# Bezier Curves and Picasso

Pablo Picasso in front of The Kitchen, photo by Herbert List.

## Simplicity and the Artist

Some of my favorite of Pablo Picasso’s works are his line drawings. He did a number of them about animals: an owl, a camel, a butterfly, etc. This piece called “Dog” is on my wall:

These paintings are extremely simple but somehow strike the viewer as deeply profound. They give the impression of being quite simple to design and draw. A single stroke of the hand and a scribbled signature, but what a masterpiece! It simultaneously feels like a hasty afterthought and a carefully tuned overture to a symphony of elegance. In fact, we know that Picasso’s process was deep. For example, in 1945-1946, Picasso made a series of eleven drawings (lithographs, actually) showing the progression of his rendition of a bull. The first few are more or less lifelike, but as the series progresses we see the bull boiled down to its essence, the final painting requiring a mere ten lines. Along the way we see drawings of a bull that resemble some of Picasso’s other works (number 9 reminding me of the sculpture at Daley Center Plaza in Chicago). Read more about the series of lithographs here.

Picasso’s, “The Bull.” Photo taken by Jeremy Kun at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013. Click to enlarge.

Now I don’t pretend to be a qualified artist (I couldn’t draw a bull to save my life), but I can recognize the mathematical aspects of his paintings, and I can write a damn fine program. There is one obvious way to consider Picasso-style line drawings as a mathematical object, and it is essentially the Bezier curve. Let’s study the theory behind Bezier curves, and then write a program to draw them. The mathematics involved requires no background knowledge beyond basic algebra with polynomials, and we’ll do our best to keep the discussion low-tech. Then we’ll explore a very simple algorithm for drawing Bezier curves, implement it in Javascript, and recreate one of Picasso’s line drawings as a sequence of Bezier curves.

## The Bezier Curve and Parameterizations

When asked to conjure a “curve” most people (perhaps plagued by their elementary mathematics education) will either convulse in fear or draw part of the graph of a polynomial. While these are fine and dandy curves, they only represent a small fraction of the world of curves. We are particularly interested in curves which are not part of the graphs of any functions.

Three French curves.

For instance, a French curve is a physical template used in (manual) sketching to aid the hand in drawing smooth curves. Tracing the edges of any part of these curves will usually give you something that is not the graph of a function. It’s obvious that we need to generalize our idea of what a curve is a bit. The problem is that many fields of mathematics define a curve to mean different things.  The curves we’ll be looking at, called Bezier curves, are a special case of  single-parameter polynomial plane curves. This sounds like a mouthful, but what it means is that the entire curve can be evaluated with two polynomials: one for the $x$ values and one for the $y$ values. Both polynomials share the same variable, which we’ll call $t$, and $t$ is evaluated at real numbers.

An example should make this clear. Let’s pick two simple polynomials in $t$, say $x(t) = t^2$ and $y(t) = t^3$. If we want to find points on this curve, we can just choose values of $t$ and plug them into both equations. For instance, plugging in $t = 2$ gives the point $(4, 8)$ on our curve. Plotting all such values gives a curve that is definitely not the graph of a function:

But it’s clear that we can write any single-variable function $f(x)$ in this parametric form: just choose $x(t) = t$ and $y(t) = f(t)$. So these are really more general objects than regular old functions (although we’ll only be working with polynomials in this post).

Quickly recapping, a single-parameter polynomial plane curve is defined as a pair of polynomials $x(t), y(t)$ in the same variable $t$. Sometimes, if we want to express the whole gadget in one piece, we can take the coefficients of common powers of $t$ and write them as vectors in the $x$ and $y$ parts. Using the $x(t) = t^2, y(t) = t^3$ example above, we can rewrite it as

$\mathbf{f}(t) = (0,1) t^3 + (1,0) t^2$

Here the coefficients are points (which are the same as vectors) in the plane, and we represent the function $f$ in boldface to emphasize that the output is a point. The linear-algebraist might recognize that pairs of polynomials form a vector space, and further combine them as $(0, t^3) + (t^2, 0) = (t^2, t^3)$. But for us, thinking of points as coefficients of a single polynomial is actually better.

We will also restrict our attention to single-parameter polynomial plane curves for which the variable $t$ is allowed to range from zero to one. This might seem like an awkward restriction, but in fact every finite single-parameter polynomial plane curve can be written this way (we won’t bother too much with the details of how this is done). For the purpose of brevity, we will henceforth call a “single-parameter polynomial plane curve where $t$ ranges from zero to one” simply a “curve.”

Now there are some very nice things we can do with curves. For instance, given any two points in the plane $P = (p_1, p_2), Q = (q_1, q_2)$ we can describe the straight line between them as a curve: $\mathbf{L}(t) = (1-t)P + tQ$. Indeed, at $t=0$ the value $\mathbf{L}(t)$ is exactly $P$, at $t=1$ it’s exactly $Q$, and the equation is a linear polynomial in $t$. Moreover (without getting too much into the calculus details), the line $\mathbf{L}$ travels at “unit speed” from $P$ to $Q$. In other words, we can think of $\mathbf{L}$ as describing the motion of a particle from $P$ to $Q$ over time, and at time $1/4$ the particle is a quarter of the way there, at time $1/2$ it’s halfway, etc. (An example of a straight line which doesn’t have unit speed is, e.g. $(1-t^2) P + t^2 Q$.)

More generally, let’s add a third point $R$. We can describe a path which goes from $P$ to $R$, and is “guided” by $Q$ in the middle. This idea of a “guiding” point is a bit abstract, but computationally no more difficult. Instead of travelling from one point to another at constant speed, we want to travel from one line to another at constant speed. That is, call the two curves describing lines from $P \to Q$ and $Q \to R$ $\mathbf{L}_1, \mathbf{L_2}$, respectively. Then the curve “guided” by $Q$ can be written as a curve

$\displaystyle \mathbf{F}(t) = (1-t)\mathbf{L}_1(t) + t \mathbf{L}_2(t)$

Multiplying this all out gives the formula

$\displaystyle \mathbf{F}(t) = (1-t)^2 P + 2t(1-t)Q + t^2 R$

We can interpret this again in terms of a particle moving. At the beginning of our curve the value of $t$ is small, and so we’re sticking quite close to the line $\mathbf{L}_1$ As time goes on the point $\mathbf{F}(t)$ moves along the line between the points $\mathbf{L}_1(t)$ and $\mathbf{L}_2(t)$, which are themselves moving. This traces out a curve which looks like this

This screenshot was taken from a wonderful demo by data visualization consultant Jason Davies. It expresses the mathematica idea quite superbly, and one can drag the three points around to see how it changes the resulting curve. One should play with it for at least five minutes.

The entire idea of a Bezier curve is a generalization of this principle: given a list $P_0, \dots, P_n$ of points in the plane, we want to describe a curve which travels from the first point to the last, and is “guided” in between by the remaining points. A Bezier curve is a realization of such a curve (a single-parameter polynomial plane curve) which is the inductive continuation of what we described above: we travel at unit speed from a Bezier curve defined by the first $n-1$ points in the list to the curve defined by the last $n-1$ points. The base case is the straight-line segment (or the single point, if you wish). Formally,

Definition: Given a list of points in the plane $P_0, \dots, P_n$ we define the degree $n-1$ Bezier curve recursively as

\begin{aligned} \mathbf{B}_{P_0}(t) &= P_0 \\ \mathbf{B}_{P_0 P_1 \dots P_n}(t) &= (1-t)\mathbf{B}_{P_0 P_1 \dots P_{n-1}} + t \mathbf{B}_{P_1P_2 \dots P_n}(t) \end{aligned}

We call $P_0, \dots, P_n$ the control points of $\mathbf{B}$.

While the concept of travelling at unit speed between two lower-order Bezier curves is the real heart of the matter (and allows us true computational insight), one can multiply all of this out (using the formula for binomial coefficients) and get an explicit formula. It is:

$\displaystyle \mathbf{B}_{P_0 \dots P_n} = \sum_{k=0}^n \binom{n}{k}(1-t)^{n-k}t^k P_i$

And for example, a cubic Bezier curve with control points $P_0, P_1, P_2, P_3$ would have equation

$\displaystyle (1-t)^3 P_0 + 3(1-t)^2t P_1 + 3(1-t)t^2 P_2 + t^3 P_3$

Higher dimensional Bezier curves can be quite complicated to picture geometrically. For instance, the following is a fifth-degree Bezier curve (with six control points).

A degree five Bezier curve, credit Wikipedia.

The additional line segments drawn show the recursive nature of the curve. The simplest are the green points, which travel from control point to control point. Then the blue points travel on the line segments between green points, the pink travel along the line segments between blue, the orange between pink, and finally the red point travels along the line segment between the orange points.

Without the recursive structure of the problem (just seeing the curve) it would be a wonder how one could actually compute with these things. But as we’ll see, the algorithm for drawing a Bezier curve is very natural.

## Bezier Curves as Data, and de Casteljau’s Algorithm

We will now derive and implement the algorithm for painting a Bezier curve to a screen using only the ability to draw straight lines. For simplicity, we’ll restrict our attention to degree-three (cubic) Bezier curves. Indeed, every Bezier curve can be written as a combination of cubic curves via the recursive definition, and in practice cubic curves balance computational efficiency and expressiveness. All of the code we present in this post will be in Javascript, and is available on this blog’s Google code page.

