Looking Good



Those boxes you see up there? They don’t just happen.

When I decided a couple months back to resurrect my Etsy store, I knew it would be a lot more work, because this time around I wanted to have a better idea of what I was doing. And while I probably won’t be making any profit back for a long long time (ever?), investing the time and creating this brand is something I truly enjoy — to the point that I sometimes forget to eat.

This is becoming a very (temporally) expensive hobby, but the situation is only temporary. And I am so close to debuting!

A good chunk of my time has been spent reading about potential pitfalls and absorbing advice from masters of the art. In addition to Etsy articles and other online resources, I even purchased a (short) book on how to sell one’s handmade jewelry from a secondhand bookstore that is relatively dated (copyrighted in 2006 and doesn’t even mention Etsy) but still extremely applicable. A lot of the advice out there is common sense, but it always helps to see them over again — that means they are addressing problems that EVERYONE has.

One common piece of advice is to carefully track one’s time for everything from the amount of time it takes to make each product to time invested in business details, including advertising, description writeups, and whatnot (this is particularly important for helping calculate item prices). I’m just going to ignore this step for now 😛 and (quite validly) assume that setup takes forever and I will become much more efficient as things progress.

Another common piece of advice to develop a consistent look reflective of one’s style. This was something that I had trouble with earlier because I wasn’t sure what my style was and was trying too hard to be too many things. Now I just don’t care! Well, no, I do, but I try to be more strategic about it.

Consider the following:


There was a time when this plot used to decrease very gradually for increasing amounts of effort. Not so much anymore; arguably, these days, the downward slope is quite steep. If you like integrals, you can think of the area under the curve as the expected (not actual) reward for a given amount of effort, and I would like to think the current curve is converging on the solution for the actual reward in return for effort.

Trying Too Hard to Look Good

One of the challenges I have faced in design is focus; I tend to introduce more complicated and/or numerous elements than would be needed, and while sometimes this can turn out cool, other times it is, on many levels, just way too much.

For example, in one recent research manuscript, I used magenta and cyan to plot out my data, which I believe my advisor referred to as “the Easter Bunny effect”. He promptly suggested that I stick with a classic blue and red scheme, which definitely worked out more nicely. Another time, when I was plotting two data lines for multiple samples, I chose different colors for each sample and different shapes for each line:

  • Sample 1: line 1 (red squares), line 2 (red circles)
  • Sample 2: line 1 (blue apex-up triangles), line 2 (blue apex-down triangles)
  • Sample 3: line 1 (green diamonds), line 2 (green stars)

And really, the information was more easily interpreted when I just used the same scheme for each sample:

  • All samples: line 1 (red apex-up triangles), line 2 (blue apex-down triangles)

Good thing, because Matlab would have run out of shapes for me otherwise.

Outside the lab, I encountered another situation, thanks go Girls’ Generation.

I Got A Boy

This past Chinese New Year, another instructor and I were charged with choreographing and organizing the token not-traditional-Chinese dance for our dance group. Aside from cracking the whip at practice, we also had to figure out the best outfit color scheme.

The dance is (clearly, if you recognize the above picture) Girls’ Generation’s “I Got A Boy”, and I was pretty smitten with the camo-style getups shown. We still had to make some adjustments, since the predominantly dark colors would not show up so great on our stage, so we decided on a palette with a balance of light and dark elements (dark green, blue (to allow for denim), gray, black, white, brown, silver and gold), which hopefully most of the members would be able to gather mostly from their own wardrobe with only a few additional add-ons.

Nope. Too many things. You think it could go right, but there are so many more ways it could go wrong. We looked more like a random jumble of students (which we technically were) than like a dance troupe.

What I had thought would have been a minimal-effort scheme turned into a burden, so we had to re-think the colors to maximize contrast while minimizing the micromanaging required to coordinate outfits. During subsequent deliberations, my co-instructor suggested we go with a super-limited color scheme — red and white, which was done last year — but most of the members voted that down, because half of us would have to wear red pants and WHERE THE HECK DO YOU FIND RED PANTS?! After another few suggestions, we compromised and tweaked what we had, and in addition to a few yes’s, there were a lot of no’s:

  • YES: black, white, gold, silver (i.e., aim for high contrast, and give me my metals!)
  • NO: any other color, except for the hat and shoes

As a result, at the next rehearsal, not only did we look coordinated, we looked AWESOME 😎 !!! I would like to think that was also in part due to the dancing, but yeah, we shined on stage (in some cases literally, such as the one of us who managed to pull off shiny silver leggings and a crop top)!

I went in with the preconceived notion that black-and-white was plain and boring, but there is a reason why they get paired and used together so often. Now in deciding my trademark colors, instead of coming up with logos and signages combining bright colors, rainbow pastels and 50 shades of plum, I was at peace in keeping to a simple color palette of black+white+gold. And maybe just one shade of gray.

