Rumination No. 36: Advance Australia… Yeah, Nah…

During this weekend’s federal election, Australia showed that it is a nation divided, indeed, a nation of great contradictions.

I believe that Australia generally sees itself as a forward-thinking nation—one of progressive ideas, innovation and the ‘fair go’. We apparently value equality and are early adopters of numerous consumer technologies.

Yet, when it comes to our politics, with the re-election of the Liberal-National Coalition, Australia has really shown the total opposite. Rather than choosing to wind down negative gearing and franking credits, in order create a more stable and equal housing market, Australia chose to maintain the status quo.

Instead of choosing parties such as Labor or the Greens, which trumpeted a clearer commitment to renewable technologies and electric vehicles, voters kept a man in office who once entered the House of Representatives carrying a piece of coal as a prop for Question Time.

Furthermore, Australia would like to consider itself to be a politically stable, developed nation, yet a government that has suffered the turmoil of three different prime ministerships has just been re-elected. Disunity apparently isn’t death, but in fact a benefit.

I am by no means a full-blown supporter of any given party, however I believe that this weekend’s election result is an embarrassment. Australia had the chance to start afresh with an entirely new government. Rather than progressive ideas and positive messaging, Australia fell for a scare-campaign from the right.

Somehow, with the constant carry-on from the Coalition and policy-free outfits such as Palmer’s United Australia Party, the nation has fallen for the idea that any investment in services, whether education, health or energy, comes at the expense of the economy. Surpluses are all that matter and any kind of spending is to be questioned. This may come as a surprise to some, but economic growth and new jobs can arise from investment in people.

I’m not sure how long it will take for Australia to get over this economic obsession. Let’s see where the next three years will take us.

Accessibility for Everyone

Image source: Apple (2019)
Image source: Apple (2019)

Apple has been at the forefront of accessible hardware and software design for years with both macOS and iOS. Whilst numerous features (particularly in iOS) were included from the beginning, many new ones have been added over time, in response to the needs of an ever-expanding user base.

To highlight the company’s efforts, Apple Australia’s home page is currently linking to a comprehensive section on accessibility, with the heading: Technology is most powerful when it empowers everyone. This is in celebration of Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

Whilst accessibility features are tremendously useful for people with disabilities, medical conditions or special needs, I could not agree more with this key term in the heading: everyone. When I read down this page, I see features that I use all the time:

  • The speak-screen function, whilst useful for the visually impaired, has been a great language-learning tool for me, as I highlight articles in German to be read out through my AirPods at whatever speed that I want;
  • Safari Reader, as a tool for improving legibility with larger, sans serif San Francisco, has been a great way of cutting out advertisements and reducing strain on my eyes while browsing the Web at night;
  • Siri, although a tool for people who may not be able to touch a display or use other input mechanisms, frequently enables me to interact with devices when my hands are full, whether on iPad Apple Watch or HomePods;
  • Type to Siri lets me define words or make calculations quickly in public with my iPhone, if I don’t want to speak aloud; and
  • The system zoom and dynamic type functions have obvious use cases, however I’ve found them to be genuinely useful for expanding parts of interfaces that cannot be adjusted with the pinch-to-zoom feature.

I could go on but I’ll stop there.

Why am I carrying on about this? It’s rather simple: when we design for the majority, we actually miss really important things. It takes a willingness to listen to the needs of minorities and the marginalised to make technology accessible. Features that may seem niche, obscure or even useless, once baked into the operating system, can have enormously positive consequences for all users.

The term ‘diversity’ is thrown around a lot these days, particularly by organisations that are looking to reassure customers and shareholders of their corporate social responsibility. When we push past this though, we realise that diversity is not just about gender or cultural background. Diversity, in its modern usage, is about different ways of thinking and approaching problems. People with different skills, circumstances and abilities can bring new things to the table and address issues that no one else might have considered.

Looking at this accessibility page, I’m grateful for these technological enhancements and thank the people out there who advocated for such improvements. With their creativity, contributions and feedback, everyone can benefit.

As long as Apple continues to look beyond the majority, the tools that we use every day will only improve.

The Royal Spotlight on Apple News

When Apple News first launched with iOS 9 in 2015, I was enthusiastic about its potential to deliver a variety of high-quality news sources and stories, in contrast to the algorithmic, sensationalist tripe that is surfaced by Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

Key to Apple News’s strength, supposedly, has been the focus on human curation in its Spotlight section. For some time, I used the app to follow various Australian and foreign news sites. I enjoyed it and admired the idea of human curation. Sure, it couldn’t be perfect, however it did sound great that someone—a real person—would be ensuring that people are exposed to diverse stories and views.

