Category Archives: art

Einstein on map making, and the connection of art and science.

“One of the strongest motives that lead persons to art or science is a flight from the everyday life. With this negative motive goes a positive one. Man seeks to form for himself, in whatever manner is suitable for him, a simplified and lucid image of the world, and so to overcome the world of experience by striving to replace it to some extent by this image. This is what the painter does, and the poet, the speculative philosopher, the natural scientist, each in his own way. Into this image and its formation, he places the center of gravity of his emotional life, in order to attain the peace and serenity that he cannot find within the narrow confines of swirling personal experience.”

– Albert Einstein

Corn muffin coefficient

From a recent Quotation of the Day Mailing List email comes this gem from a collection of letters written in response to the US Department of Agriculture‘s redesign of the Food Pyramid:

“The cleansing properties of urine are not even addressed in the food pyramid. This must be corrected. We cannot allow small minds and prejudice to bury this useful health information from our brothers and sisters in light.

“Write back IMMEDIATELY and tell me where to report with my diagrams. I am including corn muffins prominently in my calculations. That alone should tell you that I know what I am doing!”

– Mark Martin, Foodician, from his submission to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the redesign of the “food pyramid”.

Here’s a snapshot of the original letter from the collection of letters the USDA received:

I think it’s an artist’s prank. He claims he received a response from the USDA but it was just a generic form letter. Nevertheless, the prominence of corn muffins in his calculations is hard to ignore.


XSLT is a language for transforming XML. I came to hate XSLT long ago, at the tail end of a fading honeymoon period in which I dwelt in the empty promises of XML.

Somebody came up with a way to plot the Mandelbrot Set using only an XML file combined with a particularly evil XSLT file. This is a disturbing, evil way to go about drawing fractals. Please don’t do this.

It really works. Click here to try it. Your browser will thank you for the pointless exercise.

(previously, and previously)

links for 2009-03-06: Pile o’ toys

This impressive augmented reality demo from GE inserts computer-generated 3D objects into live video. First, watch the short video. Then, try it yourself.
Israeli musician “Kutiman” took a big pile of seemingly random YouTube video clips and used them as instruments in his own musical compositions. I could not stop listening to these. My favorites are tracks 2 and 3. His site is overloaded at the time of this post; for now you can see samples here, here, and here.
Can you be an awesome DJ using nothing but a web browser and your computer’s keyboard? Yes you can.
A curious programmer, inspired by Roger Asling’s evolution of the Mona Lisa, asks if the technique could be a good way to compress images. Also take a look at the nice online version of the image evolver he wrote, in which you can set your own target image.
Hilarious Livejournal diary done in the style of Rorschach from the Watchmen comic book series.
The Crisis of Credit, Visualized – An extremely well-produced video describing the credit crisis in simple terms. – “Netflix for impatient people”. A remix of the Netflix site that is “about a quadrillion times easier to browse than Netflix’s own site”.
$timator: How much is your web site worth?
Cursebird. A real time feed of people swearing on Twitter. THANK YOU, INTERNET!
Leapfish. An interesting new meta-search engine with a clean interface. “It’s OK, you’re not cheating on Google.”
Twittersheep. “Enter your twitter username to see a tag cloud from the ‘bios’ of your twitter flock.”
PWN! YouTube. This is a great idea. You just type “pwn” in front of “youtube” in the URL, and voila; instant links for downloading and saving the videos.

links for 2008-11-14

Take Stanford’s iPhone Programming Class For Free
– I would love to take this class. The internet-connected iPhone’s multi-touch interface and powerful multimedia features provide an amazing playground for programmers, if you can stomach Apple’s strong-armed policies on application distribution in the App Store. (BTW here is a site that tracks activity of iPhone apps in the App Store, and posts information about apps that aren’t yet available in the App Store:

bitalizer – bending bits into structure – Upload a file, and this site will turn its binary contents into a simple set of rules governing an interesting image rendering process.

Bitalizer v1.1 – shell32.dll from Brian Reavis on Vimeo.

A visualization of the bits that make up the common “shell32.dll” library file found on Windows machines.

The Pomegranate Phone – A really well-done marketing campaign for a new touch-screen GPS-enabled smartphone that also makes coffee, projects video, instantly translates your voice into other languages, has a built-in shaver, and works as a harmonica. And doesn’t really exist. Instead, it is an elaborate ad campaign created by the Nova Scotia government to generate interest for the Canadian province. The little videos included in the ad are a good touch.

Child’s Play Charity – Donate games to sick children – For my birthday, Chris and Angel donated video games in my name to a Roanoke hospital using this site. Terrific idea!

