“Just Give Me Som Funky Shit Footage”: Neil Young Plays A Glasgow Sidewalk

Neil Young – Old Laughing Lady (1976) by Julos77

This incredibly fantastic footage comes via the irreplaceable Open Culture: 1976, and Neil Young, greeted by filmmakers on arrival in Glasgow, takes them out on the street for some filmmaking — and then, with banjo, sits on the sidewalk by the train-station entrance to play “The Old Laughing Lady.” The whole venture brings a thousand versions of delight — and somem confused looks as well — to both the crowd and to us. One fellow: “Someday this guy’ll be a millionaire.” And then there’s the old laughing lady herself.

A few details from OpenCulture’s post:

With a scarf wrapped around his neck and a deerstalker hat pulled down over his face, Young took out his banjo and harmonica and sat on the pavement. Peat, whose forté is observational filmmaking, panned his camera back and forth between the famous street musician and the people passing by. Kramer’s sound recording provided the continuity that made it possible for Peat to move around and cover the scene from different angles. He noticed that Young was singing about an “Old Laughing Lady,” so when he saw one, he filmed her. The whole thing lasted only a few minutes.

But you must go to OpenCulture and read the whole thing, then tell the world of the treasures there. God bless ’em.

When a Smile Turns Ugly: My Review of TED Books’ “SMILE”

Is there such a thing as too much good cheer? I argue more or less that over at the new science e-book site Download The Universe, where in dismay I’ve reviewed the TED Book “SMILE: The Astonishing Power of a Simple Act.” As I noted last week, Download The Universe is a collaborative effort of several science writers rounded up by Carl Zimmer. Its main mission is to call attention to worthy science-y ebooks, and I picked this one out thinking it had nice potential. But I didn’t much like it.

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Your Genome As Circus Clown: How DNA Packs Itself Small

One of my favorite blogs of late is The Last Word on Nothing, where several particularly literate, imaginative, restless, and thoughtful writers post on science, culture, and life. The most recent posts, for instance, consider science and music; magic; crying; and the universe, twice. Why think small? Yet today, actually, one of the regulars there, Virginia Hughes, thinks really small, with a short video that illustrates how DNA manages to pack its immensely long self into the teeny confines of a cell nucleus — the genome as a beaded string of circus clowns.

Scientists, being orderly types, have generally thought DNA packed itself tight the way most of us would pack a suitcase: by getting really organized. As the vid suggests, it turns out otherwise. Music by Chopin, as elaborated here. Video by Virginia Hughes.

(Not Really) the Last Word on DNA from Virginia Hughes on Vimeo.

Do yourself justice: Make the Last Word one of your first stops each browsing day.

Why the Longform Boom? It’s the Data, Stupid

Reading, by Moriza, via Flickr
Reading, by Moriza via Flickr

Over at Forbes, Lewis DVorkin, who once ran big bits of AOL, has written a fine smart post on the boom in longform stories on the web. The longform surge, both at magazine and newspaper sites and in new venues such as The Atavist, may seem surprising, but as DVorkin tells it, it’s surprising mainly in that it surprised editors, publishers, and pundits who misunderestimated what readers actually enjoy. The current move to longform is thus a correction of a mistake made from mispercption. And DVorkin, who now mashes reader-usage numbers for Forbes, says the correction is happening partly because the web makes it possible to more accurately and quickly see what readers actually read.

Reliable user data just didn’t exist in the medium’s early days. Now, the numbers illuminate everything all the time for journalists-turned-product-people like myself. You can track the digital news consumer’s first click, second and each one after that. You know how far down the screen they scroll. And most important, you learn what they think as the social conversation evolves. When we look at what’s produced, commented on and shared on Forbes.com and digest all the data, what lies behind news usage today becomes clear. Speed, perspective and analysis are certainly important — but in-depth reporting that often starts its life in longer FORBES magazine stories is fast becoming one of the news enthusiast’s most rewarding clicks.

