Binary Tree in Colors

I experimented the search method of “binary tree” with color visualizations:

The lines cross the width and the height of the canvas represents the starting point of the visualization. The size and the opacity of the circles are decided by the random input. Instead of letting them grow to the left and right like in a traditional “binary tree” diagram, I placed them from bottom left to upper right. I think this would be a good base for data visualization in the future.

View code:

Social Design

I think the biggest social problem, universally, is disconnection. Let it be disconnection from oneself (eg. depression), of different human beings (eg. wars), or between human and nature (eg. disruption of the environment). There are many great designers trying to help us to connect with each other, to drop the phones or to start a conversation with strangers, but personally, I see connections we have with others inseparable with those we have with our natural environment.

Therefore, my question becomes, is there a good metaphor to address both disconnections? The first one came to my mind is, once again, air pollution.

I try not to isolate any social issues, as I remind myself any problem is the outcome of more than one system. In the case of air pollution (in China particularly), of course it is a result of industrialization (coal-fired power plants), urbanization (the surge of car ownership), and the lack of environmental consciousness; in the meantime, however, it is undeniably an ugly child of the global economic system.

During my research, I studied air pollution that has occurred in other regions in the past (London, L.A., etc.). One interesting thing that came up was that the U.K. “solved” their 1950s “Pea Soup Fog” not only because they discovered oil and gas drilling in the North Sea, but also, some British manufacture factories were transferred overseas (to developing countries mostly) so the need of power supplies have dropped.

The essay Global Environment and International Inequality by Henry Shue, published in 1999, has specifically pointed out the relationship between capitalism, colonialism and today’s environmental injustice. It argues that developed countries should shoulder the responsibilities of fixing environmental issues in developing countries, for they have taken advantage and planted the seeds of pollution in the past. This led me to think, what role does capitalism play in China’s air pollution?

A big one, of course. “We find that in 2006, 36% of anthropogenic sulfur dioxide, 27% of nitrogen oxides, 22% of carbon monoxide, and 17% of black carbon emitted in China were associated with production of goods for export. For each of these pollutants, about 21% of export-related Chinese emissions were attributed to China-to-US export. ” (from Beijing University’s study China’s international trade and air pollution in the United States) The scientists gave this particular type of emission a name: Consumption-Based Emission.

So there is the cross point of my two lines: disconnection between humans and our disconnection with the environment. Exporting and importing so many products that we don’t even need to begin with, we are not just wasting materials, but also contributing to air pollution. At the same time, ordinary consumers in the U.S. have no idea a dress they bought from Forever 21 is causing so much death to people on the other side of the world. How could I address the problem?


Instead of hipsters living in Brooklyn, I am especially interested in talking to those who are more different from myself, for example, white American families from the Midwest. These are my audience who have less knowledge about the effect of climate change, the possible damage of capitalism, or China in general. I want to raise questions about environmental justice, people’s consuming habits, and hopefully bridge some gap between the different groups of people.

My proposal is a shopdropping project. Shopdropping refers to the public art that “sneaks specifically marked items into a shop and places them on display”.

Some shopdropping art:

What I’m going to do:

First, grocery stores and malls in the midwest are huge, one can easily get lost in there:

Now, imagine yourself picking up items in the ocean of products, and you see this:

Would you be intrigued? Why are words “MADE IN CHINA” on top of the products instead of hiding in the back? And with such nice font? Would you pay a moderate price for something like this, just to satisfy your curiosity?

It turned out, the package contains several “ingredients”, telling the story of China’s air pollution: you may find nicely packed sulphur, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, or some coal dust.

Air Pollution Research in Progress and Draft Proposal

(A data visualization I made along the way of research)

I started this week’s research by reaching out to experts.

I first reached out to Earth Justice, a team of lawyers fighting for environmental justice. I thought maybe I could start with the solutions of the problem: legislations. I mainly looked at the Coal Program, where the lawyers tried to look at energy and shut down power plants in the U.S.. In one of the statements, the lawyers stated that: “For decades, the coal industry has manage to avoid cleaning up its mess by hiring well-paid lobbyists and lawyers to create and exploit loopholes in our nation’s environmental laws. Such efforts have allowed coal power to appear artificially “cheap”.”

So coal is not actually cheap? I wonder, why do we have the impression that it is? From here, I dug deeper into the production of coal. I went to the EIA (Energy Information Administration) website where I found different types of coal used in the U.S.: anthracite, bituminous coal, sub-bituminous coal, and lignite (ranked from the highest carbon to the lowest). Through my past research, I’ve known that a large number of coal used in trucks in China is lignite, which produces the worst air pollution due to its relatively “young age”.

Intrigued by the diagrams, I went to look at transportation use of energy in China. I found a very useful report (yet I suspect a bit biased) from 2003, Personal Cars and China. 2003 was still before the explosion of car-ownership in China, however the authors are already looking at the issue of future air pollution. A few important points:

– “The real inefficiency lies in the fuel wasted because of urban congestion.” (When stuck in traffic, cars emit more sulfur)

– The use of diesel in trucks:

– “Chinese crude oils have less naphtha, the feedstock for the catalytic reforming process, than most foreign crudes. Therefore, one feature of the Chinese petroleum refining industry is that its catalytic cracking capacity is much greater than its capacities for catalytic reforming and catalytic hydrotreating. The principal characteristics of Chinese gasoline are a high olefin and sulfur content; likewise, Chinese diesel fuel has a high sulfur content. ” (This sounded to me a bit biased by just blaming the problem on the nature of “Chinese crude oil”, when, I think, import is possible?)

