Finding Waldo with Mathematica

For those of you who are fans of Finding Waldo and have a bit of a nerdy side to you, you’ll appreciate that someone figured out how to find Waldo using Mathematica:

Finding Waldo with the help of Mathematica.

The author describes his technique and provides the relevant code:

First, I’m filtering out all colours that aren’t red

waldo = Import["http://www.findwaldo.com/fankit/graphics/IntlManOfLiterature/Scenes/DepartmentStore.jpg"]; 
red = Fold[ImageSubtract, #[[1]], Rest[#]] &@ColorSeparate[waldo]; 

Next, I’m calculating the correlation of this image with a simple black and white pattern to find the red and white transitions in the shirt.

corr = ImageCorrelate[red,    Image@Join[ConstantArray[1, {2, 4}], 
ConstantArray[0, {2, 4}]],    NormalizedSquaredEuclideanDistance]; 

I use Binarize to pick out the pixels in the image with a sufficiently high correlation

and draw white circle around them to emphasize them using Dilation

pos = Dilation[ColorNegate[Binarize[corr, .12]], DiskMatrix[30]]; 

I had to play around a little with the level. If the level is too high, too many false positives are picked out.

Finally I’m combining this result with the original image to get the result above

found = ImageMultiply[waldo, ImageAdd[ColorConvert[pos, "GrayLevel"], .5]]

Amazing.

###

(via Kottke)

World’s Longest (And Most Expensive) Taxi Ride

Over the past 13 months, Paul Archer Archer and two college buddies, Leigh Purnell, 24, and Johno Ellison, 28, have traveled more than 32,000 miles around the globe from London to New York in a hired London Black Cab—which they’ve christened Hannah. They want to set a new world record for world’s longest and most expensive taxi ride.

The previous record was a 21,691-mile, four-month taxi ride from London to Cape Town, South Africa, and back, set in 1994 by Jeremy Levine and Mark Aylett, of the U.K., and Carlos Arrese of Spain. That trip ran the meter up to $64,645.

The Wall Street Journal summarizes the trip so far:

Since leaving the U.K. in February last year, the team has plowed into a snow bank inside the Arctic Circle in Finland, dinged a fender on a lamppost in Dunhuang, China, blown the radiator at an Iraqi border crossing, dodged the Taliban, and ran afoul of police officers, military personnel and armed mercenaries from Moscow to Tehran to Texas.

They were also forced to take a thousand-mile detour around much of the Middle East during the height of the Arab Spring—avoiding Libya, Egypt and Syria for a “safer route” through Iraq, Iran and Pakistan…

By the completion of their trip, Paul Archer and his team will have traveled nearly 50,000 miles through 39 countries. They’ve already eclipsed the $100,000 barrier on their fare.

What an adventure they’re having!

How to Apologize

This is a very thoughtful post in which the author enumerates the elements of a good apology:

  1. I hear you.
  2. I am truly sorry.
  3. (semi-optional, depending on what happened) This is what went wrong.
  4. I am doing x to make sure this doesn’t happen again and y to make it right with you.
  5. Thank you. I appreciate the feedback.
#1 is crucial. The person or group you’re addressing has to know that you’ve heard their complaint and understand it. Apologies that lack this element sound cold and disconnected. And this is the main problem with Sqoot’s “others were offended.”  They aren’t speaking to the people they offended. This is just guaranteed to further piss people off.
 
#2 should be unconditional. Not “I’m sorry if you were offended.” Indeed, if you find yourself pushing the focus onto the people whom you pissed off at all, you may be sliding into non-apology territory. This isn’t about them—they’re mad because you made them mad. Note that a good apology is not defensive, and does not attempt to shift the blame, even if that blame belongs to an employee whom you’ve just fired.  If you did that, it’s part of #4, the “how I’m fixing it” part, not the “I’m sorry” part. Don’t try to save face in a genuine apology. Indicating that you meant no harm is fine, but if you’re apologizing, it means you caused harm regardless of your intent.
 
