Neil Young, still not burning out or fading away


I guess if you are famous for singing “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” (from “My my, hey, hey” off the Rust Never Sleeps album from 1978) you have to be pretty careful not to do either one — and Neil Young seems to be doing more than just about any other senior citizen (he’s 76) to avoid either of those fates, with the possible exception of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Willie Nelson (okay, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen are doing okay too).

Neil just told Spotify to remove all of his music, because they let Joe Rogan promote COVID misinformation on his podcast, which Spotify bought in 2020 for $100 million. And he also just released a documentary — filmed by his wife, Darryl Hannah — to go along with his newest album, called Barn. It’s called that because he reunited with the members of Crazy Horse, his legendary band, and they set up shop in an 18th-century barn on a ranch in Colorado.

It’s kind of amazing to watch Neil wail away at his guitar and harmonica, stomping up and down in classic Neil Young style, wearing ripped jeans and an old T-shirt, just like he did 40 years or so ago. And all the guys bang away at their instruments too, although they do so a little more gently than they used to, and they are a bit more hunched over. Maybe they forget the lyrics now and then. Still, kind of inspirational. Pitchfork’s review says: “Neil Young is standing on the porch, smoking weed, waiting for somebody else to show up. That’s the basic premise of “They Might Be Lost,” the strangest, loosest—and thus, the quintessential—song from Barn, his latest album.”

Rolling Stone says of the album: “You generally know what’s coming when you hit play on a new Neil Young record. You know there will be a few sweet lovestruck hymns that sound as if they’re being played in dusty Old West saloons or around campfires. You anticipate the songs that wax nostalgic about his childhood, and the ones that rage against the destructiveness and stupidity of mankind and the impact on the planet. You await those moments when he turns the volume knob up and makes his guitar sound like it’s sandblasting paint off an old shed.”

Neil has kept up his output all the way through the depths of COVID. I wrote in 2020 about his penchant for posting video clips of himself playing old standards, standing in the snow beside a fire pit, or just sitting at the piano with his dogs lying nearby. He and Darryl at one point create a harmonica stand from an old horseshoe because they can’t find one and they don’t want to leave the ranch. It’s an incredibly intimate portrait of Neil.

neil young, neil young archives, fireside sessions

There’s no question that Young is a problematic figure in many ways. He is notorious for dropping things when he loses interest, including his second wife, Pegi, whom he left in 2014, after 36 years of marriage, to start dating Darryl Hannah (she died of cancer just a few years later). Neil also quit Buffalo Springfield the day before they were to go on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, just before they were going to headline the Monterey Pop Festival. And he infamously abandoned a tour that he was on with Stephen Stills in mid-tour, by sending Stills a note saying “Dear Stephen, funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil.”

All that said, however, Neil is still an incredibly talented singer-songwriter (even if his voice is not to everyone’s taste), and it’s inspiring to see him still pounding away on that guitar. I hope he keeps doing it for many years to come.

Photo retrospective: Toronto in the 1960s and ’70s

The musician Mighty Sparrow, centre, was known as the King of Calypso in the 1960s and ’70s. This photo was taken at a barbecue for Contrast, a Black-run newspaper.

Toronto Life magazine has a fantastic retrospective of Toronto in the 1960s and ’70s, courtesy of a photo collection from Joan Latchford — a former nun who left the convent in the UK where she spent seven years, and returned to Toronto and bought a Hasselblad camera:

“Instead of paying bills, of which I had a number, I decided I would get something that I really wanted, which was a good camera,” she once said. She soon switched to a Leica, set up a darkroom in her basement, and started a photography career, knocking on magazine editors’ doors to sell her images. Her clients included the CBC, Chatelaine and the National Film Board’s stills division, which commissioned her to capture images of Toronto’s Caribbean diaspora. After her death in 2017, she left behind around 40,000 negatives, which she’d meticulously filed under categories like, “Men,” “Women,” “Children,” “Celebrities” and “Humour.” She also kept detailed notes: one of her phone books had B.B. King’s number in it.

Yonge Street, 1971: On summer weekends, Yonge Street would close off for pedestrians. “It was a cool time back then, when everyone would be out and about,” says Wilyman

The story of John Troyer, a legendary witch hunter in the 1800s

A fascinating story here from Rosemary Counter, who found out that an uncle was a famous witch hunter in the 1800s.

In the summer of 1829, in a sleepy Ontario sheep-farming settlement called Baldoon, the McDonald family found themselves tormented by their two-storey home. Without warning, beams would drop from the ceiling, and at night, the kitchen filled with the noise of marching feet. Over the years, the disturbances grew more terrifying. Fires spontaneously ignited. Rocks and bullets rained down on the house. Once, a twenty-five-centimetre hunting knife tore through the air.

