I started writing this article with the best of intentions, but I realized, after I wrote the first paragraph that there’s not much I can add to my one-week review. The switch has been, for the most part, seamless. I miss my fast CD drive, for ripping music (though I’ve only bought one box set – 14 CDs of Schubert piano music – since I got the mini). The graphics card is visibly inferior: the display “stutters” a bit at certain times, such as invoking Exposé, Dashboard, or viewing my four spaces. However, given the work I do, that’s just an aesthetic weakness. I’ve hooked up two external hard disks, so the actual capacity of the internal disk is not an issue (and the FireWire 800 transfer is fast enough). Having less RAM only affects when I run Windows, which is not very often.
So, to sum up, I wonder why I didn’t get a Mac mini before? I could have saved half the cost of the Mac Pro (though I did get a good price for it selling it used), and had a computer that takes up less space, makes less noise, and gives off less heat. If Apple keeps the Mac mini up to date, this will be my Mac of choice in the future, both for me and, probably, my wife who currently has a 2+ year old white 17″ iMac, and will need an upgrade soon. I’d strongly recommend the Mac mini to all Mac users: unless you have special needs (especially concerning RAM), it’ll probably do everything you want.
Aside from the raw processor power, one of the biggest differences between the two computers is the amount of RAM they contain. I had put 8 GB into the Mac Pro – it came with, I think, 2 GB, but over time I increased it to 4 GB, then, at the end of last year, to 8 GB – mostly so I’m comfortable when using Windows (which I don’t use often, and not for work). With 4 GB in the Mac mini, I find little difference in the ability to open a large number of applications (large, for me, being around a dozen). They all respond well, and switching between applications is immediate.
As I’ve said before, my work does not involve any processor-intensive applications; as a writer, I basically write, using productivity tools (Word, Pages, Acrobat, BBEdit, Numbers, etc.). All of these applications function fine with the Mac mini, and I see no difference at all in their speed or response. If I were to do a massive find/replace operation, perhaps, I might see a difference, but I’m convinced that it would be minimal. In my work this week – a pretty normal week, using all the applications I use in my work – I didn’t see any differences in using applications, with the exception that some applications, notably Microsoft Word, take a bit longer to open, perhaps two or three seconds more.
One clear difference, however, is in the graphics response. There is a bit of a stutter when using Exposé, when invoking Dashboard, or when I display all my spaces. The graphics card is much weaker than that of the Mac Pro, and it is not dedicated video RAM: the RAM is shared between normal memory and the graphics card. While this is visible, it is not a major problem; it has never occured when working in any applications, and since I’m not a gamer, I won’t have any issues with applications that need fast graphics response. I’m running a 24″ monitor, which may be one factor; I wonder how the Mac mini would work with a 30″ monitor?
I recently wrote about why I decided to downgrade from a nearly-three-year-old Mac Pro to a Mac mini. Well, the mini arrived yesterday, and it’s up and running. I thought I would post my first impressions about this computer, and, especially, compare it to the Mac Pro that I’ll be selling soon.
First, unboxing any Apple product is a fun process. The packaging is always attractive, intriguing, and parcimonious. There I was with this tiny box, weighing about two kilograms (less than five pounds) in my hands, thinking, “Wow, this is going to replace that big, bulky Mac Pro under my desk.” And the Mac mini takes up about half of the box; the rest of it is for the power supply and cord, and the installation discs and small manual.
If you haven’t seen a Mac mini in action, then you may not realize that there’s more to the computer than what Apple shows you in its pictures. The power supply is a white brick that is about 1/4 the size of the computer itself. Having the power conversion (AC to DC) in this brick does two things: it keeps the actual computer smaller, and it makes it much cooler, eliminating the need for a fan to cool the power supply within the computer. The power supply cools passively, just dissipating its heat, and this contributes to the low noise level of the mini.