Knowing the extreme damage of diesel, I looked more into personal cars in China (which use gasoline) verses heavy duty trucks (which use coal and diesel). The answer to polluted air was as expected:

“Almost 80% of fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, emitted from vehicles in China comes from diesel-powered trucks, which represent less than a fifth of the country’s vehicle fleet.” Chinese government, however, have long placed the burden of relieving pollution onto ordinary citizens…

At this point, I felt a bit stuck at the transportation direction. I decided to steer away to other experts. I reached out to Professor George Thurston at NYU, who was a known expert on air pollution and its health impact. In his essays and interviews, he introduced the harm of PM2.5, PM10, and the reasons our bodies can’t defeat them: PM2.5 came from coal fired power plants which contain the highest concentration of coal and all kinds of other metal, and because of the concentration, they are much smaller than the particles our bodies are used to fight with.

Another interesting point I found in Thurston’s views is a shift of cost burden.  He said, “the costs are already there because air pollution is causing people to go to the hospital, see their doctor, develop diseases like asthma and cancer. The costs are already visited on the public. What we’re talking about here is moving costs from the public to the polluters.”

I immediately became interested in the concept of “shift of cost burden”. I have always heard people saying “the power plants are the foundation of Chinese economy” (so we can sacrifice the environment). I wonder, what really is the role of economy in China’s air pollution problem?

This question has then opened the Pandora Box for me. I found two pieces of articles particularly interesting: Assessment of China’s virtual air pollution transport embodied in trade by a consumption-based emission inventory and China’s international trade and air pollution in the United States. Both essays argue the relationship between importing and exporting Chinese goods (domestically and internationally) and the emission of pollution, offering the “consumption-based accounting of emissions, rather than just production-based”. The latter especially looked at the impact of U.S. – China trade. “We find that in 2006, 36% of anthropogenic sulfur dioxide, 27% of nitrogen oxides, 22% of carbon monoxide, and 17% of black carbon emitted in China were associated with production of goods for export. For each of these pollutants, about 21% of export-related Chinese emissions were attributed to China-to-US export. ” (from Jintai Lin, a professor at Peiking University, another expert I reached out to)

I found this argument fascinating because I see the interaction of systems here. Of course the capitalism/colonialism system and the environmental system are intertwined. Of course there has to be a demand for China’s production (and it turns out that 20% of Chinese manufactured goods go to the U.S.). I also remembered how the British finally “solved” London’s air pollution: they moved their power plants away to other countries… I am now reading Global Environment and International Inequality by Henry Shue, published in 1999, hoping to understand the ties stronger.


A group of Chinese manufactured goods travel across the world, coming to the U.S. They package themselves well so they can fit into the Mid-West malls. They want to be picked up just like any other goods made in China. They have intriguing packaging but they don’t spoil the surprise. Inside, they contain a collection of Chinese stories about the air: like the one with PM2.5, the one with the masks, or the one with the breath of fresh air…

NOC Animation Final

For this project, my inspiration came from a language collision exercise I did for another class:

By placing texts from different sources side by side, randomizing them, and letting them collide into each other, I wanted to create the visual of a crash of ideologies.

For Nature of Code, I decided to animate this idea. It took multiple tryouts:

I’d like to keep working on this project. Eventually I’d like to see it living on the web, taking real-time headlines from different news sources crashing into each other from two sides of the screen (for example, one from New York Times, one from Fox News).

View code


I was very excited about the topic of Energy and Sustainability. I see the importance of energy not only existing in the natural environment sense, but also in the realm of human interactions. Why do we “feel” good (or bad) sometimes for no obvious reasons? Why could we “sense” other objects, people, events without actually using our five senses? Is this “energy” fundamentally different from the electrical or the nuclear energy? Is it different from the energy that connects us and the Moon (like Buckminster Fuller put it)? How could we utilize, intervene, and play with this energy?

We also looked about the Doomsday Clock as an example of energy in class. I found it fascinating. It is not only a response to the energy crisis itself, more poetically, it lives on the certain kind of human energy and produces the same kind as well: fear. In this case, it is almost sustainable itself.

How could we produce other forms of metaphor (that’s not a doomsday clock) take human energy and make it sustainable?

I drew many diagrams like this, and tried to search for the perfect metaphor for this cycle of energy. A good example in my mind is Marina Abramovic’s performance: The Artist Is Present:

I see the form of eye contact the perfect way of conveying and receiving human energy. However, the most powerful “eye contact” piece has already been done, and I myself have also in the past experimented it in a participatory group. In the end, I decided to stay with the form of performance, for the intensely “present” and interactive energy it nonetheless creates between the performer and the audience.

Apart from human energy, could I also address the natural energy? The first topic comes in mind, no surprise, is the air pollution situation in China, caused mostly by coal mining and traffic, both are energy. Then what is the setting? Who am I talking to? Eventually, I found the irony in the air as well.

(Video coming soon)

7 Ways to Breathe

I had an idea this week to do a performance as a flight attendant on an airplane to China, selling duty free products to help visitors adjusting to the air quality in a dystopian setting.

Here’s the audio recording I would play while performing to:

I also took still pictures illustrating.

“We advise you to wear a mask during the entire time of your outdoor visit in China”:

“Discount available for family packages”:

“With most recent technology, the shades offer you filters that add a layer of smog to your current vision.”

“In case of extreme smog, we have prepared you a special air pack sample collected from the forests of Oslo, Norway.”

“To thank you for choosing us, we have prepared you each a present: a plastic device to help you practice breathing in heavily smoggy environment.”