iTunes and Large Libraries: Still Slow, Slow, Slow

I have a lot of music: my iTunes library currently contains about 40,000 tracks. I buy a lot of CDs, buy music from the iTunes Store, listen to audiobooks, and download podcasts. This library increases in size as I rip more music, and it has gotten to the point where performance is very, very poor.

I have a Mac Pro (with four cores) that has 4 GB RAM and plenty of hard disk space, so I’m clearly near the high end of potential performance. But as iTunes has progressed, it has not improved its performance; whenever I make any changes in my library (change tags, add tracks, download podcasts), it takes about 5 seconds for the program to become responsive. I get a spinning beach-ball and the program simply pauses (though, to be fair, in most cases it continues playing music if I’m listening to something with iTunes).

I first saw performance problems when ripping CDs, a bit more than a year ago when I bought my Mac Pro. I had hoped it would be faster than my previous computer, a G5 iMac, but it was only marginally more rapid. So I bought a second optical drive: a 52x CD-only drive (the Mac Pro has a superdrive which reads CDs slower than that). This improved ripping speeds a bit, but I finally got fast rips when I created a second iTunes library just for ripping – this proves that the problem is the library size, not the program itself, my optical drive, or my Mac. I can get up to 40x rips now, at the ends of CDs, compared to a max of around 22x with the superdrive.

My iTunes Library file is large: 68 MB. My guess is that iTunes, when working with a file this size, has to write the file anew each time there is a change, and that this is what slows down the program. I see 5-second delays when I simply download a podcast (at the end of the download, when, I assume, the file’s information is written to the library file), or when I uncheck tracks from smart playlists that contain only checked tracks. Any operation that leads to changes in the library file seem to cause the program to hang for five seconds.

I don’t see any solution, other than Apple improving the performance of iTunes and its library files. As people use iTunes more, they are likely to increase the number of tracks they have, and their performance will degrade, so more users will be seeing these problems, especially with slower computers.

At each release of an iTunes update, I hope that Apple will resolve this problem. Alas, after yet another update today (7.7.1) it seems to be even worse when ripping CDs.

UPDATE: When Apple release iTunes 8, responsiveness improved greatly, but there are still lags when tagging files and when importing. It is better, but it’s still far from perfect.

Essential Music: Live at the Village Vanguard, by Bill Evans

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For the first live recording of his trio, Bill Evans accepted to be taped at the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961, playing with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. This was a Sunday, and the trio played five brief sets, all of which were recorded by Orin Keepnews, a producer Evans had worked with in the past and would do so again many times. The recordings were released on several albums: First, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, then Waltz for Debby showed the full range of songs from that day, and later More from the Vanguard was a collection of alternate takes. In 2003, a definitive set, The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard 1961, was released, which contains all the music from these three albums, including one interrupted track that had not been released.

It’s easy to look back and judge history through hindsight, but the patrons of the triangular basement room at the Village Vanguard probably had no idea that they were witnesses to a historical recording. From the very first notes of Gloria’s Step, a piece composed by LaFaro, you can hear the perfection that Bill Evans and his various trios would bring to jazz over the next two decades, and the magical rapport that these three musicians had on stage. But the recording equipment lost power during this first song, leaving a partial take with a dropout in the middle. Those who read symbolism into the vagaries of life might see this as a premonition of Scott LaFaro’s death only ten days later in a car accident.But the recording remains one of the most powerful live recordings of any jazz music. Evans plays with the detachment and subtlety that made him such a great artist, allowing the other members of his trio to be creative performers and not mere accompanists. Evans would record many albums throughout his career in this lineup, which became his preferred way of playing, but the one to return to is this sacred 1961 recording.

It’s almost a shame to hear the crowd mingling and talking behind the musicians, as though they were impervious to the beauty of the music; Evans would say, “I just blocked out the noise and got a little deeper into the music,” but Paul Motian claims that the crowd is what he likes best about the recording: “The sounds of all those people, glasses and chatter; I mean, I know you’re supposed to be very offended and all, but I like it.”

Each of the pieces played that day is a masterpiece, from the jaunty Gloria’s Step’ to the heart-rending My Foolish Heart, to the delicate Waltz for Debby, one of Evans’ most beautiful pieces. When they finished their last set, with only a handful of people still listening, playing LaFaro’s Jade Visions? twice, they all went home leaving history behind them.

(You can read a moving article about this famous performance, by Adam Gopnik, from The New Yorker.)