So then a cubic Bezier curve is represented in a program by a list of four points. For example,

var curve = [[1,2], [5,5], [4,0], [9,3]];

Most graphics libraries (including the HTML5 canvas standard) provide a drawing primitive that can output Bezier curves given a list of four points. But suppose we aren’t given such a function. Suppose that we only have the ability to draw straight lines. How would one go about drawing an approximation to a Bezier curve? If such an algorithm exists (it does, and we’re about to see it) then we could make the approximation so fine that it is visually indistinguishable from a true Bezier curve.

The key property of Bezier curves that allows us to come up with such an algorithm is the following:

Any cubic Bezier curve $\mathbf{B}$ can be split into two, end to end,
which together trace out the same curve as $\mathbf{B}$.

Let see exactly how this is done. Let $\mathbf{B}(t)$ be a cubic Bezier curve with control points $P_0, P_1, P_2, P_3$, and let’s say we want to split it exactly in half. We notice that the formula for the curve when we plug in $1/2$, which is

$\displaystyle \mathbf{B}(1/2) = \frac{1}{2^3}(P_0 + 3P_1 + 3P_2 + P_3)$

Moreover, our recursive definition gave us a way to evaluate the point in terms of smaller-degree curves. But when these are evaluated at 1/2 their formulae are similarly easy to write down. The picture looks like this:

The green points are the degree one curves, the pink points are the degree two curves, and the blue point is the cubic curve. We notice that, since each of the curves are evaluated at $t=1/2$, each of these points can be described as the midpoints of points we already know. So $m_0 = (P_0 + P_1) / 2, q_0 = (m_0 + m_1)/2$, etc.

In fact, the splitting of the two curves we want is precisely given by these points. That is, the “left” half of the curve is given by the curve $\mathbf{L}(t)$ with control points $P_0, m_0, q_0, \mathbf{B}(1/2)$, while the “right” half $\mathbf{R}(t)$ has control points $\mathbf{B}(1/2), q_1, m_2, P_3$.

How can we be completely sure these are the same Bezier curves? Well, they’re just polynomials. We can compare them for equality by doing a bunch of messy algebra. But note, since $\mathbf{L}(t)$ only travels halfway along $\mathbf{B}(t)$, to check they are the same is to equate $\mathbf{L}(t)$ with $\mathbf{B}(t/2)$, since as $t$ ranges from zero to one, $t/2$ ranges from zero to one half. Likewise, we can compare $\mathbf{B}((t+1)/2)$ with $\mathbf{R}(t)$.

The algebra is very messy, but doable. As a test of this blog’s newest tools, we present this screen cast of this author performing the algebra involved in proving the two curves are identical.

Now that that’s settled, we have a nice algorithm for splitting a cubic Bezier (or any Bezier) into two pieces. In Javascript,

function subdivide(curve) {
var firstMidpoints = midpoints(curve);
var secondMidpoints = midpoints(firstMidpoints);
var thirdMidpoints = midpoints(secondMidpoints);

return [[curve[0], firstMidpoints[0], secondMidpoints[0], thirdMidpoints[0]],
[thirdMidpoints[0], secondMidpoints[1], firstMidpoints[2], curve[3]]];
}

Here “curve” is a list of four points, as described at the beginning of this section, and the output is a list of two curves with the correct control points. The “midpoints” function used is quite simple, and we include it here for compelteness:

function midpoints(pointList) {
var midpoint = function(p, q) {
return [(p[0] + q[0]) / 2.0, (p[1] + q[1]) / 2.0];
};

var midpointList = new Array(pointList.length - 1);
for (var i = 0; i < midpointList.length; i++) {
midpointList[i] = midpoint(pointList[i], pointList[i+1]);
}

return midpointList;
}


It just accepts as input a list of points and computes their sequential midpoints. So a list of $n$ points is turned into a list of $n-1$ points. As we saw, we need to call this function $d-1$ times to compute the segmentation of a degree $d$ Bezier curve.

As we explained earlier, we can keep subdividing our curve over and over until each of the tiny pieces are basically lines. That is, our function to draw a Bezier curve from the beginning will be as follows:

function drawCurve(curve, context) {
if (isFlat(curve)) {
drawSegments(curve, context);
} else {
var pieces = subdivide(curve);
drawCurve(pieces[0], context);
drawCurve(pieces[1], context);
}
}


In words, as long as the curve isn’t “flat,” we want to subdivide and draw each piece recursively. If it is flat, then we can simply draw the three line segments of the curve and be reasonably sure that it will be a good approximation. The context variable sitting there represents the canvas to be painted to; it must be passed through to the “drawSegments” function, which simply paints a straight line to the canvas.

Of course this raises the obvious question: how can we tell if a Bezier curve is flat? There are many ways to do so. One could compute the angles of deviation (from a straight line) at each interior control point and add them up. Or one could compute the volume of the enclosed quadrilateral. However, computing angles and volumes is usually not very nice: angles take a long time to compute and volumes have stability issues, and the algorithms which are stable are not very simple. We want a measurement which requires only basic arithmetic and perhaps a few logical conditions to check.

It turns out there is such a measurement. It is is originally attributed to Roger Willcocks, but it is quite simple to derive by hand.

Essentially, we want to measure the “flatness” of a cubic Bezier curve by computing the distance of the actual curve at time $t$ from where the curve would be at time $t$ if the curve were a straight line.

Formally, given $\mathbf{B}(t)$ with control points $P_0, P_1, P_2, P_3$ as usual, we can define the straight-line Bezier cubic as the colossal sum

$\displaystyle \mathbf{S}(t) = (1-t)^3P_0 + 3(1-t)^2t \left ( \frac{2}{3}P_0 + \frac{1}{3}P_3 \right ) + 3(1-t)t^2 \left ( \frac{1}{3}P_0 + \frac{2}{3}P_3 \right ) + t^3 P_3$

There is nothing magical going on here. We’re simply giving the Bezier curve with control points $P_0, \frac{2}{3}P_0 + \frac{1}{3}P_3, \frac{1}{3}P_0 + \frac{2}{3}P_3, P_3$. One should think about this as points which are a 0, 1/3, 2/3, and 1 fraction of the way from $P_0$ to $P_3$ on a straight line.

Then we define the function $d(t) = \left \| \mathbf{B}(t) - \mathbf{S}(t) \right \|$ to be the distance between the two curves at the same time $t$. The flatness value of $\mathbf{B}$ is the maximum of $d$ over all values of $t$. If this flatness value is below a certain tolerance level, then we call the curve flat.

With a bit of algebra we can simplify this expression. First, the value of $t$ for which the distance is maximized is the same as when its square is maximized, so we can omit the square root computation at the end and take that into account when choosing a flatness tolerance.

Now lets actually write out the difference as a single polynomial. First, we can cancel the 3′s in $\mathbf{S}(t)$ and write the polynomial as

$\displaystyle \mathbf{S}(t) = (1-t)^3 P_0 + (1-t)^2t (2P_0 + P_3) + (1-t)t^2 (P_0 + 2P_3) + t^3 P_3$

and so $\mathbf{B}(t) - \mathbf{S}(t)$ is (by collecting coefficients of the like terms $(1-t)^it^j$)

$\displaystyle (1-t)^2t (3 P_1 - 2P_0 - P_3) + (1-t)t^2 (3P_2 - P_0 - 2P_3)$

Factoring out the $(1-t)t$ from both terms and setting $a = 3P_1 - 2P_0 - P_3$, $b = 3P_2 - P_0 - 2P_3$, we get

$\displaystyle d^2(t) = \left \| (1-t)t ((1-t)a + tb) \right \|^2 = (1-t)^2t^2 \left \| (1-t)a + tb \right \|^2$

Since the maximum of a product is at most the product of the maxima, we can bound the above quantity by the product of the two maxes. The reason we want to do this is because we can easily compute the two maxes separately. It wouldn’t be hard to compute the maximum without splitting things up, but this way ends up with fewer computational steps for our final algorithm, and the visual result is equally good.

Using some elementary single-variable calculus, the maximum value of $(1-t)^2t^2$ for $0 \leq t \leq 1$ turns out to be $1/16$. And the norm of a vector is just the sum of squares of its components. If $a = (a_x, a_y)$ and $b = (b_x, b_y)$, then the norm above is exactly

$\displaystyle ((1-t)a_x + tb_x)^2 + ((1-t)a_y + tb_y)^2$

And notice: for any real numbers $z, w$ the quantity $(1-t)z + tw$ is exactly the straight line from $z$ to $w$ we know so well. The maximum over all $t$ between zero and one is obviously the maximum of the endpoints $z, w$. So the max of our distance function $d^2(t)$ is bounded by

$\displaystyle \frac{1}{16} (\textup{max}(a_x^2, b_x^2) + \textup{max}(a_y^2, b_y^2))$

And so our condition for being flat is that this bound is smaller than some allowable tolerance. We may safely factor the 1/16 into this tolerance bound, and so this is enough to write a function.

function isFlat(curve) {
var tol = 10; // anything below 50 is roughly good-looking

var ax = 3.0*curve[1][0] - 2.0*curve[0][0] - curve[3][0]; ax *= ax;
var ay = 3.0*curve[1][1] - 2.0*curve[0][1] - curve[3][1]; ay *= ay;
var bx = 3.0*curve[2][0] - curve[0][0] - 2.0*curve[3][0]; bx *= bx;
var by = 3.0*curve[2][1] - curve[0][1] - 2.0*curve[3][1]; by *= by;

return (Math.max(ax, bx) + Math.max(ay, by) <= tol);
}


And there we have it. We write a simple HTML page to access a canvas element and a few extra helper functions to draw the line segments when the curve is flat enough, and present the final result in this interactive demonstration (you can perturb the control points).