Setting up the mini was easy, though it took a while to get all the cables together and in the right place. My Mac Pro was (well, still is…) under my desk, but I put the Mac mini on a shelf next to my desk. Since it’s so low, if I put it on my desk it would be hard to insert optical discs in its drive. So I needed to move some cables around that were just a tad too short to get everything connected: mouse and keyboard (well, their wireless adapter), scanner, headset, iPod cable, USB hub, as well as a FireWire 800 cable that goes to three drives in a daisy chain, the monitor connection, and an Ethernet cable. (For the latter, I could probably use AirPort, since I have a wireless network, but I’ve always kept my desktop Macs connected by Ethernet.) The back of the mini is a bit of a tangle with all those cables, but it works out well enough.
Almost 8 months ago, I wrote about how my Mac was fast enough, and how I wasn’t planning to buy a new Mac for a while. Well, my Mac Pro is now within a few months of the end of its AppleCare contract – the one thing that will get me to buy a new Mac – and I’ve decided to buy a new one. This time, I’ve opted for a Mac mini.
It all started as the weather got warmer. My Mac Pro gives off a lot of heat, and not having air conditioning (here in France, with “French windows”, you can’t just stick an air conditioner in a window) means that this computer heats up my office too much in the summer. I wanted to consider replacing it, in part because of the heat, but also because of that looming AppleCare deadline. Knowing that it’s easier to sell a used Mac if it has AppleCare – even a few months – meant that my upgrade window was fast closing.
My first consideration was an iMac. But Apple only sells iMacs with glossy screens, and, looking at my son’s iMac, I realized that I couldn’t work if I saw myself on the screen all day. In addition, I already have a 24″ Dell monitor, so buying an iMac would mean either using two monitors (nice, but I don’t have the desktop space), or putting the Dell in the basement.
I actually hadn’t considered the Mac mini at all, until my fellow Macworld author Rob Griffiths suggested it. There always seemed to be something missing in the Mac mini; it seemed to be a stopgap designed for switchers who didn’t want much in a Mac. But looking more closely at the specs, and comparing its speed with my MacBook Air, I realized it would be more than fast enough for what I do. As I said when I wrote about my Mac being fast enough, the only time I really use its processors is when I rip CDs or convert music. I do these things often, but not that much that it would change my life if they were slower. Another thing I liked about the Mac Pro was the ability to have four internal hard disks. But as the Mac mini has FireWire 800, I could daisy chain two big externals (1 TB each), and have all the disk space I need.
I ordered the maxed-out model of the Mac mini: 4 GB RAM, a 320 GB hard disk, and the faster 2.26 GHz processor. It will be faster than my MacBook Air (2 x 1.8 GHz), which is more than sufficient for most of what I do. I could have tried to upgrade the RAM and hard disk myself, as Dan Frakes recently wrote about in Macworld, but I didn’t want to bother with it, and didn’t want any worries about my warranty.
As any Grateful Dead fan (aka Deadhead) will tell you, “Dark Star” is the ultimate Dead song. This cosmic symphony of rock was the optimal vehicle for the group’s improvisations, a template for the moods and feelings that the various musicians wanted to express in their music. Jerry Garcia said, “Dark Star has meant, while I was playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine,” and Phil Lesh called it “the one we tacitly agreed on where anything was okay.”
While the Dead jammed many of their songs, Dark Star has a special place. It stands aside several other classic tunes that often stretched on for 30 minutes or more–That’s It for the Other One, Turn on Your Lovelight, Playin’ In the Band–but always offered a less structured environment for improvisation. The Grateful Dead performed Dark Star at least 232 times, according to Deadbase.On an absolute level, there are no Dark Stars, but there is one long, discontinuous Dark Star, which was proven so adeptly by John Oswald in his Grayfolded, a melding and morphing of dozens of Dark Stars into a long, single piece that embodies the essence of Dark Star.
The ur-Dark Star must remain the 2/27/69 version, immortalized on the Live Dead album, which was released later the same year. This version has almost chamber-music perfection and subtlety, and its inclusion on the Dead’s first live release raised it to a special place in the Pantheon of Dead songs. It was the Dark Star that Deadheads (other than those who traded tapes) listened to over and over.
