Sunday, July 7, 2019

Craving authenticity

I just discovered three new YouTube food documentary channels, and I am utterly captivated.

Each channel features a young woman (respectively from Sichuan and Yunnan provinces) subsisting in rural environments, hearkening to the heydey of agricultural, pre-industrial life. Equipped with little but the land, family and their traditions, and few supplies (maybe a wok and few jars), the stars of these channels capture our fascination.

For example, Ermichuiyan goes fishing for eels and loaches in the evening and concocts a variety of dishes. A basic dish might be stir-fry consisting of 鳝鱼 (eel),姜 (ginger),葱 (scallions), and 料酒腌制 (cooking wine).

Catch a barrel of eels and loaches, with Sichuan pickles,do some Sichuan cuisine to taste fresh

Or maybe Liziqi harvests green plums and uses them countless ways, like 梅子肉 (plum pork). She also shows us how she dyed and sewed her own dress, crafted her grandmother silk pajamas and comforters from her own worms, sculpted her own oven, and even made her own paper, ink, and brush.

The routine thing you shall never miss every summer- to eat green plums

Dianxixiaoge introduces us to new edible vegetables, like caoya (Typha latifolia). She also reminds us that rural living often involves learning from locals, like her Muslim neighbors in Dali to make Rushan cheese. She also demonstrates a Yunnan Bai (ethnic minority group) culinary method of blowing flavoring into a pork liver's inferior vena cava (?).

The unique sourness and milky scent from Dali, Yunnan: Rushan Cheese

Farming, foraging, harvesting, prepping, pickling, and all-around cooking, these ladies appeal to the romantic side of slow life that starkly contrasts urban living, where often the closest source of food we ever reach is the supermarket. B-rolls of the moon, stars, ethereal landscapes, children and animals frolicking in the grass further accentuate the allure of nature to urban dwellers. It's no surprise that these channels are experiencing a surge in popularity.

But beyond that, often their videos end with a heart-warming scene of eating with their families. These clips are a nice little antidote to the (at-times) vapid digital content that permeates the web. They serve as a satisfying conclusion to each video, almost as if a message saying all the hard work is worth it for family and friends.

Fry pork rind to make several local dishes

The best food for summer------Many kinds of jam.

These videos highlight how far removed we might feel from timeless practices. It's easy to remark at the ingenuity, versatility, and vigor of those in these videos and definitely hard to imagine that a majority of people used to once be like this. I'm still in awe, as I peek into their daily lives,

Note: Unfortunately, there may be some that will always doubt the "authenticity" of these videos. For instance, there will be the occasional comments that says that the production value looks too high or even contrived to be produced by one person. But honestly, I couldn't care less. It's important to realize that, of course, these families don't live in isolation from society, especially with the efficiency of public transportation. It's also likely that these women also edit their own videos. The education and preservation of traditional practices is the real value of these pieces. The aesthetics only enhance the experience.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Alignment charts

The belatedly viral intellectual meme of today, alignment charts have been revived and have taken the internet world by storm. There's even a subreddit committed to alignment charts. They originate from Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax, who was inspired by the fantasy fiction of Moorcock and Anderson, according to Wikipedia. It was designed as a tool to build and classify characters' moral behaviors, where uncharacteristic behavior would be penalized.

With the way that the internet meme (and 1977 release of D&D) goes, there are two axes: lawful-neutral-chaotic and good-neutral-evil, for a total of nine alignments. You can even take an old quiz from the year 2000 here to figure out which bucket you fall into. If you'd like to read about each alignment à la MBTI test, here is a reference.

Template from Know Your Meme

The following are descriptors as per the third edition of D&D manual:

Attribute Pros Cons
Lawful Honest, trustworthy, obedient to authority, reliable closed-minded, traditionalist, judgmental, not flexible
NeutralRespect for chaos and law Susceptible to temptation
Chaotic Free, adaptable reckless, resenting, irresponsible
Good Altruistic, respectful of life, concern for dignity of sentient beings  Self-sacrificial
Neutral Reluctant to harm life Committed to personal relationships
Evil Compassion-less and unmerciful to eliminate lives as convenient Even actively pursues malevolent killing



This Archer chart is gold. [Source]

In the chart below, I've referenced a variety of sources, including Autostraddle, the general internet (first author is always hard to find for memes), and my unbridled opinion to demonstrate the many possible applications of alignment charts.

