inessential by Brent Simmons

I don’t remember the opening day of the App Store as well as I remember the July 4th before as I was frantically finishing up NetNewsWire 1.0 for iPhone — so I could get it submitted in time.

As people were coming to my house for a big family barbecue. As I was stuck inside on a nice day.

As I did get it finished, and then we had a great barbecue, and then on App Store day one it was all worth it. :)

Twelve-bar Blues

Without the twelve-bar blues progression there would have been no rock-n-roll. Without rock — the music of rebellion and of fun — every decade from the 1950s on would have been very different.

On the theory that knowing something about how music works helps your appreciation — after all, musicians themselves understand music, and this enhances and does not dim their love — I figured I’d explain twelve-bar blues to people who don’t know about it.

Three Groups of Four

There are many variations, but the basic progression looks like the below. We’ll use the key of C to illustrate. Each note here represents a chord played for four beats.


Instead of specifying the key, you could use Roman numerals. The root chord — the one matching the key (C in this case) — is I. If you count C-D-E-F, then F is IV. And C-D-E-F-G makes G number V. So you have:


In the key of E these would be E, A, and B, for example. Same pattern, any key.


In a very traditional blues, you sing the first line, then repeat it — maybe slightly differently, because the chords are slightly different, and because some variation is good — and then sing a line that rhymes with that first line. Something like this:

Oh baby, don’t you want to go

Oh baby, don’t you want to go

Back to the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago

(This is from “Sweet Home Chicago” by Robert Johnson.)

But it’s not always that way. Consider the lyrics to “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins:

One for the money
Two for the show
Three to get ready
Now go, cat, go — but

don't you
step on my blue suede
(no singing)

You can do anything, but
lay off of my blue suede
(no singing)

(Also note that “Blue Suede Shoes” uses V V to start off the third line instead of V IV. There are no rules other than sounding good.)

Electronic Blues with a Backbeat

(I’m simplifying a lot here, obviously, but I think the below is correct as far as it goes.)

The earliest blues was played in the South on acoustic guitars. And then two things happened: the African-American Great Migration, and the invention of the electric guitar. And then you had urban blues — in Chicago, Memphis, and elsewhere.

Rock music started as just another form of the blues. It’s impossible to say where electronic blues turns into rock. But one thing was especially prominent in rock music: the backbeat.

Blues and rock both have four beats to each measure. The accented beat is not the first beat, or first and third — it’s the second and fourth: beat BEAT beat BEAT.

It’s where you clap along. It gives rock music its drive. It moves you to dance — where, for instance, the acoustic version of “Sweet Home Chicago” probably doesn’t.

Another Difference

The early greats of rock in the ’50s were — not surprisingly, given where the music came from — African-Americans: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and plenty more. (Chuck Berry is the singular indispensible rock-n-roller.)

There were white artists too: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Bill Haley and His Comets, Buddy Holly (the first nerd rocker), and so on. And this was a pretty big difference from the blues.

Great music should be shared and played by whoever feels it and can do it. Great music can bring people together — and rock music helped bring down segregation. At first, at least.

But what happened next is the tragedy of rock: by the late ’60s, just a little while later, an African-American playing rock was an anomaly. There was Jimi Hendrix — and who else? The list is short.

People other than me have written about this at length. But the upshot was that decisions were made to separate the music racially into Rhythm & Blues (R&B) and rock categories, and rock was largely white. (Yes, this isn’t a complex and nuanced telling of the story — but it’s enough for this blog post.)

Never mind that every white rocker was playing, essentially, a form of the blues. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, the Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival — they were all blues bands of a sort.

These Days

You don’t hear twelve-bar blues in rock so much these days. In fact, you may not hear that much rock-n-roll at all, depending on your taste.

But it’s worth knowing something about this music, about how it works and where it came from. And the good it did, and does, and the tragedy. All of it.

We can’t change the past, but we can understand what happened and remember it. And maybe we can notice when we’re about to make similar mistakes, and not make them.

Uncle Whisky

When I was a kid we spent more time with my Mom’s family than with my Dad’s, but we still spent lots of holidays with my Dad’s family.

