Apple acquires Workflow

Apple has acquired Workflow, a popular app for automating iOS actions.

I don’t use Workflow as much as I would like to, but, for some tasks, it saves me a lot of time and energy. I’d like to delve into it more deeply.

Gruber:

This certainly provides ammunition against the argument that Apple no longer cares about power users. For me this is Apple’s most intriguing and exciting acquisition in years.

Gabe Weatherhead is less convinced, highlighting how Apple described the acquisition by giving prominence to Workflow’s accessibility features rather than automation:

I think this is bad news for anyone that relies on Workflow to make iOS useful. If all your eggs are in that one basket then you better hurry up and build a new basket. I’d love to be wrong on this front, but I don’t think automation is a priority for Apple or for iOS. The URL support isn’t just languishing on iOS, Apple has actively killed access to some features in launcher apps. But, who knows. Maybe these three new hires will completely change the Apple culture where Sal couldn’t.[^sarcasm]

(He’s referring to Sal Soghoian, who was Product Manager of Automated Technologies at Apple until they removed the role late last year.)

Whatever happens in the longer term, some predictable changes have been made already:

Terror and territory

The relationship between terror and territory is a crucial one in other ways, too. Think of the recent mass killings that have been carried out by young men — and they are nearly all men — in places like Brussels, Paris, Orlando and Berlin. Even before the blood has dried, there will be speculation about the perpetrator’s nationality. If he holds a passport from a predominantly Muslim nation or was born in such a nation, then the act is usually declared a terrorist act, no matter how weak his religiosity or his links to terrorist networks. The man may drink and have girlfriends, but he will be branded a terrorist. His motives will be assumed to be public and thus political. If, however, he is from Western Europe — like the Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who killed 150 in 2015 by downing his plane in the French Alps — then the motive is usually assumed to be private and we will hear about his psychology rather than his politics. If it is terror, then we can see all kinds of exceptional measures brought into force, from detention without trial to the bombing of Islamic State in Syria, as carried out by France after the Paris attacks. If it is “simply” a mass killing, then nothing much happens at all. One of the key differences is the passport. 

—Why Territory? by Ian Kinke, Weapons of Reason issue 4

Data reporting links from NICAR17

Chrys Wu has a comprehensive list of talks and resources from NICAR17—the conference for the (U.S.) National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.

Some that jumped out at me as being particularly useful and/or interesting:

Phil Elverum and his wife’s passing

An elegant, desperately sad piece by Jayson Greene in Pitchfork about Phil Elverum (The Microphones, Mt. Eerie) and his wife Geneviève’s death from cancer last year.

On the effect of the disease on their mutual creative outlook:

The sickness cast a similar pall on Geneviève’s creative urges. “When she lived, our house was very much taken over by both of our projects all the time,” Elverum says. “Neither of us had real jobs, so we just stayed up late and spread our crazy art things all over the place. But when she got sick, it all seemed so shallow all of a sudden. She didn’t care so much about her previously sacred practice of drawing all those hours. Music and art was very far from our minds for the past couple years. It still is. This new album is barely music. It’s just me speaking her name out loud, her memory.”

Elverum began writing and recording only two months after she passed away in their house. His work is traditionally hushed and introspective—albeit often punctuated with extreme noise—and his new work, unsurprisingly, continues in this vein:

The resulting album, A Crow Looked at Me, sounds like an Elverum work. The music is low and murmuring. His voice is hushed and conversational. The theme of impermanence can still be felt. But the difference between this album and everything else he’s done is the difference between charting a voyage around the earth and undertaking it. It is a profoundly detailed dispatch from grief’s rawest place—the moments still inside the blast radius, when your ears are ringing and you feel the shock of mortification slowly spreading to new corners of your existence every day.

Unlike many works about grief, though, there is no glance towards redemptive larger meaning, which makes it all the more bracing. “Your absence is a scream saying nothing,” Elverum sings on a song called “Emptiness Pt. 2,” drawing the word “scream” out until it is a more like an ambient hum, the buzz of a newly barren existence. Listening to it is like pressing your hand against ice and leaving it there.