More recently, after Apple’s albeit impressive services event, I have been less enthusiastic about Apple News. The focus on News-app-specific addresses, rather than URLs on the open Web, has made me less comfortable with it. I’ve now moved to the new Reeder 4, relying on open RSS feeds. Consequently, News has been sitting in a folder for some time now.

Still, wanting to keep an open mind, recently I thought that I should open it to see what was happening in Spotlight. I had forgotten that everyone was in the grip of ROYAL BABY FEVER. Here are a few screenshots from Spotlight on one day last week.

Apple’s editorial team took the term ‘spotlight’ way too seriously. I have absolutely zero interest in the royal baby and the monarchy that continues to rule (technically) over Australia. Now, I understand that this may seem to be an issue of subjectivity—many people are indeed interested in the royal baby.

However this is just one baby on our planet. How many other children were born on that same day? For that matter, how many died from poverty around the world? Is this really news or is it a tacky human-interest story, swept up in romantic, monarchistic ideals from centuries past?

Of course, you may be thinking, ‘…but Martin, this is the point: it wasn’t algorithmically personalised, so you just shouldn’t tap on it if you’re not interested’. I think that’s besides the point. If this is the standard of news presentation and journalistic ‘curation’ that Apple envisages for its News service, as thousands of arguably more important stories swirl around the globe, then that’s a concern to me. Apple shouldn’t want its Spotlight section to morph into Women’s Weekly.

I’m sure that Apple was serious when it first asserted its passion for journalistic integrity, however with the recent announcement of Apple News+, which is a paid service, I am unsure of the company’s ability to uphold this ideal. Unlike podcasts, which until now have remained a relatively open media space, Apple is looking to increase its services revenue in the news space. Can a company that is driven to attract eyeballs and dollars to its News app fulfil its promise to provide diverse, high-quality content? When Apple News+ rolls around to Australia, I may still try it, but at this point I’m not so sure.

Rumination No. 35: Hotel Literature

For as long as I’ve been staying in hotels, I’ve been fascinated by the ubiquitous Holy Bible from The Gideons in bedside tables and cabinets. Open a drawer and you’re likely to find one sitting there, waiting to be opened.

This came to mind again as I am currently away for work and staying in a hotel. Whilst I’ve always noticed them, this time I thought about it a bit more deeply. Why are they there?

With a simple search, I found the website for the The Gideons International in Australia. On their About Us page, they explain who they are:

The Gideons International in Australia often reaches people who have no contact with churches and who otherwise might not have been reached for the Lord Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, they outline what they do:

We place the Word in the busy traffic lanes of life such as in hotels and motels, hospitals, prisons and correctional centres, medical waiting rooms and domestic violence shelters. For our members, it is exciting, enriching and encouraging to do this work.

As an atheist in the year 2019, I can’t help but be disappointed by this way of thinking. For all of the seemingly good intention that is expressed here in trying to help people, there is an arrogance in their actions.

In the first quoted section, I take issue with this phrase: ‘…and who otherwise might not have been reached by the Lord Jesus Christ’. What if people don’t want to be reached by Jesus? It may come as a surprise to some Christians but hotels are often used by Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and people of numerous other belief systems. Whilst it is naturally anyone’s own choice as to whether they open and read the Bible that is placed in a drawer, there is a kind of pushiness in its placement.

Second, in placing these books in areas of relative social isolation, such as hospitals, prisons, hotels and waiting rooms, The Gideons must be aware that they are manipulating people when they are removed from that which is comfortable and familiar.

Christians, or indeed people of just about any faith, are quick to point out that their respective texts hold ‘all the answers’. They don’t. When people are in the ‘busy traffic lanes of life’, they don’t need to be fed answers about what is supposedly right or wrong according to one particular belief system. We see the same thing from frequent online users of social media—whether there is an argument about politics, religion, media or technology, people often believe that they have all the answers about what is right and wrong and will battle fiercely to assert their correctness.

What if, instead, we taught people to think and ask questions? What if, in these ‘busy traffic lanes of life’, we slowed down not to read one narrow view of the world, but consider numerous possibilities?

There are realms of human society beyond religion that offer these possibilities: consider philosophy, ethics and science. Imagine the surprise if hotel patrons were to open a bedside table drawer and see a text by Richard Dawkins, Naomi Klein, Stephen Hawking or Friedrich Nietzsche. Imagine if someone were to pick up a book that encouraged them to question their own belief system and accepted norms, such as God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens or Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton.

Many would look at The Gideons’ work and say that is it is enriching and generous. Like the work of many churches, I would argue that it is in fact calculated and patronising. Rather than approaching the lonely and vulnerable and claiming to have all the answers for them, why not help them to learn how to think for themselves? Critical thinking empowers people to understand their place in the world, accept difference and learn how to work with others.

Let’s leave this biblical anachronism behind.

