My CocoaConf Yosemite 2017 Talk

Yosemite 2017 was so great. It always is.

Below is the rough draft of my first-night talk. A few notes…

The actual spoken version is probably not even close to the text, which was written before any rehearsal, and of course it’s never my intent to memorize it exactly.

The bit with Laura Savino was a quick three-chord rock medley. We both played acoustic guitar and sang. It went like this:

B: Louie Louie, oh baby, we gotta go
L: Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
B: Louie Louie, oh baby, we gotta go
L: Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
B: I live on an apartment on the 99th floor of my block
L: Hang on Sloopy, Sloopy hang on
B: I look out my window imagining the world has stopped
L: Hang on Sloopy, Sloopy hang on
[Slight change of chords]
B & L: Teenage wasteland, oh yeah, only teenage wasteland [repeated]

Here’s my favorite video for Brimful of Asha.

During the Squirrel Picture interlude (slide #3) I told the Squirrel Story, which wasn’t planned or recently rehearsed, but I’ve told it often enough that it didn’t really need rehearsal.

I dedicated the performance of Hallelujah to Dori Smith.

The talk was meant to be about 20 minutes long. Afterward I went around the room with a microphone and each person introduced themselves. (The talk’s job is to be a first-night ice-breaker talk.)

I spent about 10 hours on rehearsal for those 20 minutes.

Here’s the talk:

Slide #1: Three Chord Rock

Hi. I’m Brent.

Before I get started — seeing my friend Brad Ellis reminded me of the most rock-n-roll moment of my life. Where’s Brad? Hi Brad. Anyway — I was at a party at my friend Chris’s house, and he let me borrow his guitar and do a sing-along. I think we did White Rabbit and Me and Bobby McGee and Hotel California.

Well, here’s the problem — I have a hard time hanging on to a guitar pick. Especially after a few beers. So at one point the pick goes flying, and I’m strumming with my fingers.

But I had a hangnail, and it got a bit aggravated as I was strumming. At the end I noticed that there was my actual blood on the guitar. I felt bad about it, but Chris was gracious, of course, and I thought that right then: that’s rock and roll.

You can use this as metaphor. Bleeding? Keep right on playing. Maybe you won’t even notice that you’re bleeding, at least not until you stop.

Chris told me later that the guitar cleaned up fine, so all was well.

Okay. On to the actual talk…

I bet most of you have heard the phrase “three chord rock n roll.” Or have heard that “rock is so great because you only need three chords.”

What you may not realize is that it’s even easier than that: it’s three specific chords. Always the same three chords.

They might be in any key but they’re the first, fourth, and fifth. In the key of C, the first is C, the fourth is F, and the fifth is G. In the key of A it’s A, D, and E.

And when a song does have more than those three chords, it has at least those three chords. They’re the foundation for almost all pop and rock.

One part of music is building tension and then resolving it. I’ll demonstrate on guitar.

[On guitar] Play the first .... and you’re fine. You’re home. Play the fourth .... and there’s a little tension. Not a ton, but some. But you want to go back to the first, to home.

Then play the fifth ... and you have maximum tension. You definitely want to go back home to the first.

So with those three chords you have everything you need to write a thousand songs.

Now for a little demo, I’d like to invite Laura Savino up to help me out.


Thanks, Laura!


  1. ONE. If you’re writing apps or a website or doing a podcast or whatever — if you’re just starting out and only know the equivalent of three chords, don’t worry — you can create a masterpiece with just three chords.

  2. TWO. If you do know more than three chords, you might want to consider just using those three chords anyway. People love those three chords. They’re appealing. They’re accessible and intimate. They work.

Slide #2: “Brimful of Asha“ by Cornershop, Asha Bhosle, and You

One of my personal favorite three-chord-rock songs came out in the mid-90s. Brimful of Asha by Cornershop.

Who here knows this song?

Let me explain what it’s about:

Asha Bhosle sang songs for Bollywood musicals. The actresses would lip-sync, but it was her singing. She did this for over a thousand movies. Over 12,000 songs.

Some of those songs would be released as singles. Years ago a single would come out on vinyl, as a 45. A 45 is smaller than a regular album, and it has one song on each side. The number 45 means 45 revolutions-per-minute — you’d have to set your turntable to 45 instead of the usual 33 1/3. So: a 45 is a single.

