Interesting books I read this year

“The best books of the year” articles are useful but annoying: useful because there are often interesting books I missed but annoying because a book isn’t worth reading simply because it was published in a given year. So I’m doing a list not of books published this year but that I read this year and think deserve attention.

* Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel: Almost nothing in pop culture prepared anyone for long-term relationships, and Perel’s book is about many, many things, among them what happens after most novels, movies, and TV shows end. When it came out Tyler Cowen called it “the most dangerous book I read this year,” and that was in 2006. It is not a good book to admit to liking publicly.

* Arts & Entertainments by Christopher Beha, about a failed actor who becomes an inadvertent teacher who becomes an inadvertent amateur pornographer who becomes an inadvertent reality TV personage. I laughed, and the book’s final dialogues are still funny but also offer unexpected, powerful commentary on our time. Why isn’t this book more popular and getting more attention?

* The Power of Glamour by Virginia Postrel, about a latent yet pervasive phenomenon that was until recently underrated and even ignored by me.

* Related to The Power of Glamour, The Rosie Project, as recommended by Bill Gates. It starts promisingly and ends brilliantly, with me laughing at almost every page; if you know any geek, nerds, or programmers, you need to both read this and give it to them.

* The Great Man, by Kate Christensen, also very funny and with sentences that delight from start to finish.

* Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce, another book that should be better known and hits many valences simultaneously.

* Zero to One by Thiel and Masters, which is notionally about startups but is really about the world.

* Echopraxia by Peter Watts, but do read Blindsight first. So good it’s hard to write about.

* Trust Me, I’m Lying, which I didn’t read when I first heard about it because I thought, “Meh, I already know.” I didn’t, and the prose is delightful. Note too the comments at the link.

* Bess adds Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee–A Look Inside North Korea, about a defector’s astonishing story. The sentences are strong, yet I feel like I already knew enough about North Korea prior to reading.

What have I missed?

5K / “Retina” iMac and Mac OS X “Yosemite” thoughts

Note added Jan. 29: Yosemite update 10.10.2 seems to have solved the software problems noted below. The hardware continues to be excellent. The next version of OS X, El Capitan (10.11), is said to be “a return to slow-but-steady improvement after Yosemite’s upheaval.” Let’s hope so.

I’ve had a Retina iMac with Yosemite installed for close to a month, which is long enough to form a mostly positive impression—except for the bad software situation. The iMac’s “Retina” screen is as beautiful as advertised and is a tangible reminder of progress. If you use it you won’t want to go back, any more than you’d want to go back to celibacy after losing your virginity. But Yosemite crashes about once a day for reasons mysterious to me and to Apple support. Yosemite is a step backwards.

5k retina imacLet’s start with the headline feature: the screen difference between the preceding iMac and this one is real, but it’s not nearly as great as the difference between the low-resolution Macbook Pro and the Retina MacBook Pro. Retina MacBook Pros are not just better but insanely, can’t-go-back better than their predecessors. The Retina iMac is an improvement, a real improvement, but not as startling. If you’re in the market for an iMac-like computer and can afford the price premium, the better display is worth the cost. As noted above, you won’t want to go back. Standalone versions of the screen aren’t even available as of this writing; when they become available, they’ll likely cost $2,000 in and of themselves.

People who bought iMacs in the last two to three years should probably wait for the next iteration because it should be cheaper than this one. My last iMac came from 2010 or thereabouts and I was due for an upgrade, especially because I now do more with video than I previously had. Fast computers are to video what oil is to transportation: It’s almost impossible to have enough.

This iMac is not as quiet as my previous iMac, though it also isn’t noisy enough to make the fuss that would be necessary to return mine and try again. It has an annoying, intermittent buzz that’s noticeable in quiet rooms. I can imagine myself standing in an Apple store, most of which sound like an airplane engine is prepping for takeoff, and trying to get the support person to do what I want them to do, while the support person looks at me like I’m crazy.

In software terms the OS jumped from 10.6 to 10.10. The only day-to-day difference I notice is the addition of Messages, which lets me text to phones from my keyboard. Phone keyboards have always bothered me—which may be a sign of age—and Messages is a significant enhancement. Obviously there are numerous differences in the APIs and libraries available, which developers have leveraged or are leveraging, but they’re not as salient to me as the “headline” features. Still, I think about how every version of OS X from 10.0 – 10.6 saw major feature improvements that immediately made my life way better in an immediate, tangible way. I’m not seeing that in the 10.6 – 10.10 jump.

The major OS X features I love and constantly use were introduced years ago: Spotlight, Time Machine, Exposé. Messages could probably have been backported to 10.6 but wasn’t. Some cool new programs like Pixelmator seem to have been enabled by the backend OS work, but those programs don’t have a huge effect on my day-to-day life. Spotlight is harder to use and doesn’t seem to work as well as it did. Boolean operators also still appear to be absent.