As real as it gets – This is what Photoshop would look like if it were made out of the physical world.

Frequently Forgotten Fundamental Facts about Software Engineering – A coworker sent me this great list. It was originally published in 2001 and its tenets remain true today.

In closing, a silicon haiku from our IRC robot:

like stars winking out
the woman has lost her screen
opening your toad

The joys of breeding

Last week was a good week for my strange little diversions with genetic algorithms. Two things happened that helped to validate the legitimacy (in my mind) of using genetic algorithms to solve certain problems. The first was receiving a copy of the March issue of Muse Magazine, a children’s magazine about science, art, and history. A little blurb about my evolutionary art project for last year’s GECCO conference appeared in the magazine.


I wish I had the time to continue to improve the art generated by that technique. It was a lot of fun to play with. There are many other ideas I want to try, such as adding new measurements to compare things like texture and composition, but, alas, not enough time to explore them. One day I hope to return to this.

Meanwhile, I’ve been wasting way too much free time trying to develop a genetic algorithm to attack the unsolved Zodiac killer cipher. The results have been somewhat minimal so far, but it’s a start. I’ve been playing with this stuff since March of last year, so I figured I should have something to show for all the time I’ve put into this research. I decided to write and submit a research paper to this year’s GECCO conference on evolutionary computing, and my paper was accepted as a poster presentation. W00t! I had a lot of fun at last year’s GECCO conference; I look forward to absorbing all the fascinating cutting-edge presentations this year. Here is the title and abstract from my paper:

Evolutionary Algorithm for Decryption of Monoalphabetic Homophonic Substitution Ciphers Encoded as Constraint Satisfaction Problems

A homophonic substitution cipher is a substitution cipher in which each plaintext letter maps to a set of one or more ciphertext symbols. Monoalphabetic homophonic ciphers do not allow ciphertext symbols to map to more than one plaintext letter. The selection of ciphertext symbol mappings is intended to conceal language statistics in the enciphered messages. Statistical-based attacks that are known to be quite effective on simple substitution ciphers are very difficult to apply to homophonic substitution ciphers that employ good selections of ciphertext symbol mappings. Word boundaries are often not known, increasing the difficulty of decryption. We present a dictionary-based attack using a genetic algorithm that encodes solutions as plaintext word placements subjected to constraints imposed by the cipher symbols. For a test case to develop the technique, we use a famous cipher (with a known solution) created by the Zodiac serial killer. We present several successful decryption attempts using moderate dictionary sizes of up to five hundred words. Attempts are ongoing to increase the robustness of this technique by making it work with larger dictionaries and a variety of test ciphers.

Since then, I’ve gotten the technique to work against the test cipher with dictionary sizes of 1200 words, but the algorithm is very sensitive to various parameters when it is running, so it’s not very robust yet. There is still a lot of work to do.

Maybe I should get a normal hobby.

Creative computing: Pushing eyecandy around

Back in 1993, during freshman year of college, my friend Brian McEntire introduced me to the “demoscene“, which is, at its best, a group of extremely highly skilled (and often very young) computer sound/video programmers who specialize in creating dazzling presentations that run in real-time on computers. Demoscene folks spend a lot of time trying to out-program each other, showing off what kind of amazing audio and visual effects they can do with computer hardware. Demos at the time were amazing to watch. When I watch the older demos now, 14 years later, they seem very quaint and primitive.

Second Reality, a demo by Future Crew, one of the most famous demo groups back in the 1990s. This was cutting-edge realtime PC sound and graphics back then.

Some of the best demos have come out of the Assembly demoparty, an annual Finnish gathering of demoscene enthusiasts which features a demo competition. Many people enter their productions into the competition, and the winning entries are usually very high quality. The recent Assembly demoparty was held in August 2007, and I was amazed by the creative and dream-like stylistic quality of the winning demo, LifeForce, by Andromeda Software Development, a Greek demogroup.

Screenshots from LifeForce by Andromedia Software Development. Click for a larger view.

To see this production in glorious motion, download the high-quality 246MB AVI movie file via this link. It is a much better experience than watching the embedded lower-quality YouTube version below.

LifeForce demo. Youtube does not do it justice. Get the high-resolution version!!

The pure skill and creative talent needed to generate these real-time productions (the animations are NOT pre-rendered), combined with the fact that the best demo groups consist mostly of teenagers and very young adults simply doing this stuff for fun in their free time, continue to amaze me.

