Hipsters in my tea

This post is largely a copy of a critique I posted on Facebook of the “Manual Tea Maker No 1”, a “modern” take on the gaiwan (a tea brewing device invented in the Ming dynasty) that I and several others found immensely irritating. Here’s the campaign video:

This is not “inspired by” a gaiwan. (No more than the beer opener – I’m sorry, the Bar Blade – on their website is “inspired” by a beer opener.) It is simply a white hipster trying to stake his claim on a “modernized” gaiwan against a backdrop of white people trying to make good tea into something mysterious and rarefied and elitist and confusing. It is literally a transparent insulated gaiwan with included cup…which you can get for 5-10 SGD on Taobao ($10 for a really nice one, or you can get two push-button-valve tea making devices at a capacity large enough to satisfy all your “Western quantity”* tea needs!)

By all means introduce the wonderfulness of gongfu teatime to a broader audience. But don’t make it sound like slowing down to enjoy tea is something you and your product have finally rediscovered from the mysterious depths of East Asia and made accessible and enlightened, instead of something my people have been doing and sharing (or having stolen) for centuries.

The teacup is also the wrong size and shape for its stated and implied purposes. Both the aroma (which such a tall cup would have been useful for) and emotional intensity of the act of drinking gongfu tea are lost when you drink it from a wide container even if the total amount of liquid is the same. Except by endeavouring to modify the teacup for Western tea quantities you lose an essential part of why we sit down for hours to drink gongfu tea in the first place and the entire “slowing down” idea that you are trying to promote.

I evidently have a lot of feelings about tea and the recent “discovery” by white people that tea is actually very interesting and complex. I find its hipsterization and subsequent gentrification and elitism of tea in the West silly and unfortunate.  It upsets me that many people’s first experience with good tea will involve some impractical Teavana device and a bag of overpriced loose leaf marketed to make people a little scared of drinking too much of it, and that for even more people this wonderful beverage and culture will become just a little more out of reach.

*On “Western quantities”… Chinese people also just guzzle tea like water (if they even drink tea regularly; not everyone does). We don’t actually sit down to do this Exotic Ritual every day, except the lucky few and maybe retirees.


Choosing a red for a three-color palette

I recently finally took the plunge and purchased a few tubes of casein paint, of which James Gurney is a fan, after practically a year of “I really shouldn’t be buying paints since I get to touch them so rarely” deliberation. In a bout of overly frugal stupidity I decided to limit myself to three tubes (a total of about $30) and chose to buy white, yellow ochre and ultramarine. I often have these moments where the desire to save a trivial amount of money really just costs me more in effort in the long run…

Of course I quickly found that I need at minimum a red to realistically represent any of the things I would want to paint. I’ve been spending the past hour trying to figure out the difference between various reds: alizarin crimson, the cadmiums, vermillion, venetian red. Honestly, I’m confused by paints, and I get embarrassed in art stores because I feel like an amateurish imposter who doesn’t really know what she’s doing. My only experience with color is from digital painting where paint is unlimited and bountiful, and because I have really not painted much at all my work is at a very elementary level. Opaque paints are entirely a mystery to me at the moment.

The most famous limited palette is probably the “Zorn palette” of vermillion, yellow ochre, black and white, particularly good for portraiture. Charley Parker at Lines and Colors also has a good post about alizarin crimson, ultramarine and cadmium yellow light as a three-primary palette. He notes:

The weak point of a palette consisting of just these three colors (while simultaneously one of its strengths) is the high value of the Cadmium Yellow Light, which lightens almost any mixture to which it is added. This is the reason a dark orange-red like Burnt Umber or Burnt Sienna is often added.

With this in mind, since I have quite a dark brown-yellow neutral (yellow ochre) I think I will go with a cad red light, which I hear is similar in some respects to vermillion (a highly toxic paint). I am attracted to bright subjects and may have fared better with a cad yellow light, but oh well – as long as it gets me painting at all it will be a good thing.

In other art news, I’ve just discovered Stapleton Kearns’ blog – he is a landscape painter and I am looking forward to going through the archives of his blog. He writes with a delightfully subtle snark. The Encyclopaedia of Dumb Design Ideas series is particularly enjoyable (and very useful).

