A quick unofficial Apple Music Lossless FAQ

So what’s the deal?

Apple Music can now stream files as “lossless,” up to 24-bit resolution and a 48 KHz sampling rate (which is better than CD quality), or “hi-res lossless,” up to 24-bit resolution and a 192 KHz sampling rate.

Does that really make music sound better?

Depends on who you ask and what your equipment is. I feel like I can often hear a difference between CD quality and “lossy” encoding, but not reliably. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a difference between hi-res and CD quality that couldn’t be attributed to remastering, which gets into a whole different subject.

You said “feel.” Isn’t that very subjective?

Yes.

Have you gone through scientifically sound ABX testing, ideally in a soundproofed room and conducted by qualified audio engineers?

No.

I sense you are not interested in this argument.

You are correct.

Okay, so let’s talk about Apple Music specifically. Can I get lossless quality over any Apple AirPod?

No. There are no lossless Bluetooth codecs.

How about the HomePod?

Not yet, but it’s promised for later.

The Apple TV?

Yes, but not at hi-res, and it appears to be locked at a 48 KHz sample rate. (Some lossless music Apple has is likely at a 44.1 KHz sample rate, the same as CDs.)

Okay, so it’s best on the Mac.

Well, two caveats. One, you’ll probably need an external DAC (digital to analog converter) to get better than “lossless” quality. Two, Apple Music doesn’t do output bit rate switching.

What’s that mean?

The music files have sample rates they’re encoded with, and your computer sends data to either its internal or your external DAC at a specific sample rate. Ideally, those two rates should be the same, and most “audiophile” music players match them automatically. Apple Music on the Mac doesn’t. It uses whatever bit rate the output device happens to be set at when the Music app launches. If that bit rate doesn’t match the music it’s playing, the music will be resampled to match the output rate.

If it’s resampled, is it still lossless?

If it’s resampled down, say from 96 KHz to 44.1 KHz, then definitionally, no. If it’s resampled up, say from 44.1 KHz to 48 KHz, the answer is murkier; no data gets lost, but new data has to be synthesized.

How do I fix that?

A few approaches off the top of my head:

  1. Check what you want to play before playing it and set the output rate in Audio MIDI Setup. Music will only show you the sample rate for “hi-res” music, but anything that’s listed as an “Apple Digital Master” or whatever they’re calling it this week is probably 48 KHz. This is arguably bad advice.
  2. Enable “lossless” but not “hi-res” in Music, and use Audio MIDI Setup to set the output at the highest bit rate and sample rate your DAC has. This is arguably less bad advice, although it’s still not ideal.
  3. Subscribe to TIDAL.
  4. Listen on iOS.

Wait, are you saying that iOS does do sample rate switching?

Yes.

Why doesn’t the Mac?

The Music app on the Mac is really still just iTunes. Internally, iTunes is, if you will forgive the technical jargon, a trash fire.

You mentioned TIDAL. Does it do sample rate switching on the Mac?

Yes. As much as TIDAL gets made fun of, it’s got a decent app, and TIDAL Connect, like Spotify Connect, is arguably better than Apple’s AirPlay for getting home audio devices to stream music. But its lossless tier is $20 a month and its radio stations and curated playlists are noticeably worse than Apple Music’s.

What about Spotify and Amazon HD Music?

I don’t know. Like Apple Music, though, they’re more “consumer-oriented.”

What about Qobuz?

Gesundheit.

So what are you personally doing?

For my desktop, I’m following #2 above. My computer speakers (Vanatoo Transparent One Encores) have a USB DAC built into them. For my living room system, I can use the Apple TV, but compared to Spotify or TIDAL Connect—both of which work natively on my A/V receiver—it’s a little fiddly.

I read on a website that the best music quality possible is from MQA, “Master Quality Authenticated,” files. Does Apple Music support that?

Please stop reading that website.

If I play Apple Lossless over $200 AudioQuest Carbon USB cables through a $10K Luxman L-509x amplifier connected to Wilson Audio’s $48K Alexia speakers via $4000 Cardas Clear speaker cables (terminated in spades), will it sound great?

Probably.

The Peril of “No Politics”

Basecamp is both the name of a small tech company and their primary product, a web-based project management tool that includes forum-like message boards and a Slack-like chat component. It’s pretty good. (So I’ve heard.) In some ways, Basecamp is actually more famous for Ruby on Rails, the web framework they created for Basecamp. And, they’re famous for having capital-O Opinionated leaders, who recently banned “societal and political discussions” on the company Basecamp—essentially the equivalent of saying “no politics on the internal Slack”:

Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target. These are difficult enough waters to navigate in life, but significantly more so at work. It’s become too much. It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. People can take the conversations with willing co-workers to Signal, Whatsapp, or even a personal Basecamp account, but it can’t happen where the work happens anymore.

So.

Basecamp’s post has provoked predictable outrage on Twitter, and, well, duh. Twitter is outrage’s natural habitat, where nothing is worth stating if it can’t be stated in the most extreme form possible. But pop quiz: what does “politics at work” mean to you?

  1. Facing fraught but important questions about company policies and culture, including pay equity, hiring practices, workplace behavior, and even the ethics of the work being done and for whom.
  2. A continual verbal slugfest among coworkers who seem more interested in pwning one another for their terrible viewpoints than coming to any understanding.

It’s clear from the text of their post that Basecamp wants to stave off the latter. And, y’know, that’s not unreasonable. I’ve had coworkers with political views I absolutely didn’t share, and we could still, well, work together. There was no explicit ban on politics; we just understood that it’s not something one gets into with coworkers.

The problem, though, is that shutting down the latter all too often means ducking the former. Suppose your company supports a politician pushing policies that would benefit the business directly; aren’t they now indirectly supporting every other policy that politician’s pushing? What if it comes out that one of your customers is a neo-Nazi network? Why does your company have only one woman and zero Blacks in its twenty-person engineering team? Why did that trans customer support engineer quit after only four months?

Again, I think—at least, I’d like to—that Basecamp’s intended message was keep company chat channels civil and focused on work. But if that’s what they meant, that’s what they should have said. By saying “no politics,” what they’ve communicated is don’t ask uncomfortable questions about our workplace culture.

Maybe they shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it makes them complicit, or if wading into it makes them a target. But they’ve tried to have it both ways. That guarantees the answer to both of those questions is yes.


Postscript: Literally just after I wrote this, I came across Jane Yang’s open letter to Basecamp’s founders, a brilliant—and depressing—read that makes me rather less sanguine about Basecamp’s intent.

The Mac and the iPad aren’t meeting in the middle yet

At the end of 2010, John Gruber of Daring Fireball wrote in a Macworld column,

The central conceit of the iPad is that it’s a portable computer that does less—and because it does less, what it does do, it does better, more simply, and more elegantly. Apple can only begin phasing out the Mac if and when iOS expands to allow us to do everything we can do on the Mac. It’s the heaviness of the Mac that allows iOS to remain light.

Back then he wrote that long-term (“say, ten years out”), iOS might replace macOS. But in 2020, Apple recommitted to the Mac: the Mac Pro, the return of good keyboards, and—the biggest move yet—a new CPU architecture designed in-house.

Since then, I’ve seen a chorus of pundits, both professional and armchair (hi), push two theories that are either at odds or entwined, depending on how you look at them:

  • Surely, a dystopian iOS-like future of only sanctioned App Store purchases lies ahead for the Mac. (Let’s call this the “Hacker News bait” narrative.)
  • Surely, the iPad is going to catch up or even surpass the Mac—it already does so many things so well, and it’s only held back from its potential by an OS with artificial limitations.

The Hacker News bait narrative is bullshit. But I’m not sure about that second, sunnier one, either. Apple has been demonstrating a consistent philosophy for over a decade:

  • Macs are general purpose computers.
  • iPads and iPhones are application consoles, analogous to game consoles.

These have been true from the beginning of each platform. Macs have always been general purpose computers, and iPhones and iPads have never been such.

There’s no intrinsic reason iOS devices had to be consoles; other smartphones like Windows Mobile and PalmOS phones weren’t. We all know that, but we forget that there’s also no intrinsic reason Macs had to be open. Not only was its direct antecedent the Xerox Star considerably more console-like, so was Jef Raskin’s original concept for the Macintosh, which evolved into the Canon Cat. Yes, if the Mac had been positioned as an appliance the way the Star and the Cat were, it would likely have joined them in obscurity—but we say that now with nearly four decades more “common wisdom” about computers. The Cat wasn’t the only early attempt at an application console; the 1990s saw the Sony eVilla and other “Internet appliances.” Those products didn’t fail because the concept was bad; they failed because the technology to support the concept just wasn’t there yet. A decade later, we had small, lightweight touch screens and widespread high-speed wireless data—and internet appliances became possible.

As long as this philosophy on Apple’s part holds—and there’s no evidence that it’s changing—macOS will never be locked down to the degree iOS is, i.e., unable to install non-App Store apps without jailbreaking. But the Venn diagram of “users likely to walk over such a drastic change to the Mac” and “users likely to spend boggling amounts of money on Apple hardware” is close to a perfect circle. Apple would have to not only make up the lost hardware revenue in App Store revenue but beat it. You need 30% of a hell of a lot of apps to make up for a single lost 16-inch MacBook Pro sale, let alone a Mac Pro. Even if it was just four or five percent of users—and I think that’s extremely optimistic—that’s millions of lost unit sales, and likely forgoing entire markets the Mac currently has a meaningful presence in. There’s just no business case for such a move. Beyond that, given all the radical changes Apple made to the Mac in 2020, it feels like that was the “now or never” moment. If M1 Macs and macOS Big Sur didn’t lock us into an App Store-only world, it’s pretty unlikely macOS Pismo Beach or whatever is going to.

But that brings us to the second point. Is this the year when the iPad does get to do everything, not just most things, the Mac does? Will we be able to run macOS apps on M1 iPad Pros the way we can run iOS apps on M1 Macs?

I do think Final Cut and Logic will come to the iPad eventually in some form. But so far, macOS has remained a general purpose OS, and iOS has remained a console OS—and I don’t think that’s changing soon. I just don’t. I’m doubtful that Apple has any interest in getting an Xcode-like iPadOS development going, and doubtful they plan to “open up” iOS any more than they must for technical, market, or regulatory reasons.

Yet on an infinite timescale, this dichotomy can’t hold. It may be a minority of people who truly can’t do their work on the iPad, as opposed to just kvetching that they can’t do it the same way as they do on a Mac or a PC. But that minority is there, and they matter.1 So the question is what happens to break it and when. I’m expecting iPadOS 15 to have some major UI changes, possibly even the first tiling window manager designed for humans. My pie-in-the-sky guess is that a new operating system replacing both macOS and iPadOS is already underway. Its foundations are Swift and SwiftUI, and macOS Big Sur and iPadOS 15 are early bits of scaffolding. The Mac gets lighter; iOS gets heavier. But they’re not meeting in the middle yet.


  1. As a technical writer, I’m actually in that minority: not only am I expected to be able to do local preview builds of the documentation web site I help edit/maintain, no iPad text editor I’ve tried comes close to BBEdit for working on projects with thousands of Markdown files. [return]

I’ve done some minor updates to Coyote Tracks, my web site, tweaking the styling and updating text. I’ve also consolidated the RSS feeds—yes, they are still a thing—into just one, so if you’re seeing this via RSS or on Tumblr, you’ll only see article-length posts.

