An open letter to Tim Cook

Dear Tim,

I am a 28-year-old IT professional. Computers have always been a massive part of my life. Growing up, I used PCs and Macs at home and school. Eventually, PCs became my dominant platform, but in 2006, as the Intel transition was underway, I wanted to rediscover the Mac. I saved up my money and bought the very first Intel Mac mini. It didn’t take long for me to decide that the Mac was the computer for me. I didn’t want to own a PC anymore. The Mac was a vastly superior experience; the hardware was robust yet meticulously designed, and the beauty and elegance of the operating system belied its power. Windows felt trashy by comparison, and PC hardware was inconsistent and messy. Today, ten years later, I’ve been the proud owner of many Macs, and I’ve been a champion for Apple computers at every job I’ve held. I’ve also owned every generation of iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV. My home is an Apple home, and I’m proud of that.

I’m writing today because I’m worried about the future of the Mac. I understand that iOS devices are the future. My boss is constantly blown away by how much work I get done on my iPad. But the computer at my desk is still a Mac, and I wouldn’t be able to do my job without it. In addition to providing IT support for almost 500 people, I also work with media. I work in Final Cut and Logic. My job involves creative work, and I consider myself a pro user as well as a technology enthusiast. I would like to think that I am part of the group of creative professionals that Apple gear particularly appeals to.

I am also the person my family and friends come to for technology advice. This year has been difficult. I have had people ask me what Mac they should buy. The state of the Mac lineup this year made that question a hard one to feel good about answering. I have watched the Mac line languish. The recent news about external displays, macOS automation, and AirPort routers only heighten my fears about the future. I’m not excited about connecting an ugly third-party display to my Mac, nor do I look forward to buying a Linksys or Netgear when the time comes to replace my AirPort, which has been the most reliable piece of network equipment I’ve owned. Apple’s hardware has often been described as magical, but today Apple seems not to care about the widening gaps in that experience.

I fear Apple is sending a very unclear message about the Mac. I don’t believe that the Mac no longer matters to Apple as much as it does to its users, but I don’t think people can be faulted for thinking it looks that way. It would mean a lot to have some clarity regarding the future of the Mac, because right now we just don’t know. That’s scary for a lot of people who love and depend on Apple for its computers. Are desktop Macs dead? Will there never be another Mac Pro? Why is this the right decision for your users? Can you provide or recommend something else for people who depend on this type of hardware? Tell us there is a vision here. We trust you; we will listen. But the silence is doing a lot more damage than it needs to.

Thanks for taking the time to read. The new MacBook Pro looks great. I hope there’s more to come.

Danny Stewart

Site Change

Late last year, a server upgrade caused the blogging engine I'd been using for several years to stop working. Since all it did was generate flat files, the website stayed online even though it could no longer be modified. It took me a long time to notice, and even longer to care enough to do anything about it. Eventually I moved to a different engine, hosted on Heroku instead of my own Linode VPS.

But while the solution was different, I was still thinking about the problem in the same way. I was hosting my site using somebody else's solution that was designed for their own individual use. And while it works great for them and intermittently worked great for me, I realized that I don't want to have to deal with my website breaking in odd ways or going through hours of troubleshooting when all I want to do is throw up a new post or make one minor change. And the people who created those engines would have told me the same thing if I'd asked them. I'm just stubborn.

My goal for this site has never really changed, and it's not a lofty one. I just want to be able to write things sometimes and have a place to put them. Maybe to vent on a subject I care about, or to share information for the reference of others. What I don't want is to click the "Post" button and watch as my site crashes, yet again, for yet another unknown and unforeseen reason. Or worse, to come back after not posting for so long that I don't even remember how to do it.

So I just moved the damn thing over to Squarespace. I don't have much of a historical legacy of posts that I care about, but I moved over the ones that I thought might be valuable. The whole thing was quick and painless, it looks good, and it's not going to go down the next time I post something. For my own website, that's pretty much all I ask.

Hey Siri

Public perception of Apple’s “Hey Siri” event seems to be overwhelmingly positive. I’ve seen a lot of people saying Apple hasn’t had as focused or strong of a presentation in years. It’s true—there was a lot to take away. Each individual product announcement holds big ramifications for the future of Apple’s devices and platforms.

