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Weekend Reads (Sep 9): James Webb Telescope, CCM, Rotten Tomatoes, Burning Man
Recommended weekend reading material for September 9, 2023.
Since its launch in 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope has delivered one stunning image after another of space’s deepest regions, and in the process, it’s challenging some long-held assumptions about the universe.
According to the standard model, which is the basis for essentially all research in the field, there is a fixed and precise sequence of events that followed the Big Bang: First, the force of gravity pulled together denser regions in the cooling cosmic gas, which grew to become stars and black holes; then, the force of gravity pulled together the stars into galaxies.
The Webb data, though, revealed that some very large galaxies formed really fast, in too short a time, at least according to the standard model. This was no minor discrepancy. The finding is akin to parents and their children appearing in a story when the grandparents are still children themselves.
It was not, unfortunately, an isolated incident. There have been other recent occasions in which the evidence behind science’s basic understanding of the universe has been found to be alarmingly inconsistent.
Via The Dispatch.
Art moves in mysterious ways, resulting in collaborations that seem like they shouldn’t work at all on paper — like these unlikely musical collaborations. Consider Anthrax’s “Bring the Noise,” featuring Public Enemy’s Chuck D:
In 1988, hip-hop group Public Enemy released their second studio album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. “Bring the Noise” is the first full-length song on the album’s tracklist and features frontman Chuck D arguing for rap’s consideration as a legitimate musical genre alongside rock. The song also includes shoutouts to several other musicians, including thrash metal band Anthrax (co-founder Scott Ian was a Public Enemy fan). Three years later, Anthrax recorded their own version of “Bring The Noise” featuring Chuck D’s vocals. Public Enemy didn’t take Anthrax’s initial request to cover the song seriously, but Chuck D felt the song “made too much sense” once he heard the final collaboration.
The first time I heard “Bring the Noise” was in high school, courtesy of a friend’s mixtape. It blew my mind then, and I still think it’s the best metal/rap crossover of all time.
As for other unlikely musical collaborations, I’d add Kate Bush and Elton John’s “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” to the list. My initial reaction was dismissive but it turned out to be one of my favorite songs of 2011, a heartbreakingly romantic ballad about two eternal lovers who are constantly reunited and then torn apart throughout history.
Chad Thomas Johnston sings the praises of some delightfully bad Christian album cover art from the ’80s.
The Contemporary Christian Music industry cranked out some abominable album covers in the ‘80s, with David Meece’s 7 and Michael W. Smith’s 2 being among the absolute worst. Since both feature numbers as album titles, I’m going to write them up in tandem today.
I grew up listening to both of these artists and saw them in concert, too. If either of them ever got too cocky about their music, they only needed to look at these covers to find humility again.
To be clear though: I love both of these album covers. I love them . . . and I think they are terrible. And I probably love them because they are terrible.
This takes me way back. I loved David Meece’s music back in the ’80s and saw him in concert multiple times; I still have fond memories of 1989’s Learning to Trust. On the other hand, I was never a big Michael W. Smith fan — I blame the song “Friends” — but I can’t deny that 2 is a truly iconic cover. (I wonder if he still has that sweater…)
Since its founding in 1998, Rotten Tomatoes has become a major factor in determining a film’s success. But its approach to ranking and rating films is not exactly the most reliable.
[D]espite Rotten Tomatoes’ reputed importance, it’s worth a reminder: Its math stinks. Scores are calculated by classifying each review as either positive or negative and then dividing the number of positives by the total. That’s the whole formula. Every review carries the same weight whether it runs in a major newspaper or a Substack with a dozen subscribers.
If a review straddles positive and negative, too bad. “I read some reviews of my own films where the writer might say that he doesn’t think that I pull something off, but, boy, is it interesting in the way that I don’t pull it off,” says Schrader, a former critic. “To me, that’s a good review, but it would count as negative on Rotten Tomatoes.”
There’s also no accounting for enthusiasm — no attempt to distinguish between extremely and slightly positive (or negative) reviews. That means a film can score a perfect 100 with just passing grades. “In the old days, if an independent film got all three-star reviews, that was like the kiss of death,” says Publicist No. 2. “But with Rotten Tomatoes, if you get all three-star reviews, it’s fantastic.”
I use Rotten Tomatoes when putting together my “Review Roundup” posts, simply because it creates really handy lists of links. But I always read through the reviews that I’m considering for inclusion to (1) verify the writer’s opinions and (2) ensure that, as much as possible, I’m providing a range of reviews, both positive and negative. And whenever possible, I also include critics whom I trust but aren’t Rotten Tomatoes-approved. Of course, given the various strategies employed by movie studios and PR agencies to game Rotten Tomatoes’ system — which are highlighted in the article — I realize that my approach isn’t perfect.
