Facebook Is Like Tobacco

In a tongue-in-cheek post, Clay Allsop of Propeller offers that Facebook’s nonsensical Like A Chair video campaign is a parody of our own ambivalent attitude toward The Social Network. He states:

What bothers me is how we’re okay with this; that the tragedy of the video is the comical absurdity of the “Chair” analogy and not the deeper tragedy that any company is trying to connect with us like this at all. How one minute we’re being pitched about Facebook addressing the human condition, and the next we’re advertised to about Farmville.

And he asks:

Really, what other company has tried to explicitly associate its product with solving existential loneliness?

Not many, Clay but there is one notable example, WD & HO Wills’ disastrous launch of a new tobacco brand, ‘You’re Never Alone With A Strand’

You're Never Alone With A Strand

This legendary TV spot and print campaign portrayed Frank Sinatra lookalike, Terence Brooks, as an angst-ridden everyman pacing the streets of London to the ‘Lonely Man Theme‘ and seeking solace in the smooth and fulsome flavour of a Strand cigarette.

Though the public identified with the late-night imagery (and the backing track, which shot up the charts) the campaign was a failure. Nobody wanted to buy a product associated with a loser.

Perhaps, in time, we’ll find that Facebook is like tobacco?

Image: Imperial Tobacco

The Toilet Touchscreen

Singapore is proud to be the most organised, hard working and process-driven city in the world, and there’s a lot to be said for the special kind of sterile and soulless efficiency practiced on The Island.

Yet one wonders whether the Six Sigmas don’t sometimes take things a little too far?

On a recent visit I was suprised to see that the pathological desire to measure, quantify and improve had led to this: 

Changi Airport Toilet Touchscreen

Now, I don’t care if that device is cleaned with the strongest anti-bacterials known to man every sixty microseconds, you’re supposed to use this thing after you’ve been to bathroom – in an airport!

Well, I  sure as hell wasn’t touching it. Clearly, Contagion didn’t play in Singapore.

Image: James’ Samsung Galaxy SII 

Exit Planet Dust

Visited a friend’s workshop this week. “Hey James,” He said. “You know a thing or two about computers – can you help us fix one of the PCs?”

Apparently the machine in question was running slow and kept losing connection to the network. This is what I found:

 And after five minutes gentle cleaning with an air compressor.

 Works fine now.

Images: James’ ancient Nokia E71

Everyone needs a 303

I am the lowest denominator of frustrated musicians, one who can barely play a note. To give you an idea of exactly how terrible I sound when in charge of a musical instrument my party piece is the descending dervish riff of Interstellar Overdrive, played on one string. Though I’m not tone deaf, possess a sense of rhythm and can shape a few chords it’s highly unlikely that 10,000 hours of practice will make me John McLaughlin.

Demonstrably a klutz of fat fingers on six strings or a piano, I’ve always enjoyed playing around with synthisisers, sequencers and drum machines, though leading a peripatetic lifestyle I’ve never been able to justify the discretionary expense of buying studio equipment.

Thanks to the iPad I can now hold thousands of pounds worth of bleep in my hand and, for little more than the price of a sandwich, lose myself in a fully equipped recording studio anytime, anywhere, and by pressing buttons, tweaking knobs and sliding faders, create a glorious electronic noise.

Apropos of nothing other than my enthusiasm, and your possible interest, here are a few of the iOS synth emulator apps I have been playing with.


Favourite waste of time has been ReBirth from Propellerhead. This app is something of a dream come true for a lad who lived through London’s second Summer of Love. Consisting of emulators for the Roland TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines and two Roland TB-303 Bass Line synths it carries more than enough ‘gear’ to imitate the majority of today’s top 40 dance downloads if one was so inclined to try (and for the record, I’m not). Indeed the entirety of LMFAO’s ouvere could be replicated with this app alone.

ReBirth for the iPad is a port of Propellerhead’s renowned (and sadly, discontinued) desktop app. You can check out the history of that hugely influential  software version at the ReBirth Museum.

I recommend heading over to the iTunes store to try the iOS app for yourself.

Fairlight CMI

The Fairlight was the first commercially available sampler, memorably used to trailblazing effect on Peter Gabriel’s fourth album and Jean-Michel Jarre’s Zoolook. The unique selling point of the Fairlight was the device’s ability to play and manipulate any sound you cared to upload into it. However banal such a feature might seem today, this was the absolute cutting edge in 1979. Case in point: CMI is a three letter abbreviation for Computer Musical Instrument.