The picture you see on that page (given below) is this author’s rendition of Picasso’s “Dog” drawing as a sequence of nine Bezier curves. This author thinks the resemblance is uncanny

Picasso’s “Dog,” redesigned as a sequence of nine bezier curves.

While we didn’t invent the drawing itself (and hence shouldn’t attach our signature to it), we did come up with the representation as a sequence of Bezier curves. It only seems fitting to present that as the work of art. Here we’ve distilled the representation down to a single file: the first line is the dimension of the canvas, and each subsequent line represents a cubic Bezier curve. Comments are included for readability.

“Dog” Jeremy Kun, 2013. Click to enlarge.

Because standardizing things seems important, we define a new filetype “.bezier”, which has the format given above:

int int
(int) curve
(int) curve
...

Where the first two ints specify the size of the canvas, the first (optional) int on each line specifies the width of the stroke, and a “curve” has the form

[int,int] [int,int] ... [int,int]

If an int is omitted at the beginning of a line, this specifies a width of three pixels.

In a general .bezier file we allow a curve to have arbitrarily many control points, though the code we gave above does not draw them that generally. As an exercise, write a program which accepts as input a .bezier file and produces as output an image of the drawing. This will require an extension of the algorithm above for drawing arbitrary Bezier curves, which loops its computation of the midpoints and keeps track of which end up in the resulting subdivision. Alternatively, one could write a program which accepts as input a .bezier file with only cubic Bezier curves, and produces as output an SVG file of the drawing (SVG only supports cubic Bezier curves). So a .bezier file is a simplification (fewer features) and an extension (Bezier curves of arbitrary degree) of an SVG file.

We didn’t go as deep into the theory of Bezie curves as we could have. If the reader is itching for more (and a more calculus-based approach), see this lengthy primer. It contains practically everything one could want to know about Bezier curves, with nice interactive demos written in Processing.

## Low-Complexity Art

There are some philosophical implications of what we’ve done today with Picasso’s “Dog.” Previously on this blog we’ve investigated the idea of low-complexity art, and it’s quite relevant here. The thesis is that “beautiful” art has a small description length, and more formally the “complexity” of some object (represented by text) is the length of the shortest program that outputs that object given no inputs. More on that in our primer on Kolmogorov complexity. The fact that we can describe Picasso’s line drawings with a small number of Bezier curves (and a relatively short program to output the bezier curves) is supposed to be a deep statement about the beauty of the art itself. Obviously this is very subjective, but not without its proponents.

There has been a bit of recent interest in computers generating art. For instance, this recent programming competition (in Dutch) gave the task of generating art similar to the work of Piet Mondrian. The idea is that the more elegant the algorithm, the higher it would be scored. The winner used MD5 hashes to generate Mondrian pieces, and there were many many other impressive examples (the link above has a gallery of submissions).

In our earlier post on low-complexity art, we explored the possibility of representing all images within a coordinate system involving circles with shaded interiors. But it’s obvious that such a coordinate system wouldn’t be able to represent “Dog” with very low complexity. It seems that Bezier curves are a much more natural system of coordinates. Some of the advantages include that length of lines and slight perturbations don’t affect the resulting complexity. A cubic Bezier curve can be described by any set of four points, and more “intricate” (higher complexity) descriptions of curves require a larger number of points. Bezier curves can be scaled up arbitrarily, and this doesn’t significantly change the complexity of the curve (although scaling many orders of magnitude will introduce a logarithmic factor complexity increase, this is quite small). Curves with larger stroke are slightly more complex than those with smaller stroke, and representing many small sharp bends require more curves than long, smooth arcs.

On the downside, it’s not so easy to represent a circle as a Bezier curve. In fact, it is impossible to do so exactly. Despite the simplicity of this object (it’s even defined as by a single polynomial, albeit in two variables), the best one can do is approximate it. The same goes for ellipses. There are actually ways to overcome this (the concept of rational Bezier curves which are quotients of polynomials), but they add to the inherent complexity of the drawing algorithm and the approximations using regular Bezier curves are good enough.

And so we define the complexity of a drawing to be the number of bits in its .bezier file representation. Comments are ignored in this calculation.

The real prize, and what we’ll explore next time, is to find a way to generate art automatically. That is to do one of two things:

1. Given some sort of “seed,” write a program that produces a pseudo-random line drawing.
2. Given an image, produce a .bezier image which accurately depicts the image as a line drawing.

We will attempt to explore these possibilities in the follow-up to this post. Depending on how things go, this may involve some local search algorithms, genetic algorithms, or other methods.

Until then!

# Categories as Types

In this post we’ll get a quick look at two ways to define a category as a type in ML. The first way will be completely trivial: we’ll just write it as a tuple of functions. The second will involve the terribly-named “functor” expression in ML, which allows one to give a bit more structure on data types.

The reader unfamiliar with the ML programming language should consult our earlier primer.

## What Do We Want?

The first question to ask is “what do we want out of a category?” Recall from last time that a category is a class of objects, where each pair of objects is endowed with a set of morphisms. The morphisms were subject to a handful of conditions, which we paraphrase below:

• Composition has to make sense when it’s defined.
• Composition is associative.
• Every object has an identity morphism.

What is the computational heart of such a beast? Obviously, we can’t explicitly represent the class of objects itself. Computers are finite (or at least countable) beings, after all. And in general we can’t even represent the set of all morphisms explicitly. Think of the category $\mathbf{Set}$: if $A, B$ are infinite, then there are infinitely many morphisms (set-functions) $A \to B$.

A subtler and more important point is that everything in our representation of a category needs to be a type in ML (for indeed, how can a program run without being able to understand the types involved). This nudges us in an interesting direction: if an object is a type, and a morphism is a type, then we might reasonably expect a composition function:

compose: 'arrow * 'arrow -> 'arrow

We might allow this function to raise an exception if the two morphisms are uncomposable. But then, of course, we need a way to determine if morphisms are composable, and this requires us to know what the source and target functions are.

source: 'arrow -> 'object
target: 'arrow -> 'object

We can’t readily enforce composition to be associative at this stage (or any), because morphisms don’t have any other manipulable properties. We can’t reasonably expect to be able to compare morphisms for equality, as we aren’t able to do this in $\mathbf{Set}$.

But we can enforce the final axiom: that every object has an identity morphism. This would come in the form of a function which accepts as input an object and produces a morphism:

identity: 'object -> 'arrow

But again, we can’t necessarily enforce that identity behaves as its supposed to.

Even so, this should be enough to define a category. That is, in ML, we have the datatype

datatype ('object, 'arrow)Category =
category of ('arrow -> 'object) *
('arrow -> 'object) *
('object -> 'arrow) *
('arrow * 'arrow -> 'arrow)

Where we understand the first two functions to be source and target, and the third and fourth to be identity and compose, respectively.

## Categories as Values

In order to see this type in action, we defined (and included in the source code archive for this post) a type for homogeneous sets. Since ML doesn’t support homogeneous lists natively, we’ll have to settle for a particular subcategory of $\mathbf{Set}$. We’ll call it $\mathbf{Set}_a$, the category whose objects are finite sets whose elements have type $a$, and whose morphisms are again set-functions. Hence, we can define an object in this category as the ML type

'a Set

and an arrow as a datatype

datatype 'a SetMap = setMap of ('a Set) * ('a -> 'a) * ('a Set)

where the first object is the source and the second is the target (mirroring the notation $A \to B$).

Now we must define the functions required for the data constructor of a Category. Source and target are trivial.

fun setSource(setMap(a, f, b)) = a
fun setTarget(setMap(a, f, b)) = b

And identity is equally natural.

fun setIdentity(aSet) = setMap(aSet, (fn x => x), aSet)

Finally, compose requires us to check for set equality of the relevant source and target, and compose the bundled set-maps. A few notational comments: the “o” operator does function composition in ML, and we defined “setEq” and the “uncomposable” exception elsewhere.

fun setCompose(setMap(b', g, c), setMap(a, f, b)) =
if setEq(b, b') then
setMap(a, (g o f), c)
else
raise uncomposable

Note that the second map in the composition order is the first argument to the function, as is standard in mathematical notation.

And now this category of finite sets is just the instantiation

val FiniteSets = category(setSource, setTarget, setIdentity, setCompose)

Oddly enough, this definition does not depend on the choice of a type for our sets! None of the functions we defined care about what the elements of sets are, so long as they are comparable for equality (in ML, such a type is denoted with two leading apostrophes: ”a).