#3 is a bit more tricky. People want to know how this could have happened, but it doesn’t do to dwell on it too much, and this is another mistake Sqoot makes. They probably shouldn’t quote the line that made everyone mad (it will make the readers mad all over again). It would have been enough to say they put something stupid and sexist into an event page which they now regret. On the other hand, you do have to acknowledge what happened and not look like you’re trying to dodge it. So don’t go into excruciating detail about what went wrong with a customer’s order, for example. “I’m afraid you found a bug in our shopping cart” is probably enough detail. 
I could do a better job at offering unconditional apologies (element number 2 above).

The Dying Art of Conversation

In this piece in The Financial Times, John McDermott muses on the dying art of the conversation. He enrolled in a night class to get some pointers. First, he begins:

What makes a good conversationalist has changed little over the years. The basics remain the same as when Cicero became the first scholar to write down some rules, which were summarised in 2006 by The Economist: “Speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.” But Cicero was lucky: he never went on a first date with someone more interested in their iPhone than his company.

What did McDermott seek from conversation?

My idea of a good conversationalist was an erudite entertainer. I had ambitions of learning how to host a good table. I had imagined finding out how to emulate Christopher Hitchens, quoting Yeats and quaffing scotch. But none of my new friends said they wanted to be a raconteur in the Coleridge or the Hitchens mould. Instead, there was a genuine, quiet determination to learn how to be better friends and better lovers. And to have a bit of fun on a Tuesday night. We were Boswells, not Johnsons.

I share McDermott’s sentiment. But what brought people together for this class wasn’t the desire to become better conversationalists. It was to connect with another human being, to hear their stories, to feel less lonely. He concludes:

For I had misjudged the evening, too. I was wrong to think of conversation primarily as a performance art, mastered by the likes of Coleridge and Hitchens. Indeed, conversation needn’t be anything. It needn’t have a purpose. The very act of talking and listening and learning is what my classmates sought.

And what about the lessons from the class to become a better conversationalist? Whittled down to the basics:

1. Be curious about others; 2. Take off your mask; 3. Empathise with others; 4. Get behind the job title; 5. Use adventurous openings; 6. Have courage.

Easier said (or written) than done. I suggest reading the piece to hear what other students used for their “adventurous openings.”

What do you think? Can one learn to become a better conversationalist? Is there technical skill one can perfect over time? Or is it more of an art than science?

From a Reddit Response to Big Budget Film

I love reading stories like this. One day James Erwin was browsing Reddit.com and stumbled upon an interesting hypothetical question: Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion or MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit]? He clicked through, answered some questions, and the rest, they say, is history:

It’s common for random questions to appear on Reddit’s front page, like “Is there a magnet capable of pulling the iron out of your body?” or “What is the most awkward thing you could say to a cashier while purchasing condoms?” That day, as Erwin scanned Reddit, a question caught his eye. It was posed by someone calling themselves The_Quiet_Earth: “Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion or MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit]?” Erwin clicked on the question and a lively comment thread unfurled. Hundreds of people were whipping hypotheticals back and forth, gaming out the implications of a marines-versus-Romans smackdown. What’s the range of a Roman spear? How would the Romans react to a helicopter? What would happen when the Americans ran out of bullets?

Erwin, who studied history at the University of Iowa, had been posting on Reddit for about five months. He used the alias Prufrock451, a dual reference to the schlubby protagonist of a T. S. Eliot poem and the Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451. Prufrock451′s contributions were all over the map. One day he wrote about the historical roots of the civil war in Liberia; another day he told a funny story about a shooting range in Iowa. He also uploaded a few pictures of European forts that he thought looked cool and a quote by Voltaire. In his atypicalness—Prufrock451 was pretty clearly a quirky character—he was entirely typical of a habitual Reddit user, and like many other redditors, as they are called, he found the site addictive. More than just a creative outlet or time-killer, Reddit was a game. The object was to amass points—”Reddit karma.” Every time Erwin saw his karma level increase, he felt a little squirt of adrenaline. “People are sweating to make you laugh or make you think or make you hate them,” Erwin says. “It’s the human condition, plus points.”