A brief chat about Chuck Wendig, the Internet Archive, and bad information spread in good faith

Because I’ve got a bug up my butt about this again, let’s briefly dig into a social media myth that Will Not Die:

“Chuck Wendig is suing the Internet Archive!”

No. No, he is not.

There are two important bits of background here.

First, the Internet Archive. If you know them, you probably know them because of the “Wayback Machine” that archives millions of web sites. They do a lot of other archive-ish stuff, though, including collecting and scanning books. A while ago, they decided to create a digital “library” of those books: anyone could “check out” as many copies of those books at one time as the IA had physical copies of. This is more or less the way digital lending works from your local library: they pay for, say, three copies of a given ebook title, and now three library users can “check out” that book at once.

Well, that’s the “more” part of “more or less”; the “less” part is that the IA was doing that with physical books and technically lending digital copies is not the same thing under copyright law. Even so, publishers mostly looked the other way.

Until.

At the start of the Great Pandemic, the IA decided they were now running the “National Emergency Library” and lifted the per-copy limit. If they had ten copies or a book or two or one, it didn’t matter, however many people wanted to check out a copy at once could. And the IA sent out press releases about this. They wanted everybody to know!

I’m not going to argue about the ethics of modern copyright law, but as a legal matter, this is not a gray area, kids. It just isn’t. The Internet Archive was all but sending out notarized letters to publishers saying “we dare you jerky jerks to come after us with everything you’ve got,” and golly gee, they got sued by the Authors’ Guild and several publishers. Who could possibly have predicted that outcome other than, you know, fucking everyone.

You will notice, perhaps, that the IA was not sued by individual authors over this. They were sued by publishers and a writing guild.

Second, Chuck Wendig. Wendig is a science fiction, horror-ish author who runs a popular blog and has a freewheeling, gonzo, over-the-top style—I’d argue more in his non-fiction than his fiction—that, well, you could call polarizing. (I enjoy it, most of the time, but I could see how many might be driven far away at high speed.) He also wrote a couple Star Wars novels, famously introducing the saga’s first major gay character in Star Wars: Aftermath.

And this was not popular with a predictable loud subset of reactionary fans, who carried a hate-on for Wendig that culminated in the trolls getting him fired from Marvel’s “Shadow of Vader” comic book, ostensibly because of his “vulgarity” in expressing what Quartz calls, with delightful understatement, “his unabashedly left-wing political views.”

So if Wendig didn’t sue the IA over the Emergency Library, how did he get involved in all this?

Well, he called it a “pirate site,” which he pretty quickly apologized for, but also wrote a much longer statement on the subject.

The problem with bypassing copyright and disrupting the chain of royalties that lead from books to authors is that it endangers our ability to continue to produce art—and though we are all in the midst of a crisis, most artists are on the razor’s edge in terms of being able to support themselves. Artists get no safety net. We don’t get unemployment and aren’t likely to be able to participate in any worker bailouts. Health insurance alone is a gutpunch cost, not to mention the healthcare costs that insurance wouldn’t even cover. I’m lucky enough (currently, at least), that I can weather a bit of that storm more easily, but most can’t, particularly young authors, debut authors, and marginalized authors who are already fighting for a seat at the table. I’m also not alone in calling this site out—others like Alexander Chee, NK Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, and Seanan McGuire have noted their concerns over this.

I am all for access to information and entertainment, and remind folks that libraries here already allow you to take out e-books, even while their brick-and-mortar locations are closed. I used to work for a library system here in Pennsylvania, and libraries all around the country deserve their time to shine in this crisis, as we realize what vital institutions they are, both intellectually and as a service to the community.

Come on, how could anyone read that and, in anything even approaching good faith, take major offense at it? This is empathetic to authors and libraries. Yes, it’s (gasp) making a claim that copyright does have value, and maybe you don’t see that. But I hope you at least see why a lot of authors feel they should be the ones to make the choice about how their books get distributed. I’m not against giving my own work away for free, but I am against you telling me that you’re going to give my work away for free and I have no choice in the matter.

In fact, I don’t think the people who started this “Wendig sues the IA, film at 11” bullshit did so in good faith. I think many people spreading it are doing it in good faith, but bluntly, I think they’re being used by trolls relying on it being way easier to click “like” or “retweet” than to do fact-checking. (Frankly, I despair at how often I see left-leaning friends gleefully retweeting the most dubious shit that confirms their biases, but that’s a bridge I won’t burn today.)

While this whole nonsense is months old, I’m seeing another new thread floating around today fisking an older book of writing advice from Wendig, inviting us all to mock how weird and bad his writing is and how awful his advice must be and oh yes remember he sued the Internet Archive!, and I’m out of patience nuggets for this one. If that’s your image of Chuck Wendig and what he’s like and what he writes, let me offer a different one, from “Follow the River, No Matter Its Rapids, No Matter Its Turns”:

It’s a lot right now.

I think if we can agree on anything, anything at all between us, it’s that everything is a whole lot. It’s too much. If you’re not screaming into a couch cushion soaked with gin right now, who even are you?

But here’s what I’m thinking.

I’m thinking all of this is a river. It’s a dark, fast river. It crawls serpentine through the earth, through the forests. Sometimes it moves slow, other times it’s all rapids. Sometimes it is eerily serene, and sometimes it’s rough enough to knock your teeth into your knees and draw blood. It’s waterfalls and eddies, it’s deep and it’s cold. Like all rivers, it can soothe you, and it can betray you.

This river, the river we’re in and on now—it’s harder, meaner, a river after a flood, a river whose waters are not sated, who will not abate. It’s mudded up and frothing like the muzzle of a rabid wolf.

You can fight against that river.

We often do, in writing. We often go against our own moods, against the news of the world, against bad reviews and against poisoned thinking. Our work is often an act of anchoring our boots against the soft slick weeds and the water-smoothed stones and move against the current.

Upstream, stories can be born.

Sometimes, though, I think you gotta do the other thing.

Sometimes, you go the other way.

You go with the flow.

You run with the river, not against it.

And what that means, practically speaking, is you let it happen. What you’re feeling, what you’re seeing, sometimes those elements demand to be seen in the work. Sometimes the river is the channel that feeds the narrative sea, and that means you need to put it in there, out there, all over it. You don’t escape. You confront. You ride the turns, you rough out the rapids, you take all your fear and your anger and your confusion and you put it on the page. And not even in a way of trying to write something that’s marketable or sellable—but just trying to speak honestly about who you are, about the world in which we’re living, and about your grappling with all of it. It’s not even about writing a cogent book or a collective piece. It can be about taking the time to punch that keyboard and scream onto the page—if only to clear the water and find time to climb back onto shore to write something else. It can be the thing you’re writing, or it can be a way to get to the thing you’re writing.

I don’t mean to suggest this as good “advice”—it’s certainly no requirement. You have to do what feels best and right—and, further, what feels most productive in the direction you need to be going. I’m only saying that, if it’s that much of a slog, if the slow churning march upriver and against the current feels like you’re fighting too hard and losing to the pressure, turn around and go the other way. Sometimes we want to, even need to, write about what’s going on inside our heads and our hearts. Sometimes we can’t ignore the room on fire. Sometimes we can’t get out of the river or go against it. And in those cases, let the waters take you. Write what needs to be written. Write what the river tells you to write. Follow the water, and see where you go.

You may still hate that writing, but if you do, who even are you?

Panic's Nova text editor (a review)

Panic, the long-established makers of Mac utility software, seems fully aware that introducing a new, commercial code editor in 2020 is a quixotic proposition. Is there enough of an advantage to a native editor over both old school cross-platform editors like Emacs and explosively popular new editors like Visual Studio Code to persuade people to switch?

I’m an unusual case as far as text editor users go: my primary job is technical writing, and the last three jobs that I’ve worked at have a “docs as code” approach, where we write documentation in Markdown and manage it under version control just like source code. The editor that works best for me in tech writing is the venerable BBEdit. When it comes to editing code, though, BBEdit lags behind. My suspicion is that BBEdit’s lack of an integrated package manager has hurt it here. Also, BBEdit’s language modules don’t support extending one another, making it effectively impossible to do full highlighting for a templating language like JSX or Jinja.

When I was a web programmer, I was one of many who moved to TextMate, and used it for everything for a while. When the Godot-like wait for TextMate 2.0 became unbearable, I wandered the text editing wilderness, eventually splitting my loyalties between BBEdit, Sublime Text, and more recently VS Code. At this point, I suspect nothing will pull me away from BBEdit for technical writing, but for programming I’m open to persuasion.

So: meet Nova.

A screenshot of Nova's main window, showing its sidebar and a Ruby file.

I’ve been using Nova off and on in beta for months. I’ve reported some bugs, although I may mention a couple here that I didn’t catch until after 1.0’s release. And, I’m going to compare it to the GUI editors that I’ve been using recently: BBEdit, Sublime Text, and VS Code.

Nova is a pretty editor, as far as such things go, and with files of relatively reasonable size it’s fast. With stupid huge files its performance drops noticeably, though. This isn’t just the ridiculous 109MB, nearly 450,000-line SQL file I threw at it once, it’s also with a merely 2MB, 50,000-line SQL file, and Nova’s offer to turn off syntax highlighting in both files didn’t help it much. This may sound like a silly test, but in my day job I’m occasionally stuck editing an 80,000-line JSON file by hand (don’t ask). This is something BBEdit and VS Code can do without complaint. Panic wrote their own text editing engine for Nova, which is brave, but it needs more tuning for pathological cases like these. They may not come up often, but almost every programmer has one stupid huge file to deal with.

Nova has an integrated terminal and an integrated SSH client, and even an integrated file transfer system based on Panic’s Transmit. In fact, if you have Transmit and use Panic Sync, it knows all of those servers out of the box. Nova has a task workflow system for automating building and running. You can associated servers, tasks, and more with individual projects; Nova’s project settings are considerably more comprehensive than I’ve seen in other editors. You can even set up remote tasks. Nova has a serviceable Git client built in, too. Like VS Code, Nova uses JavaScript for its extension API, and it has built-in Language Server Protocol support—it’s a superbly solid foundation.

Beyond that, some smaller features have become table stakes for modern GUI editors, and Nova handles them with aplomb. “Open Quickly” can jump to any file in the open project, as well as search by symbols or just symbols in currently open files; it has a command palette; you can comprehensively edit keybindings. It has multiple cursor support for those of us who like that, and a “mini map” view for those of you who like that, although know that you are wrong. Nova’s selection features include “Select all in scope” and “Select all between brackets,” a command I often use in BBEdit and miss dearly in Code. (Both Nova and BBEdit select between brackets and braces, although BBEdit also selects between parentheses.) This effectively becomes “Select between tags” in HTML, a nice touch. There are a few other commands like “Select all in function” and “Select all in scope” that I didn’t have any luck in making work at all; a little more documentation would be nice.

That’s worth an aside. Panic has created a “library” of tech note-style articles about Nova sorted by publication date rather than an actual manual, and it’s not always easy to find the information you want in it. I know this is just what a technical writer would say, but I’d dearly like to see a human-organized table of contents starting with the editor basics and moving to advanced topics like version control, server publishing and extension authoring.

The Zen of Language Servers

A lot of Visual Studio Code’s smarts depend on the implementation of a “language server” behind the scenes: language servers offer almost spookily intelligent completion. For instance, take this PHP snippet:

if ($allowed) {
    $response = new Response(405);
    $response->

If you have the Intelephense PHP language server plugin, Code understands that $response is an instance of Response and, after you type the > above, offers completions of method names from the Response class.

