Weekend Reads: Starflyer 59, Country Music, Amazon’s “The Wheel of Time,” Section 230

Recommended weekend reading material for October 30, 2021.

Every week, I compile a list of interesting and thought-provoking articles to offer you some enjoyable weekend reading material.

Starflyer 59 has been one of my favorite bands for decades now. They just released their 16th album, Vanity, and NPR’s Lars Gotrich reflects on the band’s career with frontman Jason Martin.

As someone who’s been listening to Starflyer 59 ever since I hit play on the band’s feedback-ridden, bummer 1995 B-side “Next Time Around,” with Vanity, I know more about Jason Martin now than I ever have. After sitting with the band’s music for so long, I picked five songs that show how Martin’s relationship with time has changed — from musing on youthful waste and taking in fatherly wisdom to reflecting on how time is spent and the responsibilities that come with its passage.

Back in 2019, I got to interview Jason Martin myself for the release of Young in My Head. And here’s a list of 15 of my favorite Starflyer 59 songs.

Although it often seems wrapped up in glitz, glamour, and terrible stereotypes, Liam Green argues that darkness really lies at the heart of country music.

Here we come full circle, as present-day me types this column’s final sentences through tears inspired by Neko Case the way teenage idiot me bawled to Trent Reznor’s version of “Hurt” and later to Johnny Cash’s rendition. Examining the darkness of country music really leads you to the understanding that no other genre can so heartbreakingly depict the accretion of mundane defeat that fills up so many American lives (and, all too often, overwhelms them). That is far, far scarier than the bloody details of the most drawn-out and graphic murder ballad.

Related: One of the artists that Green mentions is Wovenhand, David Eugene Edwards’ follow-up project to the also awesome 16 Horsepower. I was fortunate enough to see Wovenhand at the 2002 Cornerstone festival. It was an incredible performance that still haunts me to this day.

Amazon’s adaptation of Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time begins streaming next month. The series, which reportedly cost $10+ million per episode, is an equally epic undertaking that required going far above and beyond the usual production techniques.

Central and Eastern Europe have traditionally been accommodating places to make movies and television. The locations are suitably grand and variable and ancient; the local expertise, honed by decades of Hollywood productions coming and going, is high-level and relatively affordable. So Brown initially looked at Hungary. But, he said, “I spoke to friends in Budapest who’d worked there, and they just said, ‘You won’t get in.’” Then he tried Prague, and found that the waiting list for production space was just as long. So, after some consideration, Brown and his production partners decided to create their own studio from scratch. “You know, we are a big company,” Brown, who is exacting and English and who has worked on everything from The Phantom Menace to Outlander, said. “The show is hugely ambitious creatively. So how do we fill that? That’s why we're in this building that is 350,000 square feet.”

And so Jordan Studios, where the Wheel of Time production is headquartered, ended up in a remote corner of Prague, in a giant pale-blue complex of industrial buildings that used to be the warehouse of a trucking company. They do their own visual effects here. They have their own stunt gym, with archery targets and a rock climbing wall. They have an armorer, who is also a jeweler, and he has a 3D printer. They have a costume department that could outfit an army. They have individual offices for writers and a writers room and just about infinite space for those same writers to stand outside in the cold and smoke. Accounting is here. So is set decoration and unit publicity. They've got their own massive, football-field-size soundstages, on which they employ four different Czech construction companies to build various intricate interiors.

I was a huge fan of Jordan’s novels in high school. I devoured The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt. However, I lost interest about halfway through the series, around the time of Lord of Chaos or A Crown of Swords; Jordan’s books were just getting waaaay too long and drawn out for my tastes back then. Even so, I’m very interested in seeing Amazon’s take, and I hope it turns out to be awesome. (I am a nerd, after all.)

Also, keep in mind that this isn’t Amazon’s only attempt at an epic fantasy; their even more epic Lord of the Rings series arrives next September.

Various individuals discuss how Star Trek influenced and inspired them to go into science and technology careers.

In 1966, the year Star Trek debuted, my family moved from Phoenix, Arizona to Titusville, Florida. I was just entering 3rd grade. My father was an IBM software engineer at NASA and my sister, ten years older than I, worked for Technicolor as a NASA photographic captioner. I was in the epicenter of the space race, and fortunate to see much more technology than most my age. I visited launch pads, went behind the scenes in the vehicle assembly building and the blockhouse. Needless to say, ‘take your kid to work day’ was incredible. And while my observations of the science at NASA shaped the rest of my life, the science fiction of Star Trek allowed me to think without limits. I credit [Gene] Roddenberry and the writers of Star Trek for providing a boundless canvas on which my future thoughts and creations would be built. And now, it’s apparent to me that Star Trek was a lot more about science than it was about fiction.

I frequently rewatch episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it’s amazing how prophetic that show was with regards to artificial intelligence, computing, wearable devices, interface design, etc. I suspect those classic episodes will continue to inspire kids for generations to come.

