Neil Young playing live from his cabin is an amazing experience

If you are a Neil Young fan at all, you probably knew about his Neil Young Archives website already — he started it a few years ago, and it is an impressive and extremely well-designed archive of virtually every song and album he has ever played, going back to the early days when he played R&B in Winnipeg. There’s a virtual file cabinet you can flip back through, each entry has photos and videos and news articles you can look at while you are listening to the song — in high fidelity of course. All of that is fantastic and clearly took a lot of work and thought, but that’s not the most amazing thing about the site. The most amazing thing is what Neil and his relatively new wife, actress Daryl Hannah — have been doing with what they call the “Fireside Sessions.”

These are videos, some of them half an hour long or more, filmed by Daryl, in which Neil sits and plays his guitar by the outdoor fire-pit — in one case, playing while snow is falling all around him — or plays his old upright piano in what appears to be the rustic living room of his cabin, with a fire going in the fireplace and dogs wandering around. In between songs like “Four Strong Winds” and “Out on the Weekend,” he talks to the dogs, or says he hopes his fans are staying healthy, or chats with Daryl about the homemade harmonica stand the two put together out of wood-working clamps and old fireplace tools, because they didn’t have a real stand.

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How did the digital giants get so big, and what if anything should we do about it?

Note: This is a post I wrote originally for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

One of the overwhelming trends of the last several years has been the growing dominance of a handful of giant digital platforms, including Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Each one has a market value of half a trillion dollars or more, and that value stems from their almost total control over some of the key levers in the digital economy: Search, online advertising, retail sales, and social networking. That in turn has had a ripple effect on a number of industries, including the media business, where the lion’s share of ad revenue has been siphoned away by Google and Facebook. How did these companies get as big and as powerful as they have? What responsibilities do they have when it comes to things like disinformation, and are they following through on them? And what if anything should we do about their dominance? Should they be broken up, or prevented from acquiring other startups? Should they be forced to help fund the industries they have helped to cripple, like the media industry?

To answer these and other related questions, CJR spoke with Alex Kantrowitz, a technology writer with BuzzFeed and the author of a new book: Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever. And we held a series of roundtable conversations on CJR”s Galley discussion platform with Alex and other technology writers and reporters from a number of outlets, including Casey Newton from The Verge, Priya Anand from The Information, Ina Fried from Axios and Mark Bergen from Bloomberg. The central thesis of Kantrowitz’s book is that all of the companies he researched — Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft — believe they have to continually reinvent their business or they will die. In other words, it’s “always day one,” a term that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is credited with. When asked during an all-hands meeting in 2017 what day two would look like, Bezos said “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline.”

Kantrowitz says when he first heard the term “always day one,” he thought it just meant that Amazon staffers worked really hard — which is definitely true (so hard that the company has come under repeated fire for poor working conditions and what some allege amounts to mistreatment). But as he did more research, he realized it actually was about continual reinvention, which is how Amazon has gone from being just an online bookstore to one of the world’s largest retailers, with a cloud computing business, an entertainment business, a grocery store that has no checkout clerks, and so on. One interesting conclusion suggested by his research, he says, is that Apple — which has a market capitalization of $1.2 trillion — may not be able to extend its dominance because it doesn’t take the “always day one” approach. “Apple is in danger of missing the next computing shift, similar to how Microsoft missed mobile,” he says.

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John Prine 1946-2020 — death of a legendary singer/songwriter/poet

When I first started learning how to play the acoustic guitar, way back in about 1978 or so, one of the first artists whose songs I learned was John Prine (the other was Neil Young, and later on Leon Redbone, who passed away last year). One of the things I liked about John Prine was that he only ever used about four chords, and they were really easy to play — G, D, C, maybe an A minor now and then. But as I got to know him and his songs, it became increasingly clear that he was a genius — not a musical genius perhaps, but definitely a songwriting genius. A true poet, in the same vein as Dylan or Springsteen, but his songs are arguably a lot less cryptic than the former’s and a lot less mythical than the latter’s.

Prine songs are deceptively simple: They are about normal people named Donald or Lydia or Linda or Rudy, people with simple lives that consist of being in the army, working in factories, growing old, walking down the railway tracks in the winter, etc. But there is magic in the way John Prine writes about them — he lulls you into a false sense of security in some songs, with some light-hearted, feel-good banter, and then he hits you with a line that cuts like a knife. Something so artfully stated that it reveals an insight about human nature with only a few well-chosen words. Springsteen told Rolling Stone: “He was never anything but the loveliest guy in the world. He wrote music of towering compassion with an almost unheard-of precision and creativity when it came to observing the fine details of ordinary lives.”

“There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes. Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose” Sam Stone

In a remembrance that he sent to music writer Bob Lefsetz for his Lefsetz Letter, musician Tom Rush mentioned what he called “the sideways, sometimes upside-down takes on life that had us smiling and singing along. Ways of looking at things that were new to the world but were expressed so forcefully and engagingly that you could not turn away — there was no choice in the matter, you had to love him. No movie-star looks, no soaring tenor or dazzling guitar licks. He didn’t need them. He saw truths that had never before occurred to us, and offered them up in a brand-new, loving way that could not be denied.”

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What Google and Facebook should do to fight disinformation

Note: This is a post I wrote originally for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Both Google and Facebook have acted surprisingly quickly to remove disinformation related to the COVID-19 virus over the past few weeks, considering their somewhat mixed track record when it comes to removing hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and trolls related to political campaigns. But experts there is still a lot more that they and other digital platforms could be doing. CJR spoke this week with Karen Kornbluh and Ellen Goodman, co-authors of a new paper published by the German Marshall Fund entitled “Safeguarding Digital Democracy,” which includes a series of steps they say the major digital platforms need to take in order to deal with the problem. Kornbluh is a former US Ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and a senior fellow at the GMF and director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative, and Goodman is a professor at Rutgers Law School and co-founder and co-director of the Institute for Information Policy & Law.

In addition to Kornbluh and Goodman, CJR also held two roundtables with other experts using our Galley discussion platform, one of which included Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University; Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School; Mark MacCarthy, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Technology Law and Policy at Georgetown Law school, and Victor Pickard, an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication. The second roundtable with Goodman and Kornbluh also included Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy and Information Center; Kate Klonick from St. John’s University law school; Enrique Armijo, a law professor at Elon University; Gus Hurwitz from the Nebraska College of Law; and Evelyn Douek, a doctoral student at Harvard Law School.

“The policy debate on disinformation has been hobbled by a false choice between allowing platforms or the government to censor. We propose instead empowering citizens through updating offline protections and rights (consumer protection, civil rights, privacy, campaign finance), supporting journalism and increasing accountability of platforms,” said Kornbluh. One of the things that would improve the overall information environment and counter-balance some of the worst of what the platforms do, she and Goodman suggest, is the creation of a PBS-style funding and distribution structure for digital journalism — an entity that they argue should be funded by a tax on the advertising revenues of Facebook and Google.

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