Right now, Nova’s mostly limited to the language servers completion systems Panic provides, and they’re… not always so smart. In that snippet above, Nova starts by offering completions of, apparently, everything in the open project, starting with the variables. If I type “s,” it narrows things down to methods that begin with “s,” but it’s all methods that start with “s” rather than just the methods from Response. The “Jump to Definition” command shows a similar lack of context; if I highlight a method name that’s defined in multiple places, Nova shows me a popup menu and prompts me to choose which one to jump to, rather than introspecting the code to make that decision itself. (Edit: Panic said on Twitter that they’re not using LSP in any of their built-in languages yet!)

But, this is a solvable problem: there’s (I think) no reason someone couldn’t write an Inteliphense plugin for Nova. If Nova’s ecosystem takes off, it could be pretty formidable pretty quickly.

Walk like a Mac

Even so, LSP support isn’t Panic’s biggest selling point. Unlike Sublime Text or VS Code, Nova isn’t cross-platform: it’s a Mac-only program written to core platform APIs. Is that still a huge draw in 2020? (Is it instead a drawback?)

You can definitely see a difference between Nova and BBEdit on one side and Sublime and Code on the other in terms of resource usage. With the two Ruby files shown in the screenshot above loaded, I get:

  • VS Code: 355 MB, 6 processes
  • Sublime Text: 338 MB, 2 processes
  • Nova: 101 MB, 2 processes
  • BBEdit: 97 MB, 1 process

Code is an Electron-based program, although Microsoft famously puts a lot of effort into making it not feel like the black hole a lot of Electron-based apps are. Sublime uses its own proprietary cross-platform framework. In fairness, while us nerds like to harp on resource usage a lot, if your computer’s got 16G or more of RAM in it, this probably isn’t a big deal.

You notice Nova’s essential Mac-ness in other ways. Its preference pane is, like BBEdit’s, an actual preference pane, instead of opening in another tab like Code or just opening a JSON file in a new tab (!) like Sublime. And while all editors better have first-class keyboard support—and Nova does—a good Mac editor should have first-class mouse support, too, and it does. You notice that in the drag-and-drop support for creating new tabs and splits. Nova’s sidebar is also highly customizable, possibly more so than any editor I’ve regularly used. (Yes, Emacs fans, I know you can write all of Nova in Lisp if you want. When one of you does that, please get back to me.)

Unlike BBEdit, though, Nova doesn’t have a Mac-like title bar, or a Mac-like outline view of the project files, or Mac-like tabs. (Well, BBEdit doesn’t have tabs at all, which turns out to be a great UI decision once you have a dozen or more files open, but never mind.) This isn’t necessarily bad; people often say BBEdit “looks old,” and it’s hard not to suspect that what people mean by that—whether or not they know it—is that it looks like the long-established Mac program it is. Nova is relying less on “we have a Mac UI and the other guys don’t” than on “we have Panic’s designers and the other guys don’t.” Make no mistake, having Panic’s designers counts for a lot.

What may be more disappointing to old school Mac nerds is AppleScript support: none whatsoever. It doesn’t even have a vestigial script dictionary. Again, this may not be something most people care much about; personally, I hate having to write AppleScript. But I love being able to write AppleScript. BBEdit’s extensive scriptability is one of its hidden strengths. Nova’s Node-based JavaScript engine is probably more powerful for its own extensions and certainly more accessible to anyone under the age of 50, but it may be hard to call it from external programs.

So is it worth it?

That probably depends on where you’re coming from.

If you loved—or still use—Panic’s older editor, Coda, this is a no-brainer upgrade. If you used Espresso, a Coda-ish editor that always seemed to be on the verge of greatness without ever reaching it, Nova may also be a no-brainer for you.

If you’re a fan of Sublime Text, BBEdit, TextMate, or another editor that doesn’t have native Language Server Protocol support, you should definitely try Nova. Sublime and TextMate have more plugins (especially Sublime), but many extensions seem to be languishing (especially TextMate). BBEdit never had a great extension ecosystem to start with. All of these editors have strengths Nova doesn’t, but the reverse is also true, and Nova may catch up.

If you’re an Emacs or Vim power user, we both know you’re just reading this out of academic interest and you’re not going to switch. C’mon.

If you use Visual Studio Code, though, it’s way tougher to make the case for Nova. Code has a vastly larger extension library. It has the best support for LSP of any editor out there (LSP was developed for Code). Despite being Electron-based, it’s pretty high-performance. Code doesn’t have an integrated SSH or FTP client, but it does have an integrated terminal and task runner and Git client. If you don’t object to using an editor that isn’t a “perfect fit” with the Mac UI, Code is very, very good… and it’s free.

I don’t object to Nova’s pricing model—$99 up front including a year of updates, $49 for future years of updates—but I can’t help but wonder if Panic should have gone with super aggressive introductory pricing. Also, I saw more than a few suggestions on Hacker News about how there should be a Code-to-Nova extension translator; I’m not sure automatic conversion would be practical, but a guide on manual conversion seems like an excellent idea.

For my day job of technical writing, I’m going to stick to BBEdit. (One day I’ll write up an article about why I think it’s the best “documentation as code” editor on the market.) For programming and web editing, when I was working on both a Ruby and a PHP project—the former a Rails learning exercise, the latter an obstinate “I am going to write a modern PHP app without using a framework” exercise—I kept trying Nova’s betas and then switching back to Code for Inteliphense and, I swear to God, MacVim for Tim Pope’s amazing rails.vim plugin. I suspect Nova could duplicate both of those, but I’m not sure I want to be the one to do it. (Also, while Panic has decent reference documentation for writing extensions, I’d like to see a few simple end-to-end walkthroughs for those of us who look at a huge list of reference topics and don’t know where to start.)

But Nova isn’t just pretty, it’s powerful, and has a lot of promise. The editors I’ve been comparing it to have been around since 2015 for VS Code, 2008 for Sublime Text, and 1992 (!) for BBEdit; it’s not reasonable to expect Nova to blow past them in every respect right out of the starting gate. Even so, they are Nova’s competition. Catching up fast is an essential requirement.

So: yes, I’ve bought Nova, and I’m rooting for Panic here. I’ll come back in a year and report if I’m willing to stay on the update train.

Signs of the old Apple

For a long time, there’s been two competing narratives about Apple’s pricing:

  1. They’re “premium”: sure, they’re expensive, and yes, you pay for the brand name. But when you compare them with products of equal quality, counting not just feature specs but design, materials, and build quality—so an iPhone with a Galaxy S, a MacBook with a Dell XPS—they’re rarely unreasonably higher, and the user experience of macOS and iOS is arguably1 worth it.

  2. They’re “luxury”: there’s nothing about a Mac, an iPhone, or an iPad that truly makes it better than its competition; the only reason anyone buys Apple products is for the supposed status of owning them and showing them off.

For most of my Apple-using life, I’ve unsurprisingly been in the first camp. But for the past, oh, let’s call it five years, Apple has been making this…difficult.

  • Phone prices have climbed faster than their sizes, especially at the high end;
  • Their vaunted hardware engineering and design teams have become tethered to form over function, leading most infamously to the “butterfly” keyboard that prioritized thinness at the expense of not only typing feel but reliability;2
  • Laptop prices have also climbed fast, possibly because prioritizing form over function turns out to be expensive;
  • While iOS 7 made significant UX changes, those changes sometimes came at the expense of clarity (e.g., little to no visual cues as to where tap targets are), and later development seems fairly stagnant, other than a few changes for the iPad;3
  • While Apple has always had a “we know what’s best for our users” attitude and has never been super chatty about their decisions, they’ve just made themselves look arrogant and unresponsive a few times, most infamously over battery management.4

But the two products announced this week show off two old-school Apple moves we haven’t seen in, well, a while.

First, the new MacBook Air. They’re bringing the Magic Keyboard to it, as we all assumed (hoped?) they would, fixing the biggest problem with their laptops of the last few years. They’ve upped the starting SSD from 128G to a more respectable 256G, and upgraded to a modern Intel processor that can turboboost up to twice as fast as last year’s Air—and that’s just the base processor: you can get up to a quad-core i7.

And they lowered the price.

For the last few years Apple’s been far more likely (especially with Macs but arguably with the iPhone, too) to improve a product some ways while making it worse in others and raising the price, playing right into that “luxury” narrative. But this wasn’t always Apple’s modus operandi. For many years, their classic move was upgrading a product while keeping the same price point: you still paid $1499, but now the CPU was faster, you had more RAM, you had a bigger hard drive, and so on. But the new Air is back down to the semi-magic $999 point (and Apple loudly trumpets that it’s $899 with the education discount). To be fair, we’ve been seeing more of this from Apple in the last couple of years—there was a modest price drop moving from the iPhone 8 to the XR, and while high-end iPads climb to nosebleed pricing territory, the low-end model has gained power while dropping in price—but there was a multiyear stretch when “get more for the same money” became “get mildly aggrieved for another couple hundred.”

Second, the new iPad Pro—but especially the new iPad Magic Keyboard, which has a trackpad, a USB pass-through port, an amazing cantilever design like no other tablet keyboard case I’ve ever seen, and a wheeze-inducing price point of $299–349 depending on size. This is also a classic Apple move: the damn thing is so expensive you can’t help but think of it as overpriced, but there’s literally no competition for it. You are not going to be able to get a keyboard case that nice from anyone else. (Amazon will fill up with knockoff versions for $99 or less, and they will all be pretty bad by comparison, because that’s the way of things.)

Personally, I’ve grown frustrated with the iPad’s software limitations at both the OS and app level. I wrote about that in “The iPad needs more focus on the little things” last August, which concluded with,

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not giving up my iPad. Who knows what iPadOS 14 will bring? But in the meantime, I confess I’m watching what happens with the next MacBook Air revision pretty closely.

Well, that update is here, and frankly, they knocked it out of the park. It’s pretty much everything I was waiting for.

And yet, if the iPad Magic Keyboard lives up to its promise, it’s the keyboard case for the iPad that I’ve always wanted. I still do love the iPad, and the Magic Keyboard might make it the best portable computing device for me ever—in terms of hardware. Unfortunately, hardware won’t fix the frustrations I have with the platform. So now, I suppose I’m watching what happens with the next major iPadOS revision pretty closely.

For the time being, though? The portable computer for me—and, I think, for anyone who wants the best laptop—sure seems like it’s the new Air.