Making these charts is a bit of haphazard and highly subjective fun that requires that you brace yourself for unsolicited opinions from even people you haven't spoken to in years.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

My Federal Loans

To attend Rochester Institute of Technology as a graduate student for a two-year (four-semester) Master's program, I am using Direct Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans in four installments from the U.S. Department of Education. Here, I attempt to deconstruct my loan and interest rates in order to visualize it from a day-to-day perspective.

There are a couple conditions this type of federal loan (If there are any errors, feel free to point them out!):
  • The annual and aggregate limit for unsubsidized loans for graduate students is $20,500.
  • During your time of enrollment, you are in a period of deferment, which is when you are not expected to be making payments on your principal, but interest still accrues.
  • The interest accrual is calculated by a simple daily interest formula: Interest Amount = (Outstanding Principal Balance x Interest Rate Factor) x Number of Days Since Last Payment
    • For example, this calculation is, based on my first semester's federal loan disbursement, ($10,141)(6.6% APR)(1) = about $669.306 per year, or $1.8337 per day.
    • Then following the federal loan disbursement of another $10,141 for my second semester, my new total principal becomes $20,282. Then using the same calculation, my interest begins to accrue at about $3.667 per day.
    • And so forth, for the third and fourth semesters, assuming the APR remains 6.6%.
  • The good thing about this loan is that your interest only gets tacked on to your principal after you finish school. This is called capitalization, which is when your unpaid interest gets added to your outstanding principal, thus increasing the interest because it is calculated based on that higher total. This means that the consequence of not making interest payments only kicks in once I begin repayment after the end of the 6-month grace period. In other words, unpaid interest is capitalized following the grace period on my unsubsidized loan.

One possible loan repayment scenario

I made myself a handy visualization of one repayment scenario (which is still more aggressive than the federal Standard Repayment Plan, but not as aggressive as I hope to be) to better understand my federal loans that takes into consideration the following:
  • I am assuming that the total principal balance of my federal loans are or will be $10,141 on 8/17/2018; $20,282 on 1/4/2019; $30,423 on 8/17/2019; and $40,564 on 1/4/2020.
    • My interest accrual in those date ranges will respectively be about $1.8337 per day, $3.6674 per day, $5.5011 per day, and $7.3349 per day.
  • I plan to defer payment on interest until the day after my commencement on 5/10/2020 (even though I have a six-month period before my unpaid interest is capitalized), which should be about a lump sum of $2,790.914). 
  • Once gainfully employed (ideally) at a salary of at least my internship rate of $54k at a job with two weeks of unpaid vacation time and 250 work days per year, I expect that I will be committing at least 8.5% of my income (because I anticipate working in a high COL area), or about $18.45 per day ($550-$560 per month), to my federal loans for an expected complete repayment by 1/14/2028. And of course, this also assumes that I join the workforce immediately after graduation.

The most jarring statistic from my calculations with this one repayment scenario suggests that I will have spent about $14k just on interest by the end of repayment. This might urge me to begin making payments on my principal balance as soon as I can or to re-finance my student loans, depending on my personal situation.

Still, overall, I think this is a positive scenario that makes a lot of assumptions about my professional future, and there are no guarantees that my loan repayment plan will look like this. But it was just a helpful exercise to better understand my financial obligations. And there's reason to believe that being in student debt is far from a unique situation.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Visualizing Data with Icons

Using graphical representations of individual units of data (or datum?) can be a powerful educational  tool. The following examples show how deconstructing

Human exposure to radioactivity is measured in units of Sieverts (Sv). Specifically, Sv measures ionizing radiation, which is the sort of radiation that has enough kinetic energy to knock electrons off of atoms and molecules. That radiation can also break molecular bonds, like in DNA, and generate free radicals. As a result, ionizing radiation can be harmful to human health two ways: deterministically (large-dose, acute exposure) or stochastically (typically accumulation of mutations to somatic cells leading to cancer).

In most cases, an individual's pre-existing risk of getting cancer is much more significant than the added risk that any singular event can contribute. And there has been many science communicators that created useful infographics to effectively represent the relative radiation dosages from different locations.

USA Dep't of Energy 2010 Dose Chart

Randall Munroe of XKCD's Radation Dose Chart

Though these infographics are a concise and economical usage of limited pixels, the most effective representations of Sieverts to me was Derek Muller of Veritasium's units of bananas he used in his video: Most Radioactive Places on Earth. Derek travels across the world to measure levels of ionizing radiation. He measures the most radioactive places on earth by units of bananas, or the amount of radioactivity a banana contains due to its potassium content, or 0.1 microsieverts, or 1/(10^6) of a sievert. (FYI--you'll die if you're exposed to more than 2 sieverts at once.)

