All posts by Brandon Lee

Why is Tumblr so easy to post to? I rebooted mine a scant 11 days ago, and so far I’ve managed 101 posts, with 7 more in the publishing queue. Why have I never used this WordPress blog in that way?

Does the word ‘blog’ carry some kind of expectation? I know why I don’t tweet that much: I’m a bit of a long-winded person. I’ll share a link or two, but it’s unsatisfying to say just one little thing beside it. Tumblr feels like a long-form Twitter, occasionally visual, and the Dashboard really feeds interaction and inspiration by giving you things you like and would want to pass on. Retweeting on Twitter draws a line between the things you saw and the things you said. The character limit, again, prevents you from adding your own words. I don’t see Pinterest as anywhere the same thing, although people tend to think Tumblr and Pinterest are playing in the same space. Pinterest is nothing like Twitter, for example.

Anyway, really enjoying it so far, even though posting from the mobile app isn’t very good. You can format far better (such as grabbing a photo from a site you’re linking to and using it as the image) on the desktop using their bookmarklet.

Visit if so inclined: http://sangsara.tumblr.com until I buy a domain for it.*

* My friend Ci’en made a great observation: we start projects, then we buy a domain name to get serious, then we feel the crushing and boring weight of commitment, and then we abandon them completely.

The Project Graveyard is Adjacent to the Project Factory

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I have a bad habit of jumping into projects without thinking them through, and then wrestling with whether to abandon them or work with what I’ve gotten myself into. Some don’t really matter too much, because they don’t matter to anybody else.

The Round Down newsletter was a blast to do for a year, and then we had to take a break as free time to do unpaid work quickly ran out with new family commitments on both sides. I don’t know yet when we’ll renew its metaphorical print run. The job of finite, packaged news gathering and delivery has been picked up by a few more professional outlets since we started, and I enjoy a few of them myself.

I also wanted to do a blog called T-Axis for a little bit, and started posting a few things to a Tumblr to get a feel for it. The T being for Tech, and the idea being a look at stories of transformation in various markets and professions as a result of technological advances. That impulse will now probably continue as a research project at work.

But I liked getting back into posting at Tumblr, and longed to produce with it the way tumblelogs are meant to: a mix of wordless visuals, reflexively reblogged elemental units of interest, links, quotes, and dumb GIFs. It never felt right doing that here on my personal blog, although I’ve tried it out several times over the past 13(?) years.

So now I’ve rebooted my main Tumblr at http://sangsara.tumblr.com, tentatively called “Business Suit and Cat Ears”, which is also the general editorial direction. Do follow if you like the sound of UX design and apps rubbing up against pixel art of Mt. Fuji.

The other current project I’ll be a little busy with right now is getting a house furnished and moved into ASAP. The recent photo above was from a somewhat fruitless day of visiting warehouse showrooms, looking for the perfect couch (3-seater with chaise, dark fabric, raised off the ground, firm cushions, wide armrests). I’m beginning to think it doesn’t exist. Consumer electronics makers take note: I’m not even going to consider a next-gen console or 4K TV until your friends in the furniture industry get their act together.

➟ Dean Kamen’s Prosthetic Arm, Luke, Cleared by the FDA

Mind-controlled prosthetic arm from Segway inventor gets FDA approval
By Dante D’Orazio, theverge.com

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted its approval to one of the projects that came from that effort: a mind-controlled prosthetic limb called the DEKA Arm. A number of other scientists and engineers around the world are working on similar devices, but this is the first such prosthetic to get FDA approval. The prosthetic device comes from a company founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen, and it is roughly the size and weight of an adult arm.

Four decades after television audiences were treated to a bionic man and woman, we finally have the technology to replace lost arms with something more human and natural than the crude poles many have to use today. In the opening credits to a movie where soldiers spend days instead of years recovering from injuries, and society comes to terms with its members turning part machine, and an internet of limbs becomes a ripe battlefield for cyberwarfare, this development begins the spinning newspaper montage.

