Transparency

Today I upgraded the OS on my work iMac to Mojave. The upgrade took maybe an hour and had no hiccups, which I was glad of. I haven’t used it enough to know whether any of my software is broken1, but I have used it enough to know that Apple is making visual changes to the user interface that certainly don’t enhance the user experience and probably detract from it.2

I’m not talking about Dark Mode. Personally, I think Dark Mode is a step back to the light-on-dark terminals I used back in the 70s and 80s, and I have no interest in working on a system that reminds me of those days. But that’s more a matter of taste than usability—done right, Dark Mode can be just as usable as the classic mode. I’m talking about Apple’s inexplicable embrace of transparency.

Here’s my Dock after the upgrade. My Desktop color for years has been Solid Aqua Dark Blue3, and now the Dock is just about the same color because of the transparency.

Mojave Dock

Why should the Dock appear as if it’s transparent? It’s not as if there’s anything interesting behind the Dock. That space can’t be used for icons, and I wouldn’t put any there even if it could be. So there’s no value is seeing through the Dock, but there is value in distinguishing the icons in the Dock from those that may be next to it on the Desktop. The distinction between the icons in the Dock and those on the Desktop is unnecessarily reduced by the excessive transparency of the Mojave Dock.

In case you’re wondering, I do have the “Reduce transparency” box checked in the Accessibility System Preference. That used to make the Dock more opaque than it does now.

Strangely, Apple keeps the Dock pretty distinct on the iPad.

iPad Dock

It’s not as distinct on the iPhone. Maybe there’s some setting difference I don’t know about, or maybe it has something to do with the OLED screen.

iPhone Dock

In any event, what’s weird about this is that the Dock doesn’t need to be as distinct on iOS as it does on the Mac, because tapping any icon on iOS, Dock or not, launches the app. That’s not the case on the Mac, where icons on the Desktop are just files, and the distinction between Dock and not is more important.

What bothers me most, though, is that transparency has no real meaning on the Mac. It’s just decoration, not tied to any spatial sense that we expect from our experience with the physical world. For example, if you start typing in the URL field in Safari, the menu of suggestions that extends down from the URL field takes on a lighter version of the Desktop color, basically the same “semi-transparent” color in the background of the Dock.

Safari suggestions

This is ludicrous. This menu isn’t directly in front of the Desktop, it’s in front of the browser window (which is white because I was on Google’s home page when I took the screenshot). There is no reason for it to look like you’re seeing through it to the Desktop. That it looks that way screws up the sense of layering, especially since it still has that shadow around its border.

This absurd fake transparency isn’t confined to Safari. The little popup boxes that appear in Maps have the same muted Desktop coloring even though their conceptual position is floating on top of the map, not on top of the Desktop.

Mojave Maps

I can get rid of the ersatz transparency by checking the “Increase contrast” box in the Accessibility System Preference, but that also adds thicker border lines around windows and buttons, which I’d rather not have.

To summarize, there are three things wrong with transparency in Mojave:

  1. It doesn’t help. Unlike other graphical flourishes in macOS, like the genie effect, it doesn’t do anything to help the understand the conceptual stacking of the UI elements.
  2. It gets things wrong. It always “shows through” the Desktop, no matter what is directly behind the supposed transparent element.
  3. It can’t be turned off without messing with other UI features. Unlike previous version of macOS, “Reduce transparency” doesn’t reduce all the transparence. As best I can tell, the only thing “Reduce transparency” still does is make the menu bar and its menus opaque.

It’s possible there are some settings I can change, through either System Preferences or defaults write, to get the user interface I want. I have, after all, been using Mojave for only a few hours. But it’s bothersome that Apple has chosen a default look that takes away from the experience of using a Mac.


  1. Several utilities walked me through upgrades after the final reboot of the system, an indication of how good most of the well-known Mac developers are at treating their customers. 

  2. And yes, I know Mojave was released months ago and this is all old hat. But it’s new hat to me, so I’m going to talk about it. 

  3. Apple removed this color from the standard list in Mojave, but I had the fortune of saving it (RGB values of 61, 101, and 156) in a couple of places. 