London report: Vacation and GECCO conference

It was sad to have to come back from our London trip. We had a lot of fun experiencing the city with Chris, Angel, and Eris. London is such a fascinating city and there is just so much to see. We are always struck by London’s diversity of cultures; walking down a busy street, you’ll overhear dozens of different languages being spoken. Our rental apartment was very nice. It was situated on the relatively quiet Pembroke Street near the busy streets of Kensington High Street and Earl’s Court.

Quite comfortable-looking, innit?

Our spacious and comfortable apartment was home to a vast array of hard-to-use and barely-working appliances with extremely confusing user interfaces packed with incomprehensible hieroglyphics. The combination of bizarre buttons, confusing instructions, and malfunctioning appliances generated a nine-day-long comedy of errors that added some frustration and entertainment value to our vacation.

Exhibit A – Why is step 4 of the dryer instructions in a completely different language??

We can’t go to London without sampling a pub, so Kathryn and I picked one at random on Kensington High Street. She tried to order an amaretto sour, and the bartender had no idea what we were talking about, even after we explained how to make it. OK, how about a cosmopolitan then? Nope, that also stumped the bartender. So Kathryn finally settled a gin and tonic. I looked at the draught taps and fancied a pint of bitter. The bartender then told me the bad news that all the draughts were empty. What kind of pub is this? Do you in fact have anything whatsoever to drink?? Somehow I ended up with an amaretto mixed with Pepsi. Luckily, there were thousands of other pubs to choose from and I was able to sample some British ale.

We visited many popular tourist spots: The London Eye (awesome views of the city from the top of an enormous, slow-moving ferris wheel), Big Ben / Parliament, Kensington Gardens, Trafalgar Square (the opening ceremonies of this year’s Tour de France happened here during our trip), St. James’ Palace (obligatory tourist vs guard photo op), “Theatreland” in London’s West End, National History Museum (site of the fascinating GECCO “Complexity and Evolution” keynote by Richard Dawkins, Lewis Wolpert and Steve Jones, SoHo, Chinatown (many awesome types of Asian food – ALL IN ONE PLACE!), Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Science Museum, Amora sex museum (the world’s first “sex theme park”), London Trocadero (cool entertainment complex with a huge arcade and casino), Picadilly Circus (I got a free tart here), the Tower of London (so many stories about famous executions, so little time), St. Paul’s Cathedral (incomprehensibly huge and beautiful), Tate Modern (the building is as stark as some of the modern art it houses), Millennium Bridge (Angel made it across despite her fear!), the Bramah Museum of Tea & Coffee (the McCubbins enjoyed high tea there), and the Carnaby Street shops (there is a very cool toy store there called Playlounge).

The food. Oh, the food. London is a glorious cornucopia of dishes for every palate. While there we sampled stuff like Iranian food at Yas Persian restaurant (bad service, incredible food), pan-Asian food (Japanese, Chinese dim sum, Thai curry) at Ikkyusan restaurant, fresh baguettes, pub food, fish and chips, Greek cuisine, gourmet hamburgers (so big and juicy you gotta eat em with fork and knife), and halal kebabs. Chris and Angel are great cooks so they made coq au vin at the apartment – YUMM!! Seriously, we need to get Jon and Kate AND Chris and Angel together on our next trip somewhere, so we can really benefit from their combined cooking knowledge. We’ll eat like kings!!!

Chris and Angel had the hankering for dim sum, so we all went to a dim sum place in Chinatown. The dim sum was awesome. Except for the chicken feet.

Yes, chicken feet. It tastes like it looks.

Iris and Eris had a lot of fun as well. I think we wore them out a lot with all the walking through the city. Plus, they wore each other out because they are such good friends and play very well together. Exhausting for the parents as well! Iris and Eris both say that their favorite thing about visiting London was riding the trains. Mind the gap!!

Iris doesn’t look all that excited here about the train.

GECCO Conference

A highlight of the trip for me was attending the GECCO evolutionary computing conference and presenting my poster, the culmination of a toy project I started last year in a graduate course in Genetic Algorithms. Chris also went to GECCO. He’s a legitimate computer science researcher (he does R&D for a living for APL), so he got to go as part of his job to present his paper (Using Genetic Algorithms for Naval Subsystem Damage Assessment and Design Improvements). I went to GECCO mainly as a newbie bystander, since I don’t yet have as much research experience. Which made me quite starry-eyed when I saw all the cool research going on.