The migration process from old iMac to new was painful and manual; Migration Assistant is notoriously unreliable and works terribly if a person, like me, is moving from two hard drives to a single drive. Permissions problems appeared, as they so often do. I could solve them with time and patience, but they might have stymied less sophisticated users. The general reluctance to upgrade any working computer is reasonable based on my experiences.

Once I had the basic migration done, I spent a lot of time turning off various “features.” Threaded mail messages in don’t work very well for me, and the animations were annoying and slowed things down. Some pretty but non-functional could only be turned off through the command line. It would be nice to have a “fuck animations” checkbox in system preferences somewhere. Speed is of paramount importance.

Four years ago I wrote about my uninterest in upgrading from OS X 10.6 to 10.7, and recent experiences have borne out that reluctance. Most of the Apple operating systems since 10.6 appear to be less stable than 10.6. This Hacker News thread is full of stories about problems with Yosemite. Right now Yosemite is only on its .1 release, so the .2 release may solve some of the problems, but the stability issue should have been solved in beta. In addition to the WindowServer crashes linked to above, Flash crashes routinely in the browser. Final Cut Pro X is unusable because it crashes when attempting to import any new video. This will necessitate yet another call to Apple support. aFinder has crashed a couple times for mysterious reasons—despite the fact that the hardware in this machine is by every conceivable metric faster, better, and more tolerant than the hardware in the preceding machine.

What gives? I’m not the only one having these problems. In addition to the Hacker News thread, consider “AppleCore Rot,” another piece on Apple’s apparent quality problems. This in particular resonates: “Stuff that worked for years breaks, while new visual crapware is piled on endlessly.” I would like Apple to make it work first and make it pretty second.

In an email my Dad observed this about Yosemite and the linked Hacker news thread:

The first post [in the Hacker News thread] complains about the phone calling feature. About 22 years ago, I routinely made calls from the IBM PC 1 using Lotus Organizer 1.0 to dial from the address book with Windows 3.1 and the world’s slowest modem. But then again, Organizer was the best PIM [Personal Information Manager] ever and in some respects AmiPro and WordPro were better 20 years ago than Word is today.

I used to use Lotus WordPro too, and it was much stabler than Word today (although Word has been relatively stable in this version and the last version). Some software was better a decade ago than it is today.
That being said, many of the random waits that involved exporting photos from Lightroom or, to a lesser extent, videos from Final Cut Pro X have either disappeared altogether in the case of the former or shrunk dramatically in the case of the latter. That’s the few times FCP X has actually worked, however.  Some simple scripts run faster. Manipulating exifdata with Exiftool is faster. Web browsers no longer choke and sputter (that they did on a relatively modern machine could be the subject of another cranky post). Fast user switching is now genuinely fast. The advance of hardware, and what it enables, is not to be underestimated.

Still, there are other caveats. The larger hard drive is good, but Apple should really be offering four terabyte Fusion drives. I’m puzzled as to why it doesn’t, apart from simple cheapness. Large hard drives are one of the (dwindling number of) reasons people still use desktops.

My iMac had a 256 GB SSD and a 2 TB conventional drive; this one has 128 GB and 3 TB, respectively, which is anemic improvement in capacity terms (though the SSD is much faster and the interconnect between the SSD and CPU is also much faster). Still, 4 TB hard drives are widely available and there’s no good reason why Apple shouldn’t offer bigger hard drives. There are other nice-to-haves: USB 3 ports. Thunderbolt ports. External hard drive speeds are much faster. I’ve gone from having about 2 TB readily available to having 9 TB readily available, between a Drobo and the internal drives.

5k retina imac side viewAesthetics are a wash. From the front, the new iMac is visually indistinguishable from the old, and photos don’t convey the screen’s beauty. The profile shots show a much slenderer machine. Also notable in the pictures in the Elevation Stand, which began as a Kickstarter Project that I backed. It’s by far the best iMac stand I’ve found, and I’ve tried various solutions ranging from wood blocks to books to an expensive stand festooned with screws sold discovered through the Apple store. The Elevation Stand is expensive but it works. The space between the top and bottom of the stand will also fit external hard drives.

My desk is somewhat ugly and I’m perpetually telling myself I’ll clean it off and make it very pure and functional seeming, but for whatever reason it rarely actually happens and as soon as it does I end up re-covering it with books and cameras and cords and other crap. This is obviously not part of the iMac review.

The iMac itself is still beautiful. If you use a computer too much, as I do, you’ll want one.

Here is Farhad Manjoo’s paean to the iMac. Most tech reviewers are ecstatic, perhaps disproportionately to how ecstatic they should be, but they also know computers well and know that the screen is amazing given how expensive 4K and 5K screens cost. I have a 23″ side monitor and no desire or need to upgrade it.

Here is a Reddit thread that hits many of the same points I’ve made about OS stability. Here is Geoff Wozniak on why he quit OS X. You’ll recognize the themes I hit.

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