Xiao Ma

Samples

February 22, 2020


This is another note on the used lipsticks art project I have been working on. The core idea I was trying to grasp at today is about sampling.

Lipsticks on Glass Slides

Sampling, in my mind, is one of the core methods that we as humans and scholars use to deal with complexity. To answer any question, such as, how long would light bulbs last for a particular brand, involves sampling. We sample either because it is impractical to run the experiment for every single subject (i.e., all the light bulbs produced), or it is not an efficient use of resources.

So we sample. And any remotely solidly trained scholar would tell you that there are so many nuances and biases that could be introduced in the sampling process, and that any conclusion you draw for your studies should inevitably address that sampling bias. It is however, very easy to forget this. For example, in psychology, the subjects involved in the core studies that constructed our scientific understanding of how we think and feel, were mostly WEIRD (western, educated, and from industrialized, rich, and democratic countries). More recently, in AI, people have been talking about how sampling methods resulted in biased datasets, which in turn, led to biased algorithms.

The problem with sampling is the oversimplification of individuality. I don’t do much with physical experiments these days, not ever since high school pretty much. But one of my most vivid memories of “experiment” is in biology class, slicing some leaves or smearing peanut on the glass slides. Then I scrutinized these samples. These samples, on the glass, don’t look like the original thing at all. And each of the sample on the glass slide can be arranged in a collection, which can be studies by someone who wishes to understand the world.

I promise I have a point to make here.

The funny thing about lipsticks, or makeup in general, is this tension between individuality, uniqueness, and the mass market production, the commercialization, the constructed standards of beauty that is unifying. When we try to pick a lip color, when we put it on, the idea we are trying to have is that I am unique at this moment, with this color, or texture, or whatever.

But is it really? You have articles like The Best Red Lipsticks of All Time, According to Allure Editors telling you that red lipsticks are power moves.

Power Move

And there you go. This constant struggle of wanting to be unique, but the trends are set by the small amount of people who sample the potential customers and create “personas” or target customer sketches.

That’s the idea, and that’s the frustration. So I bought a bunch of glass slides again, and wanting to be extra meta, created samples using the samples of lipsticks. They are somewhat unique, but end of the day a collection of meaningfulness samples that someone created in an futile attempt to understand the world.


Xiao Ma

Views are mine. On Twitter as @infoxiao