Apple TV

The Apple TV is a no-brainer for me. I am not an Apple TV power user (is there such a thing?) but I rely on mine heavily for the basic functions it currently offers. I know there are plenty of alternatives, but the Apple TV is all I want and the new Apple TV brings much more to the table. The Siri integration looks very well-executed and I’m genuinely excited for its potential as an app (and game) platform. I’m buying it because it’s better at what I already use it for, but I’m optimistic that more uses will continue to present themselves for it over time.

iPhone 6s

I think the iPhone 6s is a big deal for a reason that I’m not sure many would agree with at this point in time, and that reason is 3D Touch.

The best comparison I’ve heard about 3D Touch is that it’s like keyboard shortcuts for a touchscreen. A way for power users to bypass steps for common actions without introducing required complexity that confuses novice users. You can continue to use an iPhone the way you always have. There is nothing that you must use 3D Touch in order to access, and properly-designed software shouldn’t resort to requiring it, but for power users it is going to be an incredible boon to usability.

Some people may make the mistake of dismissing 3D Touch as a gimmick, but I think it couldn’t be more important. It’s going to change the interaction paradigm for touchscreen devices. In five years, when it’s everywhere, features are going to be able to be designed differently because there is a whole z-axis to work with.

I even like the name. When I first heard it, I thought it was silly, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it’s actually brilliant because it’s so accurately descriptive. It’s touch input with a third dimension added. It’s more description than buzzword. I hope they rebrand what they’re currently calling “Force Touch” everywhere else as 3D Touch instead, as I think it’s a better and less confusing name, and consistency is king.

iPhone Upgrade Program

In some ways, Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program was the most exciting announcement for me, because I’m one of those crazy people who has always bought the new iPhone every year. Apple introducing a first-party iPhone Upgrade Program solves a long-held problem I’ve had with needing to figure out complicated ways to accomplish this within my financial means, abusing carrier upgrade cycles, adding lines to get subsizied pricing and so on. I am thrilled to finally have this separated from the carrier and be able to manage my hardware through Apple independently.

iPad Pro

The iPad Pro is an impressive piece of hardware, and there is little doubt in my mind that it will be the route I go for future iPads. There are many exciting things about it, not the least of which being the A9X and a rumored 4 GB of RAM. I am particularly enthusiastic about the addition of a first-party physical keyboard. (I do a lot of writing, and I find the software keyboard sufficient in short bursts but quickly tiresome for longer writing sessions.)

That said, I’m going to sit this round out. Aside from not being able to justify the cost (it’s a substantial investment, especially if you want cellular connectivity), it also does not have 3D Touch. As I noted above, I think 3D Touch is going to change a lot of foundational elements of iOS over the next several years. Buying a new device without 3D Touch feels similarly shortsighted to buying one without a Retina display after those were introduced. It just doesn’t make sense as an investment right now.

To be honest, I also believe the hardware of the iPad Pro is ahead of the software. I am very optimistic that the existence of the iPad Pro will drive iOS forward in significant and important ways, but we’re just not there yet. iOS 9 is only the beginning. As John Siracusa put it, making iOS a truly pro-level operating system is a “chicken or egg” conundrum. Now, we have our egg. Now that Apple has an iOS device that is billed as a truly professional device, it means they have no excuse to continue arbitrarily limiting iOS. Many have been frustrated that iOS, especially on the iPad, seems constrained or dumbed-down for no good reason. I think this is much more the case than it should be. iOS 9 finally makes some progress on that front with split-screen multitasking features but we’re only scratching the surface. And now that there’s pro-level hardware to run it on, Apple must push iOS forward in significant and important new ways, or else they will fail to justify the existence of a new product.

The existence of the iPad Pro marks a great promise for the future of the iOS platform, but I am willing to wait until I see evidence of that promise being fulfilled before I make the leap. In the meantime, my iPad Air 2 will more than tide me over.

State of the Who Theme 2014

Supposedly, a bold new era of Doctor Who is now upon us. How much the show will actually change remains to be seen, but one thing that hasn’t changed is Murray Gold doing the music.

Not counting different edits of the same theme, Murray has now given us a total of eight separate versions of the Doctor Who theme that have been used on the show (plus one that was soundtrack-only, and another that hasn't been officially released at all), running absolute circles around everyone else who has ever taken up the mantle of doing the official theme for the show.