My Dad is the oldest of four siblings. The youngest, his brother, is only 10 years older than me. I remember my uncle and his sisters when they were teenagers.

The thing about the family was that everyone was constantly joking and laughing. I loved this.

I wanted to join in, so I did, from an early age. And sometimes I even got laughs! But most of the time I didn’t.

One day my uncle — who must have been about 20 then — gave me some advice about it. He said, “Hey, you don’t have to say everything you think of. Just the ones that are actually funny.”

Okay, I thought, so now it wasn’t enough to be fast enough to think of something that might be funny — I had to also evaluate it for likeliness? All in the space between sentences? And make it seem natural? Who can think that fast?

I think what he was doing was trying to get me to be less annoying. But I took it as earnest advice. And, well, I remember thinking, after a while, that it worked.

* * *

My uncle, Peter Simmons, became an actor and writer. He lives these days in Minneapolis, and he surely remembers none of this conversation.

* * *

My uncle had a dog named Whisky who was born the same spring when I was born. I called him Uncle Whisky, and I believed, until I was about 10, that of course dogs can be uncles too. Perfectly natural.

* * *

Whisky — sometimes called Wick for short — enjoyed hors d’oeuvres in the afternoon. There was always chips and that sour cream and onion dip. When you picked up a bad chip, you gave it to the dog. Those were called Wicker Chips.

To this day when I get a bad chip I mentally set it aside for Whisky, who was a good dog and a great uncle.

* * *

I’m a terrible introvert. The other introverts around me seem extremely outgoing. I marvel at them.


But I had this weird family training, and so I can, for instance, go around a room at a conference with a microphone and talk to every single person, put them at ease, quickly think of things to say, make it seem natural — and even be a little funny.

Not only that — I enjoy it!

And I can do a podcast. And I can point to the latest episode with Aaron Cherof as one of the better episodes. I suspect Aaron may have had a family kind of like mine.

Om Malik on blogging:

They are incomplete and by nature more mysterious, more episodic, and thus more interesting. Blogs are meant not to leave you with everything. The whole idea is to think to deliberate, and to come back again and again, to finish what was started a long time ago. But there is no end, just a pause, for a voice to start, talking again.

I love that.

I never became the Hemingway or Fitzgerald type of writer that I wanted to be when I was young. No short stories, no novel, no cover of Life magazine.

But I have written a blog for almost 19 years — and that’s something. It‘s still a new medium, and it’s new to have blogs hitting (and even passing) the 20-years-mark.

Here’s a provisional thought (all thoughts on a blog are provisional) — to read a good blog is to watch a writer get a little bit better, day after day, at writing the truth.

On Not Doing Prepared Talks Any More

Some time last year I decided to retire from doing prepared talks at conferences.

I’ve been doing them for 15 years, and I’ve enjoyed some of them. Eventually I started playing with the form, and that was kind of fun.

The best talks I ever did usually had some story-telling parts, and those turned out to be the parts that people liked most. The only problem with that is that my stories usually didn’t have anything to do with the conference. I just like telling stories. Stories about raccoons and squirrels. :)

Preparing a talk is a lot of work, and my standards for my talks kept going up, which meant ever more preparation, and more stress — and since I didn’t love it, I decided to stop.

I don’t mind being in front of an audience, though — I’ll emcee, appear on a panel, moderate a panel, or play in a Breakpoints Jam.

But the actual talks from me are over.

Here’s the thing, though: this means one less middle-aged white man taking up a slot. This is a good thing. If you were thinking of asking me to do a prepared talk at your conference, instead ask someone who doesn’t look like me.

And if you’re having trouble finding someone, just ask me and I’ll help.

Fascism These Days

I can write just about anything I want to on my blog for the simple reason that it doesn’t matter.

Times change. Fascists learn. There’s no pressing need to cut off any websites.

* * *

Fascists don’t leave so many fingerprints these days.

Example: there’s no actual agreement anywhere that makes Twitter a de facto arm of the Trump Executive Branch and all its unofficial partners — but it is.