On Elverum’s new life with his two-year-old daughter:

“My default mode right now is to throw open the doors and windows. I don’t know where to draw the line. Even just having you here, upstairs, showing you Geneviève’s journals: Is that over a line? But that’s how the songs are written, too: ‘Here’s everything. Look in here. Look at me. Death is real.’”

“My daughter is like a tether back to the functional world, and I’m aware of how helpful that is,” he says. “I have to cut up the broccoli; I can’t be weeping. And yet, sometimes I am weeping, and she’ll come up to me and say, ‘Papa crying!’ And I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I’m crying right now, I’m sad. It’s fine.’ And she laughs and goes back to her Legos.” With that, he heads upstairs and goes to sleep. He needs a full night’s rest, because tomorrow is another full day.

I’m yet to listen to the new album (if this were a Kottke post, it’d be tagged with ‘crying at work‘). Some of Elverum’s earlier work had a pronounced emotional effect on the younger me, particularly the album The Glow, Pt. 2:

Grief and trauma have always been themes in Elverum’s work. The lyrics of the song above stand out to me, some 10 years after first hearing them:

I could not get through September without a battle
I faced death
I went in with my arms swinging
But I heard my own breath
And I had to face that I’m still living
I’m still flesh
I hold on to awful feelings

My friend Kevin has the right idea:

20 years of Either/Or

It’s 20 years since Elliott Smith released Either/Or and, like any good Smith anniversary, there are a few things to catch up with.

Firstly, the expanded edition was given a 10/10 rating by Pitchfork and declared ‘best new reissue’:

By the time Either/Or was released in 1997, Smith was no stranger to the cynical machinations of the post-grunge major label gold rush. A year prior, his former band Heatmiser had been put through that very ringer, an experience captured in Either/Or standouts “Pictures of Me” and “Angeles.” Either/Or sounds like the work of somebody who has zero interest in either conforming to or directly transgressing the “commercial” sounds of the day. It’s too ambitious to read as “lo-fi” and too gritty to read as straightforward pop classicism. Thankfully, this 20th anniversary remaster doesn’t smooth out too many of those rough edges—if anything, it brings the unique sound of the record into even clearer focus.

Jeff Weiss writes on why Either/Or is his ‘break glass in case of existential crisis’ album:

Some people need happy music to buoy their serotonin. Not me. I want dirges so emotionally raw that they’re too severe for normal occasions. I need a “break glass in case of existential crisis” album. Elliott Smith never fails to feel your pain yet avoids melodramatic whining and gothic cliché. He discovered a way to make the softest music sound hard.

There is no “best” Elliott Smith record. Chances are your favorite is the first one you heard. For most of us, that’s Either/Or, the album released 20 years ago last month, the one that Gus Van Sant fell in love with and used to soundtrack Good Will Hunting. It’s what led to Smith’s surreal performance at the Academy Awards and set him on a path to cult stardom. It’s what led to his move to L.A., the major-label deal with DreamWorks, the story that ends with him fatally stabbing himself in his Echo Park apartment with an 8-inch kitchen knife.

I think I bought the record a year after its release in 1998 and was immediately floored by the guitar and vocal arrangements. John EE Allen of Happiness notes the drums on the record, something that often goes unmentioned or even unnoticed:

I’ve always particularly loved the drums on Either/Or—they sound so unhinged, whether they’re doing the muggy simmering thing or distorting like crazy and being played half to death, or that honky snare note in “Alameda,” or the songs (there are a couple) where they crash in just inordinately late. There’s something so heartfelt about the way they’re played. And how, despite them, it’s still at its crux a “guy with an acoustic guitar” record. And it closes with a song as beautiful and hopeful and unaffected as “Say Yes.”