I began writing about Murray’s themes in 2010 out of misguided optimism that the show would improve under Moffat’s reign. I wrote again about 2013’s new theme, in a post I called “2013 and beyond” because I foolishly assumed that we wouldn’t have a completely new theme again the following year. But a new theme—along with a radically different title sequence—is exactly what we got.

Here is the theme in its latest incarnation:

What I like

For one thing, the palette of sounds used in this theme is almost entirely electronic. This is something Murray has been getting better at in recent years. While his first several themes got progressively more bombastic, this trend has thankfully slowed dramatically since 2010. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say it has reversed itself, Murray has been much more selective when it comes to focusing on specific aspects or sounds in the theme each time, instead of just adding more things into the mix. The Doctor Who theme is so effective because it is fundamentally basic. A solid bassline and melody are all you need, and the inherent effect of the theme no longer works when those cease to be the central focus.

On top of that, the theme’s tempo has been brought back in line with what a Doctor Who theme should be. All of the themes since 2010 have run at 143 bpm, which is way too fast for a Doctor Who theme. A Doctor Who theme should run somewhere between 139 and 140 bpm, or in some cases slower. This newest theme appears to run at about 139.8 bpm—exactly where it should be.

The reliance on countermelodies has been sharply reduced this time around. The fanfare that has played over the bassline intro since 2010 is finally gone. The nice thing about Murray’s “trademarks” (the staccato strings for the first several years, and more recently the brass fanfare over the bassline intro) is that he will eventually tire of them and move on. I give him a lot of credit for this. Virtually every non-electronic element in this theme is either percussive, used to create pad-like harmonies, or directly complementing the main melody (rather than supplementing it). This is exactly how sounds like these should be used if you’re going to use them at all. The electronic sound effects, on the other hand, are prominent throughout the theme and used to great effect. One of them even sounds like Peter Howell’s “Catherine wheel,” spooling up as the theme builds to melody 1 and then winding back down. Even the theme’s conclusion sounds ominous and sets the right tone.

The new bassline is actually pretty good. I’ll get to the notation in a moment, but let’s start with the sound. The bassline is the single most important component of any Doctor Who theme; if one thing is going to be louder than all the other things, it should be the bassline. Murray Gold has a history of failing to recognize the importance of making the bassline the heart of the theme, but the bassline in this version is driving the theme as it should be. The sound itself spans a huge frequency range, which is great, and more or less unprecedented in a Murray Gold theme. Murray also has a history of very thin synth sounds for his bassline and melody, especially since dropping the Derbyshire samples in 2010. This bassline doesn’t have that problem, but this partially stems from the fact that it seems to be using a processed sample of a single “dum” from the original Derbyshire bassline to beef it up. It’s a surprising technique from someone who has full access to all the original samples, but it really does help the sound. In a way, I almost admire him for realizing he can’t synthesize something that rivals the original Derbyshire sound. Of course, the sampled Derbyshire bassline is also layered with some kind of synth bassline of his own (which is really what makes it work as cohesively as it does), but even that synth sounds better than usual.

There is a very important distinction in the bassline: which sections of the theme use diddly-dums, and which sections use dum-de-dums. Ever since the Doctor Who theme’s very beginning, it was laid out that melody 1 should use diddly-dums, and melody 2 should use dum-de-dums. Peter Howell later established the rule that a dum-de-dum could be changed to a diddly-dum, but never the other way around. Thou canst addeth the note to the dum-de-dum, but thou shalt not taketh away.

Believe it or not, for the first time in history, Murray Gold seems to have observed and honored this distinction. The bassline intro begins with dum-de-dums, then switches to diddly-dums halfway through. Melody 1 uses diddly-dums, and melody 2 switches back to dum-de-dums. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t heard it with my own ears, but there it is. (The complete absence of dum-dum-diddies, however, is a separate issue, and will be bitched about in the “What I don’t like” section below.) The bassline has also been rearranged so that it no longer jumps up to the B an octave higher like it did in the last theme, and instead correctly goes down to the lower B. UPDATE: Unfortunately, upon inspection of the isolated bassline, it is only the percussion that gives this impression. The actual bassline notation itself is perhaps blander than it has ever been, and there are no diddly-dums at all outside of the bassline intro. Sad face.