This example is not very interesting, but we can build on it in two interesting ways. The first is to define the poset category of sets. Recall that the poset category of a set $X$ has as objects subsets of $X$ and there is a unique morphism from $A \to B$ if and only if $A \subset B$. There are two ways to model this in ML. The first is that we can assume the person constructing the morphisms is giving correct data (that is, only those objects which satisfy the subset relation). This would amount to a morphism just representing “nothing” except the pair $(A,B)$. On the other hand, we may also require a function which verifies that the relation holds. That is, we could describe a morphism in this (or any) poset category as a datatype

datatype 'a PosetArrow = ltArrow of 'a * ('a -> 'a -> bool) * 'a

We still do need to assume the user is not creating multiple arrows with different functions (or we must tacitly call them all equal regardless of the function). We can do a check that the function actually returns true by providing a function for creating arrows in this particular poset category of a set with subsets.

exception invalidArrow
fun setPosetArrow(x)(y) = if subset(x)(y) then ltArrow(x, subset, y)
else raise invalidArrow

Then the functions defining a poset category are very similar to those of a set. The only real difference is in the identity and composition functions, and it is minor at that.

fun posetSource(ltArrow(x, f, y)) = x
fun posetTarget(ltArrow(x, f, y)) = y
fun posetIdentity(x) = ltArrow(x, (fn z => fn w => true), x)
fun posetCompose(ltArrow(b', g, c), ltArrow(a, f, b)) =
if b = b' then
ltArrow(a, (fn x => fn y => f(x)(b) andalso g(b)(y)), c)
else
raise uncomposable

We know that a set is always a subset of itself, so we can provide the constant true function in posetIdentity. In posetCompose, we assume things are transitive and provide the logical conjunction of the two verification functions for the pieces. Then the category as a value is

val Posets = category(posetSource, posetTarget, posetIdentity, posetCompose)

One will notice again that the homogeneous type of our sets is irrelevant. The poset category is parametric. To be completely clear, the type of the Poset category defined above is

('a Set, ('a Set)PosetArrow)Category

and so we can define a shortcut for this type.

type 'a PosetCategory = ('a Set, ('a Set)PosetArrow)Category

The only way we could make this more general is to pass the constructor for creating a particular kind of posetArrow (in our case, it just means fixing the choice of verification function, subset, for the more generic type constructor). We leave this as an exercise to the reader.

Our last example will return again to our abstract “diagram category.” Recall that if we fix an object $A$ in a category $\mathbf{C}$, the category $\mathbf{C}_A$ has as objects the morphisms with fixed source $A$,

and the arrows are commutative diagrams

Lets fix $A$ to be a set, and define a function to instantiate objects in this category:

fun makeArrow(fixedSet)(f)(target) = setMap(fixedSet, f, target)

That is, if I have a fixed set $A$, I can call the function like so

val makeObject = makeArrow(fixedSet)

And use this function to create all of my objects. A morphism is then just a pair of set-maps with a connecting function. Note how similar this snippet of code looks structurally to the other morphism datatypes we’ve defined. This should reinforce the point that morphisms really aren’t any different in this abstract category!

datatype 'a TriangleDiagram =
triangle of ('a SetMap) * ('a -> 'a) * ('a SetMap)

And the corresponding functions and category instantiation are

fun triangleSource(triangle(x, f, y)) = x
fun triangleTarget(triangle(x, f, y)) = y
fun triangleIdentity(x) = triangle(x, (fn z => z), x)
fun triangleCompose(triangle(b', g, c), triangle(a, f, b)) =
if setEq(setTarget(b'))(setTarget(b)) then
triangle(a, (g o f), c)
else
raise uncomposable

val SetDiagrams =
category(triangleSource, triangleTarget, triangleIdentity, triangleCompose)

Notice how we cannot compare the objects in this category for equality! Indeed, two functions cannot be compared in ML, and the best we can do is compare the targets of these functions to ensure that the connecting morphisms can be composed. A malicious programmer might then be able to compose uncomposable morphisms, a devious and startling proposition.

Notice further how we can’t avoid using set-specific functions with our current definition of a category. What we could do instead is require a category to have a function which checks for composability. Then compose could be written in a more homogeneous (but not quite completely parametric fashion). The reader is welcome to try this on their own, but we’ll soon have a more organized way to do this later, when we package up a category into an ML structure.

## Categories as Signatures

Let’s look at a more advanced feature of ML and see how we can apply it to representing categories in code. The idea is familiar to most Java and C++ programmers, and that is of an interface: the programmer specifies an abstract type which has specific functions attached to it, but does not implement those functions. Then some (perhaps different) programmer implements the interface by defining those functions for a concrete type.

For the reader who isn’t so interested in these features of ML, feel free to skip this section. We won’t be introducing any new examples of categories, just rephrasing what we’ve done above in a different way. It is also highly debatable whether this new way is actually any better (it’s certainly longer).

The corresponding concept in ML is called a signature (interface) and a structure (concrete instance). The only difference is that a structure is removed one step further from ML’s type system. This is in a sense necessary: a structure should be able to implement the requirements for many different signatures, and a signature should be able to have many different structures implement it. So there is no strict hierarchy of types to lean on (it’s just a many-to-many relationship).

On the other hand, not having any way to think of a structure as a type at all would be completely useless. The whole point is to be able to write function which manipulate a structure (concrete instance) by abstractly accessing the signature’s (interface’s) functions regardless of the particular implementation details. And so ML adds in another layer of indirection: the functor (don’t confuse this with categorical functors, which we haven’t talked abou yet). A functor in ML is a procedure which accepts as input a structure and produces as output another structure.

Let’s see this on a simple example. We can define a structure for “things that have magnitudes,” which as a signature would be

signature MAG_OBJ =
sig
type object
val mag : object -> int
end

This introduced a few new language forms: the “signature” keyword is like “fun” or “val,” it just declares the purpose of the statement as a whole. The “sig … end” expression is what actually creates the signature, and the contents are a list of type definitions, datatype definitions, and value/function type definitions. The reader should think of this as a named “type” for structures, analogous to a C struct.

To implement a signature in ML is to “ascribe” it. That is, we can create a structure that defines the functions laid out in a signature (and perhaps more). Here is an example of a structure for a mag object of integers:

structure IntMag : MAG_OBJ =
struct
type object = int
fun mag(x) = if x >= 0 then x else ~x
end

The colon is a type ascription, and at the compiler-level it goes through the types and functions defined in this structure and attempts to match them with the required ones from the MAG_OBJ signature. If it fails, it raises a compiler error. A more detailed description of this process can be found here. We can then use the structure as follows:

local open IntMag in
val y = ~7
val z = mag(y)
end

The open keyword binds all of the functions and types to the current environment (and so it’s naturally a bad idea to open structures in the global environment). The “local” construction is made to work specifically with open.

In any case, the important part about signatures and structures is that one can write functions which accept as input structures with a given signature and produce structures with other signatures. The name for this is a “functor,” but we will usually call it an “ML functor” to clarify that it is not a categorical functor (if you don’t know what a categorical functor is, don’t worry yet).

For example, here is a signature for a “distance object”

signature DIST_OBJ =
sig
type object
val dist: object * object -> int
end

And a functor which accepts as input a MAG_OBJ and creates a DIST_OBJ in a contrived and silly way.

functor MakeDistObj(structure MAG: MAG_OBJ) =
struct
type object = MAG.object
val dist = fn (x, y) =>
let
val v = MAG.mag(x) - MAG.mag(y)
in
if v > 0 then v else ~v
end
end

Here the argument to the functor is a structure called MAG, and we need to specify which type is to be ascribed to it; in this case, it’s a MAG_OBJ. Only things within the specified signature can be used within the struct expression that follows (if one needs a functor to accept as input something which has multiple type ascriptions, one can create a new signature that “inherits” from both). Then the right hand side of the functor is just a new structure definition, where the innards are allowed to refer to the properties of the given MAG_OBJ.

We could in turn define a functor which accepts a DIST_OBJ as input and produces as output another structure, and compose the two functors. This is started to sound a bit category-theoretical, but we want to remind the reader that a “functor” in category theory is quite different from a “functor” in ML (in particular, we have yet to mention the former, and the latter is just a mechanism to parameterize and modularize code).

In any case, we can do the same thing with a category. A general category will be represented by a signature, and a particular instance of a category is a structure with the implemented pieces.

signature CATEGORY =
sig
type object
type arrow
exception uncomposable

val source: arrow -> object
val target: arrow -> object
val identity: object -> arrow
val composable: arrow * arrow -> bool
val compose: arrow * arrow -> arrow
end

As it turns out, ML has an implementation of “sets” already, and it uses signatures. So instead of using our rinky-dink implementation of sets from earlier in this post, we can implement an instance of the ORD_KEY signature, and then call one of the many set-creating functors available to us. We’ll use an implementation based on red-black trees for now.

First the key:

structure OrderedInt : ORD_KEY =
struct
type ord_key = int
val compare = Int.compare
end

then the functor:

functor MakeSetCategory(structure ELT: ORD_KEY) =
struct
structure Set:ORD_SET = RedBlackSetFn(ELT)
type elt = ELT.ord_key
type object = Set.set
datatype arrow = function of object * (elt -> elt) * object

exception uncomposable

fun source(function(a, _, _)) = a
fun target(function(_, _, b)) = b
fun identity(a) = function(a, fn x => x, a)
fun composable(a,b) = Set.equal(a,b)
fun compose(function(b2, g, c), function(a, f, b1)) =
if composable(b1, b2) then
function(a, (g o f), c)
else
raise uncomposable
fun apply(function(a, f, b), x) = f(x)
end

The first few lines are the most confusing; the rest is exactly what we’ve seen from our first go-round of defining the category of sets. In particular, we call the RedBlackSetFn functor given the ELT structure, and it produces an implementation of sets which we name Set (and superfluously ascribe the type ORD_SET for clarity).

Then we define the “elt” type which is used to describe an arrow, the object type as the main type of an ORD_SET (see in this documentation that this is the only new type available in that signature), and the arrow type as we did earlier.

We can then define the category of sets with a given type as follows

structure IntSets = MakeSetCategory(structure ELT = OrderedInt)

The main drawback of this approach is that there’s so much upkeep! Every time we want to make a new kind of category, we need to define a new functor, and every time we want to make a new kind of category of sets, we need to implement a new kind of ORD_KEY. All of this signature and structure business can be quite confusing; it often seems like the compiler doesn’t want to cooperate when it should.