  1. I’m using the term literally here: many of the Linux-using folks that I know don’t like the macOS user experience at all, and long-time Windows users often find the small differences frustrating, just like I do when trying to use Windows (or a Linux desktop environment). [return]
  2. Other things I’d put in that camp are the Touch Bar, a clever idea that, five years on, remains a solution in search of a problem; the change to make the bottom row of the keyboard the same size as the other rows and the left and right arrow keys full-height, just so everything is perfectly symmetrical; the spartan set of ports on modern Mac laptops, even the biggest ones that could surely spare space for a micro SD card slot; the now discontinued 12″ MacBook. [return]
  3. I know that undersells some of the changes for the iPad, and I’m not throwing in with the “iPad multitasking is a fiasco that ruined everything” camp. The biggest problem isn’t features being unintuitive—as many people point out, little about any modern GUI is intuitive, strictly speaking—but being undiscoverable. For a quick example, you can display folder contents in both macOS Finder and iOS Files by icon, list view, or column view. Finder controls those through little buttons; you can find that feature for yourself. In Files, though, you swipe down to reveal the iOS equivalents, and there is no visual indicator or other affordance that suggests swiping down is a meaningful action. There are more of these hidden gestures in iPadOS with each major release, and even the ones I know about get frustrating. (Swipe up from the bottom edge to pull up the dock or go back to the home screen or pull up the multitasking space navigator? This is bad UX design, okay? It’s bad.) [return]
  4. The narrative to this day is still “Apple secretly slowed down your old phone to get you to buy a new one.” That’s wrong on multiple levels, but the secretly part isn’t. If Apple had treated battery management like a public-facing feature from the start, they’d have saved themselves a massive PR fiasco and multiple lawsuits. [return]

Notes from the Road

For a while about a decade ago, I was doing tech blogging; I never rose to “A-list blogger” level, but I probably hit B-list for a couple years, based on who was linking to me and the “yeah, I think I’ve heard of Coyote Tracks” comments from bigger names. I used to joke that while you weren’t reading me, people you were reading were reading me. I never figured out how to monetize those eyeballs, as they say, I suspect because I worried I wasn’t big enough to go after any real ad networks. The blog did lead to my tech writing job at RethinkDB and a middle-age shift into that career path, though, so in a way it paid off handsomely.

But I’d been “blogging” since 1998, even though nobody had that term back then. My first try was for some kind of online column, as I recall, just personal essays; I doubt anyone read it, and I didn’t keep up with it. For a decade or so after that, though, I kept a journal called Coyote Cartography, the name I resurrected for this blog.

That started up while I still lived in Florida, where I’d taken to driving long distances for no reason other than to do it. I used to joke about practicing “driving zen” instead of walking zen, but it wasn’t entirely a joke. I did a lot of thinking when I drove, and once I got out of traffic and found myself on relatively rural roads, it brought a measure of peace.

I kept doing that occasionally after I moved to California, at least for a while. Occasionally, I’d write up wherever I’d ended up and post it in the journal with the title “Notes from the Road.”

Geography makes it harder than I’d expected to drive out of the San Francisco Bay area and get somewhere new and interesting than it is to drive out of the Tampa Bay area and get somewhere new and interesting. Also, I’m old enough now that driving ten hours for no particular reason can be more tiring than relaxing. Over the last few years, it’s been rare for me to go much farther than Sacramento, even as I’ve had the resources to take “staycations” as a way of recharging. (Those staycations tend to be in the Sacramento area, as I’ve come to love it despite its brutal dry heat summers—and also, I confess, because the hotels there are so much cheaper than anywhere near San Francisco.)

But a couple weeks ago, I’d started to feel unaccountably melancholy and maudlin, a kind of free-floating mild depression I’d become familiar with off and on. In the past, I’ve self-medicated with St. Johns Wort, which I suspect may be as much placebo as anything else; while I’ve grown to like beer, wine and spirits more now than I did when I lived in Florida two decades ago, that’s a dangerous road to go down. So I decided to take to the literal road, heading back to Big Sur for the first time in years. Last weekend, I ended up in Modesto after a slightly too late start, so I didn’t see much of Modesto. (I don’t know if there’s anything to see there, but sometimes overlooked towns can surprise you.)

And, as I type this, I’m in Ukiah, at Black Oak Coffee Roasters.

Ukiah is the largest city in Mendocino County, which is still only about 17,000 people. Like a lot of Mendocino, there’s a mix of old school agriculture and hipster counterculture around the town. This is a coffee shop you’re going to go into and find great local-roasted coffee and people working on laptops; it’s not going to be abuzz with conversations about social media startups. It feels kinda Bay Area in a good way, but also feels fully of its place.

San Francisco insists it’s “northern California,” but a glance at the map tells you it’s clearly in the middle. This is northern California, and it’s a noticably different pace. You start feeling it at the northern edge of the Bay Area, in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa and Healdsburg, although those are still close enough to San Francisco to make everything just a little more fraught in both good and bad ways. Going north of Healdsburg requires effort. It rewards you, as long as you like the kind of place Ukiah is. I do, which I’d almost forgotten. It all came back instantly when I turned down its main street. (There is a Main Street, but the real main street is State Street, one block over.) It’s the sort of town I’d love to live in, if only I could install a teleporter. For one, my job isn’t keen on full-time remote employees. For another, as solitary as I can be, I’m not antisocial—I’m bad at being social, but that’s not the same thing. I wouldn’t want literally all of my friends to be a day trip away.

The last time I was in Ukiah, at least a decade ago, I was at this coffee shop, too. But back then it was called the Coffee Critic. Apparently they went under back in 2010 or 2011, and two locals—one of whom had been a head roaster for both Ritual Coffee and Counter Culture Coffee, two pretty big names in the snooty coffee world—bought the shop. They’re doing light roasts in that “third wave” style, but also doing dark roasts, blends, crazy flavors for lattes and mochas, all to fit in to the local market.

Frankly, this is too far from home to be out this far on a Sunday at a quarter to five; it’s a three-hour haul back. But because of that time, now that I’m here I’m going to find some place for dinner. Ideally I’ll have enough time to walk around, too, and won’t get back deathly late.

I’d planned to get out and do some writing today; I don’t know if that’s going to happen. Other than, of course, this. But maybe that’s okay.

The iPad needs more focus on the little things

I’ve been using an iPad Pro instead of a laptop for going on two years now, and have definitely spent more time on it than I have on my personal Mac during that time. Name a major writing app on the iPad and I’ve almost certainly not just tried it but given it a serious spin. We’re talking an 80,000-word novel in Scrivener; short stories, multi-part novellas and blog posts in Ulysses; a screenplay in Slugline; random bits and bobs in Drafts. I’ve made cover art on the iPad. I’ve created shortcuts for arcane conversion and batch processing. I am not an iOS guru, but I don’t think I’m overselling myself if I say I’m a power user. One could argue that the iPad has become my main computer, too. (Maybe “had”? I’ll come back to that.)

It’s always been hard to explain why the Mac works “better” in some subjective way than a Windows PC. It’s not one huge thing; it’s the sum of small, seemingly inconsequential things that add up to a nicer experience. The iPad often feels that way compared to the Mac (or PC), because so many big ticket items—document management, windowing, security—have been radically rethought for the better in iOS.

The problem is the little ticket items, if you will. To get into that, I need to talk about writing on the iPad.

It’s become received wisdom among a certain set that the iPad is great for long-form writing. Here’s tech pundit turned novelist Matt Gemmell back in 2016 talking about using iOS Scrivener for writing novels (he later switched to Ulysses). MacStories’ editor Federico Viticci, who calls his iPad his “main computer,” literally wrote a book called Writing on the iPad. Podcaster and writer/blogger Jason Snell has blogged about his setup, which he’s been using in some form or another since 2014.

The problem—for me, but I would argue I am not a unique, special snowflake among writers—isn’t the writing, it’s the editing.

Editing is what you do after the first draft. Rewrite paragraphs. Move text around. Run a spell check. Change words across the entire document, or even multiple documents. Look at the first part and the last part of the story (or article or whatever) together to make sure you’re staying consistent and not contradicting yourself.

And the iPad is just not good at that stuff.

Let me show you. On the Mac, the arrow keys behave the same way in every editing app, and the modifier keys (nearly) always behave the same way, too. On the iPad, though, it’s not merely that behavior isn’t consistent app to app—it’s that most editors get at least one basic operation just bonkers wrong. Tap the up arrow repeatedly, and at some point the cursor jumps to the start of the line. Option-up jumps to the start of a paragraph and stops rather than continuing to move up. Option-down moves with weird hitches. On the Mac, Shift with any movement operation performs the same operation but selects the text; on the iPad, that’s usually true, but not a given. I’ve seen at least one app that doesn’t let you use up and down arrows when holding down Shift, and several that don’t handle Shift with another modifier key, like Option or Command.

What in blue blazes is going on? Mac apps are built on the crufty and old AppKit framework, while iOS apps are built on the shiny and new UIKit. And that’s the problem. UIKit’s shiny and new text components suck lemon-flavored poop balls. AppKit may be uglier, but it’s simply more powerful. iPad developers are on their own to implement things Mac developers get for free, and, the results are…not great.

Okay, the arrow keys are quirky. But come on, you can live with that. But what about running spell check?

I don’t mean “check as you type.” I want to turn off the red squiggly lines when writing first drafts, and check the document for spelling errors after writing. For each possible misspelling, I can skip that one instance, ignore the word for the rest of that review, or add the word to the dictionary. I can turn on grammar checking, which isn’t great but catches duplicate words, and once in a blue moon catches an actual grammar mistake.

But on the iPad, it’s “check as you type” or nothing—and literally only check as you type. If you open a document full of Lorem ipsum, it will be blissfully, stupidly squiggle-free. There’s no way to ignore words or add words to the dictionary. (The Mac lets you do that even in check-as-you-type mode by right-clicking a word.) What if I’m writing an article of a few thousand words full of technical terms? How about my 110,000-word science fiction novel Kismet, with invented city names and in-world jargon like “totemic” and “cisform?”

Some of my complaints have fixes in iOS 13. Touch (but not keyboard) text selection is getting overhauled; apps can run in multiple windows once compiled against the iOS 13 SDK, which should address both “see two places in the same document at once” and “let me have a notes document and the main document open in the same app at once.” But the final editing that I’m going to go through with this blog post—a spell check and a pass through Marked with its keyword highlighting turned on—that needs a Mac. You use Marked by having the same file open in both it and your editor simultaneously; I’m not sure that’s even possible in iOS.

Look, I love that the iPad is rethinking so many big things about the computing experience. And I get the pushback about how the iPad is not a “laptop replacement” in the sense of letting you do what you did on your laptop the same way you’ve always done it. What I’m talking about here are little ways in which the iPad is not different than the Mac, but objectively worse.

And here’s the thing: despite the common wisdom that iOS is wired and macOS is tired, I’m using iA Writer right now on the Mac and it’s just as good as it is on the iPad—and I can do all those Mac-only things like use Marked with it. What are the iPad-only things I can do with it that don’t have Mac equivalents? There’s no share sheet, but there’s an export command—and to open it simultaneously in Marked, I just dragged the document icon in the title bar to the Marked icon. The iOS counterpart would be “tap the share icon, tap ‘Share…’, tap ‘Marked’ if it existed.” I don’t have Shortcuts, but I have the Services menu and Automator. And AppleScript. And Keyboard Maestro. The Mac turns out to be pretty good at this application interoperability thing, huh.

“Yeah, but the iPad is young, and you need to cut it some slack.” For how long? The iPad is nearly a decade old, and iOS is even older. I’m not asking why we can’t still can’t sideload even signed and notarized apps, or install non-toy development environments, or even just make Chrome our default browser. All those things are good questions, questions that, if the iPad is truly the future of computing, Apple needs to deal with. But I’m just asking why I can’t add a word to the system dictionary. I’m asking why, when I connect a Bluetooth keyboard, I can’t expect consistent behavior from the fucking arrow keys.

It’s nice that Apple focuses on big moments of wonder and delight on iOS—but in truth, the Mac can still be pretty wonderful and delightful, too. I’m happy I let myself be surprised at how nice using an iPad as a main computing device can be. But I suspect some of the more partisan iPad users would be surprised at how nice using a Mac is if they let themselves. I love how those big-picture Computing Experiences are being rethought on the iPad, but it’s past time for iOS to go after the prosaic bits and bobs that the Mac had nailed before the turn of the century.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not giving up my iPad. Who knows what iPadOS 14 will bring? But in the meantime, I confess I’m watching what happens with the next MacBook Air revision pretty closely.