Now, in response to The_Quiet_Earth’s question about time-traveling marines, Erwin started typing. He posted his answer in a series of comments in the thread. Within an hour, he was an online celebrity. Within three hours, a film producer had reached out to him. Within two weeks, he was offered a deal to write a movie based on his Reddit comments. Within two months, he had taken a leave from his job to become a full-time Hollywood screenwriter.

So what was Erwin’s financial gain from this personal endeavor?

Erwin won’t disclose what the deal is worth, but he is now a member of the Writers Guild of America, West, and the guild compensation for an original screenplay plus treatment for a movie with a budget above $5 million is $119,954. According to Kolbrenner, Rome Sweet Rome is “definitely a big-budget movie,” but whether that means $30 million or $150 million will depend on Erwin’s script.

Read the full story here.

The Life and Death of Words

An intriguing new paper by Alexander M. Petersen et al. presents the findings of Google’s digitization project (scanning millions of books). From their abstract:

We analyze the dynamic properties of 107 words recorded in English, Spanish and Hebrew over the period 1800–2008 in order to gain insight into the coevolution of language and culture. We report language independent patterns useful as benchmarks for theoretical models of language evolution. A significantly decreasing (increasing) trend in the birth (death) rate of words indicates a recent shift in the selection laws governing word use. For new words, we observe a peak in the growth-rate fluctuations around 40 years after introduction, consistent with the typical entry time into standard dictionaries and the human generational timescale. Pronounced changes in the dynamics of language during periods of war shows that word correlations, occurring across time and between words, are largely influenced by coevolutionary social, technological, and political factors. We quantify cultural memory by analyzing the long-term correlations in the use of individual words using detrended fluctuation analysis.

How many words are in the English language? The paper gave the best-yet estimate of the true number of words in English—a million, far more than any dictionary has recorded (the 2002 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary has 348,000). More than half of the language, the authors wrote, is “dark matter” that has evaded standard dictionaries.

The paper also tracked word usage through time (each year, for instance, 1% of the world’s English-speaking population switches from “sneaked” to “snuck”). It also showed that we seem to be putting history behind us more quickly, judging by the speed with which terms fall out of use. References to the year “1880″ dropped by half in the 32 years after that date, while the half-life of “1973″ was a mere decade.

Finally, the authors identified a universal “tipping point” in the life cycle of new words. Roughly 30 to 50 years after their birth, words either enter the long-term lexicon or fall off into oblivion. How that’s for a half-life?

###

(via Wall Street Journal)

A Mistaken Identity on the Internet

Rose Agree was a librarian most of her life. But a Wikipedia entry had conflated some of Ms. Agree’s biography with that of an aging pornographic movie star with the same name:

Mistaken identity is an occupational hazard for people who are mentioned even fleetingly on the Internet. Still, consider Peter Agree’s shock when he searched the Web for references to his mother.

“The references I turned up were to ‘Rose Agree, geriatric porn star,’ ” said Mr. Agree, the editor in chief of the University of Pennsylvania Press. “Wikipedia had a biographical entry for this person, and to my horror it fused elements of my mother’s biography, including her having been a librarian on Long Island.”

Mr. Agree’s wife, Kathy Peiss, who headed the history department at Penn, contacted Wikipedia, the self-policing open source encyclopedia, which dutifully removed the entry along with a photograph. But it was too late. The Long Island librarian and the geriatric porn star had been irreversibly conflated. The librarian turned pornographic movie star took on a life of her own.

Two years ago, a Columbia undergraduate wrote to Professor Peiss about a book that she had edited. It was titled “Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality” and was dedicated to her mother-in-law. In retrospect, Rose Agree’s experience with the Internet might have merited a whole chapter.