We saw many tutorials and presentations – the speakers represented many countries: Spain, England, America, Italy, Germany, Romania, Poland, Iran, Czech Republic, Portugal, Netherlands, and Australia. It was a good feeling to be part of something so globally-reaching. The first tutorial we attended was John Koza‘s introduction to genetic programming. He gave us a fascinating tour of solving problems with genetic programming by essentially making computers program themselves using evolution-inspired techniques. The automated inventions arising from the techniques are fascinating – some have even infringed on existing patents for inventions previously designed by humans (example).

John Koza getting excited about genetic programming

(an odd side note: John Koza also invented the scratch-off lottery ticket).

Other interesting tutorials and presentations we attended:

  • solving computationally difficult problems (such as knapsack, traveling salesman, diameter-constrained minimum spanning tree, and intersecting spanning trees from multiple geometric graphs) using multiobjective evolutionary computing
  • using peer-to-peer networks to distribute evolutionary computation tasks (my main interest in this is using the DREAM distributed evolutionary package with ECJ, my favorite evolutionary computing framework. incidentally, Chris and I got to meet Sean Luke, the creator of ECJ.)
  • taking advantage of the multiple processors in graphics cards for distributed evolutionary computing
  • simulated robots that produce offspring
  • optimizing the flow of experiments that are run by a robot scientist
  • using genetic programming to evolve lace knitting stitch patterns
  • incorporating characteristics of human creativity into an evolutionary art algorithm (similar to my project but much more sophisticated)

    From the evolutionary art paper: Source Darwin picture plus evolved portraits
  • artificial ecosystems for creative discovery (check out eden, “an interactive, self-generating, artificial ecosystem.”)
  • evolving artificial brains developmentally to play Wumpus World
  • generating XUL user interfaces using genetic algorithms
  • automatic music transcription from a source by evolving polyphonic synthesized waveforms and comparing them to the source
  • evolving musical expressiveness performance models to produce rules that can be applied automatically to musical sequences to make them sound “better”
  • evolution of computerized surface reconstruction techniques to model physical objects for manufacturing
  • designing microstructures in optical fibers using artificial “embryogeny” (a form of artificial development, inspired by the idea of an embryo developing from rudimentary elements) (sample microstructures)
  • evolution of solutions to very dynamic missile targeting problems
  • taking noisy signals from a big metal detector and using linear genetic programming to accurately identify signals related to buried unexploded 37mm and 75mm ordinance
  • evolving image compression filters that can retain the same image file size while increasing the amount of detail in the image

The keynote event was very interesting. Richard Dawkins, Lewis Wolpert, and Steve Jones, well-known in biology circles, answered questions about complexity in evolution. The fascinating discussion was punctuated by some hilarious anecdotes. For example, Wolpert described how he got into biology in the first place, and was once asked why he was so fascinated with evolutionary development. His answer: “My nose is too big, and some of my genitals are a bit small, and I want to understand this.” Steve Jones joked about how many sociological things, from acne to zoophilia (from A to Z), can be mistakenly explained using evolutionary language. For example, acne can be a way to make sexually maturing but financially bereft young males undesirable to females. And zoophilia can be a way for shepherds (and sheep) to gain a survival advantage, since “the sheep like it”, and will congregate with shepherds that will give them this extra love. Another Steve Jones quote: “I am a geneticist. And my job is to make sex boring.”

After the keynote, the attendees poured into the poster session held in an overly narrow hallway in the natural history museum. “Nibbles” of food were provided, which is an overstatement of how little food was actually provided: a few handfuls of nuts in small shared dishes. I had fun meeting people while explaining my poster; there were a lot of interesting people at GECCO. Many of the people I talked to about my poster had good ideas on different ways to apply the art-generation color-matching technique to other areas.

The crowded, narrow hall of the poster session. Photo credit: JJ.

There’s me in the blue shirt explaining my poster. It was kind of like being in grade school again, standing with a science fair project poster. Photo credit: Kumara Sastry.

Ah yes, turns out I’ve done this before… but it’s been 17 years! (photo is from my junior high school yearbook)

Fractals! I just can’t get away from computer graphics and fractals. This is a picture of an old math fair project from my junior high school yearbook.

Hmm, I’ve regressed to my childhood. This level of self-indulgence can only mean that the ending to this blog post is overdue!

Science is pretty

I just saw an awesome video about computer simulations being used for scientific research and visualization.

It is an incredible look at how computer simulations are helping us reveal even more of our amazing universe. Click the montage of screencaps to see the video. Or, here’s a direct download link.

My funny Valentine

This is from a batch of interesting valentine cards saved by Kathryn’s grandmother. I think the cards are all from the 1930s and 1940s.

This one says:

"If you were born in the month of June, you will marry a widow with a ready made family of ten. This will save you all that trouble."


Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!