Twitter bans the people who report abuse and it retains the Nazis and Russians. It amplifies the distractions and fills the pipe with lies and outrage. (And gives us special emoji as rewards.)

The truth can’t be found in the ever-thickening fog.

Though Twitter has been used for good, I’m more and more convinced that giving it anything just feeds it. If the medium is the message, then the message is lies, lulz, and bullshit, no matter what you put in.

* * *

That’s not to say that fascists won’t ever take our freedoms away. The fascists grow stronger and bolder, and those who would check their power chicken-out.

But it won’t usually be laws, or even executive orders, that take away freedoms. Think of the NFL, which — utterly disgracefully — now mandates against kneeling.

Samantha Bee survives on TV this year — but will she survive next year?

* * *

What if agents in the Secret Service or FBI begin quietly talking to bloggers or tweeters who express an anti-Trump point of view? No law needed. No take-down notice. It’s just agents doing their jobs.

Would you keep blogging after having a quiet meeting with a couple armed men who — politely and calmly — explain that they’re just checking to make sure you’re not a threat to national security?

Would you even tell anyone about the meeting?

This hasn’t happened to you. Okay. (Or to me.)

But how would you know if this is already happening to other people? If a friend told you a rumor that it was happening, what would you think? Is it plausible from the team that already works so hard to discredit the free press? If you thought it might be true, would it change how and what you write?

Consider that there wouldn’t have to be any order or directive at all from the White House to the Secret Service or FBI. The White House wouldn’t even have to know about it.

This is one way fascism works. It leaves no marks. It doesn’t even have to lift a finger sometimes.

They don’t have to do this at all, in other words. They just have to get to the point where you wouldn’t put it past them. At that point they can let our imaginations and rumors do the rest — and people will surrender their voice.

For the record — and this is super-important — I do not believe this is happening. This is merely illustration, and I’m not that paranoid, and you shouldn’t be either.

The Easy Target

The United States of America was the easy-to-choose target for the fascists.

It was the richest and most powerful country in the history of countries. How could any fascist not want to take it over?

It was the work of several decades.

They built up a giant military/industrial partnership — mixing government and unaccountable corporations with secrets — with almost no resistance.

Sure, they faced some setbacks from time to time: the end of apartheid in former slave states, for instance. But they fought back by privatizing the prisons, instituting mass incarceration, and militarizing the police force — and ensuring that it remained a tool of white supremacy.

They stoked fear of communism, as if adding just a penny of tax meant imminent Sovietization; as if labor unions were anti-American insurgents; as if a social safety net would make Jesus cry. As if “equal opportunity” meant Fidel Castro walking into your house with a machine gun.

They gutted the education system and fought knowledge with mass disinformation. They made sure that corporations could and would hook Americans on opioids and blather and outrage.

While some of us did learn that the beauty of America is our constant striving to better understand our founding creed — and finally live up to it — they made sure that half of us believed in America as a land and as a race.

And now that they’ve won — they’ve gotten their orange leader with the red cap, they’ve gotten their system of cruelty — they’re carving it all up for themselves. They’re cutting it all up with jigsaws and burning what they can’t use right now.

There were, and still are, leaders who could fight back, but who just plain refused.

If we’re lucky enough one day to have a true history, those people will go down as among our greatest traitors. Every day I long for that day.

What I Actually Do

Now that I’ve switched over to marketing, people — co-workers, even! — keep asking me what I actually do all day.

Fair question. Since I’ll probably get asked the same thing in San Jose next week, I figured I’d write it up.

The team

Our team could be a small software company on its own — we have engineers, testers, designers, and a person who makes movies. Everything I do is part of working with that team.

If you think I’m being paid to be a blogger and podcaster, you’re not too far off the mark, but that description misses some things.