For retro-heads looking to recreate Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love the Fairlight CMI iOS app is the only piece of kit required.

Though time has not lessened the required learning curve in any meaningful way, should you have the patience, effort expended on the app is richly rewarded. And it’s a damn sight more affordable than the £20,000 price tag of the original hand built hardware.

Korg iMS20

If you prefer synths of the older analogue school (with patch cables) there is the Korg iMS20 app. Provided you’re willing to suspend your disbelief as you run those virtual jumpers, the Korg iMS20 app does a great job emulating the switched-on sounds of the late seventies. Again, if you’re unfamiliar with the original hardware there’s a lot to take in before you can get going, but perseverance will pay off in spades.

Thanks to the attention of such artists as Ladytron, Stereolab and Autechre the MS 20 is experiencing something of a resurgence. In fact, I’d go as far to say that there’s probably no better iOS product for the discerning hipster – if indeed that hipster would be caught dead using an iPad.

I’ve never been that enamoured by touchscreen games, neither Angry Birds, Infinity Blade nor Osmosis have held my attention, I just don’t get hooked in by the gameplay and swipe off with a guilty feeling of time absolutely wasted.

Tweaking my lovingly home-crafted electronica on the iPad is, by comparison, an absolute joy and affirmation that the tablet can be a creative tool as much as a consumptive toy.

Images: Vintage Synth Wikipedia CreateDigitalMusic

How to make your own fake iPhone in China

News that a group of enterprising Shanghainese individuals had been caught cobbling together fake iPhones from genuine parts and flogging them off on the streets of China reminded me of my days sourcing cellphones from this part of the world.

A few years back I was engaged in a project to buy cheap mobiles from a group of State Owned Enterprises and ship them off around EMEA, where they’d be bundled for sale with VoIP network minutes.

My mission was to find the best featurephones on offer and reconfigure them to provide alternative network calling via some clever little application layer hacks. My objectives were: a) secure the best phones at the lowest cost; and b) ensure that the SOE did all the development work for free. This all took place in an age before touchscreen smartphones, a time when the coolest app you could buy was Worldmate for Symbian UIQ .

As the vendor was a group of SOEs spread throughout the South and East of China I spent a lot of time traveling to many and various R&D centres and OEM factories. At each one I would be shown a range of mobiles and run a gamut of sales directors, account managers and engineers keen for business. Eventually I’d establish a shortlist of suppliers, then settle down with each one to thrash out some kind of deal.

Naturally this devolved into a battle of wits where I sought the lowest position for the stakeholders I represented and the SOEs fought for the highest possible price to maximise their own profit (and no doubt recompense the unwieldy chain of agents and middlemen who had made ‘introductions’). These meetings were painful and lasted many hours.

By way of preparation, perhaps the most useful ammunition to obtain in advance of negotiation was the Bill of Materials. Knowing each and every component and its associated cost was a surefire way to establish a reasonable Factory Gate price for a device. In most circumstances, short of bribery, there’s no easy way to come by such intel.  Fortunately, buying large shipments of cellphones in China there is one great shortcut that can help the novice negotiator discover the base manufacturing cost of a mobile: go out and make your own copy of the phone.

Guangzhou has a great wholesale mobile market located down by the river in the old town, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of hooky goods. I like to think that this is the place the expression ‘fell off the back of a factory’ originated. Because the models that I was interested in were generally in mass production and available in the local mobile and electronic malls it was no trouble to walk into the market with a sample and say, “Hey, I want to buy every component of one of these, enough to make ten pieces please.”

It was the laziest form of reverse engineering you could imagine.

An hour later I’d be on the way back to the hotel clutching a couple of plastic bags stuffed full of boards, housing, screens, chipsets, keypads, ribbon connectors and batteries; a few hundred dollars lighter perhaps but happy in the knowledge that I could sit down and work out a rough BoM list from the materials in my possession.

Before the first contract meeting with one of the OEMs I’d pack up an unassembled mobile in a ziploc bag and make sure the opposing Account Manager saw it, maybe over some tea and cigarette glad-handing. He’d know I had a well-informed idea of the per piece price and we could all forget about any Fresh Off the Boat Foreigner shenanigans.

Many Tier One and Tier Two Chinese cities have a mobile market like the one in Guangzhou. Though prices might vary, stock doesn’t. I haven’t been to one of these places for a few years but on my last visit it was still possible to buy each and every component for each and every late model mobile phone that was manufactured locally. Heck, Nokia chipsets could be bought on a roll.

If you feel like an adventure, I’m sure you could go and make your own iPhone.

Image: Canton365