By 1831, a desperate McDonald family realized they needed professional help, so the patriarch, John, travelled 200 kilometres—three days on horseback, riding dawn to dusk—to consult with a highly recommended healer. According to an 1871 account by John’s son, the diagnosis required gazing into a moonstone, which revealed “a long low log house” where lived a witch and the source of the McDonalds’ suffering. The witch took the form of a black-headed stray goose, and it was decided that, if they shot the goose’s wing with a sterling silver bullet, they’d at once stop her—which they did. The ghost never struck again.

Two centuries later, the Baldoon mystery reigns as one of Canada’s greatest ghost stories—you can find tellings and retellings in just about every collection of Canadian folklore. Less well known, perhaps, is the person who ultimately solved it: John Troyer, a man legendary at the time for his unconventional talents in herbal remedies, fortune telling, white magic, bloodletting, water dowsing, exorcisms, and of course, witch hunting. He was also my distant uncle.

What life is like in a Chinese COVID quarantine camp

My room at the camp reminded me of my old college dorm room. It came with two single beds with thin mattresses, a hard sponge pillow and a duvet, two small tables with a small television, an electric kettle, a hair dryer, two folding plastic chairs, a fabric closet, a bedside table, an air conditioner and a water heater.I was allowed to open my window to retrieve food and other necessities that were delivered, or just to get some fresh air. Three meals were provided daily in plastic bags (in the morning, afternoon and evening) and were left on a tray outside my window for me to collect.

Through that same window, staff members swabbed my nose and throat as part of the daily Covid-19 testing requirements.The camp has a total capacity of 3,416 units, according to data from Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection (CHP). There were a total of 16 rooms in each building, eight rooms on each floor.As of 9 a.m. local time on January 4, when I was on my third day there, almost 1,300 people were occupying 995 units at the camp, according to the CHP.

Source: The cost of visiting family in the US from Hong Kong: How I ended up at a government quarantine camp

The Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge

I just finished writing for the Columbia Journalism Review about a report on misinformation that was published recently by the UK’s Royal Society, and in the process of researching the piece, I learned a bit about the society, which is more than just your usual collection of academics and researchers. It turns out that it is one of the oldest scientific organizations in the world — it was founded in 1660 as the “Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge,” when it was given a royal charter by King Charles II.

Prior to that, it was known as the “College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning,” and before that it was often known as “the Invisible College.” One of the founders was Sir Christopher Wren, who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral but was also an astronomer, physicist and all-around scientist. Robert Hooke, another early founder who was the first to visualize a micro-organism using a microscope, was given the title of “Curator of Experiments,” and performing experiments was one of the main early functions of the Royal Society. Sir Isaac Newton became the president of the society in 1703 and served in that role for almost a quarter of a century. In the 18th century, some of the society’s work became political:

It became customary for His Majesty’s Government to refer highly important scientific questions to the council of the society for advice, something that, despite the non-partisan nature of the society, spilled into politics in 1777 over lightning conductors. The pointed lightning conductor had been invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1749, while Benjamin Wilson invented blunted ones. During the argument that occurred when deciding which to use, opponents of Franklin’s invention accused supporters of being American allies, and the debate eventually led to the resignation of the society’s president, Sir John Pringle. 

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Is getting rid of misinformation the right approach?

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

After Donald Trump was elected in 2016, misinformation—and its more toxic cousin, disinformation—stopped being just an academic concept, and started feeling like a social and political emergency. Concerns about Russian trolls meddling in American elections were soon compounded by hoaxes and conspiracy theories involving COVID-19. Even those who could agree on the definition of misinformation, however, debated what to do about it: should Facebook and Twitter be forced to remove “fake news” and disinformation, especially about something as critical as a pandemic? Should they be forced to “deplatform” repeated disinfo spreaders such as Trump and his ilk, so as not to infect others with their dangerous delusions?

After coming under pressure to do so, both from the general public and from president Biden and members of Congress, Facebook and Twitter—and to a lesser extent, YouTube—started actively removing this kind of content. They began by banning the accounts of people such as Trump and Alex Jones, who runs a disinformation operation known as InfoWars, and later started blocking or “down-ranking” COVID-related misinformation that appeared to be deliberately harmful. But was this the right way of handling the problem? Some argue that it is, and that “deplatforming” people like Trump—or even blocking entire platforms, such as the right-wing Twitter clone Parler—works, in the sense that it removes the problem. But not everyone agrees.

The Royal Society, a scientific organization founded in the UK in 1660, recently released a report on the online information environment, which states that “censoring or removing inaccurate, misleading and false content, whether it’s shared unwittingly or deliberately, is not a silver bullet and may undermine the scientific process and public trust.” Frank Kelly, a professor at the University of Cambridge and the chairman of the report, wrote that the nature of science includes uncertainty, especially when it is trying to deal with an unprecedented medical crisis like the pandemic. “In the early days of the pandemic, science was too often painted as absolute and somehow not to be trusted when it corrects itself,” he wrote, “but that prodding and testing of received wisdom is integral to the advancement of science, and society.”