It wasn’t until I started writing this blog post that I realized that the signature colors I picked are almost the exact same as those I wore for our token k-pop dance act.

Have I Learned Nothing?

Now, depending on how much you were paying attention, you may be thinking right now: “Hey, wait a minute, you have red in your featured post image! You totally broke your own rules!”

Ok, yes, I was sort of a hypocrite when it came to the actual product pictures, but hey, it didn’t take a lot of effort. (Plus, it’s not like my products adhered to these color rules either.) This time around, rather than thrashing around and trying every which thing I could grab hold off, I am much more consistent and deliberate in my look and have stuck to the following settings:

  • White background – for showing off the physical details of each item.
  • Bowl of coins – to give a sense of scale, in lieu of adding scale bars, which would have been a real pain.
  • Striped scarf – to provide a contrasting background. The scarf actually produced nicer image contrast (using an iPhone) than the white background did. I barely had to edit these images, if at all.
  • Blue-green scarf background while wearing items – the first scarf I pulled out, and much more exciting than any neutral background I could find.

Altogether, my product images tend to look something like these:


FYI, the wooden bowl (for the coins and gravel) was created at a wood shop by my beloved.


Arguably, I could have used the striped scarf for the background here, but this was the first scarf I pulled out of my closet and it was already too late. Plus, red+green+blue=white, so really, I’m not really breaking any rules, right?

As long as I stick with the same settings for the rest of the items, I am set!

Look Good, But Still Like You Don’t Care

I used to agonize over the pictures I used to take; I had to edit each one and was still not satisfied. I used to blame my lack of photography skills and equipment; in reality, however, I just needed a few extra tools and not a whole lot of money:

  • Natural lighting: Arguably a free resource, but it kind of depends on where you live. I used to live in an apartment with rather poor lighting, plus most of my daytime hours were spent at work. Now I have many large windows and an outdoor terrace, and I work from home! And for better or worse, most days are partly cloudy, so the lighting isn’t too harsh.
  • White table top: My old black table top got dusty very easily and made everything look way too austere. Now everything looks open and approachable, and for only about $30 (including shipping) from IKEA.
  • Canva: I came across this on this list of 300+ Awesome Free Internet Resources You Should Know and it has changed my life. Most of my graphical images were produced using this tool. There are already so many available filters, templates, and graphics that most of the work is already done for me as soon as I start a new file.

Creating a comprehensive product description through photos is still a time-consuming process, but it is definitely much smoother than before. I’ll always keep an eye out for new and better strategies (if you know of any, feel free to leave a comment 🙂 ), but for now I’m pretty happy with the results.


Act I: Give and Take – Laws of Ionic Attraction



Noble gases — they just don’t care to bond with anyone.


Since they filled up their valence band, they have no affinity to add more or get rid of any electrons, and are happy just to stay the way they are.


Most other elements, however, feel very differently about their neutral electronic state.


As a result, these atoms tend to bond over their lamentable situation. Ionic bonding just happens to be one way to do it. This requires the atom to ionize, or basically gain or lose electrons and carry a net charge. What an atom is likely to do basically comes down to the attraction and repulsion between charged particles.

But wait, you say, shouldn’t they all just be happy? If you have the same number of protons and electrons, then all should be well and everyone should be happy.

No, no, no, I respond, it’s all about distance! All protons are in the core, and all electrons are in their orbitals; the higher the energy level of the orbital, the further it is from the core and the more loosely bound its electrons are by the nucleus. Plus, the more electrons already attached to the atom, the harder it can be to stick another one in, because all the others are quite literally repulsive.

See, the noble gases are in a fantastic position: they are Goldilocks. Take Ne(on) and its neighboring elements as examples:

  • F(luoride) has a lot of protons to hold its electrons, and it could totally take on one more in its 2p-orbital. It will release energy as a result, which is known as the electron affinity energy. In contrast, if you add another electron into neon, it can’t take it in 2p (full) and would need to stick in 3s, which is not only further away from the nucleus but also at a higher energy level. Like trying to feed broccoli to a five-year-old, possibly after giving him/her pizza, you either need to exercise brute force or simply accept that it’s not going to happen.
  • On the other side is sodium (Na). Na happens to have a single lone electron in a far-away orbital, and that electron could easily disappear with a flick; this process can be done by putting in just a little energy, known as the ionization energy. This is the case even though Na has one more proton than Ne, because at least with Ne, the outermost electrons are much closer to the nucleus. Similarly, once Na becomes Na+, it’s nearly impossible for it to become Na2+, because it will already be a positively charged bad@$$ with closely held electrons, and you do not want to mess with that.