So here’s a little bit from the song:

[There’s dancing, behind movie screens…]

I love that image. That Asha is not just singing but dancing as she’s singing. We never see her dancing, but that joy and engagement shows up in her performance.

And so this song is about hope. It’s about how a song can bring some consolation and hope when people need it.

And her name Asha actually means hope. Brimful of Asha — brimful of hope.


We're in the same business. People form an emotional connection to whatever we’re making. The things we make can bring hope to other people. Knowing that, it’s our job to be as engaged and joyful as she is as we make our things. Maybe we’re not literally dancing, but it should be the metaphorical equivalent.

Slide #3: Squirrel Picture


When I was a kid we went to a Methodist church. I haven’t been to church hardly at all since I was a kid, but I remember one cool thing from church services: the minister would pause and ask people to shake hands with the people around them.

So here are the rules. Tell people to have a good conference, and shake hands with at least one person from another table. Stand up!

Slide #4: “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, with Singing by James Dempsey

A few weeks ago I found myself in a hotel bar with a bunch of other nerds. I also found a piano. If there’s a piano, I’m going to play it. So I talked a few people — James Dempsey, Jean McDonald, Curt Clifton, and Jim Correia, into singing some songs.

I forget who suggested Hallelujah. Might have been James. I didn’t know it very well, but I did my best. James sang, and he was awesome.

So when I was thinking about this talk, I was thinking of doing the most beautiful possible thing I could do. So I remembered James singing this song.

I may not be religious, but I think it’s plain that there is awesome magnificence greater than anything any human could make. It’s right outside.

I’m not sure bears feel humble at the sight of these mountains; I’m not sure birds are awed at the vistas they fly over.

But we do. Humans do. And knowing that we can’t measure up, it doesn’t stop us. Intead, we’re inspired.

So here’s what I love about Hallelujah. It’s about trying and failing, and loving and losing — and singing Hallelujah anyway. In Cohen’s words, it may be a broken Hallelujah, but it’s still on our lips.

James Dempsey please report to the stage.

Everybody is encouraged to sing along. Especially to the chorus.


Slide #5: Picture of my cat Papa

I’m going to go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves. RULE: if anyone can’t hear, yell out.

Them That’s Got Shall Get

I try — earnestly, with good faith — to understand the Republican ideologies.

And I think I’ve figured out one of them: they want to make life harder for poor people so that they have more incentive to become rich, and they want to make life better for rich people to reward success, since it should be rewarded, and since doing so provides even more incentive for poor people to become rich.

If you look at it just the right way, you can see it’s not entirely wrong. If the government made material life pretty sweet for everybody, then some people wouldn’t bother to work to earn a living. I wouldn’t bother — I’d just make software and give it away for free.

If the government made life semi-sweet — well, anybody who wants the full sweet would want a job. But some people would be fine with semi-sweet, and they wouldn’t work.

I think that’s where Republicans stand: they think the government has made life semi-sweet, enough so that a bunch of people just take and don’t work. Republicans think: we need to give them an incentive to work.

This explains the health care bill: it takes from the poor, who need incentives to work, and gives to the wealthy, who need rewards for their success. (So the Republicans think.)

* * *

It’s as if the Republicans have no realistic conception of what it’s like to be poor. The choice isn’t between health care and an iPhone, as one Republican suggested — it’s between food and rent, or worse, and forget health care and iPhones entirely.

I was “poor” in my very early 20s. I put that in quotes because I was never in danger of starving or becoming homeless — my parents would have helped me. (They did plenty, in fact.)

But still, even this small experience gives me some insight. I remember buying generic macaroni and cheese because I literally didn’t have enough money for Kraft. And forget hot dogs. And forget vegetables.

I don’t mean that I had some money lying around that I’d put aside; I mean that I had a few dollars to last a week, and if I bought Kraft, which was a few dimes more, I would run out of money before the week was over.

(My bank had a $5 minimum balance for my account. I could withdraw as little as $5 — and in those days ATMs were free — but that would have meant having more than $10 in my account to get that $5. I got so angry because I had, as I recall, $6.91 but couldn’t get at it. I remember thinking that another $5 would change my life.)

I’m not complaining about this, or saying that I had things particularly tough. Not at all.

I’m saying that if you take that experience, and take away any possibility of help from family, and then stretch it out for years and decades — with the inevitable issues, health and otherwise, that happen to everybody — then you have a life where getting ahead is really, really difficult. I can’t imagine; I can only try.