## Nothing Too Shocking So Far

To be honest, we haven’t really done anything very interesting so far. We’ve seen a single definition (of a category), looked at a number of examples to gain intuition, and given a flavor of how these things will turn into code.

Before we finish, let’s review the pros and cons of a computational representation of category-theoretical concepts.

Pros:

• We can prove results by explicit construction (more on this next time).
• Different-looking categories are structurally similar in code.
• We can faithfully represent the idea of using (objects and morphisms of) categories as parameters to construct other categories.
• Writing things in code gives a fuller understanding of how they work.

Cons:

• All computations are finite, requiring us to think much harder than a mathematician about the definition of an object.
• The type system is too weak. we can’t enforce the axioms of a category directly or even ensure the functions act sensibly at all. As such, the programmer becomes responsible for any failure that occur from bad definitions.
• The type system is too strong. when we work concretely we are forced to work within homogeneous categories (e.g. of ‘a Set).
• We cannot ensure the ability to check equality on objects. This showed up in our example of diagram categories.
• The functions used in defining morphisms, e.g. in the category of sets, are somewhat removed from real set-functions. For example, nothing about category theory requires functions to be computable. Moreover, nothing about our implementation requires the functions to have any outputs at all (they may loop infinitely!). Moreover, it is not possible to ensure that any given function terminates on a given input set (this is the Halting problem).

This list looks quite imbalanced, but one might argue that the cons are relatively minor compared to the pros. In particular (and this is what this author hopes to be the case), being able to explicitly construct proofs to theorems in category theory will give one a much deeper understanding both of category theory and of programming. This is the ultimate prize.

Next time we will begin our investigation of universal properties (where the real fun starts), and we’ll use the programmatic constructions we laid out in this post to give constructive proofs that various objects are universal.

Until then!

# A Sample of Standard ML, the TreeSort Algorithm, and Monoids

In this post we will assume the reader has a passing familiarity with some of the basic concepts of functional programming (the map, fold, and filter functions). We introduce these topics in our Racket primer, but the average reader will understand the majority of this primer without expertise in functional programming.

## Preface: ML for Category Theory

A few of my readers have been asking for more posts about functional languages and algorithms written in functional languages. While I do have a personal appreciation for the Haskell programming language (and I plan to do a separate primer for it), I have wanted to explore category theory within the context of programming for quite a while now. From what I can tell, ML is a better choice than Haskell for this.

Part of the reason is that, while many Haskell enthusiasts claim it to be a direct implementation of category theory, Haskell actually tweaks category theoretic concepts in certain ways. I rest assured that the designers of Haskell (who are by assumption infinitely better at everything than I am) have very good reasons for doing this. But rather than sort through the details of the Haskell language specification to clarify the finer details, we would learn a lot more by implementing category theory by hand in a programming language that doesn’t have such concepts already.

And so we turn to ML.

ML, which stands for MetaLanguage, apparently has historical precedents for being a first in many things. One of these is an explicit recognition of parametric polymorphism, which is the idea that an operation can have the same functionality regardless of the types of the data involved; the types can, in effect, be considered variables. Another ground-breaking aspect of ML is an explicit type inference system. Similar to Haskell, an ML program will not run unless the compiler can directly prove that the program produces the correct types in every step of the computation.

Both of these features are benefits for the student of category theory. Most of our time in category theory will be spent working with very general assumptions on the capabilities of our data involved, and parametric polymorphism will be our main tool for describing what these assumptions are and for laying out function signatures.

As a side note, I’ve noticed through my ever-growing teaching experiences that one of the main things new programming students struggle with (specifically, after mastering the syntax and semantics of basic language constructs) is keeping their types straight. This is especially prominent in a language like Python (which is what I teach), where duck-typing is so convenient that it lulls the students into a false sense of security. Sooner as opposed to later they’ll add strings to numbers with the blind confidence that Python will simply get it. Around this time in their first semester of programming, I would estimate that type errors lie at the heart of 75% of the bugs my students face and fail to resolve before asking me for help. So one benefit of programming in ML for pedagogy is that it is literally impossible to make type errors. The second you try to run a program with bad types, the compiler points out what the expected type is and what the given (incorrect) type was. It takes a while to get used to type variables (and appeasing the type checker when you want to play fast and loose). But once you do you’ll find the only bugs that remain in your code are conceptual ones, which are of course much more rewarding and important bugs to fix.

So enough of this preamble. Let’s learn some ML!

## Warming Up: Basic Arithmetic and Conditionals

As one would expect, ML has variables and arithmetic which work in much the same way as other languages. Each variable declaration is prefixed by the word “val,” as below

val x = 7;
val y = 2;

This statements modify the global environment (the list of which variable names are associated to which values). Semicolons are required to terminate variable declarations at the global level. We can declare multiple variables in a single line using the “and” keyword

val x = 7 and y = 2;

As a precaution, “and” is only used in ML for syntactic conjunctions of variable/function declarations, and is only necessary when the two defined variable names are mutually defined in terms of each other (this can happen naturally for recursive function definitions). We will see in a moment that the logical and operation is denoted “andalso.”

We can also use pattern matching to bind these two variables in one line, much the same way as it might work in Python:

val (x,y) = (7,2);

We note that while ML does not require us to specify the type of a variable, the type is known and ever present under the surface. If we run the above code through the sml compiler (which after running the contents of a file opens a REPL to further evaluate commands), we see the following output

[opening vars.sml]
val x = 7 : int
val n = 2 : int

The environment is printed out to the user, and it displays that the two types are “int.”

Arithmetic is defined for integers, and the standard ones we will use are the expected +, -, *, and (not a slash, but) div. Here are some examples, and here is a list of all basic operations on ints. A few things to note: the unary negation operator is a tilde (~), and the semicolons are only used terminate statements in the REPL, which tells the compiler we’re ready for it to evaluate our code. Semicolons can also be used to place multiple statements on a single line of code. The “it” variable is a REPL construct which saves the most recent unbound expression evaluation.

- 3 + 6;
val it = 9 : int
- 6 div 3;
val it = 2 : int
- 2 * 9;
val it = 18 : int
- 2 - 9;
val it = ~7 : int
- ~9;
val it = ~9 : int

ML also has floating point arithmetic (in ML this type is called “real”), but treats it in a very prudish manner. Specifically (and this is a taste of the type checker doing its job too well), ML does not coerce types for you. If you want to multiply a real number and an integer, you have to first convert the int to a real and then multiply. An error will occur if you do not:

- val x = 4.0;
val x = 4.0 : real
- val y = 7;
val y = 7 : int
- x * y;
stdIn:5.1-5.6 Error: operator and operand don't agree [tycon mismatch]
operator domain: real * real
operand:         real * int
in expression:
x * y
- x * Real.fromInt(y);
val it = 28.0 : real

Here is a list of all operations on reals. We don’t anticipate using reals much, but it’s good to know that ML fervently separates them.

It seems odd that we’re talking so much about statements, because often enough we will be either binding function names (and tests) to the global environment, or restricting ourselves to local variable declarations. The latter has a slightly more complicated syntax, simply surrounding your variable declarations and evaluated code in a “let … in … end” expression. This will be a much more common construction for us.

let
val x = 7
val y = 9
in
(x + 2*y) div 3
end

The “in” expression is run with the combined variables from the ambient environment (the variables declared outside of the let) and those defined inside the let. The variables defined in the let leave scope after the “in” expression is evaluated, and the entire let expression as a whole evaluates to the result of evaluating the “in” expression. Clearly and example shows what is going on much more directly than words.

The last major basic expression form are the boolean expressions and operations. The type for booleans in ML is called “bool,” and the two possible values are “true,” and “false.” They have the usual unary and binary operations, but the names are a bit weird. Binary conjunction is called “andalso,” while binary disjunction is called “orelse.”

val a = true and b = false;
val c = (a andalso b) orelse ((not a) andalso (not b));

But aside from that, boolean expressions work largely as one would expect. There are the six standard numerical comparison functions, where testing for equality is given by a single equals sign (in most languages, comparison for equality is ==), and inequality is given by the diamond operator <>. The others are, as usual, <, <=, >, >=.

- 6 = 7;
val it = false : bool
- 6 = 6;
val it = true : bool
- 6 < 7;
val it = true : bool
- 7 <= 6;
val it = false : bool
- 6 <> 7;
val it = true : bool

ML also has the standard if statement, which has the following syntax, which is more or less the same as most languages:

- val x = if 6 < 7 then ~1 else 4;
val x = ~1 : int

ML gives the programmer more or less complete freedom with whitespace, so any of these expressions can be spread out across multiple lines if the writer desires.

val x = if 6 < 7
then
~1
else
4

This can sometimes be helpful when defining things inside of let expressions inside of function definitions (inside of other function definitions, inside of …).

So far the basics are easy, if perhaps syntactically different from most other languages we’re familiar with. So let’s move on to the true heart of ML and all functional programming languages: functions.

## Functions and cases, recursion

Now that we have basic types and conditions, we can start to define some simple functions. In the global environment, functions are defined the same way as values, using the word “fun” in the place of “val.” For instance, here is a function that adds 3 to a number.

fun add3(x) = x+3

The left hand side is the function signature, and the right hand side is the body expression. As in Racket, and distinct from most imperative languages, a function evaluates to whatever the body expression evaluates to. Calling functions has two possible syntaxes:

add3(5)
(add3 5)

In other words, if the function application is unambiguous, parentheses aren’t required. Otherwise, one can specify precedence using parentheses in either Racket (Lisp) style or in standard mathematical style.