In summary, for most non-noble gas elements, ionization is pretty likely.

There are quite a few well-known ionic solids, including in the realm of bling: sapphire and ruby are colored versions of the mineral corundum (Al2O3); and spinel is the result of oxygen ionically bonding with magnesium and aluminum (MgAl2O4). In addition, salts are a well-known group of compounds resulting from ionic bonding; their distinguishing feature is their ready ability to dissolve in water. Some common examples include:

  • Sodium bisulfate (NaHSO4) and potassium dichromate (K2 CrO7), which are used in photographic bleach;
  • Magnesium sulfate (MgSO4), a.k.a. epsom salt;
  • Calcium carbonate (CaCO3), which occurs naturally as chalk, limestone, marble, etc.

Of course, the most famous (and arguably simplest) salt of all is….salt.


So how does ionic bonding in salt occur? Well, when a sodium (Na) atom, who has one too many electrons….


…. meets a chlorine (Cl) atom, that has one too few…


(Seriously, have you ever tried hula-hooping with an open loop? It just doesn’t work.)

…they fall in love, talk about life together as a compound, and finally tie the ionic knot.


As a result, Na becomes the cation (Na+), and chlorine becomes the anion (Cl), and both of them get their noble gas-esque, Ne-or-Ar-like electronic structures. If this isn’t chemistry, I don’t know what is.

I suppose you could say they’re “joined at the hip”, but that seemed like an extreme analogy.


So let’s say they’re three-legged racers instead.


Besides, it’s a pretty good metaphor for the whims of a relationship, no? I mean, compromise and agreement on which foot to move forward is really key to progress. Although I guess if you’re persistent enough, you could get your way anyway…


Fortunately, because sodium chloride (NaCl) is an electrolyte (salt), can dissociate again in certain situations, such as when being dissolved in water.


However, they will continue to exist as ions in water and make it taste funny (or delicious, if you’re cooking!). In fact, the whole reason why water can even pull them apart is in part due to its own electronic polarity, but that’s a story for another day. Given enough time, water will eventually evaporate, leaving the salt crystals to themselves once again.

Please do note, that while you can throw as much water as you want on sodium chloride, and you can use chlorine to clean water, sodium is the last thing you want near water; it will explode, and that’s as good of a reason as any to keep it away.

In short, while the ionic bond is defined as a “give-and-take” relationship, it really isn’t so lopsided at all. In the end, everyone is happy! Just as well, as there are different forms of love, so are there different types of bonding. Stay tuned for Act II!

Sources (accessed on 01-02 Jul 2015):
Ionization Energy and Electron Affinity.Purdue University Division of Education. Purdue University.
Nave, Carl. “Common salts.Hyperphysics.
Some useful salts.Eduvee. Edyia Ltd.
Spinel.mindat.org. Hudson Institute of Mineralogy.

Prelude: Chemistry Repeats Itself


Let me take you back in time. To a simpler time. To…high school chem. (Or maybe first-year of college chem? I don’t really remember.)

Atoms: they are the stuff things are made of. They consist of three important components:

  • Protons: the positively charged particles in the nucleus (atomic core). Kinda like an atom’s DNA, they determine the chemical (elemental) identity (e.g., whether it’s carbon, oxygen, or something else).
  • Neutrons: neutral (no charge) particles in the nucleus. If you got a core full of proton prima donnas, you need neutrons to help keep the peace and make sure the nucleus (or opera house) doesn’t disintegrate on itself via radioactive decay (or lies, deception and backstabbing). This becomes very important for the super heavy stuff, e.g., Uranium, which has 92 protons and even more neutrons. For now, we won’t really concern ourselves with these.
  • Electrons: practically weightless, but equally as charged as the protons, albeit negatively. They are the reason why atoms stick together (or in some cases don’t). They surround the atomic core and are literally what make the bonds between us (if we were atoms).

Depending on the number of electrons and protons, the resulting atoms can either be neutral (equal numbers of both) or carry a net charge, which makes them ions. Electrons are obviously electrostatically attracted to the protons in the middle, but they surround the atom in specific groupings. Analogous to the Internet, an atom is not a truck onto which you dump a bunch of electrons. An atom is a series of orbitals.

This is also the reason why the periodic table is periodic.

Each orbital has a specific number of slots, and each energy level has a set of orbitals. The first orbital at any given energy level is the s-orbital, which has a maximum of 2 slots; the second (if applicable) is the p-orbital with a maximum of 6 slots. The electronic structure can be written out as level-orbital-occupancy (e.g. for Hydrogen, 1s1 = 1st level, s-orbital, just one spot). In the first level (H(ydrogen) and He(lium)), there is only an s-orbital, but at higher energy levels you got these p-orbitals, too, so you have to fill up the 2s and 2p spots (8), etc.

