iOS 11: high-bitrate audio is finally here

I updated my iPhone to iOS 11 over the weekend, having first replaced or exported data from two old apps that haven’t been updated for 64 bit (I’ll miss you, Cocktails app!). And then I synced music from my Mac and noticed that I didn’t get the customary message about tracks that couldn’t be synced.

I checked and found that a whole bunch of Boston Symphony tracks purchased from their store, which I converted from FLAC to Apple Lossless but were apparently still at a too-high bitrate for iOS to handle, appear finally to be supported and were synced to my phone for the first time ever. This appears to be a feature, and may be related to the ability to play back FLAC through some apps (like iCloud Drive).

Looking forward to finally carrying all my music with me!

CarPlay

I’m traveling in Seattle this week for the first time in a while (like, over ten years). Also for the first time in a while, I have a rental car rather than relying on ridesharing to get around. So when I stepped into the rental Chevy that Avis provided, I was expecting another ho-hum vehicular experience.

The car is, indeed, ho-hum, from the perspective of moving me from one place to another—though pushbutton start is something I didn’t expect to find in an American midsize car. What was seriously surprising was what happened when I found the USB jack and plugged my phone in to charge. My phone prompted me to install an app from the App Store, which is behavior I’ve seen before; I declined. And then it started CarPlay.

Apple’s CarPlay is, as promised, a simplified OS for your car’s entertainment display that rapidly did the following for me as I got ready to drive:

  1. Brought up my Apple Maps destination on the big screen, saving me the problem of driving while consulting a non-mounted phone. Safer and more convenient.
  2. Offered to read me (not show me) my text messages when new ones came in. Safer.
  3. Let the radio (which I had tuned to KEXP) play, but also offered touchscreen access to my iTunes library and to Overcast, the app I use for podcast listening. Cool, especially when the afternoon KEXP DJ threw on a set I didn’t want to listen to.

Because I didn’t install the car’s app, a few things were slightly jarring, like switching audio between FM radio and my phone’s audio. But everything else just worked. And I didn’t even play with in-car Siri yet.

Looks like CarPlay is currently supported on almost every model of car that I’d consider for my next purchase. Looking forward to it. I didn’t realize how poor the in-dash experience of my 2012 VW GTI was until I tried this.

MacBook Pro shenanigans: FaceTime, the Keychain, and TouchID

Work bought me a new MacBook Pro at the beginning of the year. Because I’ve grown to value portability over the years, I asked for a 13″ model. Because I have a reputation as a geek, they got me the new model with the Touch Bar.

It’s been mostly great, but starting mid-summer there have been a series of odd things that have been extremely frustrating. At this point I’ve resolved all but one of them, so I thought I’d write it up.

Crashing while asleep: This one isn’t Apple’s fault. We use a corporate endpoint protection system that … has challenges keeping up with new OS versions, and sometimes causes things to really misbehave. For instance, it’s been causing our MacBooks to crash when attempting to wake from sleep. And that went on for about a year. They finally issued a compatibility patch that fixed the issue, but the (sometimes daily) crashes appear to have taken a toll on the system. For instance…

FaceTime and Messages problems: After every crash, I’d have to sign back into iCloud and re-log in to my Google profile on Chrome. A hassle, but doable. But after one crash and re-login, I noticed I couldn’t log into Messages: it gave me the message “An error occurred during authentication.” FaceTime had the same problem. I ended up calling Apple support, and their Tier 2 advised that it was likely a corrupt keychain. He suggested that I delete the login keychain and then recreate it. I decided that before I did that, I’d move all my local passwords to the iCloud keychain for safety. Which took a while, because I had to enter my password for every password entry it moved.

Then I took the plunge and deleted the keychain. The OS, thankfully, tried to recreate the keychain… and failed. Now I had a primary login account with no keychain, which is not a happy state. Logging into iCloud just gave me error messages when it tried to save things to the nonexistent keychain. Fortunately, after logging back in, I could recreate the keychain, log into iCloud, and finally get logged into FaceTime and Messages.

Touch ID. After these shenanigans, my fingerprints started to be unrecognized for login. So I deleted the fingerprint records in System Preferences and re-created them. But login was still failing. This one was easy to fix; I just logged out and logged back in, and my fingerprints started being recognized again.

iCloud Keychain. That brings us to the part that still isn’t working. All those passwords that I moved to my iCloud Keychain are there, because I can see them on other devices—but even after I’ve turned it off and back on, they aren’t syncing back to my Mac. Nor are any of the other passwords or secure notes I’ve stored there. Apparently one fix path is to turn off iCloud Keychain syncing on all my Macs and then turn it back on, the prospect of which fills me with a certain amount of dread. But we’ll give it a go, after I figure out how to back up the passwords, and we’ll see what happens. Look for an update soon.

Apple TV 4th Generation – Impressions

I was eager, when Apple announced the fourth generation Apple TV, to get it and check it out. I was especially excited by the concept of a real app store for the TV and by the ability to game on the device.