I’ve traded in Xcode for BBEdit and Marked, since most of what I do is writing. I write for the blog and for the podcast, of course, and also lately I’ve written:

  • Inside OmniFocus blog posts
  • App Store editorial pitch
  • Sponsorship blurbs for podcasts
  • App Store description for OmniFocus 3 for iOS
  • Product pages and related pages for OmniFocus 3 for iOS and OmniFocus 2 for Mac
  • Some first-run text in OmniFocus 3
  • Press release
  • Other release-related email
  • Omni microblog (OmniDogs!)
  • Newsletter
  • Various tweets

Note: again, though, it’s a team effort. Some things go through extensive feedback and editing before being finished.

And some things — like the product pages — will evolve a bunch during design and production. As it takes shape we can see where the writing needs to change.

And some things I write — especially anything that ends up in an app — will probably get revised by other people before it ships.

I do some things besides writing. I edit customer stories for Inside OmniFocus. I work with people who write to Omni’s marketing email address.

And even the writing isn’t just writing — I help figure out what to write, and when, and how to talk about things.

So there you have it. I’m part of a team, and my particular role is the words. And there are a lot of words.

PS See How We Do The Omni Show for what all goes into making the podcast.

Rumor: Running iOS Apps on Macs

I’ve heard more than once that at WWDC we’ll learn about how we can run iOS apps on Macs.

I’m worried, of course, that this will lead to the further degradation of the Mac UI, and even less incentive for developers to write Mac apps.

I’m agin’ it. But, also, I don’t know if it’s true and I don’t know any details — so maybe it would be awesome? We’ll see.

Or not see. Could be totally made up. Could just be speculation run wild.

PS “Agin’” is short for “against,” not “aging.” Okay?

Delta Blues

Lately I’ve been trying to learn to play delta blues. I’m not ever going to play like Robert Johnson — nobody ever will — but I’d like to learn it as well as I can. Well enough so that, if you like the blues, and you heard me at a coffee shop, you’d enjoy it.

(Not that I’m going to start playing at coffee shops.)

I’ve been playing guitar for 38 years, and I’ve known the 12-bar blues progression and the blues scale for almost as long. But I always figured that learning to play like this would be way beyond my abilities.

* * *

The first thing to notice is that, in the hands of someone like Robert Johnson, it sounds like two guitars playing.

Roughly speaking: the thumb is doing a regular shuffle beat, often with two strings, while the other fingers are doing fills and melodies. At the same damn time.

I’m a life-long strummer and power-chord player. Flat pick. Rhythm guitarist. I’ve never had to develop this kind of coordination. It’s difficult.

The second thing to notice is that every single pitch your guitar can make is on the table. Sure, there’s a progression and a scale — but players regularly use notes outside the standard blues scale, and they hit pitches, by bending strings, that are between the notes.

And throw a slide in — which I’m learning to do — and it’s just nuts.

This music is incredibly complicated compared to the pop rock I’ve always played.

* * *

But I am learning it. Slowly. It’s going to take a few years before it sounds effortless. Right now I sound like a person trying really hard.

The thing is this, though, and this has wider application: for some reason, when I was a teenager, I told myself that I didn’t have the talent to play anything more complex than basic rhythm guitar.

I learned the cowboy chords, barre chords, power chords, notes in first position — and convinced myself I didn’t have the ability to learn fingerpicking or delta blues or anything that would make me a musician as opposed to just someone with a relaxing hobby.

I honestly don’t know why I thought that! I mean, I learned all this stuff, and figured I couldn’t keep learning at some point?

But here I am, now, learning it. It’s hard, but I’m learning.

* * *

Maybe I was confused by the word “talent.” I didn’t think I had that thing — where is it? I can’t see it — and I figured that, without it, I had hit my wall.

But… I’ve always been good at rhythm. It comes so easy that I thought everybody had that ability. And then I’ve seen other guitarists struggle at rhythm bits that take me no time to learn.

I’m also very good at remembering songs. It’s like I have a karaoke machine in my head. This comes with little effort at all — once I learn a song (sometimes just by hearing it) then, usually, I know it forever.

At least the chords. At least enough to be able to play it by the campfire. (Or at a piano, because that’s a thing I do too. Though I play piano like a rhythm guitarist. :)

Maybe these are some small musical talents that I actually do have?