DVorkin offers example after example of long stories topping the charts at Forbes. You’ll see the same thing if you look at the New York Times’ most-read and most-emailed lists: long, well-reported, well-written stories are consistently over-represented among the most popular stories. For several years, editors and publishers insisted that people wanted shorter stories, especially on the web, and some are still preaching and practicing that. But they were wrong. They operated on what they considered informed wisdom. The data is showing the wisdom to be bunk.

But wait — maybe readers are just reading the beginning of these long stories and then bailing? DVorkin says No: metrics on scrolling, time-on-page, clicks on “Next Page” links, and other page-use data shows people are reading to the end.

All of this is being accelerated or made easier by new tools and devices. Social media lets readers rather than editors and designers decide what’s important. Software tools such as Instapaper and Read It Later  make it simple to save long stories and read them later. And tablets and smart phones make it possible and even inviting to read those saved stories while in bed, commuting, at lunch, or walking in hazardous readerly immersion across the street. The chart below, for instance, taken from DVorkin’s story, shows reading habits of ReadItLater users for iPad versus non-pad computers. It shows that iPad users tend to read heavily at lunch, with smaller surges in the evening and the wee hours, while all nonpad readers seem to read midday and in the evening. Separate data not shown on that graph, says DVorkin, shows that iPhone users read most heavily “at 6am, 9am, 5pm to 6pm and 8pm-10pm (“the moments between tasks and locations”).”

I suspect that it will be come increasingly apparent that the shrinkage of feature stories, such as that currently underway at the New York Times Magazine (where I sometimes write, and where 8,000-word features used to be common, but are now rare), is driven less by true reader preference than by shrinking print-ad space, which discourages fatter magazines;  budget worries, since longer stories tend to cost more, both in per-word writer fees and reporting expenses; and, in too many cases, sad misjudgments about readers’ tastes and appetites. As one commenter at Dvorkin’s post put it, “Long-form was once deemed an overload for web readers, but now the data is debunking that notion. The market never went away and publishers almost made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The budget part will remain a work-in-progress. The long stories that do well tend to be the costly, heavily reported sort, and that money must come from somewhere. But the idea that publications should run fewer long stories because readers prefer short ones is poppycock. Readers like both kinds, and seem to especially value the longer ones — and the long ones, I’d bet (and do), are the stories that breed reader loyalty.

No matter what economic model publishers move to, readership will drive income. If publishers and editors want readers, they must not fool themselves about what readers want. The data DVorkin delivers shows that when the web started to change publishing, many publishers and editors made precisely that mistake.

PS, which I pulled up from the comments, where I wrote it in response to Peter Edmonds:

I’d love to know better which publications pay and respond heavily to smart reader-use-data. As far as I can tell, some of the publications that are doing best in the current digital upheaval, such as The Atlantic (where I also sometimes write) and Forbes, are paying close attention and adjusting both online and print content accordingly — and in ways that enrich and deepen content even as they make it livelier. The Atlantic’s AtlanticTech channel, for instance, did something wholly original. When the team at The Atlantic decided to establish a new tech section, they made a point of hiring someone to run it — Alexis Madrigal, formerly of Wired Science — who came with a vision not of drawing hits the easy way, with short or even long gushy reviews of toys, geegaws, and other tech wonders, but by running posts of various lengths, including quite long ones, that look from many directions and perspectives at how technology shapes our lives, history, and thinking — and vice-versa. That channel, hugely successful, became a model for other successful channels at The Atlantic and helped make that venerable magazine profitable. Writing long wasn’t the only thing that made that transition successful. But embracing long pieces as one way of capturing readers’ supposedly fickle attention is a key element of the Tech channel and remains a firm commitment and prime distinction of the print magazine.

Also added a bit later: On the Twitter, David Biello, of Scientific American, happened to mention this very apt interview with Chris Keyes, the editor of Outside. Especially up front he talks about the value of long articles to Outside, and how they help unify the online and print brands and readerships. My favorite quote: “If you’re not excited right now, you should leave the business.”