But it’s no semi-sweet life. Not even close.

Don’t Be Scared If You Have to Get an MRI

“Totally normal,” said my neurologist of the results of the MRI on my head. No worries.

I was afraid to get an MRI in the first place.

I got a crown last week, and that didn’t worry me — it’s my ninth. Breathe the gas and just chill for a while. No big deal. It’s almost sad when it’s over.

But I was afraid to get the MRI, because I’m slightly claustrophobic, and all I knew was that they’d put me in a big tube and then walk away.

How It Went

I didn’t have any dietary restrictions in advance. They didn’t inject me with anything. I was told to wear comfortable clothes with no metal — so I wore sweatpants, a T-shirt, and a sweatshirt. I was able to leave my rings (gold, two small diamonds) on.

Beforehand I did a three-sixty in front of a ferrous metal detector. Then I was led through the doors with the giant warnings about extremely powerful magnets.

I put in earplugs that the technician gave me, and then put on headphones. He asked me what music I’d like, and I replied, “80s. Bowie.” I lied down on the thing. There was a firm but not painful thing to hold my head still and give it something to rest on. Under the lower half of my legs was a foam thing that kept them elevated a little. It was comfortable.

He told me it would take about 20 minutes. He also gave me a bulb to hold onto and to squeeze as an alert, and he said they could pause the tests if needed.

Then he slid me in. The tube was more narrow than I expected. And for the first couple seconds I did feel panic rising a little bit, and I thought about squeezing the bulb — but I didn’t. I oriented myself and took some deep breaths.

I was staring up at the top of the tube (I was on my back), but there was this mirror contraption (two mirrors? hard to tell) that I was looking at, and so I was looking out through the end of the tube. What I was actually seeing was a nice, calm painting on the wall — a river and some trees — and I could see the length of my body and my feet, which were free of the tube. I told myself I could scramble out on my own if I had to.

The music started with a Bowie song — “Life on Mars.” Later there were songs by Talking Heads and similar bands. It was good to have music because I could note the passage of time that way. (I guess I was listening to a Pandora station or something similar.)

The machine was noisy, but I had plenty enough ear protection, and the different scans had different patterns. One scan near the end included a bit of vibration. The technician talked to me through the headphones a couple times to let me know how much time was remaining. I just kept my eyes on that painting the whole time.

I had no trouble being still, except when I had to swallow. I just did. It was otherwise comfortable. And I could have gone another 20 minutes, easy.

* * *

Of course, I’m lucky. I have very good insurance through Omni, and it paid for this. And, even luckier, the results were totally normal.

Hear that, world? The inside of my head is totally normal. I don’t mind feeling good about some good news for a change.

Update 4:15 pm: I’ve heard that not all MRIs are so nice. They might not have the mirrors and the music. In that case, well, I’m sorry. Just remember that they won’t forget you’re in there, and they’ll let you out at the end. Stay cool.

OmniOutliner Essentials

Omni introduces OmniOutliner Essentials:

We didn’t want to just reach out to our existing audience; we wanted to introduce the joys and benefits of outlining to a much larger audience. We decided that meant two things: we needed to make the app much simpler, and we needed to make it much more affordable.

It’s in public preview now. You can check it out.

I’ve been the junior developer on the OmniOutliner team for a couple years, and it’s a joy to work on an app that I’ve loved for years as a user. We’re not finished yet with this release, but I’m very happy with how it’s turning out.

PS I like that Ken mentions MORE in the blog post:

We shipped the first beta of OmniOutliner while Mac OS X was still in beta, and doing so introduced us to a passionate community of outliners who had been using great outlining tools like MORE for over a decade.

MORE was by Living Videotext, which was Dave Winer’s company. Later I went to work at Dave’s company UserLand Software, which also included an outliner in its app Frontier, which I worked on. So there is a sort-of family tree connection from OmniOutliner back to MORE.

How Trump’s Support Erodes

Even Trump’s supporters know he’s not a good and competent man — nevertheless, they think they can get what they want from him. It’s a cynical deal, and bad, but you can understand it.

Trump’s vagueness and flip-flops, and the suggestion that he not be taken literally, all help him with this: his supporters, who don’t all want the same things, see what they want to see.