Review: Brydge 12.9″ Keyboard Pro

promotional photograph of the Brydge Keyboard Pro with an iPad Pro

I take my 12.9″ iPad Pro to the office every weekday, where I sneak in writing during lunch breaks. On weekends, some weeknights, and even the occasional work-from-home Thursday it travels to coffee shops and microbreweries around San Francisco Bay. For the past couple of years, when I’ve traveled the iPad has been my sole computer. I may use it more than I use my iMac.

So when Brydge announced they were making their keyboard for the new iPad Pros, I jumped. It’s beloved of (some) heavy iPad users. Mine came at the end of May, and I’ve been using it for over a month now. I absolutely see why people like it.

To my surprise, though, I’m not a convert.

Let me be clear: if you want “laptop running iOS,” there’s a lot to recommend it. Unlike most iPad keyboard solutions, you can set it in your lap. You can adjust the “screen” to any viewing angle. It’s terrific. This is stuff I miss when I just pair the iPad with the Magic Keyboard.

The Brydge keyboard itself is about as thick as the keyboard part of a MacBook Pro. So thin! Well…actually, no. That was the first (literally) big problem. The MBP just has a screen on top of it, but the Brydge has an iPad. The “BrydgeBook” they form together is thicker and weighs more than a 13″ MacBook Pro, let alone a MacBook Air. If you carry this thing around with you, you notice the weight penalty.1

The iPad clips to the Brydge with little rubber clamps that act as hinges. It’s a clever design, but they grip the iPad so tightly it’s difficult to get the iPad out quickly and even harder to get it back in and lined up just so. Maybe I’d get better at this with practice, but I’ve been practicing for over a month. I also worry about the stress this puts on the iPad’s corners and sides; “opening the lid” means gripping one edge of the iPad and lifting it up, rotating the hinges—which take a lot of force to move, as they need to be tight enough to hold the weight of the iPad up at an angle—by using the iPad as a lever.

But I still haven’t talked about the keyboard part of the keyboard, have I? I like the real inverted “T” for the arrow keys and the dedicated home button; I don’t like the dedicated Siri key. The keys themselves feel a little mushy yet a little too resistant at the same time. Maybe it’s the stiffness, maybe it’s the gumminess, maybe it’s the way the keyboard itself is recessed more deeply than other laptops, but I miss letters more often on the Brydge than on any keyboard I recall using in years.

I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a bad keyboard. It’s not. I just don’t like it as much as the Magic Keyboard, or the older Apple bluetooth keyboard, which has some of the same gumminness, at least when compared to the Magic Keyboard, but less resistance. I don’t even like it as much as the polarizing “butterfly” keyboard (talking just about key feel, mind you, not reliability).

Before getting the Brydge, I thought “If you want a MacBook, just get a MacBook” was a dumb criticism. Now I’m not so sure. A BrydgeBook is the only way to get a laptop that runs iOS (er, iPadOS), and if that alone is enough to get you to buy it, I totally understand! But it’s a bulky, heavy laptop with a so-so keyboard, and opening and closing its “lid” puts stress on your iPad in ways it almost certainly wasn’t designed to handle. If what you truly want is a laptop, and you’re not wedded to iOS, look at the 2019 MacBook Air. If what you truly want is iOS, and you’re not wedded to the specific things you get with a laptop that you don’t with any other iPad keyboard solution, well…think twice about the Brydge.

My previous—and now again current—travel setup is the iPad in the non-keyboard Smart Folio cover and a Magic Keyboard in Waterfield Design’s slip case, toted around in a Tom Bihn café bag. The BrydgeBook is way faster to pull out and start using, and I can use it in my lap rather than needing table space or a lap desk (which I use in the living room). But my iPad retains its essential iPad-ness. I don’t have to take the keyboard out at all. I can leave the keyboard where it is and pick up the iPad instantly. It feels true to the iPad’s intent. And If I bring my Compass Pro, I can stand the iPad up in portrait mode, which turns out to be pretty damn cool for writing sprints.

And I have what I consider to be the best travel keyboard ever made.

I have a Touchtype Pro case on order, which—may or may not be my ideal. I’m not sure yet. It’ll solve some issues with the Brydge for me (giving me my beloved Magic Keyboard) while creating other ones (even more weight). When it arrives, I’ll give it a month, too.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with my Brydge. While they do have a return policy, it’s not the most generous one out there, and I’m past my own return window anyway. I may come back to it later and give it a second round. If it continues to not stick, I’ll try to sell it; as I noted, a lot of people love it, and my lack of enthusiasm doesn’t mean it might not be perfect for someone else.


  1. I know some argue that if you want portability you want the 11″ iPad Pro, because the 12.9″ is just so much of a gosh darn huge monster it’s crazy anyone would carry it with them. I just disagree. The 12.9″ iPad Pro is close in size to the old 11″ MacBook Air and noticeably lighter, even when paired with some (non-Brydge) keyboards. And you get a lot of benefit from that extra screen real-estate. [return]

Random (but not angry) thoughts on "Game of Thrones"

(This will have spoilers for previously-aired episodes. Avert your eyes if you care.)

“Everyone hates this final season!”

I’ve noticed. Entitled nerd rage has been a thing over the last few years.

“Oh, come on. Benioff & Weiss [the show’s creators] are terrible hacks!”

Are they? They not only story-edited your favorite episodes, but they wrote most of the episodes that fans and critics both love. “Battle of the Bastards” (the second to last episode of season six), “Hardhome” (the third to last episode of season five), and “The Rains of Castamere” (the infamous “Red Wedding” episode, second to last of season three)—all written by Those Guys.

“Okay, but the show ran got terrible when they ran out of George R.R. Martin’s books!”

Are you sure? The show started blending in original work as early as season five, and had just about fully parted ways by season six. You can make the argument it was better in earlier seasons, but there were terrific episodes in later seasons that didn’t have much in the way of blueprints from the novels.

“You’re not saying you like where this is all going, are you?”

I like what I think they’re trying to do, I just don’t think they’re doing it well.

They’ve said that they knew the “story beats”—the major plot points—of the final season as far back as season three. As shocked as people seemed to be by Daenerys’s tyrant turn, she’s had a cruel streak for as long as she’s been a major character, sometimes pulled back from villainy only by the counsel of others. Cersei says in the first season, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” but most of what we’ve seen since then—culminating with Dany’s tragic arc into supervillainy—suggests that, to borrow a line from another story, the only winning move is not to play. If there’s an overriding theme to this epic, it’s more old-fashioned than it lets on: a lust for power corrupts. (This is arguably why the Night King turned out not to be the Final Boss: he wasn’t playing the game of thrones, after all. Thematically, the final battles must involve those that are.)

“If you’re not blaming the show ‘not doing it well’ on the writing, what are you blaming it on?”

Oh, it’s the writing. It’s not the major story beats, it’s the banana crazypants pacing. The show has jettisoned years of magnificent character work to become a dragon-themed roller coaster, all because the creators decided they had to wrap things up in “70–75 hours” total.

And so, so many of the things fans and critics have been bitching about might have worked with more breathing room. No weird time compression between events! Time to develop Dany’s descent into madness beyond a weird voiceover montage in the “previously on…” segment! No pressure to have characters make stupid decisions just to get them in position for the next plot event! No shoving critical plot and character moments off-camera! Explaining why the hell Jaime spent six seasons on a long redemption arc only to apparently throw it away because “Sorry, I just remembered I’m still awful after all!”

(Actually, I don’t think that last one is explainable.)

The most maddening thing is that I’ve never found an explanation for why they made the choice to race toward the ending as fast as possible. Would have making seasons seven and eight both 10 episodes, for 80 hours total, truly have been that onerous?

“So can they stick the landing in spite of all this? Where does it go from here?”

I don’t know, and a few seasons ago that would have been exciting. This season it fills me with sigh. I expect them to go for a “you didn’t see that coming!” note, and I expect it to be something that’s defensible based on the arc of the entire series—but no, I don’t think they can stick the landing.

“Any predictions?”

Dany on the throne. Arya enters. Jon enters. Dany rises. Greyworm rises. Arya draws a sword. Jon draws a sword. Greyworm readies his spear. Cut to black. Credits.

Medium thinks it's a brand

There’s a lot of reasons people are down on Medium, Ev Williams’ ongoing whatever-the-hell-it-is. It’s a platform! It’s a publication! It’s a platform for publications! It’s a clean, clutter-free reading experience, except for all the clutter!

There have been a few great stories written about this; my favorites are reporter Laura Hazard Owen’s “The long, complicated, and extremely frustrating history of Medium” and acerbic typographer Matthew Butterick’s “The Billionaire’s Typewriter.” (He occasionally updates this, most recently linking to Owen’s article.) Butterick critiques Medium’s design from an ethical standpoint, which turns out to be bang on point with Medium’s ultimate underlying problem:

Medium thinks it’s a brand.

What most bothers me when I click on a Medium link these days isn’t the increasingly dispiriting design (nothing says “great reading experience” like fixed-position bars at the top of and bottom of the window imploring you to sign in and/or pay money and/or download the app). No, that annoyance has been eclipsed by watching ever more articles on Medium go behind a paywall. You can only read three “premium” articles for free a month, just like The New Yorker, like The Wall Street Journal, like The Atlantic.

And indeed, when you go to Medium’s upsell page, they’re pushing articles written by the sorts of authors you’d expect to see in a New Yorker issue: Roxane Gay, Dave Eggers, even Margaret Atwood, and namedropping publications that offer a selection of “curated” articles on Medium.

So, their value proposition is:

  • Publications you’ve heard of also publish their stuff on our site, like they do on Apple News! Think of us like a Readers’ Digest for hipsters. (Some of this content may be original, but a glance at Medium’s page for New York magazine shows that the only difference is that everything they put up on their own site for free is behind a paywall on Medium. Which, to be fair, is fucking brilliant if they can get away with it.)
  • Authors you’ve heard of published what may or may not be original content on Medium at least once! This piece from Margaret Atwood is from 2017, and she wrote a couple other things here in 2015, but it’s Margaret Goddamn Atwood, people!
  • By paying us, you get access to a whole world of other content from people you’ve never heard of, “curated” through the editorial mechanism of those authors clicking a checkbox saying “put this behind a paywall and let the checks roll in, please!”

Butterick asks what he dubs “the $132 million question”:

Who’s going to pay $50 every year for this? People dissatisfied with the unlimited free clickbait available elsewhere? Gulls, rubes, and saps? Dogs with credit cards?

While the aspiration to become the premier literary journal of our time by aggregating blog posts seems relatively new, this belief in its own essential brandness, its brandosity, forms Medium’s original sin. If you have a Medium account, your “front page” when you sign in isn’t a list of new articles from people you follow, like a Tumblr dashboard or, heaven forbid, an RSS reader. Goodness, no! Instead, it’s a Netflix landing page: articles they want to push at you, articles popular across the network, articles “recommended” based on your history.

The design changes over the years, but the fundamental notion that you go to Medium™ to read Medium™ Stories remains. What makes a story a Medium™ Story? Who the hell knows? Medium™ surely doesn’t. They can’t. They have no control over their own content. Can you imagine Automattic deciding that because dozens of well-known authors run blogs on WordPress.com, they should charge $50 a year for access to blogs hosted on it? Hey, you can get three free reads a month to get a sense of what the WordPress editorial voice is like! This is essentially what Medium is doing, except that you get only one theme and don’t get to give your blog a title. (There was a point you could create a “publication” on Medium, which meant “give your blog a title,” but that’s gone, along with the ability to use custom domains. Remember: Medium thinks it’s a brand.)