See Inside Forbes: How Long-Form Journalism Is Finding Its Digital Audience

Image: by Moriza, some rights reserved.

Changes: 2/24/12 9:34 EST: Corrected some typos (thanks, readers); smoothed some language.

David Foster Wallace’s Wincing Worries About Wisdom

Sight from today’s dog walk.

John Jeremiah Sullivan on DFW, via David Quigg:

It’s this quality, of being inwardly divided, that risks getting flattened and written out of (David Foster) Wallace’s story by his postmortem idolization, which would make of him a dispenser of wisdom. We should guard against that. We’ll lose the most essential Wallace, the one that is forever wincing, reconsidering, wishing he hadn’t said whatever he just said. Those were moments when his voice was most authentically of our time, and they are the reason people will one day be able to read him and feel what it was like to be alive now.

This comes via David Quigg’s too many Daves – “forever wincing, reconsidering”, where Quigg draws on “Too Much Information,” Sullivan’s longer and very smart consideration of DFW in GQ. Sullivan warns against warping the labile, restless Wallace by quoting him into the calcified form of a self-satisfied Wise Man of Letters. Wise words well-advised. Sullivan’s piece  is also worth a read simply because Sullivan really knows what he’s doing. A lovely opening, in which he alludes to Wallace’s String Theory, one of the best pieces of sports writing ever:

One of the few detectable lies in David Foster Wallace’s books occurs in his essay on the obscure ’90s-era American tennis prodigy Michael Joyce, included in Wallace’s first nonfiction anthology, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Apart from some pages in his fiction, it’s the best thing he wrote about tennis—better even than his justly praised but disproportionately famous piece on Roger Federer—precisely because Joyce was a journeyman, an unknown, and so offered Wallace’s mind a white canvas. Wallace had almost nothing to work with on that assignment: ambiguous access to the qualifying rounds of a Canadian tournament, a handful of hours staring through chain link at a subject who was both too nice to be entertaining and not especially articulate. Faced with what for most writers would be a disastrous lack of material, Wallace looses his uncanny observational powers on the tennis complex, drawing partly on his knowledge of the game but mainly on his sheer ability to consider a situation, to revolve it in his mental fingers like a jewel whose integrity he doubts. In the mostly empty stadium he studies the players between matches. “They all have the unhappy self-enclosed look of people who spend huge amounts of time on planes and waiting around in hotel lobbies,” he writes, “the look of people who have to create an envelope of privacy around them with just their expressions.” He hears the “authoritative pang” of tour-tight racket strings and sees ball boys “reconfigure complexly.” He hits the practice courts and watches players warm up, their bodies “moving with the compact nonchalance I’ve since come to recognize in pros when they’re working out: the suggestion is one of a very powerful engine in low gear.”

Enough stealing borrowing. For the lie Sullivan refers to, I refer you to the full piece at GQ. For continuous rich literary and photographic stimulation, bookmark Quigg’s too many Daves.
Photo: “Sight from today’s dog walk,” by David Quigg

A’Glitter in the Net: Bees, E-Books, Abandoned Children, Reclaimed Phone Booths

What to do with seldom-used phone booths? In New York, architect John Locke is turning them into micro-libraries. (photo above by the artist). Atlantic Cities brings the story.

Pretty much everything Alexis Madrigal writes is worth the trip, but this elegaic look at an outdated, massive satellite receiver from the Cold War days is especially rich and satisfying.  The Afterlife of Technology at the End of the World.

Download the Universe, where I’m one of the editor/reviewers, launched this week with posts by Deborah Blum on The Elements and John Timmer on the state of the e-book. Meanwhile, further uptown, the New York Review of Books — a long-time high-brow favorite of mine and Larry McMurtry’s — spends some ink on the virtues of e-books. And even stranger: Carl Zimmer tells how his two successful e-books, Brain Cuttings and Brain Cuttings II, got pulled from Amazon because of a dispute between Amazon and the e-book’s distributor.