Film Review: Carmen and Lola

Image source: IMDB

Each year, Natasha and I attend the Spanish Film Festival at Palace Cinemas in Sydney. We also go to the German and Greek festivals when we can, however the Spanish festival has become our annual tradition, as we have been going since we first got together.

This year, we made a point of seeing a film called Carmen and Lola, which I believe exemplifies the amazing kinds of storytelling that one can find beyond Hollywood.

The film follows the story of two young women, Carmen and Lola, who live in a close-knit gypsy community in the suburbs of Madrid. Both must grapple with the heavy expectations of their respective families: Carmen is engaged to be married and must come to terms with the idea that she is to be a housewife and raise as many children as possible; and Lola is somewhat of a black sheep, choosing to continue her school education and dreaming of a life at university. Furthermore, she has a passion for street art and graffiti and is also coming to terms with her love for women. They both become friends at the local market where they work and in their repeat encounters, develop a relationship and complicity that threatens to destabilise their own connections to their families.

Carmen and Lola is a beautiful film that deals with themes of love, family, friendship and tradition. Whilst the gypsy families in the film obviously love their children and wish the very best for them, their expectations are framed by years of strict, intergenerational tradition and patriarchy. Men are truly privileged—considerably more than in the surrounding non-gypsy community—and women are expected to forsake all education and any other kind of creative or professional ambition.

Music is used sparingly throughout the film, playing mainly in the form of live performance by characters, such as bands or accompanying audio systems at parties and get-togethers. This allows the viewer to experience the pure emotion of the film, without any soundtrack music telling you how to feel (as is so often the case in Hollywood movies). Simultaneously, this lack of a consistent, dominating soundtrack works with a range of long and close shots to create somewhat of a claustrophobic feel for the viewer. It almost feels like on-screen theatre. Madrid’s gypsy community is so separate from the outside world and we only hear the voices, traditional music and often drawn-out, empty silence of these underprivileged streets. The rest of the city is visible but just out of reach.

In the genuine representation of these characters, as Carmen and Lola walk the streets and go about their day, they are followed by a kind of silence—one that makes you feel like someone, perhaps a neighbour, is always watching.

As Hollywood goes about recycling stories and remaking superhero movies endlessly, many viewers will often say ‘There’s nothing good at the movies anymore’. On the other hand, foreign-language filmmakers from Europe and beyond are making unbelievably real, relatable stories that employ motifs, characters and techniques that create a totally alternative experience. As I watched Carmen and Lola, I felt the same suffocation and pressure that they did in their insular world. Films should transport you and this one certainly did.

Carmen and Lola is showing around Australia at the Spanish Film Festival at Palace Cinemas from 16 April to 26 May 2019.

macOS 10.etc.etc.

Image source: Intego

On the latest episode of the The Talk Show, John Gruber and John Moltz discussed macOS’s confusing history of version numbers. Whilst it was brief, I thoroughly enjoyed it and had some thoughts to share on the branding of Apple’s beloved operating system.

To frame this discussion, let’s review macOS over approximately the last 20 years: when Apple bought NeXT in the 1990s, the fusion of classic Mac OS and NeXTSTEP became Mac OS X. The new name made perfect sense at the time, as Mac OS X was preceded by Mac OS 9, Mac OS 8 and so on, and brought drastic changes, both in appearance in its technical underpinnings. It was worth the numerical leap.

Of course, at this time Apple also kicked off its somewhat unusual relationship with the Roman numeral ‘X’, which led every Apple fan to cringe as they heard myriad users pronounce the number ‘X’ as ‘eks’ rather than ‘ten’. (We now continue that painful tradition today with the iPhones X, XR, XS and XS Max.)

With each version of Mac OS X came a handy big-cat moniker, such as Cheetah, Tiger and Leopard. A moniker like Tiger made it easier for all users to name each system, without having to remember the decimal point and various minor revisions. Each name was more memorable and gave the system a kind of personality. Furthermore, versions such as Snow Leopard and Mountain Lion, with their added descriptors, told users that they were more minor revisions of their respective predecessors, Leopard and Lion.

With the arrival of Mac OS X Mavericks, Apple dropped the big cats for Californian landmarks and tourist hotspots. A big question arose at this time, however, as Mavericks was version 10.9: what would Apple do for the next version? Surely it wouldn’t ship Mac OS X 10.10! It should go to 11! A ’10’ after the decimal point is essentially equivalent to a ‘1’, which would send the naming of the OS back in time. Of course, Apple broke all code-naming conventions and shipped Mac OS X Yosemite, with version number 10.10. People eventually sort of got over it…

When iOS 11 was on the horizon, many Apple fans thought, ‘Oh yes, now it all makes sense! Apple wants to sync the newly renamed macOS with iOS 11, making macOS 11! It was Apple’s intention all along!’. Even with many Spinal Tap jokes darting around about Apple turning it ‘up to 11’, the company still didn’t do it.