It’s difficult to be 100% sure of this, but it sounds like the notation of Murray’s bassline second layer has improved in this latest theme as well. It’s still not perfect, but if he’s done what it sounds like he’s done, it’s less wrong than it has been in every prior Murray Gold theme that bothered to include a second layer at all. I’ll qualify this by saying that the second layer is very quiet in this theme, so it’s hard to make out, but it sounds as though instead of using the “inverted” notation he has used in all previous themes with a second layer, this time he has switched to what I call the “Glynn-style” second layer. This means that when the bassline goes up from E to G, the second layer starts on D, but when it comes back down to E, it starts on D again (or starts on A if the bassline comes down to B), rather than starting on F or F#. I first explained this in depth back in 2010, when his second layer became a clearly audible separate track. Switching to a Glynn-style second layer is not perfect, but it is progress.

The theme’s melody has also made significant progress in this version. (Well, except for the sound… but that’s not for this section.) For one thing, the first note of melody 1 is back with a vengeance. No more “wah-oo”—now we’re back to “oo-ee-oo,” as it should be. On top of that, another important aspect of the melody has been restored. The first phrase of the melody is composed of two halves: melody 1a, and melody 1b. The final B note of melody 1a should always be held and continue to play behind melody 1b. This is something that Murray Gold has never done, until now. Or, to be more accurate, he’s approximated the effect by repeating melody 1b on a different sound (a string sound) and concluding on the B note at the higher octave. It isn’t perfect, but it achieves the desired effect and it sounds good leading into melody 2. Dominic Glynn used the same basic technique in his 1986 opening theme.

Speaking of melody 2, the notation there is also better. In fact, the notation is almost perfectly accurate now, with the exception of the final two notes, which are missing altogether. By extending the post-melody 2 bassline from two blocks to four, he bought himself plenty of time to conclude melody 2 properly, but for whatever reason he hasn’t done so here. Still, credit where credit is due—he finally has the notation on all of his layers clearly doing A-B, C-D-B, and at the right times too. Another C-B wouldn’t have killed him, but beggars can’t be choosers, right?

What I don’t like

For the second theme in a row, Murray’s bassline is completely devoid of the dum-dum-diddy. For all the progress Murray has made in his understanding of the bassline in this latest theme, the complete omission of the dum-dum-diddy is a huge gap in accuracy. What has the dum-dum-diddy done to Murray to warrant its exclusion like this? Perhaps we’ll never know, but it’s a great shame. Murray has always had his issues with the dum-dum-diddy—for example, he never includes it when leading into the bridge if the bridge bassline is played on the higher octave—but you simply can’t have a Doctor Who theme bassline without it. Having each block locked to a certain pitch with no graceful transition between them becomes awkward and repetitive very quickly.

On top of that, Murray has made a pretty fundamental change to the structure of the bassline intro. Instead of going E-G every time as it’s supposed to, the second repeat now goes E-D. Yes, the bassline intro now goes down instead of up for one of the repeats. That’s just not cricket. I know Murray thinks the bassline intro is just so boring without some kind of brass fanfare or staccato strings over it, but maybe if you included some dum-dum-diddies you wouldn’t have so much of a problem?

That melody sound is just terrible. There’s no getting around it. It sounds like a basket of kittens being lowered into a vat of acid. If people watch the show at a high enough volume, there might be a class-action lawsuit for property damage coming up.

I’m not terribly thrilled with the bells either. I don’t object to them conceptually, as they were likely designed to fit with the title sequence, but they’re used in a pretty repetitive and boring way. Murray never seems to be able to come up with a creative way to use percussion in his themes, and the bells are no exception this time around.

Finally, the post-melody 2 bassline is still not ideal. It’s miles better than the previous theme, which just had two B blocks before returning to melody 1, but this time he has just padded them out with another two B blocks. If you’re going to add two blocks, do a B block and then go up to D like the Howell theme, or a G high-low dum-dum-diddy to lead back into melody 1. And speaking of those final melody 1 sections, do you really need to do a bassline intro-style E-E-E-G behind them instead of the proper melody 1 E-E-B-B notation? At least you had this right in the last theme.

Verdict

When all is said and done, I actually kind of like this newest theme. But then again, I’m the kind of person who loves the Delaware theme, and I don’t care what you think. For a Murray Gold theme, I think this is progress. Unfortunately, I’ve learned by now that when it comes to Murray Gold, “progress” is usually just a fortunate accident. We’ll see how much of this is actually retained when the next theme rolls around.