CD Review: sunlight to blue… blue to blackness by The Durutti Column

For nearly thirty years, I’ve been a fan of The Durutti Column, the name used by multi-instrumentalist, singer and composer Vini Reilly. I discovered The Return of the Durutti Column, Vini’s first album, back in 1980, shortly after it was released, and was immediately hooked. His combination of catchy melodies, his unique style of guitar playing, and his laconic voice give his music a tone that is his alone. So as, each year or so, a new Durutti Column album comes out, I buy it unhesitatingly.

The latest album, sunlight to blue… blue to blackness, is available from Kooky Records, a small label that has released the last few Durutti albums. (It is actually not released until June 23; I got a pre-release copy of it.)

Vini Reilly can be said to repeat himself; but that’s part of the charm of each Durutti Column album. The first track, a heart-rending acoustic guitar piece called “Glimpse”, is a reworking of a few early Durutti Column melodies, but is played with such delicacy and beauty, that it makes me melt. The first five tracks on this album are instrumentals, several featuring themes and riffs from earlier works, and the sixth track is a rhythm-box version of “Never Known”, a great old song from the 1981 disc LC. I’ve never been a big fan of Vini’s “electronicized” music, such as his Obey the Time album, but the song works well. “Ananda” is a beautiful piano-based track, written and performed by Poppy Morgan, with “intrusive guitar” by Vini. “Head Glue” is a very languid duet sung by Vini and XXXX, and “Demo for Gathering Dust” is, as its title suggests, a version of a song on the Idiots Savants disc released last year, in which Vini shows off his acoustic guitar skills (though it gets a bit vague near the end as he riffs out on chords). “Cup a Soup Romance” is another guitar instrumental, and “Grief” is a solo piano piece.

All in all, another beautiful album from Vini Reilly. In a way, though, the three songs with vocals don’t really fit with the other eight tracks; this album would have been a bit more satisfying as an instrumental-only disc. But there’s not a weak song on it, and I’d recommend it to all, fans of The Durutti Column or newcomers.

Essential Music: The Return of The Durutti Column

UntitledFor those who weren’t around or listening to music in 1979, it’s hard to imagine how different the world of “popular” music was. Critics and retailers hadn’t fragmented music into the many genres you see today in stores, and many of today’s genres didn’t even exist. Rap was taking its first steps, ambient and electronic music were considered avant-garde, new age was just budding, and punk and disco were battling it out in the record bins. New wave was just following in the footsteps of punk, as progressive rock was in its final death throes.

Amidst the punk and new-wave music that came out of England, as part of the late-’70s independent music scene, was a now-legendary record label based in Manchester: Factory Records. Its first two groups were Joy Division (which, after the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, morphed into New Order) and The Durutti Column, but Factory released many other records by little-known groups, and the Factory concept, together with other independent labels in the UK, such as Rough Trade, revitalized a moribund music scene.

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My New Go Set

I like to play go. It’s a board game, originally from Asia, that is played on a board with 19 x 19 lines. You take turns placing stones (one player gets white, the other black) on the intersections of the lines. The goal is to create a territory; space delimited by your stones. At the end of the game, you count up the points (intersections) in your territory, and add any stones you have captured (you can capture stones by surrounding them). The person with the highest score wins.

That was a very, very succinct description of the game of go (or baduk, in Korean, or weiqi in Chinese). While the rules are simple, it does get more complicated than that. The game is played professionally, mostly in Japan, Korea and China, and has developed a long tradition of strategy and tactics. You could say that the depth of study is similar to that of chess, though the game’s logic is totally different: while you can kill stones, the goal is to make territory, unlike in chess where the only goal is to kill pieces.

Another difference between go and chess is the ability of computer programs to successfully play the game. While software can beat chess grandmasters, no go software comes anywhere near the level of professionals (though people are trying hard). This is, in part, due to the number of possible moves at any time (at the first move, there are 361 points where one can play, though the first few moves are usually only played on one of a couple of dozen points), but also to the number of moves in a game (games range from 200 to 300 moves).

I’ve been playing go for many years, casually at first, then, in the early days of the Internet I started playing on the now defunct NNGS (No-Name Go Server), a server that connected people around the world. I now play on KGS, where my screen name is Dogen. Unfortunately, I live in an area devoid of go players or clubs, but with KGS I can play at any time of the day or night, and I get to play people from many different countries and styles.