But: hearing pitches and intervals and understanding melody is much harder for me, and that’s just come with a ton of practice. Mostly by listening, trying to recreate what I hear, and trying to figure out why it works.

* * *

I think I’m making a point about impostor syndrome. I told myself I couldn’t learn to play guitar at a deeper level — at the level of real musicians — and here I am at age 50 wondering why I told myself that, because here I am doing it.

Why did I wait so long?

And, sure, maybe I do have some small amount of musical talent, but whatever. If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have been interested at all.

So maybe it’s a good bet that if you’re interesting in a thing, you may already have some talent for it. And maybe, just maybe, interest and talent are really synonyms, or close to it.

* * *

PS I started playing with a thumbpick to get that bass shuffle sounding good.

The Developers Union

Some of the press coverage about The Developers Union uses words like “angry” and “fed up.” These aren’t accurate characterizations at all. Nobody’s mad here!

But here‘s the deal: Apple controls the App Store and its economics. The system could be set up better to support high-quality apps, by indies, that last for years.

Apple doesn’t have to, of course. But we can ask! It’s totally okay to ask, so we are.

We think that an important first step would be a standardized, App-Store-supported way of offering free trials. (And where, once purchased, Family Sharing works.)

Trial versions have worked great for years for indie Mac developers, before the App Store, and we think it would benefit indies on the iOS and Mac App Stores.

And the platform would get better — and more sustainable — apps. Everyone wins!

If you agree, you can sign up. Add your name. Add your app.

I realize you might be worried about doing a thing that could upset powerful people inside Apple. I strongly doubt that that worry is actually well-founded — but, then again, that’s part of why this is a big list.

* * *

I should note that I’m not doing this as part of Omni. I’m not even doing it for my side projects — they’re all free, and it’s quite possible that none of them will ever appear on any App Store at all.

Instead, I’m thinking of my friends, of developers I admire, of up-and-coming developers I haven’t even heard of yet. I — quite selfishly! — want them to thrive. I want to see what great stuff they could make. I want everybody to have the opportunity I’ve had.

I’ve been lucky, and I’ve done well — and my experience should not be rare.

OmniFocus 3.0 for iOS ships in four weeks.

As Marketing Human, I’ve got work to do! But I’m totally psyched.

Making Apps Is Harder Than It Needs To Be

With the recent talk about Electron and “Marzipan” — or maybe Amber or something, according to Mark Gurman — I’m reminded of a thing I think about kind of often: that making iOS and macOS apps is way harder than it needs to be.

For most apps (except games, I suppose), a huge percentage of the code might as well be written in a scripting language. We absolutely do not need to be writing everything in Swift, Objective-C, C++, or C.

“But Brent,” you say, “what about performance?”

Consider the case where you set up an animation and then run the animation. The system does that animation. Or consider Core Data — your choice of language doesn’t affect how fast it can read from SQLite. Or think of networking — it’s bound by the connection, not the speed of your code. Or think of pushing a view controller onto the current navigation view controller. Or setting up view constraints. And so on.

All this code might as well be Ruby — or, preferably, a scripting language designed for app making. (I would have liked an Objective-C-without-the-C.)

And the thing that would make it all so worthwhile is editing the code while the app is running. You could go all day without an explicit build step!

Sure, some of your code would still have to be written in Swift or whatever. The part that really does have to be fast. I’m a performance junkie myself, so I get this. (Evergreen’s RSS parser is fast, and I wouldn’t switch it to a scripting language.)

But most of most apps (again, probably besides games, about which I know nothing) could be written using a scripting language.

PS Yes, I’m quite aware that we used to have Fix & Continue. And WebScript.


I wouldn’t wait for “Marzipan” or XKit or whatever it is.

We don’t know what it is. But my guess — based on my 38 years of writing code for Apple computers — is that it’s something you can use along with UIKit and AppKit, and not a wholesale replacement.

Maybe it’s a declarative API that helps make some things easier, and maybe you can make a cross-platform button more easily. Maybe your table view code could be the same on iOS and macOS. Great!

But don’t expect Macs to turn into large iPads all of a sudden. Macs are gonna Mac. Apps are going to have multiple resizable windows and a menubar. Targets will still be sized and designed for mice and trackpads.