Related links

German language learning resources

I have started a list of German language resources that I have encountered or used in my language-learning studies. It will include links to language-related resources but also thematic native German material that falls within my interests – which hopefully overlap somewhat with your interests.  This may eventually devolve into simply a collection of links to German-language material, but I think that such a list would still be helpful for beginner-intermediate students searching for easy-to-understand native material.

You can find the page here: Resources for learning German


Windows 10, in real-life use

My desktop, five minutes ago.

Windows 10 being used for actual notes, featuring Mail, OneNote and Cortana.
Windows 10 being used for actual notes, featuring Mail, OneNote and Cortana. Cortana was triggered with the voice command “Hey Cortana, 3570 divided by 3” but I had to apply a slight American accent to get it to accurately recognize the number (it returned 2517 when I used my Singaporean accent).

Bugs and rough edges (of which there are still many! remember to run Windows Update!) aside, I’m very impressed. It just feels nice to use. It definitely doesn’t hurt that I’m running this OS on the hardware it was designed for – I’m on a Surface 3 with full pressure sensitive pen, keyboard, mic, webcam and touch support in a really really neat little package. (I’ve had the machine for a few weeks now and love it.)

Oh, the places I went

Edit 25/2/15: Fixed the location history link.

Did you know that if you opt into Google location services on your Android phone (I’m sure Apple/iOS do something similar) you can view a map of all the places you – or rather, your phone – has been using the Google Location History tool? Since a smartphone loses a great deal of its utility without your agreeing to location sharing, chances are if you use an Android you’ll have a map of your own to look at. I guess this is cause for alarm but it’s nice to know that I have the ability to at least view – and manage – the information I hand over.

You can only view up to 30 days of history at a time, so I used my data from June to August last year to construct a composite map of my brief travels in Europe. Everything is there: New Haven to JFK, JFK-FRA, FRA-LHR, LHR-EDI, the train back down to London; FRA-TXL, then meandering slowly down to Mannheim with a stop in Prague to visit my friend; after setting up in Mannheim, weekend visits to cities in Baden-Württemberg, and one logistically challenging but very successful trip to Denmark; finally, the flight back to the US and bus back to New Haven. This map reminded me of little details I’d already forgotten about – not a good sign for my memory, I guess…


I thought this was a very fun data set to look at, although it’s obviously also another instance of the weird narcissism that quantified-self movement leads to when taken to an extreme. My movements during the academic year are less interesting, reflecting the small Yale bubble I live within, with an occasional trip to Boston or New York for choral performances, as well as cycling to neighboring towns down my bike trail of choice.

I thought briefly about how this related to infosec and privacy, but because I’m not European, I wasn’t particularly bothered by the location tracking: it was something I’d consented to, after all. (I do remember being initially annoyed at how Google was strong-arming me into giving up data.) If anything, seeing this map was reassuring: it lulled me into believing that my data was only being put to benign uses like helping me relive my tourist memories. I’d definitely like to discuss these issues more, though, which is why I was saddened today to find out that a class I didn’t sign up for (because I thought it was a really intense crypto course that required background) is a really fun discussion-based course that debates these exact issues.

Discussion-based computer science course sounds like an oxymoron and also the sort of thing I’d love to take. On Thursday I’ll be attending a talk by Peter Swire on why computer scientists need to play a larger role in public policy. It’s supposed to be very good – I’m looking forward to it.

In other academic news, I’m taking a class on medieval manuscripts this semester, and it’s been pretty fun so far. It’s my first “real” humanities course; I considered a military history course last semester, but it was too intense and required an intimate familiarity with the history of Europe despite being billed as an introductory class. Look at this cool manuscript I briefly examined on Monday! It’s a really narrow and long (1.73m) scroll – that’s my hand in the picture.


Last Friday I finished writing my first humanities paper for this class’midterm evaluation, and it was much more difficult than I expected – even after two discussions with the teaching fellow to get an idea of the arguments I’d be advancing. I’ve always known in the abstract that I’m not yet as well-rounded as I’d like, but only while struggling to say interesting things about a seemingly boring old book did it really strike me how little I know about thinking and argumentation in this manner. I pointed out my discomfort with the vague and subjective nature of my argument to the teaching fellow, who responded (misrepresenting the nature of science I thought) that English [scholarship] is about thinking, not finding the right answers.

If all goes well, I’ll be done with my computer science major next semester, and I’m hoping to use a good chunk of the remaining credits on more humanities classes, as well as bringing back cognition and linguistics, which have fallen slightly by the wayside this past year.