The most significant difference between ML and most other programming languages, is that ML’s functions have case-checking. That is, we can specify what action is to be taken based on the argument, and these actions are completely disjoint in the function definition (no if statements are needed).

For instance, we could define an add3 function which nefariously does the wrong thing when the user inputs 7.

fun add3(7) = 2
| add3(x) = x+3

The vertical bar is read “or,” and the idea is that the possible cases for the function definition must be written in most-specific to least-specific order. For example, interchanging the orders of the add3 function cases gives the following error:

- fun add3(x) = x+3
stdIn:13.5-14.16 Error: match redundant
x => ...
-->   7 => ...

Functions can call themselves recursively, and this is the main way to implement loops in ML. For instance (and this is quite an inefficient example), I could define a function to check whether a number is even as follows.

fun even(0) = true
| even(n) = not(even(n-1))

Don’t cringe too visibly; we will see recursion used in less horrifying ways in a moment.

Functions with multiple arguments are similarly easy, but there are two semantic possibilities for how to define the arguments. The first, and simplest is what we would expect from a typical language: put commas in between the arguments.

fun add(x,y) = x+y

When one calls the add function, one is forced to supply both arguments immediately. This is usually how programs are written, but often times it can be convenient to only supply one argument, and defer the second argument until later.

If this sounds like black magic, you can thank mathematicians for it. The technique is called currying, and the idea stems from the lambda calculus, in which we can model all computation using just functions (with a single argument) as objects, and function application. Numbers, arithmetic, lists, all of these things are modeled in terms of functions and function calls; the amazing thing is that everything can be done with just these two tools. If readers are interested, we could do a post or two on the lambda calculus to see exactly how these techniques work; the fun part would be that we can actually write programs to prove the theorems.

Function currying is built-in to Standard ML, and to get it requires a minor change in syntax. Here is the add function rewritten in a curried style.

fun add(x)(y) = x+y

Now we can, for instance, define the add3 function in terms of add as follows:

val add3 = add(3)

And we can curry the second argument by defining a new function which defers the first argument appropriately.

fun add6(x) = add(x)(6)

Of course, in this example addition is commutative so which argument you pick is useless.

We should also note that we can define anonymous functions as values (for instance, in a let expression) using this syntax:

val f = (fn x => x+3)

The “fn x => x+3″ is just like a “lambda x: x+3″ expression in Python, or a “(lambda (x) (+ x 3))” in Racket. Note that one can also define functions using the “fun” syntax in a let expression, so this is truly only for use-once function arguments.

## Tuples, Lists, and Types

As we’ve discovered already, ML figures out the types of our expressions for us. That is, if we define the function “add” as above (in the REPL),

- fun add(x,y) = x+y;
val add = fn : int * int -> int

then ML is smart enough to know that “add” is to accept a list of two ints (we’ll get to what the asterisk means in a moment) and returns an int.

The curried version is similarly intuited:

- fun add(x)(y) = x+y;
val add = fn : int -> int -> int

The parentheses are implied here: int -> (int -> int). So that this is a function which accepts as input an int, and produces as output another function which accepts an int and returns an int.

But, what if we’d like to use “add” to add real numbers? ML simply won’t allow us to; it will complain that we’re providing the wrong types. In order to make things work, we can tell ML that the arguments are reals, and it will deduce that “+” here means addition on reals and not addition on ints. This is one awkward thing about ML; while the compiler is usually able to determine the most general possible type for our functions, it has no general type for elements of a field, and instead defaults to int whenever it encounters arithmetic operations. In any case, this is how to force a function to have a type signature involving reals:

- fun add(x:real, y:real) = x+y;
val add = fn : real * real -> real

If we’re going to talk about types, we need to know all of ML’s syntax for its types. Of course there are the basics (int, real, bool). Then there are function types: int -> int is the type of a function which accepts one int and returns an int.

We’ll see two new types in this section, and the first is the tuple. In ML, tuples are heterogeneous, so we can mix types in them. For instance,

- val tup = (true, 7, 4.4);
val tup = (true,7,4.4) : bool * int * real

Here the asterisk denotes the tuple type, and one familiar with set theory can think of a tuple as an element of the product of sets, in this case

$\displaystyle \left \{ \textup{true}, \textup{false} \right \} \times \mathbb{Z} \times \mathbb{R}$

Indeed, there is a distinct type for each possible kind of tuple. A tuple of three ints (int * int * int) is a distint type from a tuple of three booleans (bool * bool * bool). When we define a function that has multiple arguments using the comma syntax, we are really defining a function which accepts as input a single argument which is a tuple. This parallels exactly how functions on multiple arguments work in classical mathematics.

The second kind of compound type we’ll use quite often is the list. Lists are distinct from tuples in ML in that lists must be homogenous. So a list of integers (which has type “int list”) is different from a list of booleans.

The operations on lists are almost identical as in Haskell. To construct explicit lists use square brackets with comma-delimited elements. To construct them one piece at a time, use the :: list constructor operation. For those readers who haven’t had much experience with lists in functional programming: all lists are linked lists, and the :: operation is the operation of appending a single value to the beginning of a given list. Here are some examples.

- val L = [1,2,3];
val L = [1,2,3] : int list

- val L = 1::(2::(3::nil));
val L = [1,2,3] : int list

The “nil” expression is the empty list, as is the empty-square-brackets expression “[]“.

There is a third kind of compound type called the record, and it is analogous to a C struct, where each field is named. We will mention this in the future once we have a need for it.

The most important thing about lists and tuples in ML is that functions which operate on them don’t always have an obvious type signature. For instance, here is a function which takes in a tuple of two elements and returns the first element.

fun first(x,y) = x

What should the type of this function be? We want it to be able to work with any tuple, no matter the type. As it turns out, ML was one of the first programming language to allow this sort of construction to work. The formal name is parametric polymorphism. It means that a function can operate on many different kinds of types (because the actual computation is the same regardless of the types involved) and the full type signature can be deduced for each function call based on the parameters for that particular call.

The other kind of polymorphism is called ad-hoc polymorphism. Essentially this means that multiple (very different) operations can have the same name. For instance, addition of integers and addition of floating point numbers require two very different sets of instructions, but they both go under the name of +.

What ML does to make its type system understand parametric polymorphism is introduce so-called type variables. A type variable is any string prefixed by a single quote, e.g. ‘a, and they can represent any type. When ML encounters a function with an ambiguous type signature, it decides what the most general possible type is (which usually involves a lot of type variables), and then uses that type.

So to complete our example, the first function has the type

'a * 'b -> 'a

As a side note, the “first” function is in a sense the “canonical” operation that has this type signature. If nothing is known about the types, then no other action can happen besides the projection. There are some more interesting things to be said about such canonical operations (for instance, could we get away with not having to even define them at all).

The analogous version for lists is as follows. Note that in order to decompose a list into its first element and the tail list, we need to use pattern matching.

fun listFirst([x]) = x
| listFirst(head::tail) = head

And this function has the type signature ‘a list -> ‘a. As a slightly more complicated example (where we need recursion), we can write a function to test for list membership.

fun member(x, nil) = false
else member(x, tail)

If you run this program and see some interesting warning messages, see this StackOverflow question for a clarification.

## Defining New Types

The simplest way to define a new type is to just enumerate all possibilities. For instance, here is an enumerated datatype with four possibilities.

datatype maths = algebra | analysis | logic | computation

Then we can define functions which operate on those types using pattern matching.

fun awesome(algebra) = true
| awesome(analysis) = false
| awesome(logic) = false
| awesome(computation) = true

And this function has type maths -> bool (don’t take it too seriously ). We can also define data types whose constructors require arguments.

datatype language = functional of string*bool
| imperative of string
| other

Here we define a language to be functional or imperative. The functional type consists of a name and a boolean representing whether it is purely functional, while the imperative type just consists of a name. We can then construct these types by treating the type constructors as if they were functions.

val haskell = functional("Haskell", true) and
java = imperative("Java") and
prolog = other;

Perhaps more useful than this is to define types using type variables. A running example we will use for the remainder of this post is a binary tree of homogeneous elements at each node. Defining such types is easy: all one needs to do is place the appropriate type (with parentheses to clarify when the description of a type starts or ends) after the “of” keyword.

datatype 'a Tree = empty
| leaf of 'a
| node of (('a Tree) * 'a * ('a Tree))

We can create instances of an integer tree as expected:

val t2 = node(node(leaf(2), 3, leaf(4)), 6, leaf(8))

## The TreeSort Algorithm

We can define a host of useful operations on trees (of any type). For instance, below we compute the breadth of a tree (the total number of leaves), the depth of a tree (the maximal length of a path from the root to a leaf), and the ability to flatten a tree (traverse the tree in order and place all of the values into a list). These first two are a nice warm-up.

fun breadth(empty) = 0
| breadth(node(left, _, right)) = breadth(left) + breadth(right)

Here the underscore indicates a pattern match with a variable we won’t actually use. This is more space efficient for the compiler; it can avoid adding extra values to the current environment in a potentially deep recursion.

fun depth(empty) = 0
| depth(leaf(_)) = 1
| depth(node(left, _, right)) =
let
val (lDepth, rDepth) = (1 + depth(left), 1 + depth(right))
in
if lDepth > rDepth then lDepth else rDepth
end

This function should be self explanatory.

fun flatten(empty) = []
| flatten(leaf(x)) = [x]
| flatten(node(left, x, right)) =
flatten(left) @ (x :: flatten(right))

Here the @ symbol is list concatenation. This is not quite the most efficient way to do this (we are going to write a forthcoming post about tail-call optimization, and there we will see why), but it is certainly the clearest. In the final recursive call, we traverse the left subtree first, flattening it into a list in order. Then we flatten the right hand side, and put the current node’s element in between the two flattened parts.