Every other Dark Star flows from that version. Whether it be the raucous 8/27/72 performance, recorded in the scorching Oregon heat, where Jerry Garcia’s notes spit from his amps like fire bolts; the sinuous 9/21/72 version (at over 37 minutes), with its long, mellow noodling; or the jazzy Halloween 1971 version, every Dark Star has its own character and mood. Other classic Dark Stars include the 2/13/70 Fillmore East recording, which is part of one of the Dead’s greatest concerts ever, and the 48-minute 5/11/72 version played in Rotterdam.
Dark Star will remain, for aficionados of the Grateful Dead, the hallmark of their work. While the Dead performed hundreds of different songs, the scope and breadth–and length–of Dark Star makes it the highlight of almost every live Grateful Dead recording.
The time has come for another annotated edition of Thoreau’s Walden, to replace the aging edition prepared by Thoreau scholar Walter G. Harding. Jeffery S. Cramer, curator of collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, has taken on this task, and after many years of work has published this densely annotated text of Walden.
Annotations cover all the areas one would expect: definitions of foreign words, references to people and places mentioned in the text, sources of quotes, even the date of a gentle rain mentioned in one part of the chapter entitled Solitude. Cramer occasionally compares passages in the text with Thoreau’s journal entries and other writings, offering insight into how Thoreau reworked some of his ideas. He is a voluble annotator – the book contains thousands of notes, with 427 for the first (and longest) chapter, Economy, alone. There are some pages where there is no body text at all, to allow for the multiple annotations, yet it is surprising at times to come across pages where he finds nothing to say.While I cannot judge the scholarly value of Cramer’s notes, they are certainly voluminous. If they do not cover all the details, I doubt that another edition with more notes will come along for some time. However, some of the notes make me question the usefulness of the way the notes are presented. For example, on page 81, Thoreau says, “It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a form or the county jail.” Cramer’s note says: “Thoreau was committed to the county jail in July 1846 for nonpayment of taxes.” Really? Do tell… Alas, there is no more about this (famous) incident in Thoreau’s life. Off to the index to see… When I look up jail, it does not refer me to page 81 (suggesting that the index is not quite up to par), but to pages 166 and 308. On the former, I find a better explanation of this incident. It would have been much more useful to find, on page 81, a reference to this note on page 166. Adding notes or references to other notes makes the overall text a bit more cumbrous, but oh so much more complete!
What is perhaps the most important aspect of this book for any die-hard Walden aficionado is its layout. Leaving aside the apocryphal illustrations that appear beneath each chapter title (animals, leaves and berries, even a steam locomotive), what counts most in a book like this is its readability. And the readability depends on the book’s layout. I must say that this is the most disappointing aspect of the book. The canonical text (Thoreau’s text) takes up just over half the total page width. It is presented in slim columns with a thin rule in the form of a box surrounding the text on both sides of a double-page spread. The font is attractive and very readable. At the margins of the canonical text is the annotations, in a smaller, sans serif font, which contrasts well with the main text and is equally readable.
Yet the layout is insufficient for one wishing to read Walden alone, and not focus on the annotations. In an ideal annotated edition of any text, the notes should be in the background enough so the reader can ignore them easily. Here, since the notes cover so much space, this is not possible. With the body text being as slim as it is, the notes look as though the cover half the page. And, with the gutter (the space between the text and the binding at the inside of the pages) being too small, you have to push the book flat to read it comfortably. If you simply let it sit flat on a desk on in your lap, it is difficult to read the words at the center of the book.