In what’s probably their thirteenth or fourteenth pivot at this point, Medium has brought back the idea of edited “magazines” with staff writers hosted there. They’ve done this before and the results were, what’s a good word, ruinous, but Owens quotes Ev Williams’s statement to Bloomberg in December 2018: “We are going to significantly increase our investment in original editorial in the next year, and we are absolutely not going to pull the football away this time, Charlie Brown.”

I don’t know. Maybe there’s something I’m missing. If you’re paying for Medium, I’m genuinely curious why, and if you think you’re getting value out of it. Also, I’d like to know if you’re a Golden Retriever with an Amex.

For the ones and ones of you who miss the original Coyote Tracks blog and would like a “just the articles” RSS feed like I used to have: now there is one! micro.coyotetracks.org/categorie…

So, Dan Olson has an interesting thread on Patreon’s realization that they’re going to have to make a lot more money to make back their VC investment. Dan’s reading of Patreon CEO Jack Comte’s “Patreon needs to build new businesses, services and revenue line to be sustainable” is “we need to tack more junk on”; this may indeed be what happens, but I’m not sure it’s entirely what they mean. I actually wrote about this over a year ago (apologies for the link to the Medium version, but I don’t seem to have it anywhere else currently, which I’ll have to fix when I can):

To earn that $450M valuation Patreon has, they’re going to have to double revenue every year for the next four or five. Wouldn’t a great way for them to start making serious bank be to start landing creators who can get a few hundred thousand patrons instead of just a few thousand?

As of this writing (December 2017), just six creators have more than 10,000 patrons. The top of the “long tail” curve Patreon has just isn’t that far above the bottom. This is the part of Patreon’s business that I suspect investors are most keen on changing. It’s great that Patreon can get Amanda Palmer now, but they’re going to need to get Imagine Dragons. I don’t mean “the next” Imagine Dragons, either. I mean an existing artist who can bring a bazillion fans with them.

And to do that, going after Financially Successful Creators™ as they’ve defined it now isn’t good enough. They can’t just go after people they think Patreon can bring to the next level. They’re going to have to go after people who are already making six- or even seven-figure incomes from their art. They have to be able to say, hey, if you take a chance on us, we can give you the same income with fewer middlemen.

I wrote that in response to Patreon’s quickly-rolled-back fee structure change, and since they rolled it back virtually the hour that I published the article, I think my conclusion kind of got buried. But you know what? I still think I was right.

Dan Olson may be right that Patreon is going to feel obligated to junk things up for “little” creators (and patrons) in order to extract more money out of them, but the way companies like Slack and Dropbox have thrived is by focusing on the enterprise space and being kind of…let’s say “lackadaisical” about supporting mere consumers. It’s just that, as I wrote, the big value unicorn in Patreon’s space isn’t General Electric. It’s Beyoncé. I don’t think Patreon is necessarily going to eat itself, in Olson’s words–but creators with just a few dozen, or even “just” a few thousand, patrons may not be ones Patreon is structured to serve much longer.

A digression about Facebook

Around this time last year, I was contacted by a recruiter from Facebook wanting me to apply for a technical writing position there. We talked for a little bit, I got the job information; it sounded pretty interesting, and the folks I know here in Silicon Valley who work for FB generally love it. They take care of their employees as much as modern tech companies do, and that’s not meant as a slight; while FB is more prone to the “constant frat party vibe woo” stereotype than possibly any other company as large as it is, they pay incredibly well, and have generous benefits with respect to bonuses, vacation, insurance, and retirement. And, at this point, I’d been out of work for a few months; part of that was by choice, in that I didn’t start looking for new work right after being laid off from Realm in September of 2017, but I’d just had a couple dispiriting rejections after trying to get back into the workforce and was feeling a little desperate.

But…I didn’t feel good about working for Facebook.

This is not about politics, per se; it’s about the way Facebook aggregates, synthesizes, and applies data. It is not an exaggeration to say that they’re the biggest intelligence-gathering organization in the world. We willingly tell them who our friends are and what groups we belong to; they can infer information we didn’t explicitly offer, based on who our friends associate with and what groups they belong with. They know what ads you’ve clicked on, even ones that aren’t on Facebook, since they supply advertising networks to other web sites and increasingly run free wifi at coffee shops and other businesses (just log into your Facebook account to connect). They know what you’ve searched for on Facebook, but they kind of know what you’ve searched for anywhere else, because they served you ads based on the search keywords you used and, hey, you’re logged into Facebook, so it’s you, welcome back! They know things you don’t tell your friends, or at least don’t tell all of them. They probably know if you’re gay, even if you’re still in the closet. They know you’re a science fiction fan, or a Golden State Warriors fan. They know you’re a furry. They also know you’re an alcoholic, or that you have a gambling problem, or that you have an STD. You’ve never explicitly told them any of those things, sure, but they’ve designed their platform to be one giant automated private investigation service…all in the service of giving you better, more targeted ads.

They’d tell you that their mission isn’t just to serve you ads, of course, it’s to “connect the world.” But that makes it a little worse in some ways, doesn’t it? That gives them a philosophical backing for their ends-justify-the-means mentality. Isn’t connection good? Does that end not justify virtually any mean? Can’t any problems just be written off as collateral damage?

Well, no. No, they can’t. Again, this isn’t about politics, per se, but on a meta level, it kind of is: Facebook wants us engaged, and we get engaged by clickbait. We’re engaged when we’re outraged. We’re engaged when we see which of our so-called friends are so very, very wrong about whatever’s got us fired up. Facebook has “connected” us with people we probably didn’t really need to stay in contact with beyond the occasional Christmas card. We think we’re expanding our social circle tenfold, but too often we’re fraying it, click after click.

So I called the recruiter back and said that I couldn’t pursue the position.

Nothing that happened since then has made me feel that was a bad call. Every month seems to bring a new story about Facebook’s essentially unethical behavior. And it is hard to overstate how much reach and power Facebook has in our economy and our society right now; the claims critics made just a year or two ago that seemed bombastic and ridiculous keep being proven right. It’s frankly not a good, healthy place to be, either as an employee or a customer.

So far I’ve avoided deleting my Facebook account, because there are still people who I will literally only hear from if I remember to check FB (which I increasingly do not, for the record). It is so woven into the fabric of hundreds of millions of lives that the notion that someone you care about is not seeing your Facebook posts seems almost absurd. But I’m not checking very often, and I don’t expect that to change. It’s not impossible that 2019 will see me deleting the account entirely.

Let's talk about the Tumblrpocalypse

Did you hear Tumblr’s getting rid of all the adult sites?

Yes, the news is going around.

Man, if only Apple wasn’t so prudish!

Come again?

This is all because Apple pulled the Tumblr app in mid-November after they found child porn on the site.

Apple did pull the app because of that, yes, but there’s no evidence Apple is insisting Tumblr get rid of all NSFW material across the entire site as a condition to get back into the App Store. Besides, Apple has a “17+” rating category for apps, which Tumblr has been in since early 2013. There’s no sign that they’ve been purging other apps in that category.

But we keep hearing about how strict Apple is! Walled garden and all that. They keep cracking down on user-generated content.

Apple’s actual guidelines prohibit services “that end up being used primarily for pornographic content,” so sure, there’s not going to be a Pornhub iOS app any time soon. But “incidental NSFW content” is explicitly (stop it) allowed.

Tumblr’s NSFW stuff is more than just incidental.

Arguably, but Tumblr’s iOS app has been on the App Store since 2009–almost since there was an App Store to be on. Tumblr said Apple found child porn hosted on Tumblr in a “routine audit”; the word routine implies they audit a random sample of Tumblr sites through the iOS app at least semi-regularly. So it’s damn unlikely it took nearly ten years for Apple to be prudishly horrified by a naughty catgirl pinup.

Well, if it’s not Apple’s fault, why would Tumblr do this? It’s going to kill their site deader than a doornail.

Were doornails ever alive?

It’s just an expression.

Right. Well, okay. “Tumblr is for porn” has become received wisdom, but there are conflicting reports as to just how much porn is there. In 2012, Tumblr creator and then-CEO David Karp estimated it at 2–4% of the blogs. A web analytics firm a year later estimated it at 11.4%, and a study in 2016 estimated it at a mere 1%, but estimated 22% of the audience was there for the porn.

That’s all over the map.

Yeah. The analytics firm used “explicit domain names” as a marker for porn production, which is likely to overestimate, and the later study classified Tumblrs as porn if they could be found by “a large number of search engine queries containing pornographic keywords,” which I suspect underestimates. The chances are that Karp’s estimate was likely the best. While it’s an old estimate, I doubt the percentage of porn Tumblrs increased under Yahoo’s watch, given the Great Tumblr Porn Crackdown of 2013. Let’s keep it on the high end and say 5%, though.

No way. There are millions of pornographic Tumblrs!

It’s easy to lose track of just how big the numbers involved are on an absolute rather than percentage basis. There are about 250 million Tumblr users. Suppose only a quarter of them actually post, and only 5% of those post porn. That’s still millions of pornographic Tumblrs.

What about that figure of 22% of the audience being there for the porn? Is that suspect, too?

This is really difficult to quantify, because the vast majority of Tumblr users who look at some NSFW content don’t look exclusively at NSFW content. Also, thanks to Tumblr’s reblog feature, you may see NSFW content you don’t explicitly (stop it!) intend to see; that 2016 study estimated more users saw porn that way than saw it by following Tumblrs they’d categorized as pornographic.

So the real question isn’t how many people see NSFW stuff on Tumblr, the question is how many people will stop using Tumblr if they stop seeing NSFW stuff on it.

So what’s the answer?

No idea. I guess we’ll know in a year.

I still think it’s gonna die. look at sites like LiveJournal and MySpace. Once people start leaving, they don’t come back, especially if the creators they follow aren’t there.

That’s the million-dollar question, right? They’re going to take a big hit initially, but they probably figure it’ll be balanced out. But there’s a real chance that the big hit gets followed by a slow slide.

You sound pretty sanguine about this. Doesn’t Tumblr making this move bother you?

It does. I have a soft spot in my heart for Tumblr; my old tech blog wouldn’t have taken off if it hadn’t been hosted on Tumblr (and probably wouldn’t have survived a few initial “Fireballings” when John Gruber linked to it). I’ve always thought it was underrated as a pure blogging platform. And, yes, I think it’s worthwhile to have a place to share NSFW content.

But the bottom line comes down to the bottom line. Tumblr is on its third owner at this point and still largely resists monetization, and current owner Verizon is not going to keep running it as a social good. As risky as it might seem to bet that kicking off the pronz will increase ad revenue, it wouldn’t be a bet they’d make if Tumblr as it is now were a sustainable business.

Do you think it’ll work?

Maybe? I mean, if you’re asking if I think Tumblr will “die in a month,” or even a year, absolutely not. LiveJournal, MySpace, and Digg are all still around. Fucking Ask.com is still around. Tumblr could have an indefinite life ahead of it as an irrelevant artifact of internet history.

Come on, give me an actual prediction.

Okay, here’s the thing. Tumblr hasn’t really changed much in years, and that’s a risk. Making an unpopular policy change that drives high-follower-count users off the site is also a risk. Tumblr can survive those as long as there isn’t anything else that does the job it does, but both of these moves open up space for disruption.

