Friday, March 28, 2014

Match Day

While still alive they did divide
Their favorites from the throng,
Yet how to pick the worthy ones
When they were dead and gone?
'Twas Gryffindor who found the way,
He whipped me off his head
The founders put some brains in me
So I could choose instead!
Now slip me snug around your ears,
I've never yet been wrong,
I'll have alook inside your mind
And tell where you belong!"
—"Sorting Hat Song," JK Rowling

Last Friday I didn't write a post because it was Match Day. This Friday, I'm writing a post about Match Day.

Match Day is a sort of annual anti-holiday for people in the American medical school system. Each year on Match Day, medical students—just a few months shy of graduating into full-fledged doctors—gather together to find out whether their immediate futures will be great, terrible, or somewhere in between. On Match Day, they are placed by a sort of techno-dystopian version of the sorting hat into their various medical residency programs, which will last for the next three years of their life and which are required for all doctors entering the profession.

While the sorting hat in the Harry Potter universe gives students no say in whether they will be stuck in Hufflepuff for the duration of their time at Hogwarts, medical students do have an opportunity to influence the matching algorithm that automatically sorts them into their residency programs, insofar as they rank the programs they would like to go to. But medical students have just as little ability to change the sorting hat's mind after it's made its decision: all matches are final.

Match Day is also pretty public. In past years at Anna's school, the annual ritual has been that students are called onto the stage in small groups, where they receive envelopes with their placements and are encouraged to open them and read the results to an audience of hundreds (or thousands, counting the webcast audience). Someone once asked my fiancee why Match Day is done this way. "Because they do not care about students' mental health," she said.

Match Day at Anna's medical school this year started bright and early with an 8:30 session for students with medical school loans. I was present at this event, and it was fantastic, by which I mean tolerable. Much of the session was dedicated to helping students learn how to jump through loopholes in the federal government's student loan policy—loopholes designed expressly to help people entering much less lucrative fields, but which apparently medical students have been more than happy to find out about and take advantage of. As a bonus, there was also some very excellent whining from people worried about the Obama administration's plan to tighten some of these loopholes, which was pretty rich coming from people who will make well upwards of $100,000 a year for the duration of their careers.

With the taste of that in our mouths, Anna and I moved on to the auditorium where the Match ceremony was being held. In a saner universe, everyone might have been patiently waiting with their loved ones and chatting over refreshments, or leaving and going out for lunch and coming back at noon to get their envelopes (note: no one is allowed to know their match before noon—NO ONE—or the medical school may lose its right to participate in match). In our reality, however, students were partitioned off from their family and friends in a giant hall, and an announcer at the front stalled for almost an hour and a half by laboriously calling up each student, one at a time, to get their envelope. I kept myself sane by updating Facebook:

The bedpan full of money is supposed to compensate whoever gets called last.

I found out later that Anna was staying sane by sharing my updates with her fellow students on the other side of the partition. We are pretty cute, she and I.

After noon arrived—complete with, I kid you not, a New Year's Eve-style countdown—the students and their families rushed together across the partition and madly tore open their envelopes. Meanwhile, Anna and I left the auditorium to open our envelope somewhere calm and private. Happily, we got our first choice, the Ball Memorial Hospital program in Muncie, Indiana. We'd ranked it number one because (a) it's a great program, (b) it's next to a good place for me to go to grad school, and (c) it's near where my Dad's side of the family is from, so we'll have a support network already pretty well in place. We were very, very relieved and happy.

We pretty immediately packed our bags and hit the road for Muncie, on the prowl for a place to live. We found out some things and had a good time, but I'll save housing adventures for a future post.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Speculative Flag Design for a Post-Scotland UK

O flower of Scotland, when will we see your like again?
That fought and died for your wee bit hill and glen,
And stood against him—proud Edward's army—
And sent him homeward tae think again.

—"Flower of Scotland," Scottish Anthem (Unofficial)

Scotland is gearing up for a referendum on independence from the rest of the United Kingdom. In the unlikely event that Scotland does choose to separate from the UK, the UK will probably need a new flag. That's the thrust of this recent article on the Atlantic, which proposes a variety of possible flags for the new, post-Scotland UK.

The UK's flag is an elegant combination of the national flags of England, Scotland, and Ireland, the evolution of which is depicted by the Atlantic in this image:

Not pictured: anything to do with Wales.