Right now, with macOS Mojave (technically the fifteenth major OS X-style release), we’re sitting on version 10.14.4. This number is a complete mouthful and surely confusing to any newer user, if they ever happen to see it under ‘About This Mac’.

For me, there are two plausible major reasons why Apple has not yet made the leap to version 11 or some other new brand name for its operating system.

The first reason, perhaps, is that Apple hasn’t been bothered to do it. Many tech commentators have complained about the company’s recent lack of enthusiasm in the Mac and its obvious focus on iOS as the more popular system. As Marco Arment has often said on Accidental Tech Podcast, the Mac and macOS have seemingly been in ‘maintenance mode’. Why would Apple bother changing the code-naming convention if it isn’t even that motivated to extend the capabilities of the operating system?

The second possible reason is that Apple has been waiting for a momentous occasion to do this—a new operating system with considerable changes could be enough justification for the shift to version number 11.

Whilst numerous sites are already referring to the next version this year being called macOS 10.15 (and Apple has almost certainly decided to do this anyway), I would argue that this year is actually the perfect opportunity to make the leap to version number 11.

If all the rumours are true, as MacRumors has listed here, we may expect the following from macOS at WWDC in June:

  • the split-up of iTunes into new Music, Podcasts and TV apps;
  • new window-management capabilities;
  • the introduction of Siri Shortcuts as a potential replacement for Automator;
  • the death of 32-bit apps; and
  • perhaps most excitingly, Marzipan apps that are cross-platform (for iOS and macOS) and redefine technically and aesthetically what it means for a Mac app to be a Mac app.

Considering these potential big changes, Apple could show its more devoted users that it really cares about the Mac by giving it a whole new kind of marketing-love. We may not only witness the disintegration of the monolithic media app that is iTunes, but also a fundamental shift in the kinds of app that we can run on macOS and even how we interact with desktop software.

All of these changes sound just as profound, if not more profound than the move to Mac OS X and the subsequent Intel transition. Sure, these were massive changes, but they didn’t have the same kind of obvious, average-user-facing effect that something like Marzipan could have.

I would argue that the habit of naming each system macOS 10.etc.etc. has become almost symbolic of Apple’s lack of clear messaging about the Mac. One change of name could completely reverse that.

So Apple, if you’re listening and it’s not too late, take macOS up to 11 in 2019 and let the world know just how much you love the Mac. Let just one number tell the story.

Apple Music Pings

Image source: Apple (2018)

Earlier this week, Shortcuts specialist Matthew Cassinelli published a quick piece about how Apple News notifications can quickly get out of hand, particularly if you don’t interact with the app regularly and very deliberately.

Matthew’s experience was certainly my consistent with my own use of Apple News. When I used the app—I’ve since turned back to Reeder—I had only selected ABC News (Australia), The New York Times and Vox to send me notifications, however they added up very quickly on my lock screen and in Notification Centre. In some cases, I couldn’t see why certain stories even justified a push notification. To my mind, stories should only be shared as push notifications if they are emergencies or major breaking news.

As annoying as this may be, it does come down to a degree of subjectivity around what is important to share and how frequently you should annoy users. From a usability perspective, not being able to deal with notifications in an easier way is also frustrating.

What is even more concerning to me, however, is the way that the company sometimes handles notifications for Apple Music. Here is an example of a notification that I received recently from the app on my iPad Pro and Apple Watch.

iOS notification for Beyoncé’s album ‘Lemonade’
watchOS notification for Beyoncé’s album ‘Lemonade’

What’s the issue here? The issue is that I did not request any notification about this album or sign up for a pre-order. These two notifications are purely promotional and as others have written, fly in the face of Apple’s own rules for developers. This album was once exclusive to Tidal and although it’s a big deal that it’s now available elsewhere, I did not need or want to be pinged about it.

Many tech commentators are concerned about what it means for Apple to transform into a services company; I don’t share that pessimism. As its products mature, emphasising services to engage with and earn more money from existing users is a predictable and sensible step. I went into further detail about this in my recent piece Apple and the Craftsmen, following the recent services event.

The question must be asked: is Apple learning from its earlier mistakes?

For example, who could forget the outrage over Apple’s insistence that every iTunes customer should have U2’s album Songs of Innocence in their library? For a company that apparently values privacy so much, Apple should understand that privacy is not just about leaving user data alone and encrypted… it is also about respecting users’ space and not forcing promotional messages upon them.

I love Apple Music, its playlists and integration with HomePod, however this has taken a few years of refinement. Apple once introduced another kind of Ping that didn’t go so well; it didn’t seem to learn that lesson when it tried to push Connect with the launch of Apple Music. Personally, I’m hoping that these notifications are a brief services experiment. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that we won’t have to endure a whole new world of unwanted promotional pings.