But as usual with disruptors, we shouldn’t expect The Thing That Replaces Tumblr to look like Tumblr. It might not even be just one thing at all. In fact, LiveJournal’s decline might be a good study: they, too, opened up space for disruption through a combination of site stagnation and stupid policy decisions, but their users didn’t end up all migrating to some LJ-but-better service. LJ was ultimately rendered irrelevant by the one-two punch of Twitter and, ironically, Tumblr.

So what do you think the lesson is that anyone trying to disrupt Tumblr should draw from all this?

Money first, naughty catgirl pinups later.

The new iPad Pro

So I bought a new iPad yesterday.

After a lot of waffling, I made some seemingly counter-intuitive choices:

  • The 12.9” model (up from my original 9.7”)
  • Only 64G of storage
  • WiFi only, not cellular

The rationale for the first one is simple enough. I’ve been using my iPad more than my laptop, and moving to the bigger screen pushes it that much closer to my only-needed portable computing device. Over the last two years I’ve knocked down nearly all the “showstoppers” that keep me from doing my personal work on the iPad, although there are still clunky points–many of which are more due to constraints in iOS.

So if that’s the case, why go with the big iPad but the baseline version? That’s crazy!

Well, okay. It is, sort of. But when I checked my previous iPad just a few days ago, you know how much of its 128G storage I was using? 30G. And the three biggest apps were Grim Fandango (which I haven’t played in a year), Garage Band (which I don’t use), and iMovie (which I don’t use). By either deleting or “offloading” a few of the biggest apps, I’m now using less than 24G. The reality is that I don’t edit media, I stream it. When I travel, I’m more likely to have podcasts or books with me on planes than movies. And I keep a lot of documents in cloud storage. I’m not a big photographer, but even if I start seriously using iCloud Photo Library, the iPad isn’t going to need to keep all or even most of the photos on it–that’s what the point of “cloud” is, right?

Honestly, if Apple had had a 128G version for just $50 more, like they do with the iPhone XR, I’d have taken it. But they’re playing their stupid storage pricing game, as usual, and I’m not.

As far as the cellular radio goes: I’ll be honest. That was tough. I’m still not positive I made the right call. I end up using cellular tethering a fair amount; I’m using it right now, in fact, typing this at lunch at the office (I don’t want to connect the iPad to the corporate network). Doesn’t that make me a perfect candidate for this?

Well, sure. But it’s a $150 option now, and after paying that upcharge, then it’s either add it to my cell plan for another $10 a month or pick a “pay as you go” option. A lot of folks do that, treating the cellular radio as insurance and almost never using it. Well, okay, but if you almost never use it, you have less reason not to just put up with the inconvenience of tethering. I use it enough that I’m still considering taking the iPad back within the 14-day window and exchanging it. But it just feels like a lot to pay to save five seconds–yes, those five seconds could add up to a minute or two a week. But even so. Again, if this was a $50 upgrade, I’d have taken it almost without thinking about it.

So how am I feeling about the new iPad? After less than 24 hours, I love it. I’ll see how it goes in real world usage, but it’s pretty awesome paired with the Canopy and Magic Keyboard (it is so close in width to the Magic Keyboard it almost looks like they were meant to go together). Do I worry I haven’t “future-proofed” this purchase? A little. But I think in practice I’ll be more than okay.

Edit: I exchanged it for the 256GB iPad Pro, still no cellular (and still in Space Gray), on November 20th. Yes, I decided I needed a little future-proofing, just in case. As of February 2019 I am still not using very much space on it, though.

Low cognitive load blogging

Hey, did you know I used to be a blogger?

Okay, it’s not quite fair to say that I’m no longer a blogger; if you check the Journal tab of my website, I’ve made about a half-dozen posts this year. But that’s way down from the original Tumblr-hosted Coyote Tracks; in the earlier parts of this decade I was at least managing a few posts a month, and occasionally even a few posts a week.

Ironically, this post is going to join the rest of this year’s flock as another post about blogging. The truth is that I simultaneously miss it and don’t want the cognitive burden of committing to it again.

I’m edging toward making this microblog my “real, canonical” blog; after all, it can accept long posts like this one, it crossposts to Twitter and can be followed via Mastodon, and it would let me quietly move my main web site off WordPress onto…well, frankly, I don’t know yet, although I’m perversely considering saying to hell with “generators” and moving to pure hand-coded HTML.

But the main advantage that moving to the microblog—as well as moving to the static site not-a-generator—would give me is freedom from that cognitive load. Okay, too strong: a reduction of that cognitive load. I don’t have to worry about templates more complicated than what BBEdit handles for the main site, and the journal can be updated with any Micropub client (including, of course, Micro.blog’s own client).

The million-dollar question: if I go ahead and make this change, will I actually start blogging again? When I think, “I should write about the problems I see looming ahead for Apple,” or “maybe I should write about why I’m considering going iPad-only for portable computing despite that last thought,” or “I feel a little like ranting about how ridiculous it is to deride Nancy Pelosi as a toothless centrist,” will I actually do it?

I don’t know. But I know that making it easier for myself to get there probably can’t hurt.

Apple's topsy-turvy iPhone lineup

I started thinking about this yesterday, and originally was going to say crazy, as in irrationally expensive. William Schuth expresses this well:

My strategy had been to buy the mid-tier spec of the best iPhone offered. My iPhone 6S Plus cost me $849 at launch; the mid-tier XS Max is $1,249. That’s a whole Apple Watch worth of price inflation in three years.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think it’s not as simple as “Apple jacked up the price of the best phone a lot.” They did do that, no question. But they also made the “less-best” phones a lot better. In the iPhone 6, 6S and 7 years, the calculation was pretty straightforward:

  • Get the normal model
  • Pay extra for the Plus model, which got you a bigger screen, bigger battery, and better camera

Last year, though, the calculation changed a little:

  • Get the normal model (iPhone 8)
  • Pay extra for the iPhone 8 Plus, which got you a bigger screen, bigger battery, and better camera
  • Pay even more for the iPhone X, which got you Face ID, an OLED screen, a bigger battery, the Plus’s camera, and an edge-to-edge screen bigger than the iPhone 8 but not as big as the iPhone 8 Plus

This year, though, things are even weirder. All of these phones now have Face ID and an edge-to-edge screen. So:

  • Get the presumably normal model, the iPhone XS, which is “iPhone X with some bumps” (like most “S” model years)
  • Pay extra for the iPhone XS Max, which gets you a bigger screen and bigger battery (but the same camera)
  • Pay less for the iPhone XR, which still gets you a bigger screen and bigger battery than the iPhone XS, but drops back to an LCD screen and a slightly worse camera

So while Schuth’s heuristic ostensibly leads to the $1,249 XS Max, this isn’t the same scenario as we had with the iPhone 6, 6S and 7 where the difference between normal and Plus was obvious, nor is it like last year’s scenario, where the iPhone 8 and iPhone X were starkly different. This year, you have to really want that OLED screen and dual lens camera to make the XS worth it, and you have to really want the Galaxy Note-sized screen to make the XS Max worth it. In many (albeit not all) ways, the XR is the true successor to the Plus versions of years past, and it’s priced like it. The mid-tier XR is $849.

I wonder how this is going to affect iPhone sales next year. Does the ASP go up, because of the Max, or down, because of the XR? I’m betting the latter is at least possible. Unlike the iPhone 8 vs. the iPhone X, the XR provides a huge chunk of the ooh cool new shiny of the iPhone X, it’s available in unique colors, and it’s not a grimace-inducing price. (Well, no more than the Plus phones were, at the least.)

This is my upgrade year (I’m on an iPhone 6, no “S”), and it’s going to be a tough decision for me.

Form over frolic: Jony Ive’s quest for boring perfection

Form over frolic: Jony Ive’s quest for boring perfection

Apple still has the best industrial design on the market, but they’re not much fun anymore

Right now I’m sitting in front of a 27″ iMac. It’s the best computer I’ve ever owned, with a 5K display, high color gamut, 24 gigs of RAM and 512 gigs of SSD storage. It’s beautiful and minimalist, just like every iMac they’ve released since they switched to aluminum in 2007.

It’s also the least modifiable desktop computer I’ve ever owned. This trend also goes back to that aluminum iMac, in which — like today’s — only the RAM is user-upgradeable. (Since 2012, even that’s no longer true of the smaller 21″ iMac.) It’s hard not to ask: why is thinness the priority in all of Apple’s designs?

You know the answer: Jony Ive. It’s clear by now that he would like everything Apple produces to look as close to a pure pane of glass as he can make it, with minimal, unadorned metallic frames, as close to unbroken and symmetrical as functionality allows. And Ive’s team is perfectly willing to sacrifice functionality in pursuit of this goal. A female Lightning port is fractionally thinner than a female USB-C port, and now you know why the iPhone will never get USB-C ports. Sorry. You’re lucky the one-port MacBook’s one port isn’t a Lightning port. (I have it on good authority that was under consideration.)

This often gets portrayed as a choice between staying chained to legacy hardware and forging ahead to the future. But if you were using Macs a decade ago, do you remember the way the power indicator light on a Mac, both desktop and laptop, used to slowly pulse when it was asleep, as if it were slowly breathing? Or the way batteries on laptops, both replaceable and permanent, used to let you check charge levels without turning on or waking up the machine. Or, as recently as last year, the way power plugs changed color to show charging state. All of that — along with the illuminated Apple logo and, now, the cheerful startup chime — has gone away.

All the price of progress, right?

A couple years ago, Shawn Blanc published a book about “how to make good things great” called Delight is in the Details. That phrase captures an essential paradox: we want our products to stay out of our way in everyday use, yet products that convert us from merely satisfied customers to fans have little touches that call attention to themselves in just the right way. When I start my Mazda, its display lights up with the words “Zoom Zoom” for just a few seconds. It’s stupid, but after six years it still makes me smile.

“Little touches that call attention to themselves” are the opposite of Ive’s guiding aesthetic. He creates beautiful objects you can appreciate as works of art. You can’t help but marvel at the lengths to which his team will go to make a perfect fusion of glass and metal, to craft UIs that appear to directly manipulate data, to make the hardware disappear while you’re using it. Under Ive’s direction, Apple delivers works which are closer to the science fiction future than any other major consumer electronics company. And yet his designs are relentlessly whimsy-free. There won’t be a moment that catches you off-guard and makes you smile. Ive’s work never aspires to make you giggle with delight.

Software doesn’t escape his penchant for austerity, either. The Ive era of software UX has been about flattening, removing, relentlessly stamping out skeuomorphism. The “traffic light” window controls are just circles now; the swirling barber pole progress bars are simple blue, with a subtle pulse; we don’t even get the little puff of smoke when we pull icons off the dock. I’m surprised the iOS icons still jiggle-dance when they’re in rearrangement mode. I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that we’re seeing a software analog to Apple’s quest for thinness, but I’m not sure it isn’t, either.

I’d hardly be the first one to complain about a perceived drop in software and UX quality, or to question whether Apple’s being a little too aggressive in dropping legacy ports. Yet it feels like that’s always been part of the deal, right? We’re taking away the floppy drive, or only giving you these weird USB ports, or sealing the battery in, but look at how cool we can make this thing now! It’s not like anything else on the market. It’s fun.

This iMac is the best computer I’ve ever owned, but nothing about it screams fun. The quirkiest thing about it is my mechanical keyboard, something Apple would never dream of making on their own these days. (So gauche.)