So, for years I had wanted to get a nice go set. I had a cheap folding board with glass stones; fine to play the game, but not aesthetically pleasing. I finally made the investment in a nice set, ordered from Kuroki Goishi Ten in Japan, a manufacturer of go stones, boards and bowls. As you can see in the picture above, those are the three elements of a go set: a board, black and white stones, and bowls to hold the stones.

The board is made from hyuga kaya, a type of tree found in Japan, and is made of four pieces of wood glued together. A board’s price depends, in part, on the number of pieces of wood it uses: the more pieces, the cheaper. The most expensive boards are made of a single piece of wood, and this is very expensive because of the size of the piece needed and the impeccable quality it must have. Next come boards with two pieces of wood, with a joint in the middle. Then come four-piece boards, and then five- to seven-piece boards. The wood used for my board is beautiful; kaya has a yellowish tint to it, and the grain on the top is very straight. In addition, the four pieces of wood are joined at points just under lines, so you cannot even see the joints.

The stones are quite special. The black stones are made of slate, and are really “stones”; they are black, not the usual gray slate people are familiar with, and have a matte finish. The white stones are made from clamshells and have grain on one side. They are smooth and shiny, and contrast well with the black stones. There are three different grades of clamshell stones; from least to most expensive: flower, moon and snow. I chose moon, because the grain is more attractive (on snow stones, the grain is less obvious). They also come in different thicknesses; mine are 8.4 mm thick, which I find quite nice to hold. Many players prefer thicker, heavier stones.

Finally come the bowls. Perhaps the least esthetic part of a set, mine are made of cherry blossom wood, and have a beautiful glowing finish and very prominent grain.

What strikes me most about this set is the overall esthetic quality of the different elements and how they all fit together. The craftsmanship of this material is magnificent, showing that one can own hand-made objects even in our mechanical age at affordable prices.

But I said I don’t have anyone to play with. It’s a shame, but the only use I’ll have (for now) for this set is to play games on the board as I play them on a go server, or to play out pro games to study. I very much enjoy doing the latter, as it is a form of meditation; when one is absorbed in a game, the outside world fades away and one’s concentration peaks. For now, I’m a slightly-better-than-average player, but I’m getting better, through study and practice. Wish me luck!

The MacBook Air: What a Laptop Should Be

I mentioned a few weeks ago , after the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, that I was planning to buy a MacBook Air. Well, my Air finally arrived yesterday, and, after unboxing, getting the “oohs” and “aahs” from my son, the fanboy (well, he actually said, “Dude!” several times), I took some time to sit down with the computer and try it out. I’m pretty amazed by this computer, and I can safely say that it’s the most impressive Mac I’ve ever owned (my Mac experience dates back to the PowerBook 100, in 1991). Frankly, the MacBook Air is what a portable computer should be.

First, the weight. You can’t imagine unless you’ve actually held it in your hands, but the Air is really, really light. This Mac is replacing a 14″ iBook, and I’d say that it’s about half the weight of the iBook. (That’s a guesstimate, based on how it feels in my hards.) When picking up the Air, there is no feeling that one could drop it if only holding it in one hand, and there’s no heft to it at all. It’s about as heavy as an average-sized hardcover book; but the size and thickness make it feel even lighter.

As to the thickness – or, as Apple says, the “thinness”, it is impressive, but much less so than the weight. When you do put it on your lap, though, you start to notice just how thin it is. If you put your hand on the edge, you can feel that there is little space between the open part of the Air and your lap. But I don’t think the thickness is as big a revolution as the weight, even though the two go hand in hand.Now, as Apple has said, compromises are always made with laptops, and one that sub-notebooks make is using a small keyboard. The full-size keyboard on the Air is essential, especially because I have large hands. I only fiddled with a 10″ sub-notebook once, and couldn’t type on it with any speed. Since I touch-type, I want a machine that I can use, not one on which I have to hunt and peck. And the touch of this keyboard is brilliant; it reminds me of the early iBooks, which had a keyboard where the keys didn’t move much, and had a good, solid stop to them, not a mushy feeling. This keyboard is very close to Apple’s new full-size keyboards.

So I’m writing this article on my Air, sitting in a comfortable chair next to my office window. I can type as fast and as comfortably as on any full-size keyboard, and do so comfortably (even though I generally prefer ergonomic keyboards, and use one with my Mac Pro). There are some things to get used to: there is no Enter key on this keyboard, so I keep pressing the right Command key when I want to press Enter; I’ll get used to that soon. And you do have to be slightly careful to not rest your thumbs on the large trackpad. That trackpad is, however, brilliant for tracking. Not only does it give a bigger target, but the trackpad gestures are quite intuitive, especially scrolling and using a three-finger “swipe” to go back and forward when browsing. All in all, the usability of the device for typing and tracking is excellent.