It is clearly the density of the annotations that led to this layout. But the publisher had a chance to make a book that was both useful (the annotations) and attractive (the layout); unfortunately, they chose the former. This edition, while fine for reading the notes, is not conducive to a casual, fire-side read of Walden. It is an excellent addition to the library of any Thoreauvian – I’d even say it is an essential book for anyone wishing to better understand Thoreau and Walden – but it is not the edition I would pick up to simply read a chapter or two of the work. (The recent edition by Shambhala, with woodcuts by Michael McCurdy, or the paperback or hardcover Library of America editions, are perhaps best for casual reading.) Nevertheless, this is an invaluable work for a better understanding of this, one of the greatest texts of American literature.
[Note: I wrote this review back in 2000, and just stumbled on it. I haven’t edited it, other than correcting a few infelicities in the writing. I read this book in French, and the review discusses the book’s content, not its translation.]
I was expecting to read a real biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest authors, but it turned out to be a long book of little more than intellectual masturbation.
I find some of the pre-publication comments on the Amazon.com site quite perplexing– “critically acclaimed, best-seller in France…” Critically acclaimed, for this sort of book, means only that the author’s friends, and his publisher’s hirelings, wrote excellent reviews of the book–in France, it is all too common to see reviews written by writers who publish or act as “series editors” for the same publisher as the book they are reviewing. Unlike in the US, where reviewers are independent, at least in some periodicals, these reviews are nothing more than advertisements. And best-selling, well, that is of course relative. Having worked in a French bookstore for several years, and being involved in publishing in this country, I know that this means only that the book sold better than expected. When you read the term “best-seller” in English, you tend to think of such books as Tom Clancy or John Grisham, and I can imagine that this biography sold nowhere near one tenth, even perhaps one one-hundredth of what those books sell in France.But I wonder exactly what the critics acclaimed in this book? Was it the overlong lists of people Proust knew, the thousands of footnotes, the never-ending quotes with which the author peppered his text? This is a fine example of a biography that was written for scholars and is, as is often the case, poorly written; it inspired, as I read it, nothing more than a desire to get to the end. The author writes like a scholar, which is fine if you like that style (although I feel sorry for the translator who has to put this work into English). But this is a minor problem compared to the total lack of character that he develops.
For me, the benchmark for literary biographies is the Richard Ellman biography of James Joyce . Not only does Ellman examine the author’s life and work, but ties the two of them together. At the end of the book, the reader has the feeling that he or she “knows” Joyce, that he understands his personality. In this book, the personal aspect is totally missing–if I hadn’t read other biographies of Proust before, I would undoubtedly not understand his life. While Tadié mentions often enough Proust’s illnesses and anxiety, and mentions his homosexuality more than enough, the reader learns very little about Proust other than the people he met and added to his novel. For while La Recherche is a roman a clé, and it is useful to know who the characters represent, it is also a highly introspective novel where a better knowledge of the author is far more valuable to its understanding.
One example: those who know about Proust know about his cork-lined room at the end of his life, but Tadié mentions this only in passing. I would think that this part of Proust, the anxious, obsessive part, is far more important than the number of times he ate dinner at the Ritz.
Reading this book was a real chore. Hardly a paragraph goes by without one or several quotes from Proust’s correspondence, from works written by others about him, or texts by the many people he met. This cuts the text up, giving the author no room to stake out a voice for himself. And when he does try and use his own voice, it is in the excessively pedantic, and overly “precious” style of French pseudo-academic writing.
The author is clearly writing to defend his own approach, one that has not been unanimously accepted. Roger Shattuck’s review of the latest Pléiade edition in French, published in the New York Review of Books, points out how Tadié has taken the work and turned it into a huge mass of sketches and drafts. [Unfortunately, this review is no longer available on the web, unless one has a subscription to the New York Review of Books.]
It can be difficult to take a person like Proust and make him more human, to make readers understand who he was. Growing up in a bourgeois family, independently wealthy, at least until the First World War, Proust is not the kind of person that I feel great sympathy for, at least not when reading this biography that sounds like the very long society page of a newspaper. Yet, when reading La Recherche , I feel such incredible affinity with this lonely man whose life was full of suffering. It is a shame that there is such a difference between the Proust of his work and the Proust of this biography.