Then reality hit. For years, I had been using an Apple TV in our family room, and it’s been invaluable for entertainment. Mostly kids’ entertainment—movie rentals through the iTunes Store, complete seasons of “Scooby-Doo”—but I’ve used it to play music and watch movies too. But the hookup I was using to connect it to the rest of my gear was no longer supported. In particular, Apple used to have an optical out on the back of the older generation Apple TV devices in addition to HDMI. That allowed me to connect the device to my faithful Onkyo TX-DS494 so that I could put the sound out through my Bowers & Wilkins DM 602s.

But the new generation has no optical out! And the Onkyo, alas, has no HDMI inputs. So I had a choice. I could get the Apple TV and run the sound through the comparatively unsatisfactory speakers on our television. Or I could wait until I could afford to replace the Onkyo.

That time has come. I have a Marantz SR6010 (last year’s model new in box at a substantial discount from list!) on its way, and I hooked up the Apple TV last weekend so we could get used to the new interface.

First impressions: the new UI is considerably easier to navigate. And I really love the App Store. I was able to find something like 29 applications—a mix of video apps like the PBS Kids app, YouTube, and others, plus some games—that I had already purchased for the family phones that were available to download to the TV. Score! There were even a few fun games for free, like the Lego Batman game. I’d love to see more games in the store, though, especially games that support the controllers. And more retro games. Why can’t I play Lode Runner on the Apple TV? I can on my iPhone.

Gaming is probably the biggest let down right now. The controller I bought, the SteelSeries Nimbus, is a little too big for my six year old’s hands so he’ll have to use the Siri remote. That works pretty well for him, though he got tired of driving his race car off the track in the first game we played pretty quickly.

But the simple handoff of text input from the onscreen remote to the iPhone is brilliant, and makes up for some of the other disappointments with the device. I can’t wait to hook up the new receiver when it gets here and really take the thing through its paces.

New Mac time

I got upgraded at work from a late-2011 MacBook Pro to a late-2016 MacBook Pro—the kind with Touch Bar. I’m learning and relearning a lot of things that I had figured out how to do on the old machine as I set things up. Observations:

  1. The thing is fast. (Probably mostly because of the SSD drive, though the 3.3GHz vs. 2.4GHz processor may have something to do with it.)
  2. And so much more reliable. I was kernel panicking all over the place in the old machine.
  3. I hadn’t tweaked the old machine as much as I was afraid I had. After moving my home directory over, there were only a handful of apps I had to reinstall from scratch. I had also been smart enough to do most of my custom fonts in my user/Library/Fonts directory rather than in System, which made migration much easier.
  4. Speaking of migration, Thunderbolt really did the trick. I think moving all 300+ GB of stuff took about six hours, much faster than I remember when I used Firewire or Ethernet in the past.
  5. The keyboard is a non-issue. Feels great. Maybe a little loud but very easy to type on.

There are some things I’m still getting used to:

  • I hit the Siri key by accident a fair amount.
  • I really should have registered my index finger rather than my thumb on the fingerprint sensor.
  • The touch bar is pretty cool, but not much uses it yet. I spend most of my day in Chrome and it’s got nothing there.

And the big thing I’m waiting for: better USB-C (Thunderbolt 3) docks. While I’d love something like the OWC Thunderbolt 3 dock, which has pretty much every port you’d ever need, they don’t ship until sometime in March, presumably thanks to the TI chipset issue. In the meantime, the only thing I’m really missing is an Ethernet adapter, and that’s just because it’s back-ordered.

(Also, it’d be great if I could get SheepShaver working, but that’s not required for work, obviously.)

End of an era: no more AirPort routers from Apple

Bloomberg: Apple abandons development of wireless routers. End of an era. I just bought a new AirPort router a few months ago and love it, but the handwriting was certainly on the wall with this product that hadn’t been refreshed in three years.

As much as I’ll miss the AirPort brand, this move is consistent with Apple’s product strategy. Contrary to popular opinion, they don’t always insist on making every bit of gear in the ecosystem—only the ones where the existing options aren’t satisfactory. They haven’t made a printer in almost twenty years and got out of external displays earlier this year; dropping out of the wireless business is a logical next step.

The Airport years

I installed a new Airport Extreme (6th generation) on our home network yesterday. We haven’t run Cat5 through our whole house the way we did in Arlington, so our primary FiOS WiFi router has to live in the basement right next to the FiOS network box, and its signal is unacceptable in about a third of the first floor and almost all of the second.

We had been limping along with an Airport Express in the upstairs bedroom as a second network, but it didn’t really have enough signal strength to solve the problem. I experimented with substituting in our old Airport Extreme (dating from around 2007), but it had weird range problems, with range and signal strength dropping unexpectedly. So we decided to bite the bullet and get a new router.

Man, am I glad we did. The range and speed from the new router are incredible; I even get WiFi out at the kids’ bus stop now. And things that used to give the old network fits, like running the microwave, are no longer an issue.

I was talking about it with Lisa last night and we realized that we bought our first AirPort router before most of the planet had WiFi. We had the original “flying saucer” model back in the fall of 2000—so long ago, the base station had a dial-up modem in it. We’ve come a long way.