Note that if our tree is ordered, then flatten will produce a strictly increasing list of the elements in the tree. For those readers unfamiliar with ordered binary trees, for all intents and purposes this is an “int Tree” and we can compare the values at different nodes. Then an ordered binary tree is a tree which satisfies the following property for each node: all of the values in the left child’s subtree are strictly smaller than the current node’s value, and all of the values in the right child’s subtree are greater than or equal to the current node’s value.

Indeed, we can use the flatten function as part of a simple algorithm to sort lists of numbers. First we insert the numbers in the unsorted list into a tree (in a way that preserves the ordered property at each step), and then we flatten the tree into a sorted list. This algorithm is called TreeSort, and the insert function is simple as well.

fun insert(x, empty) = leaf(x)
| insert(y, leaf(x)) = if x <= y
then node(empty, x, leaf(y))
else node(leaf(y), x, empty)
| insert(y, node(left, x, right)) =
if x <= y
then node(left, x, insert(y, right))
else node(insert(y, left), x, right)

If we’re at a nonempty node, then we just recursively insert into the appropriate subtree (taking care to create new interior nodes if we’re at a leaf). Note that we do not do any additional computation to ensure that the tree is balanced (that each node has approximately as many children in its left subtree as in its right). Doing so would digress from the point of this primer, but rest assured that the problem of keeping trees balanced has long been solved.

Now the process of calling insert on every element of a list is just a simple application of fold. ML does have the standard map, foldl, foldr, and filter functions, although apparently filter is not available in the standard library (one needs to reference the List module via List.filter).

In any case, foldl is written in the currying style and building the tree is a simple application of it. As we said, the full sorting algorithm is just the result of flattening the resulting tree with our in-order traversal.

fun sort(L) = flatten(foldl(insert)(empty)(L))

So there you have it! One of the simplest (efficient) sorting algorithms I can think of in about twelve lines of code.

## Free Monoid Homomorphisms: A More Advanced Example

Just to get a quick taste of what our series on category theory will entail, let’s write a program with a slightly more complicated type signature. The idea hinges on the idea that lists form a what’s called a free monoid. In particular,

Definition: monoid is a set $X$ equipped with an associative binary operation $\cdot: X \times X \to X$ and an identity element $1 \in X$ for which $x1 = 1x = x$ for all $x \in X$.

Those readers who have been following our series on group theory will recognize a monoid as a group with less structure (there is no guarantee of inverses for the $\cdot$ operation). The salient fact for this example is that the set of ML values of type $\textup{'a list}$ forms a monoid. The operation is list concatenation, and the identity element is the empty list. Call the empty list nil and the append operation @, as it is in ML.

More than that, $\textup{'a list}$ forms a free monoid, and the idea of freeness has multiple ways of realization. One sort of elementary way to understand freeness is that the only way to use the binary operation to get to the identity is to have the two summands both be the identity element. In terms of lists, the only way to concatenate two lists to get the empty list is to have both pieces be empty to begin with.

Another, more mature (more category-theoretical) way to think about freeness is to say is satisfies the following “universal” property. Call $A$ the set of values of type ‘a, and $[A]$ the set of values of type $\textup{'a list}$, and suppose that $(B, \cdot_B, 1_B)$ is the datum of an arbitrary monoid. The universal property says that if we are given a function $f: A \to B$, and we take the canonical map $g: A \to [A]$ which maps an element $a \in A$ to the single-entry list $[a] \in [A]$, then there is a unique way to extend $f$ to a monoid homomorphism $f^* : [A] \to B$ on lists, so that $f^*g = f$. We have mentioned monoid homomorphisms on this blog before in the context of string metrics, but briefly a monoid homomorphism respects the monoid structure in the sense that (for this example) $f^*(a \textup{ @ } b) = f^*(a) \cdot_B f^*(b)$ no matter what $a, b$ are.

This was quite a mouthful, but the data is often written in terms of a so-called “commutative diagram,” whose general definition we will defer to a future post. The diagram for this example looks like:

The dashed line says we are asserting the existence of $f^*$, and the symbol $\exists !$ says this function exists and is uniquely determined by $f, g$. The diagram “commutes” in the sense that traveling from $A$ to $B$ along $f$ gives you the same computational result as traveling by $g$ and then $f^*$. The reason for the word “universal” will become clear in future posts, but vaguely it’s because the set $[A]$ is a unique “starting place” in a special category.

If this talk is too mysterious, we can just go ahead and prove that $f^*$ exists by writing a program that computes the function transforming $f \mapsto f^*$. We call the function “listMonoidLift” because it “lifts” the function $f$ from just operating on $A$ to the status of a monoid homomorphism. Very regal, indeed.

Part of the beauty of this function is that a number of different list operations (list length, list sum, member tests, map, etc.), when viewed under this lens, all become special cases of this theorem! By thinking about things in terms of monoids, we write less code, and more importantly we recognize that these functions all have the same structural signature. Perhaps one can think of it like parametric polymorphism on steroids.

fun listMonoidLift(f:('a->'b), (combine:(('b * 'b) -> 'b), id:'b)) =
let
fun f'(nil) = id
in
f'
end

Here we specified the types of the input arguments to be completely clear what’s what. The first argument is our function $f$ as in the above diagram, and the second two arguments together form the data of our monoid (the set $B$ is implicitly the collection of types $'b$ determined at the time of the function call). Now let’s see how the list summation and list length functions can be written in terms of the listMonoidLift function.

fun plus(x, y) = x + y
val sum = listMonoidLift((fn x => x), (plus, 0))
val length = listMonoidLift((fn x => 1), (plus, 0))

The plus function on integers with zero as the identity is the monoid $B$ in both cases (and also happens to be $A$ by coincidence), but in the summation case the function $f$ is the identity and for length it is the constant $1$ function.

As a more interesting example, see how list membership is a lift.

fun member(x) = listMonoidLift((fn y => y = x),
((fn (a,b) => a orelse b), false))

Here the member function is curried; it has type ‘a -> ‘a list -> bool (though it’s a bit convoluted since listMonoidLift is what’s returning the ‘a list -> bool part of the type signature). Here the $B$ monoid is the monoid of boolean values, where the operation is logical “or” and the identity is false. It is a coincidence and a simple exercise to prove that $B$ is a free monoid as well.

Now the mapping $f(y)$ is the test to see if $y$ is the same object as $x$. The lift to the list monoid will compute the logical “or” of all evaluations of $f$ on the values.

Indeed, (although this author hates bringing up too many buzzwords where they aren’t entirely welcome) the monoid lifting operation we’ve just described is closely related to the MapReduce framework (without all the distributed computing parts). Part of the benefit of MapReduce is that the programmer need only define the Map() and Reduce() functions (the heart of the computation) and MapReduce does the rest. What this example shows is that defining the Map() function can be even simpler: one only needs define the function $f$, and Map() is computed as $f^*$ automatically. The Reduce() part is simply the definition of the target monoid $B$.

Just to drive this point home, we give the reader a special exercise: write map as a special case of listMonoidLift. The result (the map function) should have one of the two type signatures:

map : ('a -> 'b) * ('a list) -> 'b list
map : 'a -> 'b -> 'a list -> b' list

As a hint, the target monoid should also be a list monoid.

Part of why this author is hesitant to bring up contemporary software in discussing these ideas is because the ideas themselves are far from contemporary. Burstall and Landin’s, 1969 text Programs and Their Proofs (which this author would love to find a copy of) details this exact reduction and other versions of this idea in a more specific kind of structure called “free algebras.” So MapReduce (minus the computer programs and distributed systems) was a well-thought-out idea long before the internet or massively distributed systems were commonplace.

In any case, we’ll start the next post in this series right off with the mathematical concept of a category. We’ll start slow and detail many examples of categories that show up both in (elementary) mathematics and computing, and then move on to universal properties, functors, natural transformations, and more, implementing the ideas all along the way.

Until then!

# Seam Carving for Content-Aware Image Scaling

## The Problem with Cropping

Every programmer or graphic designer with some web development experience can attest to the fact that finding good images that have an exactly specified size is a pain. Since the dimensions of the sought picture are usually inflexible, an uncomfortable compromise can come in the form of cropping a large image down to size or scaling the image to have appropriate dimensions.

Both of these solutions are undesirable. In the example below, the caterpillar looks distorted in the scaled versions (top right and bottom left), and in the cropped version (bottom right) it’s more difficult to tell that the caterpillar is on a leaf; we have lost the surrounding context.

In this post we’ll look at a nice heuristic method for rescaling images called seam-carving, which pays attention to the contents of the image as it resacles. In particular, it only removes or adds pixels to the image that the viewer is least-likely to notice. In all but the most extreme cases it will avoid the ugly artifacts introduced by cropping and scaling, and with a bit of additional scaffolding it becomes a very useful addition to a graphic designer’s repertoire. At first we will focus on scaling an image down, and then we will see that the same technique can be used to enlarge an image.

Before we begin, we should motivate the reader with some examples of its use.

It’s clear that the caterpillar is far less distorted in all versions, and even in the harshly rescaled version, parts of the green background are preserved. Although the leaf is warped a little, it is still present, and it’s not obvious that the image was manipulated.

Now that the reader’s appetite has been whet, let’s jump into the mathematics of it. This method was pioneered by Avidan and Shamir, and the impatient reader can jump straight to their paper (which contains many more examples). In this post we hope to fill in the background and show a working implementation.