In the end, I gave up and skipped over the last few hundred pages, out of lassitude. I found little in this book that was interesting. For a biography that better depicts Proust as the person he was, and gives insight into his life and feelings, the book written by William Carter, Marcel Proust: A Life , is far more interesting. The Tadié book is useful perhaps if you want to look up who was the source for a given character, but other than that, read Proust’s work–you will learn far more about his life in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.
Synchronicity is such that I just received the latest issue of the New Yorker, which contains a very interesting article about Morton Feldman, who is now considered to be one of the greatest American composers of the twentieth century. I say synchronicity because it was only a few weeks ago that I discovered Feldman’s music, by browsing through the iTunes Music Store. I purchased his Triadic Memories, an astoundingly simple yet profound piano work, and his Piano and String Quartet, which pulses to the rhythm of human breath and is full of understated surprises.These later works by Feldman should be called minimalist, but they aren’t the same type of repetitive minimalism of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, two of my favorite composers. It’s more a minimalism of reduction, of stripping away the arabesques of music to leave only the salient parts that provide feeling and emotion. In Feldman’s music, the silence is as important as the notes.
Feldman also wrote some very long pieces in his later years: For Philip Guston, which is over four hours long, and his String Quartet 2, that clocks in at around six hours. (At the time of this update, in June, 2011, the String Quartet 2 is only $20 from Amazon in MP3 format.)
And while I’m rambling about minimalism, one of the most astounding recordings I’ve heard in recent years is Harold Budd’s As Long As I Can Hold My Breath (By Night), a 69-minute remix of a song on the Avalon Sutra album, which has great similarities to Feldman’s music…
There’s a lot of music to listen to here, but I felt the need to share this discovery. I just wonder why it took me so long to learn about Morton Feldman. Perhaps part of the reason is the scope of many of his works; you won’t hear hour-long works on the radio very often, or even in performance. But finally I have discovered his work, and it’s a very good thing.
Update: Since I first wrote this article in 2008, I have collected a great deal of Feldman’s works. Many of them are very long, but once you appreciate Feldman’s musical language, you are more than happy to take the time to listen to them.
About a year ago, a friend turned my on to Brad Mehldau. We had been corresponding by e-mail, talking about music, and I mentioned that I was a big Bill Evans fan. The friend mentioned Mehldau, suggesting that I look into one of his Art of the Trio albums. I did. I was hooked.Now, with about ten Brad Mehldau albums – some solo, but most with his trio – I’ve become and unconditional fan. So I keep my eyes open for every new release. This new recording, his first with his new label Nonesuch, is the first live solo disc he has made. He performs many familiar songs, a few new ones, and the now-obligatory Radiohead cover (a nearly 20 minute rendition of Paranoid Android).
The sound is great; the piano seems recorded from a slight distance, allowing the music to bloom in the hall, and the performance is what I have come to expect from Mehldau: tight, yet flexible, with restrained improvisation that highlights his creativity and feeling for the music.
My favorite track on the album is River Man, the final track, a somewhat melancholy ballad that is perfectly fitting for the last song of a set or a recording. Here, Mehldau takes the repetitive left-hand part as a solid base for a lyrical improvisation of the song’s simple tune, and increases the tension and complexity as he goes on. Sheer bliss.
There is something interesting to note about this album. It is available in two forms: on CD and by download from the iTunes Music Store. What is interesting, however, is that the iTunes Music Store offers the equivalent of a double CD for a little more than the usual album price ($13.99), whereas this double CD is not available on plastic. Even more surprising, the iTunes Music Store does not mention this difference, and the only indication on Brad Mehldau’s web site is a link on the main page, but there’s nothing on the page for the disc itself. It’s almost as if they wanted to keep it under wraps, to see whether fans notice.
So, if you just have to have the disc, go for plastic; but if you want the music, you get about two hours’ worth from the iTunes Music Store version. In either case, go for it: this is perhaps Mehldau’s best recording yet.