This is not pretty: A major long-term U.S. study of children’s health, squeezed by budget cuts, is abandoning door-to-door recruitment for subjects.

The BBC launched a new science and technology news site, Future. It has great editors and his commissioning features and columns from top science journalists; keep an eye on this one.

Carl Zimmer has a wonderful Smithsonian piece on The Secret Life of Bees, and what bee their decision-making suggests about democracy.


Elsevier Boycott Not a Petition, But “A Declaration of Independence”

So says computer programmer and sauropod fan  Mike Taylor in a particularly rich rallying cry at Discover’s “The Crux” blog. The ongoing boycott of academic-publishing giant Elsevier — almost 7000 researchers and counting — writes Bristol,

[has] sometimes been described as a petition, but isn’t trying to persuade Elsevier to do something. It’s a declaration of independence.

It’s a particularly sharp rundown of the forces in play in the growing open-science revolt, with due attention to both the changes that have created this revolt and to the changes still needed from researchers if it’s to succeed in making open-access publication of scientific results the norm instead of the exception.

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How to Do Much Without Seeming To Hurry

The answer is apparently to be more like Anthony Shadid, the extraordinary war reporter who died last week in Syria.  Here’s a remembrance of him in The Atlantic from Thanassis Cambanis, a friend and fellow journalist:

Anthony Shadid never seemed to be in a hurry. If you needed him, or simply wanted his company, he would linger to chat and fix you with a gaze that defined undivided attention. He gave the impression that nothing was more important to him than whomever he happened to be speaking to, even if he had a dozen deadlines. His hospitable nature blended seamlessly with Levantine mores, but I think it originated in equal measure from his origins in Lebanon, in Oklahoma, and in his entirely exceptional soul.

Often, I was scared when I was with Anthony. He reassured in the most primal manner, by example. The day after Saddam Hussein fled Baghdad, hundreds of journalists, Iraqi fortune seekers, and U.S. Marines thronged the front lot of the Palestine Hotel. In a panic, I found Anthony in his room upstairs, surrounded by stacks of bottled water. “You have time for a coffee?” he inquired, as if I were the busy one, as if time were limitless. Around him, in a way, it was. The more he slowed things down in the minute, the more minutes he seemed to pack into a day.

via The Things That Anthony Shadid Taught Me – Thanassis Cambanis – International – The Atlantic.

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Download the Universe Right Here: A New Site for Science E-Book Reviews

Shelf crop 4

I’m pleased to announce a new site I’m part of. I’m one of an otherwise distinguished handful of reviewer-editors for Download the Universe, a site conceived by Carl Zimmer in an off-hand remark last month during a ScienceOnline session on e-books. We aim to meet a simple but stark and urgent need: While lots of new science books are coming out in e-book-only form, it’s hard to find reviews of those books or a single site or publication where such books are noted. Download the Universe is that new place, and along with Carl Zimmer, my fellow editors (listed below) include some sharp minds and some of our best science writers. We’ll be regularly posting both short and long reviews of new (and existing) science books that are published only in e-book form — usually 2 or 3 a week — as well as occasional comments or essays on trends in science books and e-book publication.

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No Contest: The Coolest Astronaut Photograph Ever

John Glenn, 50 years ago today, taking his ease on the deck of USS Noa, which plucked him from the Atlantic after he rode a rocket into space and coasted through a long lovely arc before plunging through fire back into the Earth’s atmosphere and smashing into the ocean.

That is all. Oh: And the shoes.

Photo courtesy NASA.

NB: See Alexis Madrigal‘s thoughtful, pitch-perfect reconstruction of what Glenn looked at from space.

Also: Science comedian Brian Malow’s quick vid on Glenn, Sally Ride, and other high-flying pioneers.