Arguably, if Scotland leaves the Kingdom, it should not be represented on the flag. Removing the blue-and-white cross from the Union Jack would result in a somewhat lackluster design, however, so the Atlantic advocates drawing on flag ideas from a region currently unrepresented on the UK flag: Wales. There is an official Welsh flag, with a sweet-action dragon on it, as well as an unofficial flag that bears the cross of St. David:

The Atlantic shows off several proposals that were submitted to the UK's Flag Institute, but only one of their designs included the dragon at all, and I thought it was a bit silly. (I've since seen some other design proposals that include it, including one that ended up fairly similar to my own, but I didn't see those before I started this project.) A dragon is a gift that ought not to be squandered, I thought, so I set out to create a design that would include it in a more satisfying way.

To start, I refreshed my memory on the basic principles of flag design:
  1. Keep It Simple - the flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
  2. Use Meaningful Symbolism - the flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
  3. Use 2-3 Basic Colors - limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set.
  4. No Lettering or Seals - never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal.
  5. Be Distinctive or Be Related - avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.
I knew I wanted to keep the dragon from the Welsh flag, but principle 1 was going to be a problem—no way a child, or most adults, can draw the Welsh dragon from memory. I figured I'd come back to that later. Principle 2 would be easy, since I already had a host of flags with meaningful symbols to draw on. Principle 3 would take a little thought, since I had five colors to draw on (red, white, yellow, black, and green) and could only use three of them. Principle 4 wouldn't be a problem in this case, though heaven knows the designers of the state flags in our fair country have had some problems with it. And principle 5 wasn't going to be too difficult either—not too many flags have dragons on them!*

I thought about how to represent Wales as a smaller part of a larger whole. I could place it in the center of the flag, over whatever else is included on the flag, but I thought that did a poor job of making Wales included without making it dominant. Instead, I elected to place the dragon in the flag's upper left canton, a place often chosen for distinct elements of flags (like the American flag's field of stars). In order to use all of the resources at my disposal, I also decided to use the black background from the Flag of St. David in my design.

As a visual test for my idea, I took a proposal that substituted black for the blue of Scotland on the UK flag, and I did a quick and dirty cut-and-paste job with the dragon, removing most of the green from the Welsh flag:

Ugh, the resolution on that dragon though.

I decided I liked the idea, but I wasn't crazy about the white fimbration around the red stripes, since in my mind it seemed more connected with the white of the St. Andrew's cross on Scotland's flag than with the white backgrounds of the St. George's cross and St. Patrick's cross from England and Ireland, respectively.

Thus, my next step was to take the St. George and St. Patrick crosses and combine them on a white background:

Then I took the dragon from the Welsh flag and placed it in the upper left, first simplifying it by removing its spiky tongue and erasing most of its black-outlined details:

The dragon was still too complicated to draw from memory, so I tried to simplify it further. All I had at my disposal was Microsoft Paint, so my first attempt turned out kind of weird:

Weird or not, it was still probably too complicated to comply with flag design principle 1, so I decided to create a stylized, angular dragon consisting only of straight lines:

That worked better; I liked the dragon, and felt it was simple enough for my purposes, yet also recognizably derived from the dragon on the Welsh flag. Finally, I knew I wanted the black from St. David's cross, so I filled in the background:

Friends I shared this with were generally positive about the design, but a few raised objections. One friend pointed out a slight but unfortunate resemblance to the flag of Norsefire, the fictional fascist regime in V for Vendetta, and another expressed greater fondness for the version with a white background instead of black. I realized that the white background is probably better because it is doubly symbolic, since it comes from the flags representing both England and Ireland. I came up with two compromise flags that allowed for the white background but that also brought in an additional color from one of the Welsh flags; I was still able to keep the colors down to the required 3:

Another friend expressed sadness that I had removed the dragon's tongue, and requested that I return it, so I did:

Finally, I made a version which included the St. David cross in the canton behind the dragon, because I figured it would look cool. I was not wrong:

Final note: I first heard about flag design in this episode of 99% Invisible, a podcast that investigates and discusses elements of design in the world around us that often go unnoticed.


