Some Thoughts on the Future of Newspapers

I’ve just finished watching The Wire for the second time. For those unfamiliar with the TV series, the fifth and final season features two concurrent plot threads: one has to do with the police and their investigations, and the other has to do with the press, notably the Baltimore Sun, the daily newspaper in the city where the series is set.

Throughout the season, you see the difficulties that the Sun faces; even though this was made several years ago, and the Internet is not mentioned, it is clear that times are tough for that venerable daily paper. The Sun has a storied history, counting one of America’s most famous journalists, H. L. Mencken, as one of its alumni. But in season 5 of The Wire, you see the problems faced by today’s newspapers, and how they cope.

This made me think about how newspapers have changed in my lifetime, and how they may change in the near future. At first, I found the newspaper to be a sacred object. In 6th grade – and this goes back about 40 years – I recall our English teacher showing us how to fold the New York Times to be able to read it efficiently. As with any broadsheet, the right fold is essential to be able to read the paper in the subway or on a bus.

Over the years, as an adult, I bought papers most days, and skimmed the news. At a time when I watched little television, the newspaper was my only source of information about what was going on in the world. When I moved to France 25 years ago, I started buying the International Herald Tribune, and over the years, subscribed to it from time to time. This slim broadsheet, now owned by the New York Times, was a condensed version of the world’s news, and it showed up in my mailbox six days a week. Unfortunately, French newspapers are quite expensive, which has always prevented me from buying them regularly, but with the Internet, and my RSS reader, I keep up with what goes on in the world, much more than when I was reading a paper.

But now that’s all about to change. With Apple most likely releasing a tablet computer, I’m looking forward to a shift in the way we get news. Instead of reading unrelated articles with an RSS reader, we will be able to buy “newspapers” digitally, and read them on the Apple tablet. What seems likely is that we’ll be able to subscribe to a paper – local or national – and get it daily, via iTunes, on the device. This will renew people’s interest in newspapers.

Some people think this won’t work. They think that no one will pay for news when it’s free; or they’ll just download pirated copies of newspapers for their tables. I truly think that the Apple tablet will save newspapers, for two reasons. First, why go to the trouble of rounding up the news you want to read when you can get it all in one place? There are a few trusted newspapers – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Le Monde – any of which will give you a good overview of the news. Second, why pirate these papers when they’ll cost you less than a dollar a day? It’s too much trouble to spend the time necessary to find and download the files.

Journalism has power, and we can’t afford to lose it. From Henry Mencken (I recently read a biography of him), who, coincidentally, worked at the Baltimore Sun, to Woodward and Bernstein, by way of Albert Camus, journalists have kept people honest and kept us informed for a long time. Without good journalists, we would be a much poorer society.

I think the Apple tablet will change the way we get daily, weekly and monthly news. Because it will not only delivery daily papers, but also weekly and monthly magazines. This new way of getting news will be a paradigm shift for publishing, and will have a huge effect on the availability of free content. While you’ll still be able to get some news for free, the good news – that which is sanctioned by a respected newspaper or magazine, or the analysis that depends on the best journalist – will no longer be free, but it won’t be expensive enough to make you want to seek out free.

I hope that with Apple’s (still only rumored) tablet we’ll see a resurgence of publishing, because the news is too important to lose to free. What’s happened in recent years, because of the Internet, has endangered all of us, because we need the press to serve as a check and balance for government, corporations, and our own stupidity. Let’s hope that Apple’s tablet will pave the way for a renaissance of journalism.

What is WebKitPluginHost?

I’ve noticed a process taking up a fair amount of memory on my Mac mini, running Snow Leopard: WebKitPluginHost. WebKit is Apple’s HTML rendering engine; it’s used by Safari, Mail (for HTML messages), and many other programs that display HTML pages. But I never noticed it before as a process. In addition, it’s currently taking up more that 200 MB of real memory. Does anyone know what this is?

Follow-up: interestingly, though not surprisingly, the process disappeared after quitting Safari. I think I figured out where it came from: I was uploading a file to my MobileMe iDisk when I noticed it. Perhaps that “PluginHost” is something that is needed by the special window that displays when you make an upload. I’m surprised that it used so much RAM, but I was uploading a file that was around 190 MB. Maybe it takes up RAM corresponding to the size of the upload… More testing will be needed.

Follow-up: it’s a process used when certain plugins are called by WebKit, including the Flash Player plugin.

One Month with a Mac mini

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you’ll have noticed my recent articles about downgrading from a Mac Pro to a Mac mini, my first impressions about the Mac mini, and my first week with the Mac mini. So now, one month after getting the Mac mini, it’s time to sum up my experiences, and, perhaps, explain why this is probably the best Mac your money can buy.

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.

A Week with a Mac mini

In previous articles, I have written about my decision to “downgrade” from a Mac Pro to a Mac mini, and about my first impressions using the Mac mini. It’s now been one week since I got the Mac mini, so it’s time to write a report about how it works “in the field”, in normal usage.

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?

Read more

My First Day with a Mac mini

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.

Read more

My New Mac: Why I’m Downgrading from a Mac Pro to a Mac mini

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.

Read more

Essential Music: Dark Star, by the Grateful Dead

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.

Book Review: Walden – A Fully Annotated Edition

Walden – A Fully Annotated Edition
Henry David Thoreau; Annotated by Jeffrey S. Cramer
370 pages. Yale University Press, 2004. $30

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

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.


Read more articles in this category: Books