Sometimes it’s the small things

Like many of you, I read Federico Viticci’s new article on controlling his Mac mini from his iPad. What struck me particularly about it was his choice of FileExplorer to access files on his Mac from his iPad. Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote of how I was using the similarly named (and similar looking) FileBrowser to do the same thing. The differences between the two apps are small, but they’re critical to how Federico and I made our choices.

FileExplorer and FileBrowser are apps that connect to and transfer files from computers over a network. That network could be the local network in your home or it could be the internet. It would be easy to confuse the two apps—their connection configuration screens and file exploration screens look very similar. Federico, who had nice things to say about FileBrowser a year ago, has now chosen FileExplorer for a very specific reason:

What sets FileExplorer apart is its excellent integration with the Files app, which, unlike FileBrowser, is fully independent from the main app and doesn’t require a separate authentication step. Connections you create in FileExplorer (and I tested this with FTP, SFTP, and macOS servers) show up as folders in the FileExplorer location in the Files app; even if the main FileExplorer app has been force quit, selecting a server inside its Files extension will open a connection in the background and display the contents of the connected server, allowing you to browse its file structure.

Because of the way Federico wants to work on his iPad, consistently using Files to access external files, that single advantage of FileExplorer means the world to him.

I don’t care so much about Files integration, but I care a lot about previewing files as I browse the connected computer from my iPad. When I was looking for a convenient way to browse images and PDFs saved on my iMac at work, I chose FileBrowser over FileExplorer because it was better at handling those previews.

Here’s FileBrowser’s default icon (or grid) view, what you’d see right after making the connection to the remote computer. The navigation sidebar takes up space that I’d rather devote to the images.

FileBrowser with sidebar

But there’s a way to get rid of the sidebar. Just tap that button with the two outward-pointing arrows in the lower right corner and the sidebar disappears to give the icons the full width of the screen.

FileBrowser without sidebar

Even better, we can change the size of the icons by pinching inward or outward.

FileBrowser with large icons

This is how I want to preview files on the remote computer.

FileExplorer’s icon view looks almost identical to FileBrowser’s.

FileExplorer icon view

The difference is in the previewing. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to get rid of the sidebar and no way to adjust the size of the preview icons. These are as important to me as Files integration is to Federico.

These small but critical differences often can’t be found in the list of app features because they’re too fine-grained. FileExplorer’s description in the App Store says it can “[d]irectly view and manage documents, photos, files on your computer and cloud without downloading to your iPhone/iPad.” And that’s true, but the viewing isn’t the way I want it. Similarly, FileBrowser’s description says it “allows you to access all your connections from iOS11 Files and other apps.” Also true, but the access isn’t the way Federico wants. Fortunately, the App Store is broad enough that we both got what we want.


Apple SVPs

At first glance, it seems a little odd that Angela Ahrendts’s replacement overseeing the Apple Stores, Deirdre O’Brien, will continue on in her position as chief of human resources. O’Brien, who is currently vice president of People, and is an Apple lifer, will move above the horizontal bar on Apple’s Leadership page and become senior vice president of Retail + People,1 a new title for an Apple SVP. What makes it odd is that Retail + People looks like an enormous portfolio for one person, especially given that those duties used to be split between an SVP and a VP.

But if you look at Apple’s most recent Equal Employment Opportunity filing, you’ll see that Sales Workers make up 31% of Apple’s employee base. Only Professionals, a hair higher at 32%, beats it out, and no other employee category is even close.2 So a lot of Apple HR is already devoted to Retail.

Apple 2017 EEO filing excerpt

The duties of Apple’s top people have often been broad and seemingly unfocused. Eddy Cue, for example, was put in charge of the App Store because he’d been running the iTunes Store. This no doubt seemed reasonable at the time, but it was a disaster. Running the App Store included handling app reviews and developer relations, and Cue’s tenure was one long continual complaint of app reviews taking too long and developers being treated unfairly. Putting the App Store under Phil Schiller, which on paper makes no sense for the SVP of marketing, was the solution, for which both Schiller and Tim Cook deserve credit.

I would argue that broadening Jony Ive’s design oversight to include software in addition to hardware was a mistake as big as putting Cue in charge of the App Store. The software side of Apple’s user interfaces—especially on iOS, which isn’t as hardened by long tradition as on the Mac—has become steadily more cryptic under Ive’s control. Some of this is due to Apple’s need to squeeze more functionality into the OS, but Ive hasn’t been up to the task of melding the new functions into the UI in a consistent and discoverable way.