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The forgotten medieval habit of “two sleeps”

A historian researching medieval social habits gradually came to the conclusion that sleeping twice during the night — a first sleep, from about 10 pm until midnight or 1 am, followed by a few hours of wakefulness, and then a second sleep until the early morning — was commonplace not just in England or Europe, but also in other countries around the world.

First sleeps are mentioned in one of the most famous works of medieval literature, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (written between 1387 and 1400), which is presented as a storytelling contest between a group of pilgrims. Ekirch found casual references to the system of twice-sleeping in every conceivable form, with hundreds in letters, diaries, medical textbooks, philosophical writings, newspaper articles and plays.

The practice even made it into ballads, such as “Old Robin of Portingale. “…And at the wakening of your first sleepe, You shall have a hot drink made, And at the wakening of your next sleepe, Your sorrows will have a slake…” Biphasic sleep was not unique to England, either – it was widely practised throughout the preindustrial world. In France, the initial sleep was the “premier somme“; in Italy, it was “primo sonno“. In fact, Eckirch found evidence of the habit in locations as distant as Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Australia, South America and the Middle East.

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Civil War fortress for sale — would make a perfect super-villain hideout

If you’ve always wanted to own a Civil War fort, then this is your lucky day: Fort Montgomery is for sale for the discounted price of just $1.4 million, which includes about 350 acres of land (although about 85 of those are underwater at the moment) and a huge pile of crumbling limestone, complete with slit windows for firing cannons out of. The limestone came from the same quarry as the stone that built Radio City Music Hall, according to the realtor’s website (which looks like it was designed in 1994 using Windows Notepad). “Rebuild your dream on the rich ruins of history,” it says, along with a Powerpoint presentation of the fort’s charms, which include tunnels covered in graffiti.

There’s no rush in case you actually do want to buy this crumbling pile: the fort, and the man-made island it sits on, have actually been for sale since about 2006. Prior to that date, a businessman named Victor Podd owned the fort, and used it as the headquarters for his company, Powertex. After he died, his heirs tried to sell it, and in 2006 someone offered $5 million for it, but the sale never went through.

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A combination piano, BBQ grill and three-wheeled car? Why not!

In case you like to play the piano, but also want to grill some shishkebabs at the same time, and want to drive around as well, this creative inventor has just the solution — a piano with 52 individual motors connecting the keys to spits, with an internal firepit and three motorized wheels. Spectacularly useless? Definitely. And why did this man create such a thing? Because he could.

Turns out our artist/inventor is Geng Shuai, also known as “Handy Geng,” a Chinese YouTuber whose fans call him “Useless Einstein” (if that’s what your fans call you, imagine what others call you!). He got the idea for the piano-grill-car — Grillano? — from a reader comment. In case you are in the market, he also makes phone cases that look like meat cleavers, of which he has sold 10. And he made a driveable mech with tractor treads and hydraulic arms:

On a related note, there is a Japanese term, “chindogu,” which loosely translated means “useless tool,” and covers an entire category of inventions that solve prosaic problems in an overly engineered way. Examples include the “noodle cooler”:

chindogu chopsticks with fan attached

For the billionaire who has everything but taste

This week’s Zillow monstrosity comes courtesy of Rebecca Makkai, who shared some truly bizarre photos of a massive house in Woodstock, Connecticut that was built by millionaire castle afficionado and alleged camel -killer Christopher Mark, who apparently comes from a long line of steel tycoons. If you also like castles, but you think that the ones at Disney World aren’t fake-looking enough, then this is for you — and the 20,000-square-foot behemoth with 9 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms, 12 fireplaces, and its own moat is just $35 million.

Said the Daily Mail when the castle went up for sale in 2014 for $45 million: “Eccentric millionaire Christopher Mark is unloading his property, which he began building in 2001, and was only completed in 2008, just three years after he made headlines for reportedly kicking out girlfriend Marina Isakova and the couple’s child from the lush digs.” Connecticut magazine said that during Mark’s divorce from his wife, both sides tried to make the other out to be responsible for the death of a camel that was kept as part of a petting zoo/wild animal operation:

The animals on the castle property also came up in the case. Mark has long run a nonprofit refuge for exotic animals called Wilderness Kingdom, Inc. Since 2004, the property has been licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a traveling zoo. When a camel died in 2010, both Mark and Galt alleged the other was neglectful. In a motion filed on June 25, 2010, Galt claimed “the animals are not being properly taken care of” and “a camel on the property has recently died.”vIn an email to Galt written on July 3, 2010, Mark countered that “when you sent the workers home and animals were not fed for 4 days, the camel lost a lot of weight since and died last week.”

Yes, this is a bathroom, and yes, it has a big-screen TV and a fireplace