➟ “Open” Makeup as a Disruption of the Beauty Industry

The Woman Who Figured Out How To 3-D Print Makeup Explains How It Works
Jillian D’Onfro Tech May. 10, 2014, 2:31 AM, businessinsider.sg

Choi has created a prototype for a printer called “Mink” that will let users choose any color imaginable and then print out makeup in that exact same hue (at this point, she’s only done demonstrations with blush). By allowing people to skip the expensive department store prices to make the perfectly colored products themselves, Mink could completely revolutionize the makeup industry.

She’s being deceptively conservative when she says this product would be targeted at teenaged girls; it has far larger implications for the beauty industry.

If every shade and the chemically simple products that allow people to sport them are fully open and commoditized, and large brands have few qualities to offer beyond “packaging”, and the customer knows it, what will happen? Will advertising continue to be able to sustain them by selling a lifestyle, or will the images of beauty grow wider in scope and fragment as new tastemakers emerge from online communities, e.g. YouTube stars? Sure they exist now, but the collapse of beauty brands as a chief influence for consumers would create a vacuum for new ideas to take hold.

What happens in societies where billions of advertising dollars currently spent by a few large entities, to push narrowly defined images of beauty, just evaporates?

➟ The Beats Question

Apple’s Pursuit of Beats May Foretell a Shift
By BEN SISARIO, nytimes.com

If Apple makes a major marketing push for Beats’s subscription model — or, even better, if Apple integrates Beats into its ecosystem of online services and physical products — it could mean a big lift for streaming.

Apple entering the streaming music market (virtually overnight) with the clout and installed user base of iTunes would be massive, and it’s probably not an exaggeration to say Spotify’s days as currently structured would be numbered. Looks like we’re in for the next phase of music industry economics.

Since the rumor surfaced a couple of days ago, people have tried to rationalize why Apple would buy the headphone and services company. Some good theories and analyses of both brands have resulted; I think it’s fantastic to have lots of smart people simultaneously indulge in a thought exercise, the answers to which we will probably have in the near future.

My resistance to the idea has largely been because I’ve heard several pairs of Beats headphones myself, and haven’t been impressed. It’s not about being overpriced, but being bad experiences, functionally. A pair of BeoPlay H6 headphones at S$700 is subject to many of the same criticisms one might use against Beats: they’re too expensive, they’re made in China, the margins are criminally high, you’re paying for the brand, and so on — except the H6s really do deliver on the music experience. I suppose many Beats owners will say the same, but there are an awful lot of people with taste who disagree. Apple’s brand, to me, has always been on the opposite end of that spectrum. Perhaps this is an effort to change who we currently think of as their customers.

The Beats Music service, on the other hand, has been really impressive in my short time testing it out. There’s a feature called “The Sentence”, where you fill in a statement that defines the mood and situation you’re in, and Beats Music provides the appropriate soundtrack. I wish Spotify had something like it. I said in a tweet the other day that $3.2bn was the complacency tax of being asleep at the wheel of the world’s largest digital music store, and @craigmod noted that it was a rather low price to pay, in that case. Quite true.

The iTunes reluctance to play the streaming library game appears to be a legacy of Steve Jobs’s (and the senior executive team’s) approach to music as a tangible possession. He used to rationalize the download model by explaining how people prefer to own their music, and have collections, possibly informed by his own experiences with vinyls and CDs and so on. While it may have been true in the early days of the iTunes Store, I’ve observed even in my own listening habits as an older person that it’s no longer true. Collections matter, but song access is becoming ubiquitous and hence irrelevant. In a world where everyone pays $10/mo for music, we can build all the collections we want, without having to think about first buying a digital copy or worry about losing access. Why should you? It’s $10/mo for the rest of your life and everybody stays afloat and happy. Sold.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Beats Music became the backbone of a new iTunes Unlimited offering, and the headphones remained a standalone brand, sold prominently (as ever) in Apple retail locations.

[I first wrote this entry on my experimental blog about technological change, entitled T-Axis. I'll be cross-posting stuff here for awhile.]