Netflix’s adaptation of the beloved anime Cowboy Bebop begins streaming on November 19 (watch the trailer). But if you don’t know Spike Spiegel from Faye Valentine, then James Whitbrook has compiled a list of 10 essential Cowboy Bebop episodes that help explain why the original anime series is such a cult classic — and why expectations for Netflix’s series are so high.

Just in time for Halloween, Tasha Robinson explores the fundamental human fears that keep popping up as horror movie tropes.

Horror stories all come from the simplest promise: We’re going to scare you. It’s exciting to be afraid for a little while, and then remember that you were safe all along. More often than not, fulfilling that promise means drawing on some of the tools that always work, and always have worked, even if the details change over time. But there’s a darker, more complex promise running under the genre: We don’t ever have to worry about running out of stories that scare us, because we’re always going to be scared of the same two things. We can never know everything, and we can never escape the ways in which we’re alone. That’s bad news for humanity, maybe, but it’s great for horror creators. They may have to go back to the same well over and over for scares, but it’s a deep, dark well, and it’s one we’re never really going to be able to fill.

Details are still emerging about the tragic death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who was killed on the set of the movie Rust after Alec Baldwin shot her with a gun that somehow contained a live round. In the meantime, Hollywood is already starting to make some changes.

In response to the “Rust” tragedy, ABC’s cop drama “The Rookie” banned real firearms. Eric Kripke, showrunner of Amazon’s gritty superhero series “The Boys,” tweeted that he was taking “a simple, easy pledge: no more guns with blanks on any of my sets ever.”

A Change.org petition to ban real guns from movie and TV productions has nearly 70,000 signatures. California state senator Dave Cortese says he plans to introduce legislation to officially ban real firearms and live ammunition from all productions, and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said her state would take similar action should the entertainment industry not adopt such a ban voluntarily.

Astronomers may have just discovered the first planet outside our own galaxy.

Astronomers identified the possible exoplanet, M51-ULS-1b, because its transit blocked X-ray radiation from the remnant of a dead star — either a neutron star or a black hole — near the heart of the spiral galaxy M51, 23 million light years away. The planet is believed to be orbiting in a binary star system.

To clarify, 23 million light years is roughly equivalent to 135 quintillion miles (or eighteen zeros). Distances like that are almost impossible to imagine because they’re so huge, and yet, it’s amazing to me that we are able to discover and catalog items so far away (in both space and time). Via 1440.

On a slightly less celebratory note, scientists have concluded that one of the most promising signals of alien intelligence — a radio transmission from the Proxima Centauri system — was probably created by humans. (Of course, that’s precisely what our secret alien overlords want us to think.)

In their pursuit to rein in “Big Tech” companies like Facebook, Democrats and Republicans alike want to change Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects websites from being held liable for their users’ actions. Farhad Manjoo explains why that could be a very bad idea.

The plans from both sides fill me with deep dread. Many legal experts argue that many Section 230 proposals, including the Klobuchar-Luján bill, likely violate the First Amendment, which makes it extremely difficult for Congress to dictate to private companies and their users what people can and can’t say online. At best, then, the proposals to reform Section 230 might amount to little more than a performative gesture, a way for lawmakers to show they’re doing something, anything, about the runaway powers of tech giants.At worst, though, these plans may backfire catastrophically. Rather than curbing the influence of Big Tech, altering Section 230 might only further cement Facebook and other tech giants’ hold over public discourse — because the giants might be the only companies with enough resources to operate under rules in which sites can be inundated with lawsuits over what their users post.

Via The Dispatch.

Speaking of Facebook, the social media giant has rebranded itself as Meta. (The Facebook website and app will still be named Facebook, but Meta is now the parent company.) This is Mark Zuckerberg’s first step towards creating the “metaverse,” which he calls an “embodied internet,” i.e., a real-time 3D virtual reality version of the internet (but even that definition is a bit dodgy and lacking). However, others see the new Meta brand as an attempt to generate some positive buzz in light of Facebook’s recent scandals and PR nightmares.

Peter Wehner spoke with numerous pastors, writers, and academics to try and understand why Evangelical Christianity is growing increasingly divisive, and it all seems to come back to politics.

The coronavirus pandemic, of course, has placed religious communities under extraordinary strain. Everyone in America has felt its effects; for many Christians, it’s been a bar to gathering and worshipping together, sharing Communion and performing baptisms, and saying common prayers and participating in rituals and liturgy. Not being in community destabilized what has long been a core sense of Christian identity.

But there’s more to the fractures than just COVID-19. After all, many of the forces that are splitting churches were in motion well before the pandemic hit. The pandemic exposed and exacerbated weaknesses and vulnerabilities, habits of mind and heart, that already existed.

The root of the discord lies in the fact that many Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics. When the Christian faith is politicized, churches become repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized. The result is not only wounding the nation; it’s having a devastating impact on the Christian faith.

I grew up in the Evangelical Church and still consider it my “tribe.” As such, it’s hard to not feel a sense of betrayal at what has gone on amongst evangelicals, not just in terms of their support for a man like Donald Trump, but also their willingness to embrace materialism, conspiracy theories, and even hatred — and all to protect their own power.

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