While Jeff Terich calls Either/Or ‘a statement of artistic freedom and cautious optimism‘:

Perhaps more than any of Smith’s other records, either/or is the album in which the Portland singer/songwriter becomes a Rorschach test unto its listeners. You might hear an artist working through his doubts and pain. You might hear a statement of independence. You might even hear something that sounds like Paul Simon. I hear an someone overwhelmed by possibility, celebrating the freedom of being his own artist with some of the most creative and beautifully written music of his career. I hear something honest and genuine, with more than a glimmer of hope.

Fans of Elliott Smith will enjoy Say Yes, a podcast from Louisville Public Media. Guests have so far included Gus Van Sant, Jack Black, Mary Lou Lord and Ben Gibbard. It’s interesting whether you’re a newcomer to Smith’s work or a super-fan; interest is assumed, but not detailed prior knowledge of his work, and even those like me who’ve seen the film, read multiple books, countless articles and oral histories about Smith will be entertained and informed by the guests’ anecdotes.

The podcast features some delightful piano arrangements of Smith’s songs by Joshua Piper, a.k.a. heavypiano:

As a side note, over the past few years I’ve been increasingly enamoured of Alex G, a Philly-based wunderkind who’s about to release his 8th album in what seems like about 6 weeks. I hear a lot of Smith in him. Here’s where to start with Alex G, courtesy of Pitchfork.

The different types of mis- and disinformation

From First Draft News’ post Fake news. It’s complicated there’s a useful figure that shows a spectrum of mis- and disinformation:

The scale, according to author Clare Wardle, “loosely measures the intent to deceive”.

Map these against the 8 Ps (Poor Journalism, Parody, to Provoke or ‘Punk’, Passion, Partisanship, Profit, Political Influence or Power, and Propaganda) and you start to see some mini-patterns:

Rebranding cities

I just came across The Londonist’s London Rebranded: The Capital’s Changing Names, Mapped:

80 years ago, the word Fitzrovia was yet to be coined. 70 years ago, nobody talked about the ‘South Bank’. 50 years ago, Chinatown would conjure images of Limehouse. 40 years ago, Canary Wharf was little-known outside the docks. 10 years ago, nobody said ‘Midtown’. Today, nobody says Midtown.

Nothing is eternal in a city like London, and that includes the place names. New Cross was once known as Hatcham. The village of Garratt, famous for its mock mayoral elections, long ago vanished into the sprawl of Wandsworth.

In recent years, the pace of change, or proposed change, has accelerated. Neighbourhoods right across the capital are looking for pseudonyms, as property developers, business improvement districts (BIDs) and the occasional cultural or residents’ group seek swankier names to attract attention. The most egregious example is Midtown, coined a half decade ago by the local BID to encapsulate the traditional areas of Holborn, Bloomsbury and St Giles. Many more examples are competing for recognition, from Tyburnia to London’s Luxury Quarter. Some areas are pluripotent with possibilities. Londonist’s office, for example, might be located in Tech City, the Silicon Roundabout, SoSho or Hoxditch. Or maybe just plain Old Street.

A March 2016 episode of the podcast 99% Invisible covered similar ground:

In San Francisco, the area South of Market Street is called SoMa. The part of town North of the Panhandle is known as NoPa. Around the intersection of North Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville, real estate brokers are pitching properties as part of NOBE. An area of downtown Oakland is being branded as KoNo, short for Koreatown Northgate. But no one actually calls it that, or at least, not yet.

There is not really a name for this naming convention. They are not quite acronyms, not quite portmanteaus, and not just abbreviations. We at 99% Invisible have been calling them acronames, or if you want to get in the spirit of the thing: AcNa’s for short.

These sorts of rebranding and renaming activities are signs of gentrification, plain and simple. In 2011, New York politician Hakeem Jeffries proposed the ‘Neighborhood Integrity Act’ to restrict developers from concocting new names without community involvement:

The bill wasn’t successful.

Looking back over history, different places are more or less open to this sort of change, but it always happens incredibly slowly. In the case of London, place names only tend to change (or at least catch on) with the arrival of a new Underground station.