The lower bound of human sketching ability

Speaking of adding more pictures to this blog, here are a couple of choice figures from a computer graphics paper I read recently [1] that had me giggling out loud at my computer screen at 2am. In it the authors describe a system for classifying sketches into groups automatically – but to do this you need to first have some sketches, made by humans, to classify. It turns out humans are not always the best at sketching [2]…



My favorites are the GIRAFFE, FROG, DUCK, DOLPHIN, MERMAID and KANGAROO. Somehow the labelling of the categories in all-caps just makes the whole situation more comically tragic.

[1] Rosália G. Schneider and Tinne Tuytelaars. 2014. Sketch classification and classification-driven analysis using Fisher vectors. ACM Trans. Graph. 33, 6, Article 174 (November 2014), 9 pages. DOI=10.1145/2661229.2661231 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/2661229.2661231

[2] The authors actually go on to analyze the problems with human sketches that lead to a “failure” of sketch classification systems – it’s a pretty neat paper, check it out.

Link Roundup #2 (and a German preposition tip)

The flat upstairs has been rented or sold to someone new, and renovation work will be going on for a month. Since Monday I have woken up to 100-decibel jackhammer noise from 9am till 5pm (hour-long break for lunch) and this will be going on for at least a week, if not longer. It is positively impossible to get anything done at home and I might resort to haunting a coffee shop tomorrow. I feel bad for the contractors too.



Tech support

  • Looking forward to seeing more articles on this site. http://www.decentsecurity.com/#/holiday-tasks/


So simple, yet so constantly confusing! Emphasis mine:

man sagt “an der Uni“, wenn man von der Universität als Instituion spricht, also “ich studiere an der Uni/an der Fachhochschule”, etc. Man würde hier nicht sagen “ich studiere in der Uni”. Aber den Mann hast Du IN der Uni gesehen, also in dem Universitätsgebäude.


A trip down memory lane with Creative Technology

One of my friends shared this on Facebook yesterday. A genial middle-aged man in a dress shirt and slacks seems to be giving a standard product demonstration of a drum keyboard, but somehow it becomes this crazy drum solo, before ending as a standard presentation again. I probably find it particularly amusing because it starts with the stereotypical boring conservative Singaporean but gives you a glimpse of the underlying lightheartedness that I like to think runs through many of my countrymen.

This “Asian equipment demonstrator” is a Singaporean (probably) who is showcasing a product from Creative Technology, a Singaporean company that in the 90s made the Sound Blaster sound cards that pretty much had a monopoly on the PC market. They also had a line of MP3 players which were very feature-rich, and hold the patent for the invention of a user interface for portable media players. I owned one and was a big fan, happily filling it with anime soundtracks and Canadian pop-rock-punk. The media players, like everything else, died as the iPod ascended, something I watched with sadness while realizing that technical superiority was not enough: you had to make people feel good about your product.

I’m suddenly realizing this is probably the true origin of my interest in product design and usability. I actually got asked something similar the other day – which stumped me, I mean, I’m just…it’s interesting? I’ve always liked it? I’ve always been an artist something something something? Eventually I dashed off something lame about getting frustrated having to use US-centric resources as a non-US person. (“Enter your five-digit zipcode to view this information” – god! I still get riled up.)

When I was eight-ish I read Creative cofounder Sim Wong Hoo’s autobiography, which described No U-turn Syndrome and a lot of other stuff I didn’t fully understand. I am only now suddenly remembering that he had a chapter about taking computing exams in school and leaving answers dramatically unfinished to impress the grader with his integrity at stopping precisely when “pens down” was announced by the proctor. I know I definitely copied that behavior during later exams.

It’s funny I remember the book so vividly. It had spiral binding, “hyperlinks” by means of page number, and an awfully designed cover.

Don’t let drag-and-drop become a drag

Web designers must consider accessibility and other user experience issues in their drag-and-drop implementations. This post offers some issues and solutions.

Merry Christmas from sunny Singapore! Started this post a while ago, wrote the bulk yesterday, might as well add a few more sentences and publish it on Christmas. Also, sorry, bad title puns again.

