Saturday, March 03, 2007

Snow Kiting Greenland

What is snow kiting?

For any dedicated blog followers, you might have seen the pictures of a really big kite strapped to me in the right hang sidebar. Well, add skis or a snowboard to the equation and you get snow kiting. The sport involves taking a very large kite (mine was 17m^2) and then using it to propel you, or send you flying. Some of the jumps possible are very extreme.


Strapping yourself to an airborne sail can be used as a very effective mode of transportation. With no gas and no motor, you can move at speeds of around 60km per hour on flat land if the wind is right. All you really need is flat land, snow and wind. Where can you find all this? In Greenland.

That is what one team of adventurers did. They strapped themselves to kites and set out to cross Greenland from the North to the South in less than 40 days. They ended up setting the speed record for crossing snow… twice (once early in the expedition and then a huge record in the end). The whole trip took an astonishing 21 days for 2300km. The new 24hour record the team set was 442.7km in one day, demolishing the old record of 271.

I would love to do something like this myself, with a team of friends. To one up this first team of course, I propose using sleds instead of skis. The team reported large strains on their knees and had to drag their supplies behind them in winter sleds anyways. I propose crossing the kite buggy with a sled to make the kite sled and using that to beat their time. With bigger kites, it would also be possible to drag two people per sled at considerable speed and have them alternate sleeping and driving, thus minimizing stop time. I doubt I will ever be able to do such a trip myself, but I will defiantly take the opportunity if it is presented.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Beauty Function

Three computer scientists from Tel Aviv University have developed a new tool for retouching images. If red-eye reduction was impressive, then this is stunning. The software, appropriately dubbed “Beauty Function”, takes an image of your face, calculates your current facial proportions and proposes a more optimal configuration, displaying the associated image. In effect, it makes you look more beautiful (about 79% of the time, according to the developers’ data). The developers provide some sample pictures that have been transformed. The pictures are probably the best results of the program, and some are not overly impressive, however it is a very good work for an automatic algorithm.

The definition of beauty and ratios associated with it were experimentally derived. The scientists surveyed 300 men and women, asking them to rank pictures’ on an attractiveness scale of 1-7. The scores were tabulated and linked to the ratios of various facial features (such as eye size, facial shape, etc). Around 250 measurement points were considered when developing the algorithm. In the end the scientists came up with a mathematical function to transform an input ratio measurement into a more optimal configuration. The result is an image with a more beautiful face than the original that carries the specific features of, and can be identified as, the original person.

The developers see the biggest application in commercial products such as Photoshop and digital camera software. They hope that this facial modification catches on like red-eye reduction and becomes a common function used by both amateur and professional photographers.

Is digital face modification justified?

The developers try to justify the use of facial modification by saying “if magazines do it, why can’t we?” On the one hand, that is an acceptable argument. On the other hand, we are taking a bad principal and expanding it to everyone. Its nice to see a slightly prettier Jennifer Lopez or Christina Aguilera on a magazine cover, but how far will it go? At first we modify images, then learn how to alter video, soon we will be demanding virtual reality goggles that make everyone look prettier. A grand concept, but I think we should leave that to bear.

More useful applications

In my opinion a more useful application for this sort of technology is facial recognition and indexing for image search. This technology already exists in some forms. I also think using the technology in plastic surgeons offices (as the designers’ suggest) is appropriate too. I doubt the tech (in this form) will catch on widely in mainstream digital camera. It will most likely end up as one of the countless features in Photoshop and hopefully GIMP will quickly follow with an open-source version.

The eye of the beholder

One of the developers, Cohen-Or, states: “Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is merely a function of mathematical distances and ratios”. Is this really true? I agree until a certain point. Just like the preferred 7:10 ratio that men seek in women, I believe there are certain ratios and lengths in the face that a human looks for. These ratios are present to reflect a healthy individual and for a person to better pick an optimal mate. In the optimal selection though, I think a lot depends on the beholder. I don’t mean in the cheese classical sense.

I believe there is a more scientific reason behind “they eye of the beholder.” For the sense of smell, some experiments have shown that humans have a preference for certain pheromone that best match an optimal genetic match. For kissing, some studies have show similar results, implying that a kiss “tastes” better from a more compatible genetic match. I think the same applies to faces. Your phenotype is defiantly expressed in your face (that’s why you look like your parents), so why wouldn’t you subconsciously evaluate a person phenotype or genotype when looking at them? This means there are formulas, but the formulas vary between different genotypes. Thus a perfect “Beauty Function” can not be created.

The overlap that many people share when searching for a healthy and compatible face can be modeled. This model can take us closer to beauty but such a process can never hope to reach true beauty. Once you get beyond a certain basic template the individual compatibility factors take over and the highest end of beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


In the end I think this technology will mostly end up being used by dating and porn sites. Both need to quickly and cheaply modify mediocre picture. Hopefully the system will expand to more useful applications, such as good search.

Currently, the developers have not offered a version to play around. They promised a web-app version of the program since August 16th, but as off yet it has not been delivered. The only things we have access to is the sample pictures and demo video.

On a personal note: Wow, I was interrupted by two fire alarms while typing this post. As far as I understand the cause was a fault in the system. Usually my residence gets hit by a block of 2 or 3 fire alarms in a night. There was a real (minor) fire earlier today on the 4th floor (when I was in class), so hopefully this past fire alarm was the last of the night.

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Four days ago, I visited a friend of mine at Yale and got a chance to look around New Haven and campus. The University has a campus bigger than McGill’s; filled with beautiful, clean buildings and a rich history. At first it seems like an older, slightly cleaner version of McGill; then you learn that the University has an average class size that can be counted on one hand. If you look at the numbers, they are truly shocking.


Faculty: 1,485

Students: 30,934

Campus: 80 acres (downtown)

Endowment: $760,000,000


Faculty: 2,300

Students: 11,390

Campus: 260 acres (downtown)

Endowment: $20,000,000,000

In other words, McGill has 4 times more students per faculty member (21 compared to 5), ~31% of Yale’s land, and 3.8% of Yale’s endowment. I knew there was a big difference between public and private school, but I did not know it was so drastic. One of the best public universities receives 26 times less money than one of the best private universities. The only thing McGill can boast is beating out Yale this year for Sloan Fellowships by 4 to 3.

I enjoyed my trip to Yale. I came on a Saturday, so I did not socialize with many Yale students, but it was still nice to see my friend and find out how Yale was treating her. I don’t think I could ever fit in at a place like Yale. The vast amount of extra curricular activities the students are involved in overshadows their school work. I don’t think I would ever find activities other than attending school that I would be willing to dedicate so much time to. (I am also too lazy to be that dedicated and motivated).

Next on my list of school to visit is Harvard and MIT. I don’t have any friends attending those schools, but I think I still want to check them out (especially MIT).

In other news: I plan to finally update the structure of my blog a little, to reflect changing times.

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