The story is certainly not unique, but it is interesting how one’s biography can take a life of its own on the internet.

This Is Your Brain on Fiction

What do you say to someone who prefers to read nonfiction over fiction? Easy. Read more fiction. According to several studies, when you read fiction full of detailed descriptions, clever metaphors, and complex characters, your brain is stimulated in novel ways:

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.

Indeed, individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective. This relationship exists even after the researchers account for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels (which is debatable in its own right).

So: read more fiction.

###

Source: New York Times 

Is Everything For Sale?

Michael J. Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard, is the author of What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of MarketsAhead of the book launch, in a post adapted for The Atlantic, he cites examples of things that are for sale around the world:

• A prison-cell upgrade: $90 a night. In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for a clean, quiet jail cell, without any non-paying prisoners to disturb them.

• Access to the carpool lane while driving solo: $8. Minneapolis, San Diego, Houston, Seattle, and other cities have sought to ease traffic congestion by letting solo drivers pay to drive in carpool lanes, at rates that vary according to traffic.

• The services of an Indian surrogate mother: $8,000. Western couples seeking surrogates increasingly outsource the job to India, and the price is less than one-third the going rate in the United States.

• The right to shoot an endangered black rhino: $250,000. South Africa has begun letting some ranchers sell hunters the right to kill a limited number of rhinos, to give the ranchers an incentive to raise and protect the endangered species.

• Your doctor’s cellphone number: $1,500 and up per year. A growing number of “concierge” doctors offer cellphone access and same-day appointments for patients willing to pay annual fees ranging from $1,500 to $25,000.

• The right to emit a metric ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: $10.50. The European Union runs a carbon-dioxide-emissions market that enables companies to buy and sell the right to pollute.

• The right to immigrate to the United States: $500,000. Foreigners who invest $500,000 and create at least 10 full-time jobs in an area of high unemployment are eligible for a green card that entitles them to permanent residency.

Also interesting is this list of (strange) things people do to make money:

• Sell space on your forehead to display commercial advertising: $10,000. A single mother in Utah who needed money for her son’s education was paid $10,000 by an online casino to install a permanent tattoo of the casino’s Web address on her forehead. Temporary tattoo ads earn less.

• Serve as a human guinea pig in a drug-safety trial for a pharmaceutical company: $7,500. The pay can be higher or lower, depending on the invasiveness of the procedure used to test the drug’s effect and the discomfort involved.

• Fight in Somalia or Afghanistan for a private military contractor: up to $1,000 a day. The pay varies according to qualifications, experience, and nationality.

• Stand in line overnight on Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing: $15–$20 an hour. Lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to queue up.

• If you are a second-grader in an underachieving Dallas school, read a book: $2. To encourage reading, schools pay kids for each book they read.

So is there a market for everything?

In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don’t ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher, or worthier, than others. If someone is willing to pay for sex, or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is “How much?” Markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between worthy preferences and unworthy ones. Each party to a deal decides for him- or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged.

###

Related:  One of the best pieces I’ve read on the black market for organs is this investigative piece in Bloomberg. Chilling.

Why Being Bilingual Makes You Smarter

This is a good piece in The New York Times on the advantages of being a bilingual:

The collective evidence from a number of studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.

Why does the tussle between two simultaneously active language systems improve these aspects of cognition? Until recently, researchers thought the bilingual advantage stemmed primarily from an ability for inhibition that was honed by the exercise of suppressing one language system: this suppression, it was thought, would help train the bilingual mind to ignore distractions in other contexts. But that explanation increasingly appears to be inadequate, since studies have shown that bilinguals perform better than monolinguals even at tasks that do not require inhibition, like threading a line through an ascending series of numbers scattered randomly on a page.

The key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals may be more basic: a heightened ability to monitor the environment. “Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompea Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.” In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Costa and his colleagues found that the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.

The benefits of bilingualism stay with you throughout your life as well. Bilinguals, compared to those who speak one language, are more resistant to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s good to be bilingual.