Watch Sir Edmund Hillary Describe His Everest Ascent, on the 60th Anniversary of His Climb

Sixty years ago today, New Zealand explorer Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to ever reach the summit of Mount Everest. This feat may not seem so significant now, when upwards of 150 people may reach the top of the 29,000-foot mountain on the best climbing day. In fact the summit has become so overcrowded that officials are even debating installing a ladder for descents (to the horror of serious mountaineers). But in 1953, Hillary and Norgay’s ascent was a pretty big deal, you might say. In the video above, excerpted from Hillary’s appearance on the educational program Omnibus, watch the famous explorer nonchalantly tell the story of his and Norgay’s conquering of Everest.

And if you’re in a mood to do some virtual exploring yourself, from the comfort of your own home, you can look around the Everest summit courtesy of Google Earth.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Eric Clapton’s Isolated Guitar Track From the Beatles’ ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (1968)

George Harrison of the Beatles was an accomplished guitar player with a distinctive soloing style. So you might think that with a song as personal and guitar-centric as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” he would do his own playing. In fact, the song features guitar playing by Eric Clapton.

It was recorded on September 6, 1968, during the acrimonious White Album sessions. Harrison had been struggling off and on for over a month to get the song right. He first tried it with his own playing on a Gibson J-200 guitar along with an overdubbed harmonium. He later experimented by running the guitar solo backwards. Nothing seemed to work.

So finally Harrison asked his friend Clapton for a little help. When Harrison walked into Abbey Road Studios with Clapton, the other Beatles started taking the song seriously. In a 1987 interview with Guitar Player magazine, Harrison was asked whether it had bruised his ego to ask Clapton to play on the song.

No, my ego would rather have Eric play on it. I’ll tell you, I worked on that song with John, Paul, and Ringo one day, and they were not interested in it at all. And I knew inside of me that it was a nice song. The next day I was with Eric, and I was going into the session, and I said, “We’re going to do this song. Come on and play on it.” He said, “Oh, no. I can’t do that. Nobody ever plays on the Beatles records.” I said, “Look, it’s my song, and I want you to play on it.” So Eric came in, and the other guys were as good as gold–because he was there. Also, it left me free to just play the rhythm and do the vocal. So Eric played that, and I thought it was really good. Then we listened to it back, and he said, “Ah, there’s a problem, though; it’s not Beatley enough”–so we put it through the ADT [automatic double-tracker], to wobble it a bit.

For the impression of a person weeping and wailing, Clapton used the fingers on his fretting hand to bend the strings deeply, in a highly expressive descending vibrato. He was playing a 1957 Gibson Les Paul, a guitar he had once owned but had given to Harrison, who nicknamed it “Lucy.” You can hear Clapton’s isolated playing above. And for a reminder of how it all came together, you can listen to the official version here.

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The Beauty of Space Photography

So many of the images we see of outer space are either cold and flat—a planet sphere surrounded by scores of pinpoint stars against the backdrop of black space—or they’re artists’ renderings.

The pictures featured in The Beauty of Space Photography are neither of those. They’re more like conceptual art: beautiful, mysterious, and intriguing.

The video above is the latest episode of PBS’s Off Book, a web series that explores new Internet culture. In this episode, the producers interview three astrophysicists, and they are anything but the pocket-protector types. These scientists are articulate, thoughtful, and passionate about space and about photographing what they see through super-powerful telescopes.

Working for different institutions, each scientist uses photography as a major tool to study space. The images have functional value of course, to assist with measuring and documenting findings. But there’s no denying their beauty. Astrophysics also touches on philosophical questions, so the pictures trigger a sense of awe that borders on the existential.

The blue and pink swirls of cloud dust and deep spiral-shaped galaxies in these pictures are breathtaking because, as astrophysicist Emily Rice says, we know what they are and yet they are unfathomable.

The images are of such high quality that they convey some of the depth and grandeur of space. The pictures seem to contain the unbelievable immensity and allow us to focus in on just a small, beautiful piece of what is all around out there.