Yes, but you keep talking about the Mac line. The future is in iOS! Despite revealing myself in past posts as a Mac partisan, I think this is not only true but, overall, good. I’m a fan of that science fiction future, and it’s not one in which I see many people sitting down in front of 27″ monitors and keyboards for their computing needs — even if the monitors are holographic and the keyboards aren’t physical.

But man, talk about the “pure pane of glass” ideal, right?

The argument Apple is implicitly making is that computers — especially the computers of the future that the iPad typifies — are appliances. Appliances can be beautiful, but they shouldn’t exhibit frippery. They should be focused. We should prefer the Kitchen-Aid stand mixer to the plastic knockoff that does twice as much at half the price, because it won’t do any of those things well and it’ll fall apart in a year. (Besides, you can do all those things with the Kitchen-Aid, anyway; you’ll just need to buy some dongles.)

That’s all true. Maybe Ive knows best. But if you showed me a table with an iPad Pro, a Surface Pro, and a Surface Book on it and asked me to rank them in order of Cool Factor, I’d be hard-pressed to put the iPad at the head of the line. Microsoft isn’t trying for tiny-quirk delight, which is just as well (“It looks like you’re trying to add personality to your UX! Can I help?”), but they’re sweating small, thoughtful details. Apple sweats the details of manufacturing processes. That’s great, but it’s not the same thing.

Maybe — just maybe — a little frippery is okay, even if it adds a half-millimeter in depth to a product, or adds a touch of (gasp) skeuomorphism to the UI here and there, or allows a slightly less restrained, tasteful pigment on the anodized aluminum case. Injecting a bit of fun, even weirdness, to their computers in the late ’90s helped pull Apple back from the brink. It may be time for another injection.

Being Kitchen-Aid is a fine goal, but you know what? They sell that stand mixer in nearly three dozen colors.

Hacker Noon is how hackers start their afternoons. We’re a part of the @AMIfamily. We are now accepting submissions and happy to discuss advertising &sponsorship opportunities.
To learn more, read our about page, like/message us on Facebook, or simply, tweet/DM @HackerNoon.
If you enjoyed this story, we recommend reading our latest tech stories and trending tech stories. Until next time, don’t take the realities of the world for granted!

Bubbles, Baseball, and Mr. Marsh

Deep stories and ugly truths in American politics

When I went to high school in Florida, I was in one of the last years that had to take a class called “Americanism vs. Communism.”

I had the dumb luck to get a teacher named Bob Marsh, an iconoclastic sixty-something motorcyclist and science fiction fan who told the students like me who were also sf fans about his friend Joe Haldeman. While there’s a common joke I hear even from today’s high school students about American history classes ending at World War II, we learned about the Cold War, about Korea, about Vietnam. We learned about Castro and Kruschev and Mao, but also about Watergate and COINTELPRO and HUAC. It was, improbably, a pretty good class, I suspect almost entirely due to Mr. Marsh.

Despite the name, the class’s story wasn’t about how Americanism, whatever that was, opposed communism. It was about how liberal democracy opposed authoritarianism.

That sense of “liberal” has gotten conceptually muddled over the years, particularly in post-war America. (Call it “classical liberalism” if you must, although that phrase is even more easily coopted.) This is the point: Bernie Sanders and Paul Ryan might not agree on much, but Ryan has never, to the best of my knowledge, advocated for a return to monarchy; Sanders has never once suggested outlawing private industry. They would both agree that the individual liberty and representative democracy thing is, on the whole, a pretty good idea. They are both pretty firmly standing for liberal democracy and against authoritarianism. That’s a foundational ideal of America. We’ve failed to hit it a lot through our history, but we’ve still done better than many other countries.

The name “Americanism vs. Communism,” though, tells us another story, a story that’s been pervasive in America in the post-World War II era. This story tells us that if we want to oppose authoritarianism, we need only worry about “the left.” It doesn’t tell us that “the right” has its own kinds of authoritarians. To some people, it even implies that Nazis were socialists (it’s right in the name!), and that fascists were liberals.

The name “Americanism vs. Communism” tells us, maybe, to let down our guard.


On John Gruber’s podcast “The Talk Show,” guest Merlin Mann said of the 2016 presidential election: “It’s not that my team didn’t win. It’s that maybe I just don’t understand baseball anymore.”

Merlin and I went to the same small Florida college at more or less the same time. (We all totally knew he was going to be a professional podcaster.) I’m pretty sure he also took an AvC class. We probably share a roughly similar, and from appearances similarly inadequate, understanding of baseball.

Before the election we were inundated with think pieces about how “the left” was wildly misinterpreting the appeal of nationalist populism. No no no, we were told, it’s not racism and misogyny and homophobia. It’s the rage, the deep story, the message to people who felt they were being not merely left behind but that “the elites” were letting other people “cut in line” ahead of them on the way to the American Dream. We’re still constantly hammered with the idea that if you’re in a city you’re in a bubble, if you’re liberal you’re in a bubble, that we just need to get out of that bubble and listen to real, non-bubble America.

The deep story may be about all that. But it’s also about how gay marriage devalues “real” marriage. How letting transgender folk use public bathrooms puts “real” men and women in danger. How we should watch, register and deport immigrants and build a wall around our borders. The racism and misogyny and homophobia isn’t incidental. It’s not a byproduct. The deep story is about tribalism.

Here’s an ugly truth: some of the country doesn’t believe that America belongs to people who aren’t in their tribe. That tribe is white, straight (at least openly), and Christian. It’s gotten bigger over the years — it didn’t used to include the Irish, or Italians, or Catholics, or women — but every inch of expansion has been fought, bitterly and grudgingly. Other tribes can live in America, maybe, but theirs comes first, and everyone else is here at their forbearance.

Another ugly truth is this: some of the country considers not just welfare, not just social programs, but basic justice and legal protection to be a zero-sum game. Her marriage means less if you can get married. The sign on the restroom door means less if you can go through it. The police are here to protect me from you. And when it comes to actual tangible costs, they would rather everyone get nothing than risk paying to help you.

The third ugly truth is this: those people are in power now.

Despite my sarcastic streak, I’m a natural optimist. I’m not going to claim there’s much of a silver lining here, though. I believe that the oft-maligned millennials — and even us Generation Xers — will pull us back on track. I don’t think this is the end of the great American experiment, that representative democracy is at its end, that America is doomed to become a mashup of The Handmaid’s Tale and Idiocracy.

But I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. And I don’t know how much worse.

I wonder what Mr. Marsh would have said about all this, back in that Americanism vs. Communism class. I think he might say the problem isn’t bubbles. It’s not who’s listening to who in the present. It’s who’s listening to the past. America has always been at its worst when we’re encouraged to turn against one another, and at its best when we move toward ensuring that liberty and justice truly is for all.

I think he might also say this. Liberal democracies can vote themselves into authoritarianism. Voting themselves back out is much harder.

That seems obvious to me, but I never did understand baseball.

Shifts in the blogging tide

Shifts in the blogging tide

Which semi-open platform do I like better?

I’m reading “How Yahoo derailed Tumblr,” an excellent story by Seth Fiegerman over on Mashable, and it’s making me think of my own relationship — such as it is — with Tumblr.

I have more than one friend who thinks of Tumblr as the domain of endless streaming GIFs and disaffected armchair activists looking for things to be angry about. It is these things, in much the same way that LiveJournal was the domain of angsty, oft self-confessional high school students in the early 2000s. LiveJournal was also the domain of a lot of fan communities — again, not unlike Tumblr today — and even of a lot of writers. (Some names you might recognize, like George R.R. Martin, still use LiveJournal as their primary blogging platform.) But Tumblr is also the domain of a surprising number of company blogs, photographers, news organizations, and even the occasional coyote tech blogger. People are sometimes surprised that Coyote Tracks is a Tumblr, but it is.

Arguably, if it hadn’t been a Tumblr, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be reading this now. A few of my posts got significant attention after being reblogged by Tumblr users with greater audiences, most notably Marco Arment; many of my still few Twitter followers found me because of that Tumblr-based tech blog; many of my even fewer Medium followers found me via Twitter. (Or because “Mr. Money Mustache” linked back to my story about him, which still drives ~70 reads a week a year later. I should eventually return to that, if only to clarify that my skepticism wasn’t about Mr. Mustache’s advice, but only about how widespread its applicability is.)

Earlier today, though, I came across a post from Stowe Boyd called “Moving from Tumblr to Medium.” He pegged his concerns about Tumblr to what he calls “social affordances”:

Tumblr is now a social mess: Disqus comments embedded into themes, fan mail, likes, and reposts never solidify into a social space where reciprocity and response can be balanced. I think Medium is a better way.
Oh, sweet cheese and crackers.

As much as Tumblr’s unique reblogging ability has benefited me, he’s right. There’s no native comment system, only Disqus embedding, and that’s only available with certain themes. Reblogging is terrific for sharing; it’s not so good for conversation. This is intentional design on Tumblr’s part; its mission was always to be a place to share interesting flotsam and jetsam found in your travels around the internet. “Tumblr” comes from “tumblelog,” a blogging style described on Kottke.org in 2005:

A tumblelog is a quick and dirty stream of consciousness, a bit like a linklog but with more than just links. They remind me of an older style of blogging, back when people did sites by hand, before Movable Type made post titles all but mandatory, blog entries turned into short magazine articles, and posts belonged to a conversation distributed throughout the entire blogosphere.

In practice, Tumblr’s certainly powerful enough to be a solid blogging and journaling platform, but I’m aware that using it for long-form writing is swimming against the tide. It doesn’t help my impressions that it’s strangely overrun with spam followers; of the 140,000 followers Coyote Tracks has, I’d be surprised if even 5% are both real and still active.

I’ve been thinking about moving to Medium for a while. here’s my thought process:

  • While I agree with the notion that you should own your own identity, well, I own ranea.org. If I’m sufficiently motivated, I can set up a URL redirect on my end to Medium.
  • Medium has a built-in export tool; Tumblr doesn’t, its quasi-official backup tool broke years ago, and third-party tools are fiddly and fragile. If I’m more concerned about saving my writing, Medium is arguably better.
  • Speaking of web presences, I’ve been trying to bring my “writing” and “tech” presences closer together. (Clearly Mac aficionados should like fantasy and science fiction stories with talking animal people, and vice-versa.) Unifying on one new platform is tempting.
  • I can post directly to Medium from Ulysses if I’m inclined. Medium has a terrific web editor, though. (Although Medium’s web editor only works on the desktop, and their iOS app’s editor is…less than terrific.)

The best counter-argument: lock-in. Tumblr’s original design decision to let you bring your own domain for free is admirable, but its post permalinks contain Tumblr-specific ID values. (This is, I should note, also a problem with Medium.) Unless a new platform can set up redirects on the old URLs, I’m stuck either leaving the Tumblr in place and starting on a new site anyway, or breaking old links. But I’m not averse to the first option.

There’s always moving to self-hosted WordPress, which has a lot of advantages: complete control, unlimited customization, easy embedding everywhere, no concerns about ownership. But just like those ubiquitous podcast ads about Squarespace keep reminding us, doing all that work kind of sucks. (And, yes, I’ve looked into Squarespace in the past; it’s got a lot to recommend it as a web site builder, but not as a blogging-style publishing platform.) I may not love all of Medium’s design decisions, but they’re more in line with the kinds of decisions I’d make myself. That’s a big deal.

I haven’t made any decisions about this either way. At least I’m telling myself that; that I’m posting this on Medium might suggest which direction I’m leaning. We’ll see.