Looking over these designs almost two years later, I'm still very pleased with them, but I realized that there's one more variation I should have tried, which was to attempt to preserve the full, four-pointed St. Patrick's cross through the canton image. Here's what that ended up looking like:

This one has both colors from the St. David flag:

And here's a variation with the green from the Welsh national flag, which I think also works quite well:

*The only exception I could find (among national flags, anyway) is Bhutan's flag.

The first three images are borrowed for illustrative purposes from the article on the Atlantic that inspired this post. The rest are my own creations. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Notes on Birthdays

How Picard and I both feel about birthdays.
Sad birthday to it,
Sad birthday to it,
Sad birthday to the human,
Sad birthday to it.
—"Gollum Sings You Sad Birthday," James Walters

I turned 27 a few weeks ago, and this past weekend I had a birthday party with some friends. Both events were excellent.

My earliest birthday memory is associated not with my birthday but a friend's. He was a kid I knew from camp, and I kind of idolized him, so I was stoked to go to his birthday party. I have no clear memory of the party itself (there was, most likely, Nintendo), but it must have been a heck of a time, because when I awoke the next day and went looking for my clothes so I could change out of my PJs, my pants were nowhere to be found. "Pantsless James" was my nickname in that household from then on.

My worst birthday was undoubtedly the one during my sixth grade year; I'd just entered a new school system, and I invited two friends to come to a birthday bowling party. Neither showed up, so I glumly bowled with my dad and and ate my birthday cake by myself. Of course, looking back, I know it would have still been a terrible party if they'd showed up, since they didn't know each other or me very well and we were all awkward tweens.

Best birthday is a tossup. I've had lots of good birthdays: when I started college, I realized that only I had the power to make my birthdays awesome now, and I decided to pursue that with gusto. A typical birthday for me these days is an excuse to invite a crowd of people over to my house for pizza and conversation. If possible, I hold it jointly with friends whose birthday is at the same time, so we can have my friends and their friends also. My goal at these parties is to get people from unrelated friend groups to talk to each other. There's something magical about introducing two people who seem like they'll get along, and then discovering that, hey, they like each other, and you were the reason they met!

This year's birthday party had the fewest friends I've invited in a while, in part because it was not a joint birthday party with anyone else. Happily, we did have enough people to play my one of my favorite party games. I'm not sure of the name, but it's a kind of race: there are two teams, each sitting in a straight line. The people in the line hold hands with the folks next to them, and close their eyes. The last person in each line holds a spoon over a metal pot. The first person in each line has their eyes open, and is watching someone flip a quarter. When the quarter comes up heads, the person watching the quarter on each team squeezes the hand of the person next to them, and that person squeezes the next hand, and so on; when the last person feels their hand squeezed, they bang the pot with the spoon, and whichever team bangs the pot first, gets a point. Players rotate through all positions, and when everyone has had a turn to bang the pot and watch the quarter, the points are tallied and the team with the most wins!

These were the participants.

I like explaining things to people, so not only is playing this game fun, teaching people the game is fun for me, too. I have to plan quickly in my head how to lay it out, how to word things so it's not confusing, and I have to stay on my toes to notice anything going wrong, anything I missed in the initial description. The game went smoothly; we ended up creating a penalty for false starts, because there were a lot of accidental hand squeezes at the start of the game.

As far as I can recall, this is the first year when I did something special on my birthday itself, rather than just enjoying myself at my party. 2013 wasn't really the hottest year for movies, but there were a few I'd missed and really wanted to see. I took my birthday off from work, and I tracked down times to go see Her and Inside Llewyn Davis; the latter I wanted to see because I try to see anything the Coen Bros make, and the former because it was the first new film The Dissolve has given a perfect rating to. Also, they both sounded cool.

And they were! I loved Her's ability to use a sci-fi premise to explore human emotions and experiences, through questions about artificial intelligence and the possibility of intimacy without physical presence. And I loved Inside Llewyn Davis's clear affection for the music and the period it depicted, contrasted with the detachment of its main character. I ended up crossing Chicago in a blizzard to get to the movie theater, the Landmark Century, and I hung out in one of my favorite bookstores, Unabridged Bookstore, in between the films. As I headed home, I called my parents, and they graciously wished me a happy birthday from a sweltering canyon in Arizona where they were on vacation.

Birthdays are great, but typically a birthday can only be really great if I choose to make it so.