But that’s just part of the fun of this short video. Listening to the scientists talk about their work is like having an expert guide you through the universe, a docent who’s excited and educated about things that none of us can truly comprehend even as we gape at their beauty.

The other scientists featured in this short are David Hogg (NYU) and Zolt Levay (Space Telescope Science Institute).

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Kate Rix writes about digital media and education. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter @mskaterix.

Hear Sylvia Plath Read 18 Poems From Her Final Collection, Ariel, in 1962 Recording

“Add to the available accounts of Plath (there are so many) this, please: nobody brought a house to life the way she did.” So writes Dan Chiasson in a February New Yorker piece commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death. Chiasson’s plea is made all the more poignant by his careful readings of the tenderness—amidst the pain and horror—in Plath’s final collection, Ariel, which she left sitting on the kitchen table to be found along with her body. (The collection has recently been restored to correspond to Plath’s final wishes).

Chiasson’s refocusing of Plath’s legacy feels necessary, given that, as James Parker writes in The Atlantic, “Her short life has been trampled and retrampled under the biographer’s hoof, her opus viewed and skewed through every conceivable lens of interpretation.” It is sometimes difficult to connect with work—even with that as stunningly accomplished and resonant as Plath’s—through this thick haze of sensationalism and cult fandom. Even if many of the poems in Ariel—most famously “Lady Lazarus”—seem to request this kind of scrutiny, many others, Chiasson writes, including the title poem, need to be approached afresh, without the morbid celebrity baggage Plath’s name carries.

Is this possible? Perhaps one way to reconnect with the poetry is to hear Plath herself reading it. In these recordings, you can hear her read fifteen poems from Ariel, her New England Brahmin vowels inflecting every line, drawing out internal rhymes and assonance, then clipping at caesuras like a well-bred horse’s trotting hooves.

The title poem “Ariel”—which Chiasson eulogizes as “a perfect poem, perfect in its excesses and stray blasphemies”—is, in fact, partly named after Plath’s favorite horse. Also enfolded in the title is the captive sprite bound to perform tricks for Shakespeare’s mage Prospero in The Tempest, and an Old Testament name given to Jerusalem, meaning “lion of God” (the second stanza begins “God’s lioness…”). Plath’s poetic self-understanding is as complex as this allusive layering suggests, and the poem’s jarring ellipses demand very close attention.

The readings here are from recordings made on October 20, 1962. Poems include: “The Rabbit Catcher,” “A Birthday Present,” “A Secret,” “The Applicant,” “Daddy,” “Medusa,” “Stopped Dead,” “Fever 103°,” “Amnesiac,” “Cut,” “Ariel,” “Poppies In October,” “Nick And The Candlestick,” “Purdah,” and “Lady Lazarus.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Visualized in a Computer Animation

Even those of us who only took half a music appreciation course in college know about the impact of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the orchestral ballet that nearly caused a brawl at its debut. Ah, but how times have changed in the exactly one hundred years since that May evening at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Now no music, no matter how radically it breaks from tradition, causes anything like a riot; at worst, listeners shuffle out early, and that’s making the debatable assumption that such a piece would draw an audience in the first place. Today’s musicophiles like what they like, often to the point of obsession, and simply ignore what they don’t. The past century, of course, has proven Stravinsky’s compositional instincts ahead of their time, now that we all know the name of the The Rite of Spring, and the complex work itself has attracted plenty of obsessive musicophiles of its own.