I wondered about the cartographers’ role. How do they label areas? Where are the boundaries when talking about places commonly referred to only by compass direction (e.g. SoHo in Manhattan is short for South of Houston Street)?

In the UK, the neighbourhood/city/county boundaries are of differing levels of importance. I live in Milton Keynes, and the neighbourhoods here are very clearly defined by the grid system of roads. There is no confusion where, say, Heelands ends and Bradwell Common begins. As made clear in the links above, other cities don’t have this clear definition.

The boundaries of neighbourhoods have have partial influence in terms of some public services, like waste collection and school catchment areas. But most key services (police, fire, ambulance) go on county lines which tend to be more established and agreed.

If we were to engage our neighbourhood residents on boundaries and names, a participatory and democratic approach might be to:

  • Consider historical information. Who were the settlers or early established populations living in the area, and what terms did they use? (In fact: what languages did they speak?)
  • Take into account plurality of voices. Some locals will side with property developers and want a new place name if it means their properties increase in value. Others may focus on status and/or self-identity and will disagree. What other groups exist? Which are the largest?
  • Consult user-generated content and ‘consensus’ sites. Asking 100 people to define their neighbourhood is likely to result in 100 different answers. How has Wikipedia been updated over the years? Who has been doing it? What maps have been created using Google Map Maker? (Not that this approach is immune to error.)

In any case, things in cities do not change quickly, and anyone who hopes they will (like overzealous property developers) are kidding themselves. Designer Mitchell Joachim, in this conversation with writer Darren Anderson, is talking about the slow progress of cities through changes in their architecture, but I think the same thinking is applicable to these sorts of name and boundary changes:

When we think about cities, it’s the same level of thinking. It’s not as difficult to think about cities as it is to create the Apollo mission, because we don’t have to invent a lot of the engineering from scratch. When you talk about changing cities, the actual city morphology doesn’t shift overnight. Take, for example, my iPhone. From a napkin sketch to an actual device you can purchase, it’s a five year process. So if I said, “holographic smart phone,” which by the way I just pulled out of my ass, someone in Apple will have an okay version of the technology required, but it’s five years before you have a pretty shitty but working model. That’s the scale to change a telecommunications device.

Architecture is forty years before you see a paradigm shift. You can see all these experimental buildings with unbelievable forms, but that’s not the everyday act in architecture. Doors and windows and roofs and boiler heaters take a long time to change. I’m not going to buy a super-sustainable boiler until the current one I have utterly fails or simply costs me too much money. So that’s when you see replacements in architecture. And with cities it takes a hundred to 150 years before all of this discussion and all of those different scales rationalise themselves and become everyday practice in city design. To be a really good city designer, you need multiple hats, bridging multiple disciplines, looking at all facets of technology and how society evolves at their timescales before you find a new city.

Joachim goes on to consider the last time this sort of city branding worked—the creation of garden cities:

Thinking of historical cases that have worked. One is Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. That worked because it was a meme. It had a great title. Who didn’t want to live in a garden city? How do you argue against that?

But that’s one too many threads pulled upon for now.

The best anagram in English

Mark Dominus on The Universe of Discourse has (fully) explored all the anagrams in Webster’s Second International dictionary.

The longest pair (cholecystoduodenostomy and duodenocholecystostomy) isn’t necessarily the most interesting, as both words are made up of three units (cholecysto, duodeno, stomy) in different orders.

So he came up with a way of scoring pairs based on the degree of rearrangement required:

This gave me the idea to score a pair of anagrams according to how many chunks one had to be cut into in order to rearrange it to make the other one. On this plan, the “cholecystoduodenostomy / duodenocholecystostomy” pair would score 3, just barely above the minimum possible score of 2. Something even a tiny bit more interesting, say “abler / blare” would score higher, in this case 4. Even if this strategy didn’t lead me directly to the most interesting anagrams, it would be a big step in the right direction, allowing me to eliminate the least interesting.

From this algorithm, the most interesting anagram pair is 15 letters long, with only two letters that stay next to each other. Go see what it is.