Scott Tobias reflects on the extent to which major brands like Frito-Lay, Mattel, and Nike have infiltrated the box office.
The brand boom is a natural step for a risk-averse industry looking to stake its fortunes on things that are already a popular, comforting presence in everyday life. (Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Nike shoes, Gran Turismo, Barbie dolls — all happen to be in the Tobias household right now!) But it also reflects how much we lean on corporations to arbitrate the culture, how much we plead (or boycott) in service of agendas that they’re morally incapable of processing. If Frito-Lay wants a friskier Cheeto on the market, they’re going to put it there because it’s going to make them more money, not because Roger Enrico is a champion of the little guy. It should go without saying that, in the words of Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, “these people are not your friends.” And yet we’ve become oddly accustomed to the movies treating them as such.
If you’re of a certain age, then the cover of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, with its lurid colors and bizarre imagery, is a core memory. But nobody knew who the actual artist was… until now, that is.
A couple years ago, as the writer Sarah Elizabeth was working on her book, The Art of Fantasy (out September 12th), a particular illustration kept popping into her mind's eye. It was the cover for the 1976 Dell/Laurel Leaf paperback edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic sci-fi/fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time.
She wanted to include the piece in her book, but she didn’t know who the artist was. “I thought, ‘Oh, pish posh! Surely I’m going to find this in the first page of Google.’ No. No, no, no!”
Via Tor. This is the kind of intense nerdery that gives me life. It’s nice to know that some mysteries still exist to be solved in this day and age of Google.
Related: Adam Rowe dives into some of the artwork discussed in the podcast that solved the Wrinkle in Time mystery. I wish this sort of surreal artwork appeared on modern sci-fi/fantasy novels.
The weather-related difficulties at this year’s Burning Man festival highlight a growing ideological divide and culture clash.
Burning Man may have started as a gathering of San Francisco counterculture types, but in recent years it has morphed into a confab of tech bros, celebs, and influencers — many of whom fly in and spend the event’s crushingly hot days in RVs or air-conditioned tents, powered by generators. The Playa, as it’s known, is still orchestrated by the Burning Man Organization, otherwise known as “the Org,” and its core principles — gifting, self-reliance, decommodification (no commercial sponsorships) — remain in place.
But increasingly the Burning Man tenet of “leave no trace” has found itself butting heads with growing piles of debris scattered in the desert following the bacchanal, which can draw more than 70,000 people every year. It’s an ideological minefield, one laid atop a 4-square-mile half-circle of tents and Dune-inspired art installations where everyone has a carbon footprint that’s two-thirds of a ton.
Related: How the ultra-wealthy infiltrated anti-capitalist Burning Man. “Going to Burning Man is, in some elite circles, akin to having climbed Everest or taken ayahuasca on a meditation retreat — a spiritually transformative experience, undertaken with a considerable safety net of privilege.”
Finally, Eric Meyer pays tribute to Molly Holzschlag, an influential figure in web development who was once called “the fairy godmother of the web.” She died earlier this week at the age of 60.
If you don’t know her name, I’m sorry. Too many didn’t. She was one of the first web gurus, a title she adamantly rejected — “We’re all just people, people!” — but it fit nevertheless. She was a groundbreaker, expanding and explaining the Web at its infancy. So many people, on hearing the mournful news, have described her as a force of nature, and that’s a title she would have accepted with pride. She was raucous, rambunctious, open-hearted, never ever close-mouthed, blazing with fire, and laughed (as she did everything) with her entire chest, constantly. She was giving and took and she hurt and she wanted to heal everyone, all the time. She was messily imperfect, would tell you so loudly and repeatedly, and gonzo in all the senses of that word. Hunter S. Thompson should have written her obituary.
Via Jay Hoffmann, who also weighs in on Holzschlag’s importance: “The web has lost something truly great, but it is unquestionably better for all of the work that she put in.”
From the Blog
Much of my summer was spent watching Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Die Neue These, a sprawling space opera anime adapted from Yoshiki Tanaka’s novels by Production I.G.
But for every grand space battle, there are also episodes in which Lohengramm, Yang, and other characters do little more than discuss military strategies and political theories; philosophize about democracy, freedom, and human history; debate the purpose of the military and the nature of duty; negotiate treaties and alliances; and foment political and cultural unrest. In other words, epic space battles aside, Die Neue These is a very talky series — and I appreciate how even seemingly boring debates deepen the series’ world.
Speaking of anime space operas, I think I might try rewatching Crest of the Stars and Banner of the Stars, which are even more fanciful and out-there than Legend of the Galactic Heroes.
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