Hypercritical


Front and Center

Front and Center screenshot

By the time Mac OS X was first released in 2001, I had been using what would eventually be known as “classic” Mac OS for seventeen years. These were seventeen formative years for me, from the ages of 9 to 26. The user interface of classic Mac OS was as ingrained in me as Star Wars or any other cultural institution.

My love for classic Mac OS is why I started researching and reviewing Mac OS X. Big changes were coming to the Mac, and I was going to feel them more than most. I needed to know what I was in for.

To deal with some of the changes in Mac OS X, I ran apps and system extensions that restored some behaviors from classic Mac OS. Over the years, I weaned myself off most of these, but a few stuck. In particular, I found I did not want to live without the window layering policy from classic Mac OS.

In classic, when you click on a window that belongs to an application that’s not currently active, all the windows that belong to that application come to the front. In Mac OS X (and macOS), only the window that you click comes to the front.

My particular style of window management leans heavily on the classic behavior. I also appreciate the Mac OS X behavior in certain circumstances, so I was delighted to find apps that enable both behaviors, using Shift-click to override the default.

Sadly, macOS Catalina’s lack of support for 32-bit apps finally killed the last of the apps that implemented this feature. I was alone in a cold, barren world where I had to click on a Dock icon to switch to an app and bring all its windows to the front.

I tried to get used to it, but I could not. Next, I tried to persuade a few of my developer friends to create a tiny Mac app that implements just this one feature. My friend Lee, a longtime Mac developer and user, eventually took up the challenge and created a simple app to do it.

It was missing a few features I wanted (the Shift-click override, the ability to hide the Dock icon, a menu bar icon, etc.), but Lee shared the source code with me and I dove in and tried to help. I added the Shift-click feature and a mode-switch preference. I drew an app icon and a menu bar icon. The app was just about done. It even had a name: Front and Center.

The app was written in Objective-C. I’d always wanted to do a real project in Swift, so I started a new project in Xcode and rewrote the entire (tiny) app in Swift. I’ve also always wanted to get some experience with the App Store, so Lee and I agreed that I would release it under my developer account (though we are sharing the profits).

Front and Center is a trivial app—so trivial that I was afraid it would be rejected for its limited functionality. But when running, it is used literally hundreds of times a day. And I obviously found it so essential that I was willing to help bring it into existence myself. I also wanted to get some experience with the financial side of the App Store.

All of this contributed to the decision to make Front and Center a (cheap) paid app. It’s $2.99 on the Mac App Store. I don’t expect to make any significant money from sales, but I’ve already gained a huge amount of experience just going through the process of development and distribution.

I also view the price as a kind of deterrent. The increase in downloads it would receive as a free app would just be an unwanted support burden. The (few) people who actually want this app know who they are, and I’m betting they are not just willing but happy to pay for it.

Are you a classic Mac diehard who still misses some of the old ways? Or maybe you just want to try it to see what it’s like? Even if you don’t want the classic behavior to be the default, you can switch to “modern” mode and use Shift-click to trigger the “classic” behavior. It beats mousing down to a Dock icon, right?

I’m just glad this app exists. I had a ton of fun working on it. Thanks to Lee for being a kindred spirit when it comes to classic Mac OS, and to all my other Mac-nerd friends who offered advice and code during development—especially Gus Mueller, maker of many fine Mac apps, who provided a surprising performance enhancement for our tiny app. I’m excited to finally be able to use this badge on my website.

Download Front and Center on the Mac App Store


Top Gun

The upcoming sequel to the 1986 classic Top Gun has reminded me of a favorite memory from my youth. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time looking over the TV listings. Each daily newspaper had the TV listings for that day, but there was also a weekly TV guide that came with the Sunday paper. This was the one I’d pore over while eating breakfast each morning.

The weekly guide had a section where it listed all the movies that were airing on TV that week. Each movie was accompanied by a short, plain-spoken description of the plot. In addition to the star ratings (where the maximum was four stars, I believe), the descriptions also sometimes included a few words about the quality of the movie or performances. Something like this:

★★★★ JAWS
(Adventure, 1975) A killer shark terrorizes a beachside town. Suspenseful and thrilling. Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss. (2 hrs. 4 min.)
★★★ FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF
(Comedy, 1986) A high school student evades parents and the school principal to take a day off from school. Matthew Broderick, Alan Ruck. (1 hr. 43 min.)