Many Republicans wanted a corporatist to replace Scalia on the Supreme Court, so that decisions like Roe v. Wade could be over-turned and, especially, so that more decisions like Citizens United would be made. It’s likely they’ll get that with a Gorsuch confirmation, no matter how Democrats fight (and they should fight).

But beyond that, every time Trump actually does something specific — as opposed to just saying hard-to-pin-down things — he erodes some support.

For example: many Republicans — Vice President Pence perhaps foremost, along with the Christian Sharia — want to see LGBTQ protections rolled back. But other Republicans don’t, and Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner reportedly managed to prevent (at least for now) an Executive Order to that effect.

Many Republicans support multilateral free trade (as do I), and in particular agreements that strengthen our ties in Asia as a balance against emerging Chinese power. Well, TPP is not going to happen, and the future of NAFTA is in question.

Many Republicans do not support a Muslim ban which would make our country less safe and demonstrate to the world that we are not the beacon of liberty we’ve claimed.

Many Republicans support a strong NATO alliance and consider Russia one of our biggest threats — but Trump doesn’t. The jettisoning of the post-war American peace in favor of allying with Russia in a clash of civilizations with Islam is not what every Republican wants to see. (What is the winning condition — or final solution — for that kind of clash?)

Not every Republican is willing to spend taxpayer billions on a big, beautiful wall. They all know that Mexico is not paying for it.

Yes, there are some supporters who’ve been happy with everything.

But with each specific move, or lack of move, more supporters learn they’re not going to get what they want, and they learn they’ll get some things they don’t want.

Trump campaigned as almost a Rorschach test, where a large-enough coalition could believe he was on their side. As he makes specific moves, elements of that coalition learn that he’s not.

And that’s how his support erodes — because once you realize he’s not on your side, all you have left to support is his narcissism, mendacity, cruelty, corruption, and incompetence.

Web Developer Position Open at Omni

Check out Omni’s jobs page:

The Omni Group is seeking a senior front-end web developer to develop and maintain a world-class website for our Mac and iOS products. The position is part of the Design Department and will focus on bringing mockups to life.

Omni makes great apps and it’s a wonderful place to work.

First Week Notes

It’s not Russian Roulette when there’s a bullet in every chamber — it’s just Russian.

* * *

It should be clear by now that Democrats in Congress should resist every single thing Trump attempts. Every nominee. Every law. Every single thing. Do not collaborate.

* * *

The next thing might be a “Religious Freedom” executive order that permits anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

* * *

Things move fast. History:

Jan 30, 1933: Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany.

Feb 27, 1933: Reichstag fire.

Mar 23, 1933: Enabling Act, which establishes the dictatorship.

Things move faster these days, seems like. The question is: what will be the equivalent of the Reichstag Fire?

It has to be an emergency where Trump can claim “temporary” expanded powers.

Would massive, continuous protests be enough? Quite possibly. (Which is not an argument against protests. I’m quite definitely in favor of protests.)

But don’t be surprised when those powers end protest, free speech, and the free press, in the name of national security and order.

You might think Trump isn’t historically aware enough to know the would-be dictator’s playbook. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. I don’t know.

But Bannon is.

Mighty Yosemite

A little birdie — okay, it was Sol-meister K. — tells me that CocoaConf Yosemite is close to selling out.

Don’t miss out! It’s so beautiful. This will be my third trip — because I miss it when I’m not there, and because the people are awesome.

Omni’s Roadmap and Scripting

Omni: Looking Back, Looking Ahead—2017 Edition:

In 2016 we scratched the surface with URL automation on iOS, but in 2017 we plan to roll out user automation on iOS in a big way across all our apps with a much richer set of capabilities. This automation support won’t be limited to a simple set of URL primitives; instead, we’re adding support for running JavaScript code: code that has the same level of deep support for manipulating the data in our apps as we’ve previously exposed to AppleScript…

Right before the holidays I approached Sal [Soghoian] to review the automation work we’ve been doing, and over the past weeks he’s been enthusiastically exploring the boundaries of what’s already possible as well as helping us see what else we need to build before shipping this.


Today wasn’t so bad. Sure, the enemies of democracy, the Constitution, rationality, compassion, national and international institutions, decency, competence, ethics, art, science, and truth itself — and of anyone who isn’t a white man — now darken the offices of power. But they haven’t done much yet. The bad days are still to come.

My loathing and contempt for President Trump feels complete — but it isn’t. It will continue to deepen.