Did I say that the Air is light? I just picked it up again, and remain amazed each time I do so…

On to the display. I was a bit hesitant about the glossy screen, not having had any Macs with this type of screen before. (Though my son has a glossy iMac.) It’s actually quite good, as long as you can be in positions here you don’t suffer from reflections. The screen is crisp, very bright (thanks to its LED back-lighting), and the size of the screen is fine. I moved from a 14″ screen in 4:3 ration to this wide screen, and, given the quality of the screen which offsets the size, it’s a good trade-off. I’m not one for tiny pixels, but this screen is so sharp that even my middle-aged eyes are more than content.

Now, I have the MacBook Air with the SSD (solid-state disk). One thing this offers is almost instant wake-from-sleep, and very fast application launching. Tests show that it’s somewhat slower writing data, but when I was setting up my Air, I copied about 30 GB of data from a USB hard disk, and had the impression that the copy went very quickly. This isn’t scientific, but nothing suggested that the SSD is slow. Note that I didn’t use the wireless migration assistant – I had read enough about how slow it was to plan ahead, copying the data from my iBook to an external disk beforehand.

While I can’t judge the quality of the wireless migration assistant, I can talk about using Remote Disk to install software on the Air. I had to install iWork from a CD, so dumped it into my Mac Pro (after turning on CD/DVD sharing in the Sharing preferences), then ran the installer. It was transparent. Relatively fast, painless, and, frankly, brilliant. I truly cannot see when I’d need an optical drive for the Air, since I make backups to an external disk, and, especially, since it’s not my main computer. I can understand that anyone who uses the Air exclusively will need the external SuperDrive, but it’s just so good to have a small, light computer, that I can do without the optical disc drive.

One thing I was concerned about with the Air was its heat level, and, by extension, its noise level. When setting it up, the fan went on after a few minutes, and it’s pretty noisy. But that only lasted as long as I was taxing the processor by copying lots of files. Since then, it’s been totally quiet, and very cool. I’m typing this with the Air on my lap, and I don’t notice its heat. Granted, typing a few thousand words is not processor-intensive, and I haven’t tested it with anything more serious than surfing and writing, but it’s clear that, for such limited activities, the Air won’t heat up much. My guess is that the aluminum dissipates the heat efficiently during light usage, but that the Air is designed to not be hot. Currently – and, remember, I’m not hitting the processor very hard – the CPU sensor is 50° C and the bottom enclosure temperate is 38° C, just a tad higher than skin temperature. Doing some heavy surfing (opening a dozen pages in tabs) gets the CPU temperature up to 60° C almost immediately, so sustained surfing will get the Air much warmer. But in my experience, with non-intensive usage, this is one cool laptop (Tests performed with Marcel Bresink’s Temperature Monitor http://www.bresink.de/osx/TemperatureMonitor.html)

Naturally, your usage will be different, especially if this is your main Mac. Gaming – which is probably not very efficient on the Air, given its on-board video RAM – would tax the machine, and serious number crunching or graphic work would certainly get the temperature up.

I mentioned how the GPU would not be sufficient for gaming, and I’m suggesting that based on tests I’ve read. I’m not a gamer (though I play go), so I won’t be able to test that. However, in regular usage, the graphics are snappy and clean – for example, scrolling web pages is very fast and smooth – so that limited VRAM is no hindrance to the Air’s performance.

There’s not a lot of negatives I can say about the Air, other than it’s price: yes, it’s a pricey computer, especially compared to the MacBook, which offers better performance. But it is so well designed that it makes portable computing a joy. Every other laptop is clunky compared to the Air; once you’ve held the Air in your hards, you won’t want to use any other laptop. I discussed this with several friends yesterday, one of whom had already held the Air at the Macworld Expo; he says it’s too big; he wants a real sub-notebook, and doesn’t mind a small keyboard. Another uses spreadsheets a lot, and he wants a bigger screen; he wondered if Apple wouldn’t expand the Air line to include a 15″ model, something that might make sense if the 13″ is popular enough. No, the Air is not for everyone, but it’s exactly what I need: a small, light computer to do the work I do (writing), and to use for general computing activities. I have a Mac Pro for everything else, and the Air is the perfect compliment. As I said above, the MacBook Air is what a portable computer should be.