One day in the late ’80s or early ’90s, I recall seeing the following entry for the movie Top Gun in the weekly TV guide:

★★ TOP GUN
(Drama, 1986) Trivializes war by turning it into a music video. Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer. (1 hr. 50 min.)

There was no description at all, just this frank assessment. After spending years of my life reading these movie summaries, it was as if the author had finally broken through and had spoken with a clear voice for one brief, shining moment. Trivializes war by turning it into a music video.

It’s now several decades later and I still remember this movie review word-for-word. I have no idea who the author was, or how many similar gems were hidden in the pages of that weekly TV guide over the years. But I credit this tiny act of defiance with inspiring me in multiple ways.

It taught me the power of well-chosen words to shake people out of their daily routines and patterns of thought. It showed me that all jobs, no matter how seemingly dull, can be an outlet for self-expression and excellence. And it reminds me, to this day, that each work of art can be—deserves to be—considered from multiple points of view, not all of which will be comfortable.


Note: This post is not a polemic against Top Gun or war movies in general. I have always loved jet fighter planes, and I enjoyed Top Gun when I saw it. This review did not make me hate it. (That said, like most older media, I suspect a modern rewatching will reveal a whole host of problems.) My memory of this capsule review is one of surprise, subversiveness, and delight. The review is a slam on Top Gun, yes, but it’s also a celebration of the indomitable human spirit. Four stars.


Jony Ive

According to any reasonable set of quantifiable measures, Jony Ive departs Apple as the greatest product designer who has ever lived. His hit products sold in vast numbers and were fundamentally transformative to both the company he worked for and the world at large. We all know their names: iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad. Together, these products helped set the direction for the most consequential industry of the last century.

As the leader of design at Apple, Ive inevitably receives acclaim for work done by other people on his team. This is what it means to be the public face of a collaborative endeavor involving hundreds of people. Ive himself is the first to credit his team, always using the word "we" in his appearances in Apple's design videos. One gets the impression that Ive has historically used "we" to refer to the design team at Apple, rather than Apple as a whole, but he certainly never meant it to refer to himself.

While the iPhone is obviously the most important product in Ive's portfolio, his most significant and lasting contribution to Apple and the tech industry in general is embodied by a product that he worked on much more directly, and with far less help: the original iMac.

Aside from dramatically reversing Apple's slide into obscurity, the iMac finally pushed the industry over the hill it had been climbing for decades. Nearly overnight, it went from an industry primarily concerned with technical specifications to one that more closely matches every other mainstream consumer business—one where fashion and aesthetics are not just a part of the appeal of a product, they are often the dominant factor. As much as any individual product design, this is Ive's legacy.

Zima Blue

There is a certain predictable progression in the career of creative professionals. In the beginning is the acquisition of basic skills and experience—the tools needed on the road to mastery. Work done in this phase is more likely to be constrained by the orthodoxy of a given industry. The first step to making a great product is to make a competent product. One must know the rules before breaking them.

The lives of creative people are often animated by a few deeply held notions. These may be philosophical, aesthetic, fanciful—anything that stirs the soul. Early creative work often fails to embody these ideals to the satisfaction of the creator. Perhaps one's skills are not yet adequate. Perhaps one lacks the confidence to defy convention to the degree required. An early-career creative professional is surrounded by constraints.

With the acquisition of greater skill and authority comes more freedom. If you're Jony Ive, working in a company where that skill has led to world-changing hit products and their associated fortune and well-deserved corporate promotion, you may find yourself with very few limitations indeed. Everything has come together to finally give you a chance to do it right for once—to get closer than ever to that deeply held notion, that ideal.

It's not hard to guess what animates Ive's design philosophy. He's repeated some variation of it in nearly every Apple product design video. Ive wants to get to the essential nature of a thing. By stripping away the extraneous, we are left with the intrinsic truth of a thing. A successful design should seem obvious in retrospect. It should seem inevitable.