In other words, if you want to write a Mac app, you’re still going to have to deal with the things that are inherently different about Mac apps, regardless of the specific API.

Let’s say this thing ships in the fall of 2019, over a year from now. If past is a guide, we might imagine it would be fun to play with, but not more useful than, say, the original version of Swift. (Swift didn’t get really good for writing apps until Swift 3.)

So it might be 2020 before it’s something that accelerates Mac development in any real way.

You could write a few Mac apps between now and then.

* * *

I realize that documentation on writing Mac apps is hard to find these days. Books on the subject are rare, and any book you find may be out of date.


One of the reasons I made Evergreen open source is so that people who want to write a Mac app have some examples.

And I just learned that there’s a big list of open source Mac apps. This is way more than than was available when I started writing apps for OS X.

I don’t have time to write a book on Mac app development. I wish I did. I might make the time to do a small article now and then, using Evergreen as example. Maybe.

But it’s not my job (as I have to keep reminding myself). It’s Apple’s job to document and evangelize the Mac platform.

(As an additional part of that, I’d like to see Apple update the Mac App Store, and maybe also deal with some of the issues with sandboxing. It would signal that the company cares about Mac apps. I know it does care, but a more public demonstration would be welcome.)

Check out Automation Orchard, a new site by Rosemary Orchard that is the “place to find resources to help you automate your life.”

I immediately thought of ScriptWeb — which, to my delight, is still up! Though its last update was 2009.

Evergreen/Frontier Status: ODB Work

For the past few days I’ve been working on adding Frontier-like object database (ODB) support to my database framework.

It’s not finished yet — it doesn’t even build.

What it is (or, what it will be)

It’s hierarchical key-value storage. No schemas. Tables can contain tables, with no limit.

This implementation is the lowest level: the part that gets, sets, and deletes data from the database.

It’s application-agnostic, at this level — it doesn’t know about all of Frontier’s data types, for instance. A level on top of this will be needed for new-Frontier.

SQLite, my favorite hammer

I’m not actually writing a new database — I’m using SQLite. And that’s because I’ve been using SQLite for 15 years, and I love it and know it well, and I know how incredibly stable it is. I’m not willing to write my own thing, and I’m not willing to use a thing less mature and rock-solid than SQLite.

How it works:

The schema is pretty simple. There are tables and values.

Every table has an id. Every table (except the root table) has a parent_id that points to its parent table.

And every value has an odb_table_id that points to its parent table.

This way it’s easy to get a table’s children: it takes just two select statements.

(Both tables and values also have a name, since this is key-value storage.)

Tables and values will be cached in memory, so not every call will require a database read.

(Before you suggest I use something other than SQLite, know that I won’t change my mind on this.)

(Also, again: it’s not done yet. Doesn’t even build.)

Why I’m doing this now instead of something else

I’m using schema-less storage for feeds in Evergreen. (Articles and article status, on the other hand, are stored using a schema, in SQLite.)

Currently I’m writing a big binary plist with all the feed data, and it has to be rewritten every time a feed property changes. The writes are coalesced — but still, this isn’t great.

I’m using schema-less storage in part because of syncing systems: I don’t know, and can’t guess, what I’ll need to store. Different systems will have different requirements.

Also: I may add features later that require additional feed properties. I don’t know what those are.

I realized that what I really want for this is a feature from Frontier: hierarchical key-value storage.

Each system will gets its own database on the client. For each, I’ll create an odb table called feeds. Each feed will have its own subtable. The key will be its id (which may or may not be its URL, depending on the syncing system).

And inside each subtable I can put whatever I want, at any time, without having to change any schemas or implementations.


For the On My Mac account — not synced; reads feeds directly — we keep track of Etag headers in order to support conditional GET. So, for example, I’d want to get, set, and delete feeds.[feedID].etag.ifModifiedSince.

But with most syncing systems we get the feed content from the system itself — not by directly reading the feed. There might be some other data from the service to store: feeds.[feedID].syncToken, for instance.