films I like and leave less of the process to chance.

Prime: Few pundits share David Brooks's gift for papering over surprising omissions with a patina of reasonable patter that sounds comprehensive. In a recent column, for example, Mr Brooks finds regrettable drawbacks in the "meritocratic" nature of the American elite. He attributes the fact that respect for "our institutions" has "plummeted" to all sorts of interesting slippages among the alleged holders of power, from rootlessness to insensitivity to "context." One factor that goes unmentioned, however, is an income disparity that has left too many Americans without much of a reason to respect anything. Chris Lehman rebuts with the suggestion that nation may have become even less progressive than it was in the 1950s. (NYT, The Awl)

And if one sets aside the allegedly earth-shaking erosion of institutional WASPdom, what Brooks takes to be the all-too-dynamic and Tocquevillian mass clamor for wealth and prestige in our age swiftly recedes from the American scene like a poorly choreographed flash mob. For while there may be more demographically diverse hands at the machinery of wealth and power today, the contemporary power elite is proportionally far smaller, and materially far better endowed, than it was in Mills’ day.

Tierce: At The Infrastructurist, Yonah Freemark considers alternatives to concrete in the paving of sidewalks. Brick and stone are more attractive, but brick is fragile and stone is expensive, and both make for uneven surfaces. Who'd a thunk it: the bane of recycling may do the trick.

For now, then, concrete remains the most reliable option — and a relatively cheap one at that. Yet there may be a better future, and it’s made out of rubber. Several companies have developed sidewalk panels recycled from used automobile tires, saving material costs and reducing ecological impact. They have a high amount of porosity, limiting runoff and preventing area flooding.

Per square foot, they’re just a bit more expensive than concrete. and they’ve already been installed in several American cities, including Seattle. Yet, they’re just as sad looking as a common concrete panel, doing nothing to enliven the street.

Sext: Having thought the matter over, Mike Johnston decided that merely crediting the maker of a YouTube clip that he embedded at The Online Photographer. And he sent Harlan Ellison $25. And he got a thank-you note.

I know you will accept the singular and amazing fact that in more than 20 years of trying to avoid the 'net and its drooling  cadre of ambulatory auk-turds, YOU are the first -- the VERY FIRST -- mensch & Good Guy ever to send me a payment for the work YouTube, at al, have misappropriated.

Information may want to be free, but it doesn't have to eat.

Nones: Sebnem Arsu's report on the latest arrest of alleged military conspirators in Turkey clarifies some of the complexity in which national sovereignty is entangled, as newly empowered religious conservatives seek an alternative to the militant secularism of Turkey's Twentieth-Century past. The alignment of values is altogether unlike what's familiar in the Christian West. (NYT)

Since the establishment of the modern Turkish state in 1923, the military has cast itself as the guardian of the country’s stability and secularism. It has usurped civilian governments at least four times in the past 50 years.

The arrest of high-ranking officers is widely seen here as part of the continuing struggle between the country’s relatively new religiously conservative political leadership and staunchly secular institutions in Turkey.

Turkish society divides largely along those lines, as has reaction to the conspiracy case, with secularists seeing it as a crackdown that threatens Turkey’s secular future and the conservative Islamic side regarding the case as necessary to protect their own democratically-won power.

Vespers: Now that some time has passed by, and the brouhaha is all but forgotten, Maud Newton pauses over The Original of Laura and finds it to be a fitting finale to Vladimir Nabokov's career.

For all their abstraction, these passages are fresh and surprising and sometimes moving. And as many have observed, the final card in the series presents a list of synonyms for annihilation — “efface, expunge, delete, rub out, wipe out, obliterate” — that, inevitably, casts us back to a consideration of its author’s fate.

The Original of Laura is not really a novel. It is a fascinating artifact, an almost-story that thwarts immersion by continually calling attention to its architect. As I made my way through the notes, I kept imagining the author of Pale Fire and Look at the Harlequins!, at his most mischievous and perverse, plotting not just this last book, but the whole publish-or-destroy drama it engendered, from his deathbed.

Compline: Why unignited natural gas stinks: the New London School Explosion of 1937. (via MetaFilter)

Three days after the explosion, inquiries were held to determine the cause of the disaster. The state of Texas and the Bureau of Mines sent experts to the scene. Hearings were conducted. From these investigations, researchers learned that until January 18, 1937, the school had received its gas from the United Gas Company. To save gas expenses of $300 a month, plumbers, with the knowledge and approval of the school board and superintendent, had tapped a residue gas line of Parade Gasoline Company. School officials saw nothing wrong because the use of "green" or "wet" gas was a frequent money-saving practice for homes, schools, and churches in the oilfield. The researchers concluded that gas had escaped from a faulty connection and accumulated beneath the building. Green gas has no smell; no one knew it was accumulating beneath the building, although on other days there had been evidence of leaking gas. No school officials were found liable.

Put that in your starve-the-beast pipe and smoke it.

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