This philosophy has been embodied in the products themselves, and its potency has tracked Ive's career. Early on, technical, financial, and authoritative limits led to designs that today's Ive would likely view as over-complicated: a jigsaw of decorative exterior panels fastened to an inner framework housing a hodgepodge of components.

Contrast this with latter-day products like the unibody Apple laptops, where a single slab of machined aluminum replaced dozens of individual parts and their associated fasteners, seams, squeaks, and rattles. Or look at products like AirPods and the Apple Pencil that seem not to be assembled at all, but rather to have sprung into existence as complete entities. When introducing each similar product or manufacturing advance—each further simplification—Ive's joy has been apparent, even through his usual understated demeanor.

And so we come to the most common criticism of Ive's work. With so few limitations on his power and skills, the spark that animates his creative philosophy has been allowed to burn so brightly that it has overwhelmed everything else. Symmetry overrides utility1. Simplicity overrides flexibility2. Purity of form overrides quality of function3.

This creative arc is dramatized in spectacular fashion in Zima Blue, an animated short that's part of the Netflix anthology series Love, Death & Robots. I don't want to spoil the ending; suffice it to say that I doubt Jony Ive's career beyond Apple will lead to quite such a dramatic conclusion. But the dogged pursuit of a core animating belief rings true to me.

Millennium Designer

If Ive has overstayed his usefulness at Apple, it is only by a little. Few careers in any field will ever match his run at Apple. His designs changed the tech industry forever, and he hit home run after home run on the playing field that he built.

It's often said that the best creative work requires limitations. In this case, another piece of industry wisdom also applies: success hides problems. But in the years to come, when I look back on Jony Ive's work at Apple, I doubt I'll dwell much on the tail end, when he very nearly caught that thing he'd been pursuing for his entire career. Will he ever catch it? Does anyone? I'm not sure it matters to me. After all, it's the chase that I love.


  1. MacBook keyboard layout; iMac puck mouse.

  2. 2013 Mac Pro; MacBook port variety and count.

  3. Apple TV remote; butterfly keyboard.


Great Games

These are some of my favorite video games. They also happen to be truly great games, though they vary widely in terms of the required time commitment and gaming experience.

Many of these games are old enough to have spawned “remastered” versions. The remasters are usually easier to find, and are often—but not always—the versions I recommend playing. See the descriptions for more details.

This list is not exhaustive. It’s mostly limited to games that it’s possible to play today without too much trouble. As the games get older (and therefore harder to find and play), the selection criteria get stricter. I don’t go much further back than the 1990s, which ends up excluding my beloved classic Macintosh games. Maybe I’ll do a separate list of those someday.

The Destiny series of games is omitted because it’s very difficult to go back and play this kind of multiplayer online game after the community has moved on. But I do love Destiny…even if it doesn’t always love me back.

I could write many thousands of words about each game, but my failure to do so has prevented me from making this list for too long. In an effort to get the ball rolling, this list does not feature much commentary. It’s mostly just a list, with some information about how and where to play each game.

The games are listed in no particular order.


Journey

Available on PS3 as a download, on PS4 as a download and a collector’s edition disc bundled with two other games, on PC via the EPIC Store, and on iOS.

This is the most accessible game on the list. It only takes two hours to play from start to finish, and it costs just $15 on console/PC and $5 on iOS. I recommend playing it alone, in the dark, with no interruptions, in a single sitting. A good sound system (or headphones) really enhances the experience.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before reading the article I wrote or listening to the podcast I recorded about the game.

What Remains of Edith Finch

Available on PS4, Switch, Xbox One, and PC.

This game is nearly as accessible as Journey, and is similarly a good choice for someone who doesn’t have much experience with modern video games. (Some familiarity with first-person 3D controls helps.) Though it is a bit longer than Journey, there are natural intermission points within the game. I recommend playing it in a few uninterrupted sittings.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before listening to this podcast where I talk about it.

Inside

Available on many platforms. I recommend playing on a system with a controller.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before listening to this podcast where I talk about it.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Available on PS4, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC, and iOS.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before listening to this podcast where I talk about it.