➟ Turning Paper to Pixels with a New Game Design Tool

From Paper to iPad, Pixel Press Turns Drawings Into Videogames
Bonnie Cha, recode.net

I loved play­ing videogames as a kid, but I can’t say that I ever spent any time sketch­ing out ideas for my own games like my broth­er and his friends did. (My doo­dles usu­al­ly involved cute ani­mals or spelling out my crush’s name in bub­ble…

The core concept is every kid’s dream: designing their own games for friends to play through, or just for the heck of it. But without some serious inspiration, what you can do in a short platformer level is very limited. I remember a D&D game maker tool for PCs in the 90s; that was infinitely better because you could create a STORY, and set up narrative funnels for your players. 20 years later, our idea of imaginative play can’t be restricted to letting kids carve out crude worlds in 3D chunks and 2D lines.

LINE Pop-Up Store Singapore, May 2014

Japanese-Korean messaging app LINE has opened their first pop-up store in Singapore, on a prominent stretch of the core shopping boulevard of Orchard Road. It will run for a month and reap immeasurable marketing value from the high visibility and sure-to-grow lines of fans eager to buy their cleverly designed character merchandise.1

I dropped by on its first evening tonight with some colleagues, and we spent between $20–60 each. I would have spent $100, but put down a pack of 100 art postcards ($55) at the last minute. This is on top of the $40 I’ve spent on in-app purchase stickers over the last year or two of being on the platform. I don’t think any other messenger currently comes close in terms of having built brand loyalty or monetization potential that doesn’t involve serving ads or selling personal data.

Standing outside and watching the crowd, I remarked to a UX designer colleague that no other messaging app could pull off something like this in the middle of town, not WhatsApp, not WeChat. He correctly observed that none of the others have strong IP from which to make their own merchandise to even sell in a store.

“And it’s all this bloody kiddy stuff!”, I said, clutching a plastic bag filled with stickers and a pair of mugs that look like the faces of a bear and a bird. “It’s not kiddy,” he started to protest before going, “Oh alright, I guess it is.” Takeaway: “Kiddy” is largely irrelevant in Asia.


18-to-29-year-old females are its “core target,” says (U.S. CEO Jeanie) Han, explaining that in Asia, once girls were using Line, boys followed – and then this young “hip” user base helped bring in older users “like a domino effect.”

“People, especially young folks, are really adopting our stickers,” she says. “The ratio of people who are buying things online like our stickers is actually quite high in the U.S., as well as the people who are using our games inside our platform relative to the total number of users, so we’re quite optimistic in terms of our market in the U.S.” — Techcrunch, March 2013


The crowd lining up tonight was about 2:1 female to male, which seems in line with LINE’s targeting strategy. There were a few people who definitely looked over 40, and everyone present was walking out with stuffed toys, diaries, notebooks, plastic folders, tote bags, mugs, badges and the like, all emblazoned with Brown, Cony, Moon, Leonard, Sally, James, and other characters I can name because I see and employ their images in chat conversations on a daily basis. LINE is lovable, obsessionable. Few others are by design.

Against Facebook Messenger’s 200M monthly active users, LINE is said to have virtually the same MAU (out of 400M registered accounts). In comparison, WeChat (dominant in China) has 355M MAU, and WhatsApp has over 500M. I don’t consider WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger users to be the same thing2, and LINE has the greatest growth potential outside of its home country, especially in Asian countries with an affinity for Japanese culture, whereas the Chinese WeChat is likely to have a harder time. I’m pretty bullish about LINE’s success, even if their apps have a lot to improve on. For the record, LINE also reports significant revenues — $338M in 2013 — versus about $200M for KakaoTalk and $20M for WhatsApp.


  1. Within minutes of our arrival, I overheard a mom asking her two teenaged daughters, “What’s this about?”, to which they replied, “it’s kind of like WhatsApp.” 
  2. For one thing, WhatsApp is not functionally part of a platform, and probably won’t be merging with Facebook’s in the near future for various reasons. All the other messaging networks are at some stage of offering content, ecommerce, games, and enhanced communication services such as video-calling. 

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Probably my favorite shot from this weekend’s trip to Bali where my friends Christian and Jean got married. Captured and edited on an iPhone 5S, too. Compared to the functional but not album-worthy 2mp shots from the first iPhones, it’s hard to argue this isn’t the only camera most people need today.