It’s not nice to fool Mother Apple

Daring Fireball: Dropbox’s MacOS Security Hack. Gruber rounds up a bunch of links on Dropbox’s bad security practices in its Mac client. Basically, as documented by Phil Stokes, Dropbox asks for your admin password, injects itself into the list of applications that can “control your computer” in the Security & Privacy control panel, and reinjects itself if it’s removed from the list. Thankfully Apple has closed the loophole that allowed this to happen.

The conclusions I take from this:

  1. Dropbox really wanted to ensure that it could take some action that required Accessibility apps
  2. Their product manager didn’t trust users to grant the right authorizations and didn’t want to give them the ability to remove the permissions
  3. Their engineering staff either didn’t push back or got rolled over
  4. Their security staff either wasn’t consulted or didn’t think that this was dangerous—surely no one would ever find a vulnerability in the Dropbox Mac Client and use it to run unauthorized code? Oh wait.

Their PMs respond: the Accessibility permissions were necessary to integrate with other third party applications, and Apple’s APIs didn’t grant the right level of access.

As they say: Developing

Audio ripping toolchain

A few years ago I wrote about the tools I was preparing to use to digitize some LP records and get them into iTunes. The software has changed a bit since then, and I thought it was worth a post to document my current workflow, which works either for ripping vinyl or for converting long form digital audio (e.g. radio broadcasts) into tracks.

  1. Downloading a radio broadcast is pretty straightforward. My tool of choice here is curl, and I output it to a single MP3 file, which then gets post processed in Amadeus (see below). Or…
  2. Rip the LP, step 1. To rip an LP, I play it back on my 1983 Denon DP-45F turntable, which passes through the built in phono pre-amp in my Onkyo receiver, then out through the tape out monitor into my vintage Griffin iMic. The USB end of the iMic then plugs into my MacBook Pro.
  3. Rip the LP, step 2. Step 2 means turning the LP sound into a digital file. To do this, I use Amadeus Pro from HairerSoft, which has been my go to sound file editor for over a dozen years. This is pretty simple; set the sound in to use the iMic, create a new sound file, click Record, and push play on the Denon. I’ve set the levels over the years to a level that keeps the input from clipping, which from experience is about halfway in the second to last region on the right. When the side of the record finishes, I stop recording and I have a music file, ready to post-process.
  4. Post process the music file. First thing is to trim any long periods of silence from the beginning and end of the track, including needle-into-groove noise. I then amplify the track by 4 dB, either once (for radio broadcast) or twice (for vinyl) so that playback from iTunes isn’t too quiet but the sound forms don’t get clipped. That’s usually all the post processing I have to do.
  5. Add album metadata. Anything that will be common across all the tracks, including album name, artist name, genre, artwork, etc., gets added here.
  6. Divide into tracks, using markers. This requires listening to the track, but you can almost always start by eyeballing the track and finding the periods of silence; they almost always indicate track separations. I use the song/track/movement name as the name for the marker in Amadeus.
  7. Save as an Amadeus file. Just in case.
  8. Split the tracks according to markers. Using the handy dandy Amadeus feature “Split According to Markers” option, this creates a separate file for each marker in the audio format of your choice. For vinyl I’ll usually use Apple Lossless encoding here, but for radio broadcasts, which start as MP3, there’s no point in using lossless encoding.
  9. Import into iTunes and clean up. Amadeus Pro does a pretty good job with the metadata, but track names are prefaced by numbers which I don’t like, and I generally have to fix the track numbers — it considers each side of an LP to start with “1.”

And there you have it. Pretty simple, and I’ve almost gotten to the point that I can process one side of an LP while I’m ripping the next.

Learning about user feedback the hard way

TechCrunch points to a Fast Company interview with Apple execs, says The Apple Maps launch fiasco led to the iOS public beta program. Really interesting interview with Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi, among others, talking about two big issues that the company overlooked.

The TechCrunch headline focuses on the “public beta” aspect of Apple’s post-Maps transformation. I’d argue that an even more significant aspect is highlighted by Federighi’s comment that “we needed to develop competencies that we initially didn’t appreciate… Maps presents huge issues relating to data integration and data quality, things we would need to do on an ongoing basis.” They’re doing them now, to the tune of an added 4,000 workers in an Indian development center focused on Maps data.

The whole 2012 fiasco – which I believe has been turned around, btw – was completely avoidable had Apple done any strategic analysis on the maps market. A little Porter’s five forces would have drawn their attention to the problem of barriers to entry, and a little thought might have raised the point that data quality was in fact a significant competitive advantage that Google had, and a sustainable one based on their existing efforts around data quality in other, more directly search-related fields.

A history of stolen time

Via Daring Fireball, behold (the Kickstarter for) The Secret History of Mac Gaming. There is so much of my late childhood and early adulthood here: Ambrosia, the Myst team, Freeverse, Escape Velocity, Bungie and more.

I can actually still play a handful of these games. Escape Velocity: Nova received a Mac OS X port (though I haven’t tried to play it in years), but there’s also SheepShaver, on which I’ve played Bungie’s Abuse and Ambrosia’s Harry the Handsome Executive.