Firewatch

Available on Mac, PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before listening to this podcast where I talk about it.

Ico

Available on PS2, and PS3 as a download and a disc bundled with Shadow of the Colossus.

It’s worth the effort to dig out an old console (or borrow one or buy a used one) to play this game. The PS3 version is a remaster with better graphics and no downsides. Prefer it if you have a choice.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before reading my review.

Shadow of the Colossus

Available on PS2, PS3 bundled with Ico, and PS4 as a disc and a download.

Both the PS3 and PS4 versions are remasters. The PS4 version substantially changes the art style of the game. It’s not worse or better than the original art style, but it is different. I recommend either the PS3 version or the PS4 version, depending on your tolerance for dated graphics.

Though it is not a direct sequel (or prequel), it helps to have played Ico before playing this game.

The Last Guardian

Available for PS4 as a disc and download.

Though it is not a direct sequel (or prequel), it helps to have played both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus before playing this game.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before reading my review.

The Last of Us

Available for PS3 as a disc and download, and for PS4 as a disc and download.

The PS4 version is a remaster, and it comes bundled with the Left Behind expansion. This is the version I recommend, but you should be sure to play both the main game and the Left Behind expansion—in that order—whichever version you get.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before listening to this podcast where I talk about it.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Available for PS4 on disc and as a download.

Though it helps to have played the previous three installments of the Uncharted series, doing so is not necessary to both understand and enjoy this game.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Available for the Wii U on disc, and for the Switch as a cartridge or download (optionally including expansions).

This game alone is worth the purchase price of a Switch. I recommend playing on a Pro Controller with the Switch connected to a TV.

If you want to hear over two hours of my spoiler-filled thoughts on Breath of the Wild and the entire Zelda series, listen to episode 91 of the Pragmatic podcast.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Available for the GameCube, Wii, and Wii U.

The Wii U version is a remaster that includes both enhanced graphics and some streamlined quest mechanics. It is the version I recommend. I strongly recommend against the Wii version due to the clunky motion controls, which are absent (or optional) on the other two versions.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Available for the GameCube and the Wii U.

The Wii U version is a remaster that subtly changes the art style of the game. I prefer the art style in the GameCube original, but the Wii U version is certainly more palatable to modern players. The Wii U version also streamlines a few of the game’s quests.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Available for N64, GameCube, and 3DS as a cartridge and download.

The 3DS version is a remaster with much-improved graphics, but I prefer to play Zelda games on a big TV. The GameCube version is a straight port of the N64 original with no significant improvement to the graphics. It’s a tough call, but I guess I recommend going back in time to 1998 and playing the N64 original when its graphics were cutting-edge. (Doing so would also be very on-brand for the game.)

Portal

Available on Mac, PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.

The PS3 and Xbox 360 versions come bundled with Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2, both of which are also great games.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before listening to this podcast where I talk about it.

Portal 2

Available on Mac, PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.

This is the rare sequel that matches or improves upon its fantastic predecessor in nearly every way. You should play Portal before playing this game.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before listening to this podcast where I talk about it.

Super Mario 64

Available for N64 and DS. The DS version is a remaster, but I’m not sure the improved graphics are enough to make up for the smaller screen of the handheld platform.


Hypercritical T-Shirts Return

Hypercritical T-Shirts 3.0

Five years ago, I sold t-shirts commemorating my first podcast, Hypercritical, which ran for 100 episodes in 2011–2012. The shirts also celebrated this website, which is updated nearly once per year. Thanks to everyone who purchased a shirt all those years ago.

Since then, I've gotten many requests to sell the shirts again, either to replace old shirts or because someone missed the previous sale entirely. Today, the time has come for the triumphant return of the Hypercritical t-shirt. The sale ends on Friday, June 29th at 8 p.m. EDT, so if you want a shirt, don't delay. It may be five years—or longer—before they're sold again.

The shirts are available in men's and women's styles and in light and dark colors:

My sincere thanks to everyone who has purchased a shirt, past and present, and to all the people who continue to listen to my podcasts and read this site.