Drag-and-drop is a cute extension of the physical paradigm that works particularly well on touch devices for obvious reasons. It’s naturally suited to tasks where user-defined sorting of some kind is required. It’s also a great way to show off and engage users by creating something fun to play with: anyone who has ever interacted with a draggable element has pulled it randomly around the screen while savoring that rare sense of control over the interface, no matter how superficial. I’m fond of it, especially for the analogue sense it brings to digital interactions.

Problems arise when this control method is applied indiscriminately to content of all sizes and types, without regard for screen size, page length or consistency. Users get tired when drag-and-drop is unwieldy, has to traverse large distances, or if intermediate/drop behavior isn’t consistent with expectations set by other sites and applications. As an example, let’s look at LinkedIn, the website that reminded me to write this post today – although LinkedIn is by no means the sole offender.

Aside: I appreciate that LinkedIn is constantly experimenting with their interface – it’s very nice to see that they’re continually striving for improvement.

They’ve made a big change to their Edit Profile page recently – or maybe I was subject to a variation in an A/B test, we’ll never know. But to reorder entries on the profile I now drag and drop chunks of employment history etc. around. (But only positions I currently hold can be moved – another frustration that took a while to understand.)

I can be verbose in written communication, use bulleted lists, and have a lot of media on entries like those for illustration or design. These mean that the height of the draggable element becomes far too unwieldy for effective manipulation. Below is a screenshot of a reordering attempt. The element is too large to easily move, and it’s made worse by frustrating intermediate behavior that makes it hard to do what I want even if I manage to move the element.

This particular drag-and-drop implementation also doesn’t allow me to just move the element roughly to where the target destination is – a behavior I expect since the only possible action is a crude swap and no finer control is needed. Instead, I have to align the top of the element with the top or bottom of the target to bump the target into the spot where my original element was.

What if I want to move the element to a target spot far away on the page, beyond my screen boundaries? Now the user is forced to perform an awkward shuffle that involves

  1. bumping the element against the edges of the screen to force scrolling (slow, and finding that exact spot is an exercise in precision pointer manoeuvring)
  2. holding the element down while scrolling with a wheel, keys or another finger, and hoping that the element follows along or at least reappears when the cursor is moved (which doesn’t always happen, forcing the user to try method 1 again)

If my finger slips – possible for users with poor motor control – or if I get to my destination and the draggable element has been lost somehow, I have to perform the dance all over again.

Let’s have a quick video example of said dance, this time on the website I first ran into the issue on, WordPress. WordPress has used drag-and-drop in their widgets page for quite a long time – you drag options from a pool of available widgets to an “active” zone, which enables them on your blog. This worked very well at first, but as the list of available widgets grows ever-longer, adding widgets has now become a big chore: good luck to you if you select a widget at the bottom of the list.

The problem is complicated once we throw accessibility into the mix (as always!) – say for instance you’re me with my terrible eyesight and have your browser zoom set between 150-175% by default. Working sometimes with Magnifier open and docked, I have at worst 11.5″ of screen real estate on an already-small 13″ 1280×800 screen. The following is a screenshot of my entire browser window at my normal zoom levels: the draggable element is too large to even fit on the screen.

On drag-and-drop pages where I have to traverse large screen distances or work with tall elements, I basically zoom out to 50% or less, do all my edits there, then restore to my usual 150%. It is incredibly frustrating.

There are a few solutions to drag-and-drop usability problems. The most obvious is to add a different method of control. Try for instance up/down buttons that reorder elements in a list. WordPress has actually done something about the problem (slipped in so quietly that I just found out 30 seconds ago). Widgets can now be added by clicking on their titles, which brings up a menu allowing you to select where they should go, followed by an Add Widget button.

If you want to keep the fun and impressiveness of drag-and-drop, there are ways to do it in a manner considerate of the fact that not all users have the same computing setup as the developer does. Some possibilities:

  • shrink elements when they are picked up
  • have a little schematic where changes can be made and reflected on the main content
  • drop targets that scroll together with your position on the screen so that they are always visible

Drag-and-drop is a very nice user interface touch in my opinion. When used well it adds fun, simplicity and a deliciously analogue tactility (which I love), enabling users do what they want faster and more easily. But care needs to be taken to ensure it doesn’t become a drag on the overall experience.


A few more pieces on accessible design: designing with accessibility in mind, a site against low contrast, a very short blog post/comment thread on designing for poor motor control (there seems to be a dearth of posts on this topic).