To me, Ahrendts’s five years in charge of Retail has been similar to Ive’s time as Chief Design Officer. The Apple Stores look better than ever, but they don’t work as well as they used to. No one I know looks forward to going to an Apple Store, even when it’s for the fun task of buying a new toy. No doubt a lot of this is due to Apple’s success and the mobs of people milling about,3 but Ahrendts didn’t solve the problem of efficiently handling the increased customer load.

I hope O’Brien’s background in operations will lead to improvements in the flow of people through the Stores. If so, we’ll look back on her appointment the way we look at Schiller’s installation as head of the App Store, an example of Tim Cook’s slow but successful wrangling of a problem that arose out of Apple’s growth.


  1. It’s very Apple-like to call their HR division People. 

  2. Are all of those Sales Workers in Apple Stores? I don’t know, but I bet it’s close to all of them. And I suspect a fair number of the Technicians in that table are in Apple Stores, too. 

  3. No one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded. 


A Hard Day’s Night

A few weeks ago, I was on a podcast with the folks at The Incomparable, talking about two very different musicals: Gold Diggers of 1933 and A Hard Day’s Night. If you’re an Incomparable member, you had a chance to listen to the raw version right away; if not, the edited version was released for the rest of the world yesterday.

Because the focus of the podcast was on the movies, we didn’t spend as much time on the songs as we could have. That’s probably for the best with Gold Diggers,1 but left me wanting to say more about Hard Day’s Night, the title track in particular.

The story of how it got written is pretty well known. Filming of the movie was going well, the songs that John and Paul had written were of their usual high quality, but the movie didn’t have a title. John suggested A Hard Day’s Night to the producer, Walter Shenson, and both he and director Richard Lester loved it.

The phrase was not original with John. It was something he’d heard Ringo say after an all-night recording session, and he’d tucked it away in his wordplay-loving brain, waiting for a chance to use it. In fact, he had used it in the “Sad Michael” story in In His Own Write, published shortly before filming started.

Sad Michael

The book is shown in the movie, and, famously, John isn’t in some of the cathartic “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence (the sequence all of MTV was based on) because he was off promoting it. Lester covered this up by donning Beatle boots and filming with a hand-held camera from John’s point of view.

With the title of the movie chosen, Shenson wanted a new song to go with it, something to be played over the title sequence. John wrote it pretty much overnight, something that’s always presented as amazing, but it really isn’t. Music was simply pouring out both John and Paul during those early years.

To me, “A Hard Day’s Night” is just about the peak of this period of Beatle songs. The opening chord, and the mystery of exactly how they got it, has been the basis for hundreds of blog posts and YouTube videos, but I’ve always felt that what makes the song great is how well it uses the different strengths of John and Paul’s voices.

Paul’s part (chorus? middle eight? the Beatles were always playing around with structure) is so perfectly written for his voice that you’d think he wrote it himself, and yet I’ve never seen this listed as anything other than a fully John-written song. I guess it comes from the two of them living in each other’s pockets for the previous six years or so. Anyway, this part absolutely soars and is something John couldn’t have sung with anywhere near the same effect.

And it’s not just the notes, the words fit Paul’s persona, too. Unsurprising, I suppose, as some of them were a direct steal from the mostly Paul-written “Hold Me Tight,” recorded just four or five months earlier. But even the unstolen words—everything seems to be right—are just so Paul.

And John’s part is so John. His profession of love is not unalloyed as Paul’s is; it comes tinged with complaints. Working like a dog to get you money to buy you things. He takes advantage of the stringent, almost whiny quality he can get out of his voice to give the song an edge. I also love the way he uses “work” and “worth” to get an extra rhythm—an entirely verbal rhythm, no relationship to the beat of the song—in the second verse.

Where it all comes together is at the end of Paul’s second chorus. His voice rises up those eight bars to that intense tight… tight, yeah! ending, and on the yeah, John comes in underneath with that groaning cross between oh and uh, bringing the song back down to earth and kicking off a repeat of the first verse.

It’s just perfect.


  1. Apart from “We’re in the Money,” which is a truly great song, especially the seldom-remembered lyrics that put it squarely in the Depression.