The Most Radioactive Places on Earth

The Most Radioactive Places on Earth

The Most Radioactive Places on Earth

The Most Radioactive Places on Earth

The Most Radioactive Places on Earth

500 bananas at the Pripyat Hospital, Ukraine. The Most Radioactive Places on Earth

Each pixel represents 1 banana. The Most Radioactive Places on Earth

Each pixel represents 1 banana. The Most Radioactive Places on Earth

In terms of science communication to the public, I believe that Derek's pictorial representation is the most effective. It is sequential and enlightening (especially to learn that smokers expose themselves to the most amount of radiation). It's no surprise that smoking is the single most causative cancer risk factor. HPS claims that smoking one 20-cigarette pack is an effective dose of 1 microsieverts, which alone already increases the yearly background radiation dose of an individual by 25%. CDC studies show that smoking causes 80% of all lung cancer deaths in women and 90% of all lung cancer deaths in men.

This sort of pictorial representation of data reminds me of Simone Giertz's The Every Day Calendar and Tim Urban's Your Life in Weeks. Using data visualization to sort and organize large quantities of data into small packages is helpful, but the power of representing units as icons and laying it out, uncondensed, helps to boldly accentuate point.

Simone Giertz's The Every Day Calendar 

Tim Urban's Your Life in Weeks

Just for fun, I've also used Derek's dosages to create a projection map point visualization with Flourish.


Thursday, March 7, 2019

My internship hunt

I was inspired by this Reddit post titled My Last 4 Months of Job Applications to create my own multi-step sankey chart. I used a free version of Flourish, a very well-designed and intuitive data visualization app.

My application process: 17 applied, 18 cold-emailed, 7 total responses, 28 non-responses, 3 phone interviews, 1 offer, 2 ghosted me. Chart built in Flourish.

Creating this chart was a simple process because Flourish has a plug-and-play interface that's accessible to non-data-minded folks like me.

Data table for multi-step sankey chart.

Medical illustration is a tricky field because there are few formal intern positions outside of scientific/medical illustration firms that hire highly specialized, let alone medical, illustrators. So I knew I had to start early and cast a wide net. (Fortunately, I have the luxury of flexibility, so I applied for positions all over the country.)

I began my process as early as November through March. I started off applying for the traditional medical illustration firms, using EmpoweredNews' list of major players in the global medical animation market. Because formal intern positions are not explicitly listed, I ended up cold-emailing these companies either via their general contact email or respective people within the company, thanks to LinkedIn.

I found that emailing yielded a higher success rate than I originally anticipated, and 5 out of 18 companies responded to me, either to tell me they do not offer internship positions, to give me advice, or to recommend me to apply the following year. And two of those email respondents offered me interviews in the form of, respectively, a design exercise and panel presentation (I assume that I didn't get the positions, being ghosted).

Having remembered Shiz Aoki's AMA on Reddit, I cast a wider net on Google by searching different configurations of the following words: science, communication, technical illustrator, biomedical, scientific, visual design, animation, animator, illustration, designer, visualization, and others that I can't currently think of. I usually prefaced my title of choice with the term "intern," combined with "health" or "medical."

Using this strategy, I submitted 17 formal job applications over the course of the past three months via direct company websites or applicant tracking systems like Greenhouse, Workday, Indeed, Glassdoor, AngelList, or whatever link Google had found for me.

Google's very useful job search module.

Typically, a cover letter, resume, and portfolio sufficed for each formal job application as supplementary material. Few companies (maybe a total of two to three) asked for references. I'd have to say that the most cumbersome part of the process was not the cover letters, but having to create an account for each company at which I applied. (Thank goodness I use a password manager.) 

Today, I am very fortunate to have submitted a formal application to a company whose type of client I am familiar with. I had the opportunity to do a phone interview, and despite what I felt like was a rocky technical interview, I was given an offer. I am absolutely ebullient to have the privilege to work as a medical illustrator over the summer. Most of all, I can't wait to be handed complex real-life problems and work with highly competent teams to help build solutions.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Facebook poll

I conducted a Facebook poll starting on February 23 at 12:05am and lasting for a week, and here are the results using Flourish.

Results to the survey question, "After brushing your teeth, do you rinse or just spit out the toothpaste without rinsing?" 22 people (79%) voted "rinse," and 6 people (21%) voted "spit." 

The results of the Facebook poll "I'm curious, y'all. After brushing your teeth, do you rinse or just spit out the toothpaste without rinsing? 🤔 (or none of the above?)." 79% rinse, 21% just spit.

I asked my immediate Facebook friends whether they rinse or spit out their toothpaste, and the engagement was pleasantly surprising. 