If you look at the first 18 elements of the periodic table, you see that for the electronic structure of an atom (not ion), you only stick in as many electrons as you need to match the atomic number (number of protons) so that the charge is neutral. Once you’re finish occupying a given energy level, you move to the next row or period of the table and do the same thing again. It kinda looks like this, but usually neater:


The atoms in each column or group have similar chemical properties, because their valence electrons, i.e., those at the highest energy level (at least at 0 K), determine their chemical behavior (how they bond). If you noticed, He could have been set right next to H, to sit above Be(ryllium) and M(a)g(nesium), which also have filled s-orbitals, but in the official table it got placed with the noble gases Ne(on) and Ar(gon), because it filled all the electron spots for its highest energy level (n=1). And that’s why it gets a crown, too.

At each subsequent level, the electronic structure can be written out with respect to that of the previous level’s noble gas. For example, anything in the second period (n=2), beginning with Li(thium), starts out as [He]2sx…, since it is understood that everything at n=1 is filled. Chemists have enough to worry about, so they decided to make things easier this way. I mean, when you do eventually get to something like Uranium, do you really want to write out the whole thing?

In summary, let us recall the classic Bohr model of the atom, where the nucleus is surrounded by rings (energy levels) of electrons: it is those electrons in the outermost ring that give rise to all the crazy things this stuff makes.


If only atoms were really so simple.

Want more details?
See: Clark, Jim. “Atomic Orbitals.chemguide. n.p. Aug 2012. Accessed on 01 Jul 2015.

Want more drama, romance, and narcissism? Next time, in Act I!

A brief intro to the structure of bling


Oh, crystals! I do love my crystals.

They’re the foundation material for most of my works, but it was not really until I was an undergrad that I really appreciated them.

This was partly because I had not realized that so many of the materials I dealt with on a regular basis were crystalline.

The thing is, when you have a solid material, the atoms have to sit somewhere, but where do they go?! Well, it’s not always easy to answer this, but if you have a general idea of what the atoms are, what sort of traumatic treatments (extreme heat, natural disasters, etc.) they had to face, what other junk got tossed into the mixture, and what the ambient temperature and atmosphere are, you could make some pretty good guesses. For centuries, this is exactly what people did!

Given enough time, energy, and a certain affinity for one another, with all atoms being more or less equal, they will try to sit in an ordered manner with one another. Many of my favorite materials happen to sit in a nice cubic structure, the simplest case being a simple cubic configuration, where one atom occupies each corner:

SC unit cell
It doesn’t get simpler than this.

But that’s just 8 atoms, and what do you care about 8 atoms? That’s practically nothing (seriously)! Well, if you keep propagating that cubic pattern in all the main directions along the cube’s edges (forward-backward, left-right, up-down), you’re going to get a larger crystal.

Crystal building
Yes, this is exactly how crystal structures propagate.

How large you ask? Well, up until you run into a wall.

Well, I guess we’re camping out here. Indefinitely.

And if your atoms just don’t have enough time, energy, or discipline, they just are a mess.

Here’s how this manifests in some real materials you might actually care about:

  1. Some solids are obviously crystalline: diamond, quartz, sapphire, etc. You can tell because they have nice flat surfaces or facets that naturally occur when you try to cut these things into smaller pieces.
  2. Some solids are not so obviously crystalline: metals are the big one. Most metals we deal with are just collections of very tiny crystallites packed tightly enough that you can’t tell the difference between one or the other unless you have a microscope. So unless you’re dealing with something really REALLY special, that hunk of metal you’re working is polycrystalline.
  3. Some solids are not crystalline at all: glass is not just the name of a material but also a structural term. It just so happens that glass is a glass. How about that?

For (1) and (2), you got more or less long-range order, it’s just that for (1) it’s definitely longer than for (2). (2) happens when you have two armies running up against each other to do battle at their boundaries, and yeah, it’s a mess.

As for (3), this is what is known as “amorphous”. I mean, it kind of does have order, it’s just short-range order (OMG, the name of the blog in a blog post!!). It could be just a mess of cubes or polyhedrons randomly oriented with respect to each other, so order is limited to the nearest atoms only (e.g. as far as the cube corners go).

Short-range order

Or it really could be a complete mess, like freezing in time the chaos that ensues when throwing a bunch of primary schoolers into a classroom and ordering them to sit in their seats while candy rains from the ceiling.

Even shorter-range order

Clearly, order takes time to restore. Likewise, cooling silicon dioxide (SiO2) too quickly from a liquid to a solid does not give time for the atoms to settle into place (like it would in quartz), so it remains chaos (i.e., glass). But frozen.

Given enough time, the sugar and natural hyperactivity will wear off, and all the atoms will settle into their lowest energy state.


The end.