Some have gone as far as to turn the music into imagery. In 1913, we had no more technologically advanced way to visualize a piece of music than through dance, such as The Rite of Spring‘s ballet. In 2013, the art of computer graphics greatly expands the quest for an ever more perfect way to represent music not just to the ear, but to the eye. Composer, pianist and software engineer Stephen Malinowski has long led the way with the various iterations of his Music Animation Machine. At the top of the post, you can see a visualization of The Rite of Spring‘s first part, “The Adoration of the Earth.” Just above appears its second part, “The Exalted Sacrifice.” “I was not aware of the kind of harmonic things Stravinsky has going on,” Malinowski told NPR, explaining what he learned about the piece in the process. “It’s incredible — Stravinsky continually torques you, startles you, and frustrates your anticipations.” Imagine how it would have blown those early-twentieth-century Parisian minds to see this at the debut.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los AngelesA Los Angeles PrimerFollow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

The Religious Affiliation of Comic Book Heroes

Atheist comics

Spider-Man, he was apparently a Protestant. The Hulk, a lapsed Catholic. Thor, a worshipper of a Teutonic deity. The X-Men, an assemblage of Catholics and Episcopalians. And Stanley Lee, the creator of these famous comic book figures, he’s Jewish. If you’re a comic book fan with a thing for trivia, you can peruse this database of over 10,000 characters and figure out the religious affiliation of Batman and Wonder Woman, plus lesser-known characters like Chameleon BoySwamp Thing, and Poison Ivy.

P.S. The creatures in the image above, they’re atheists, a category also tracked by this most thorough database.

via @wfmu

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Lou Reed, John Cale & Nico Reunite, Play Acoustic Velvet Underground Songs on French TV, 1972

By 1972, the Velvet Underground, arguably the most influential cult band of all time, was effectively dead, all of the original members having departed the project. Reports of animosity and rancor at the end may be exaggerated; whether the tensions that split the band apart were primarily inner or outer hardly matters at this point. But the still-performing members continued to support each other in some fashion for the remainder of their careers, and the band’s three singers even reunited for a one-off acoustic concert in Paris of that year to perform a set of classic Velvet tracks as well as songs from their solo albums.

The audio of this reunion circulated for years as a bootleg before its official release in 2004. Video of the concert at Le Bataclan, originally broadcast on French television, preserves the evening, edited into segments and shuffling the original song order.

First, Lou Reed sings “Berlin” (top), a torch song he purportedly wrote about Nico (watch her look on as he sings). Reed calls it his “Barbara Streisand song.” Next, watch Cale and Reed do a version of “Waiting for My Man” (above).

You can watch a longer version of the concert broadcast here, with performances from Reed, Cale, and Nico intercut with talky segments between French journalists. This concert, and the various bootlegs and official live releases, may not be essential listening for casual VU fans, but Philip Shelley’s comment on the live recordings may apply equally to the film: “if you appreciate the fleeting revelations to be found in snapshots, then this may be just the bit of quicksilver for you, a unique moment in musical history just before these three erstwhile Jekylls became forever Hydes.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear the Classic Winnie-the-Pooh Read by Author A.A. Milne in 1929

christopher-robinHere’s a rare recording from 1929 of the British author A.A. Milne reading a chapter of his beloved children’s book, Winnie-the-Pooh. Milne was a prolific writer of plays, novels and essays, but he was most widely known–much to his chagrin–as the creator of a simple and good-natured little bear.

Pooh was inspired by his son Christopher Robin’s favorite teddy bear. In Milne’s imagination, the stuffed bear comes alive and enters into little adventures (or one might say misadventures) with Christopher Robin and his other stuffed animals. The name “Winnie” was borrowed from a famous resident of the London Zoo: a black bear from Canada named for the city of Winnipeg. The young Christopher Robin liked visiting Winnie at the zoo. He also liked a graceful swan he saw swimming in a pond at Kensington Gardens, who he named “Pooh.” His father combined the two names to create one of the most popular characters in children’s literature.

Winnie-the-Pooh first appeared in stories and poems in popular magazines. In 1926 Milne collected them in a book, Winnie-the-Pooh, with illustrations by E.H. Shepard. Each chapter in the book is a self-contained episode or story. In the recording below, Milne reads Chapter Three (click here to open the text in new a window) “In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle.”

Looking for free, professionally-read audio books from Here’s a great, no-strings-attached deal. If you start a 30 day free trial with, you can download two free audio books of your choice. Get more details on the offer here.

And note this: also has a free trial offer where you can download a free audiobook. Details.

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