Overall, 22 people (79%) voted "rinse," and 6 people (21%) voted "just spit." This is fascinating because it is an aspect of dental hygiene that isn't consequential or exciting enough for anyone to talk about. According to page one of Google search results, overall blogs seem to say that dentists recommend not rinsing with water or even mouthwash after brushing your teeth because that washes away any residual fluoride that might help promote re-mineralization of enamel on teeth.

My main takeaway from this little experiment were further questions. Now, I want to ask: what aspect of the question (i.e. phrasing) made this an easily engage-able question? On the other hand, why were there only a total of 28 respondents out of my hundreds of Facebook friends that might have seen it? Is rinsing or spitting actually better or worse for you (correlation with incidence of caries)? Is it cultural whether or not we learn to spit or rinse? 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Basic interaction design principles

I'm wrapping up my first course on human-computer interaction, and I've learned three sets of fundamental interaction design concepts. Essentially, this is common sense, formalized. But still a very useful body of concepts to know and that can be applied beyond interaction design.

Norman principles 

Delineate the elements of interaction design. Demonstrated below are good examples of each of those elements.

  • Affordances and signifiers. In other words, functions and perceivable indicators of that function.
Image result for doorknob
Ex: A doorknob signifies the affordance of pushing.

  • Mapping. When controls are mapped in a way to enable function.
Image result for piano app
Ex: A piano app's buttons are mapped naturally to an actual piano. [Flickr]

  • Feedback. A confirmation that the function is successfully (or not) executed. 
Image result for bell doorbell
Ex: Bell doorbell makes audible sound when rung. [Wikimedia Commons]

  • Constraints. Prevents user from engaging in improper function.
File:Stop sign and road markings.JPG
Ex: A yellow line at a stop sign (usually) prevents drivers from crossing without stopping. [Wikimedia Commons]

  • Visibility. When affordances are easily discoverable.
File:Japanese Electric Water Boiler 20101026.jpg
Ex: "On" light-indicator shows the boiler is on. [Wikimedia Commons]

  • Models. When an end-user's mental representation of how something works matches with the way the system/product actually works. Varies from person-to-person.

Gestalt principles 

Are rules on how to organize content according to conventional human perception. The list includes key ideas about how our brain tends to visually simplify the complex.

  • Proximity. Objects that are close to one another tend to be mentally grouped together.

  • Similarity. Objects that are similar to one another in size, shape, and/or color are grouped together.

  • Closure. The mind completes familiar objects and patterns when elements are missing.
╭  ╮

  • Continuity. The mind continues patterns and lines, even in case of interruption.

  • Symmetry. We parse complex scenes in a way to reduce complexity.
◢◣ ⋘⋙ 【】⦅ ⦆

  • Figure/ground. Our mind separates a scene into figure (foreground) and ground (background).
Courtesy of roy from Alt-codes.

  • Common fate. Elements with the same movement (speed and/or direction) are seen as a single unit.


Jakob Nielsen's Usability Heuristics 

These broad rules of interaction design help make a great and user-friendly product.

  • Visibility of system status. Keep users informed about system state.
Maya with error highlight to the right of Command Line.
Autodesk Maya has a neat message bar at the bottom showing the results of every action.
  • Match between system and the real world. Speak the user's language and speak in a natural, logical way.
"Deal enough damage and you win!" Blizzard's Hearthstone.

  • User control and freedom. Users need to be able to exit, undo, redo.
"(ESC)exit" command is persistently in view for the user.

  • Consistency and standards. Users shouldn't be confused by similar words (keep use of vocabulary consistent) and have to think whether or not they mean the same thing.




  • Error prevention. Users should prevent errors and give users confirmation messages.
Image result for are you sure you want to delete
"Are you sure you want to move this file to the Recycle Bin?" Windows PC.

  • Recognition rather than recall. Minimize users' memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible.
All of CellPaint's commands are on the interface.

  • Flexibility and efficiency of use. Offer tutorials for beginners and accelerated options for expert users.
LyricsTraining app to learn languages through music.

  • Aesthetic and minimalist design. Extraneous info competes with relevant units of info and diminishes their relative visibility.
Neopets has really gone downhill since being sold to Viacom.

  • Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors. Use plain language to offer a solution.
"Program removal failure. You must restart Windows to completely remove the program." error message well done.

  • Help and documentation. For complex software, it might be necessary to provide documentation that is easy to search, lists concrete steps, and isn't too large.
Canva has a very helpful Help button at the bottom-right of the screen.

There you have it! A very simplified overview of design concepts to get you started thinking about your next project.