## Images as Functions

One common way to view an image is as an approximation to a function of two real variables. Suppose we have an $n \times m$-pixel image ($n$ rows and $m$ columns of pixels). For simplicity (during the next few paragraphs), we will also assume that the pixel values of an image are grayscale intensity values between 0 and 255. Then we can imagine the pixel values as known integer values of a function $f: \mathbb{R}^n \times \mathbb{R}^m \to \mathbb{R}$. That is, if we take two integers $0 \leq x < n$ and $0 \leq y < m$ then we know the value $f(x,y)$; it’s just the intensity value at the corresponding pixel. For values outside these ranges, we can impose arbitrary values for $I$ (we don’t care what’s happening outside the image).

Moreover, it makes sense to assume that $f$ is a well-behaved function in between the pixels (i.e. it is differentiable). And so we can make reasonable guessed as to the true derivative of $f$ by looking at the differences between adjacent pixels. There are many ways to get a good approximation of the derivative of an image function, but we should pause a moment to realize why this is important to nail down for the purpose of resizing images.

A good rule of thumb with images is that regions of an image which are most important to the viewer are those which contain drastic changes in intensity or color. For instance, consider this portrait of Albert Einstein.

Which parts of this image first catch the eye? The unkempt hair, the wrinkled eyes, the bushy mustache? Certainly not the misty background, or the subtle shadows on his chin.

Indeed, one could even claim that an image having a large derivative at a certain pixel corresponds to high information content there (of course this is not true of all images, but perhaps it’s reasonable to claim this for photographs). And if we want to scale an image down in size, we are interested in eliminating those regions which have the smallest information content. Of course we cannot avoid losing some information: the image after resizing is smaller than the original, and a reasonable algorithm should not add any new information. But we can minimize the damage by intelligently picking which parts to remove; our naive assumption is that a small derivative at a pixel implies a small amount of information.

Of course we can’t just remove “regions” of an image to change its proportions. We have to remove the same number of pixels in each row or column to reduce the corresponding dimension (width or height, resp.). Before we get to that, though, let’s write a program to compute the gradient. For this program and the rest of the post we will use the Processing programming language, and our demonstrations will use the Javascript cross-compiler processing.js. The nice thing about Processing is that if you know Java then you know processing. All the basic language features are the same, and it’s just got an extra few native types and libraries to make graphics rendering and image displaying easier. As usual, all of the code used in this blog post is available on this blog’s Google code page.

Let’s compute the gradient of this picture, and call the picture $I$:

A very nice picture whose gradient we can compute. It was taken by the artist Ria Czichotzki.

Since this is a color image, we will call it a function $I: \mathbb{R}^2 \to \mathbb{R}^3$, in the sense that the input is a plane coordinate $(x,y)$, and the output $I(x,y) = (r,g,b)$ is a triple of color intensity values. We will approximate the image’s partial derivative $\left \langle \partial I / \partial x, \partial I / \partial y \right \rangle$ at $(x,y)$ by inspecting values of $I$ in a neighborhood of the point:

$I(x-1,y), I(x+1, y), I(x,y-1), I(x,y+1)$.

For each pixel we call the value $|I(x+1,y) - I(x-1,y)| / 2$ the partial derivative in the $x$ direction, and $|I(x,y+1) - I(x,y-1)| / 2$ the partial in the $y$ direction. Note that the values $I(x,y)$ are vectors, so the norm signs here are really computing the distance between the two values of $I$.

There are two ways to see why this makes sense as an approximation. The first is analytic: by definition, the partial derivative $\partial I / \partial x$ is a limit:

$\displaystyle \lim_{h \to 0} \frac{|I(x+h,y) - I(x,y)|}{h}$

It turns out that this limit is equivalent to

$\displaystyle \lim_{h \to 0} \frac{|I(x+h,y) - I(x-h,y)|}{2h}$

And the closer $h$ gets to zero the better the approximation of the limit is. Since the closest we can make $h$ is $h=1$ (we don’t know any other values of $I$ with nonzero $h$), we plug in the corresponding values for neighboring pixels. The partial $\partial I / \partial y$ is similar.

The second way to view it is geometric.

The slope of the blue secant line is not a bad approximation to the derivative at x, provided the resolution is fine enough.

The salient fact here is that a nicely-behaved curve at $x$ will have a derivative close to the secant line between the points $(x-1, f(x-1))$ and $(x+1, f(x+1))$. Indeed, this idea inspires the original definition of the derivative. The slope of the secant line is just $(f(x+1) - f(x-1)) / 2$. As we saw in our post on numerical integration, we can do much better than a linear guess (specifically, we can use do any order of polynomial interpolation we wish), but for the purposes of displaying the concept of seam-carving, a linear guess will suffice.

And so with this intuitive understanding of how to approximate the gradient, the algorithm to actually do it is a straightforward loop. Here we compute the horizontal gradient (that is, the derivative $\partial I / \partial x$).

PImage horizontalGradient(PImage img) {
color left, right;
int center;
PImage newImage = createImage(img.width, img.height, RGB);

for (int x = 0; x < img.width; x++) {
for (int y = 0; y < img.height; y++) {
center = x + y*img.width;

left = x == 0 ? img.pixels[center] : img.pixels[(x-1) + y*img.width];
right = x == img.width-1 ? img.pixels[center] : img.pixels[(x+1) + y*img.width];

newImage.pixels[center] = color(colorDistance(left, right));
}
}

return newImage;
}


The details are a bit nit-picky, but the idea is simple. If we’re inspecting a non-edge pixel, then we can use the formula directly and compute the values of the neighboring left and right pixels. Otherwise, the “left” pixel or the “right” pixel will be outside the bounds of the image, and so we replace it with the pixel we’re inspecting. Mathematically, we’d be computing the difference $|I(x, y) - I(x+1, y)|$ and $|I(x-1,y) - I(x, y)|$. Additionally, since we’ll later only be interested in the relative sizes of the gradient, we can ignore the factor of 1/2 in the formula we derived.

The parts of this code that are specific to Processing also deserve some attention. Specifically, we use the built-in types PImage and color, for representing images and colors, respectively. The “createImage” function creates an empty image of the specified size. And peculiarly, the pixels of a PImage are stored as a one-dimensional array. So as we’re iterating through the rows and columns, we must compute the correct location of the sought pixel in the pixel array (this is why we have a variable called “center”). Finally, as in Java, the ternary if notation is used to keep the syntax short, and those two lines simply check for the boundary conditions we stated above.

The last unexplained bit of the above code is the “colorDistance” function. As our image function $I(x,y)$ has triples of numbers as values, we need to compute the distance between two values via the standard distance formula. We have encapsulated this in a separate function. Note that because (in this section of the blog) we are displaying the results in an image, we have to convert to an integer at the end.

int colorDistance(color c1, color c2) {
float r = red(c1) - red(c2);
float g = green(c1) - green(c2);
float b = blue(c1) - blue(c2);
return (int)sqrt(r*r + g*g + b*b);
}


Let’s see this in action on the picture we introduced earlier.

The reader who is interested in comparing the two more closely may visit this interactive page. Note that we only compute the horizontal gradient, so certain locations in the image have a large derivative but are still dark in this image. For instance, the top of the door in the background and the wooden bars supporting the bottom of the chair are dark despite the vertical color variations.

The vertical gradient computation is entirely analogous, and is left as an exercise to the reader.

Since we want to inspect both vertical and horizontal gradients, we will call the total gradient matrix $G$ the matrix whose entries $g_{i,j}$ are the sums of the magnitudes of the horizontal and vertical gradients at $i,j$:

$\displaystyle g_{i,j} = \left | \frac{\partial I}{\partial x} (i,j) \right | + \left | \frac{\partial I}{\partial y} (i,j) \right |$

The function $e(x,y) = g_{x,y}$ is often called an energy function for $I$. We will mention now that there are other energy functions one can consider, and use this energy function for the remainder of this post.

## Seams, and Dynamic Programming

Back to the problem of resizing, we want a way to remove only those regions of an image that have low total gradient across all of the pixels in the region removed. But of course when resizing an image we must maintain the rectangular shape, and so we have to add or remove the same number of pixels in each column or row.

For the purpose of scaling an image down in width (and the other cases are similar), we have a few options. We could find the pixel in each row with minimal total gradient and remove it. More conservatively, we could remove those columns with minimal gradient (as a sum of the total gradient of each pixel in the column). More brashly, we could just remove pixels of lowest gradient willy-nilly from the image, and slide the rows left.

If none of these ideas sound like they would work, it’s because they don’t. We encourage the unpersuaded reader to try out each possibility on a variety of images to see just how poorly they perform. But of these options, removing an entire column happens to distort the image less than the others. Indeed, the idea of a “seam” in an image is just a slight generalization of a column. Intuitively, a seam $s_i$ is a trail of pixels traversing the image from the bottom to the top, and at each step the pixel trail can veer to the right or left by at most one pixel.

Definition: Let $I$ be an $n \times m$ image with nonnegative integer coordinates indexed from zero. A vertical seam in $I$ is a list of coordinates $s_i = (x_i, y_i)$ with the following properties:

• $y_0 = 0$ is at the bottom of the image.
• $y_{n-1} = n-1$ is at the top of the image.
• $y_i$ is strictly increasing.
• $|x_i - x_{i+1}| \leq 1$ for all $0 \leq i < n-1$.

These conditions simply formalize what we mean by a seam. The first and second impose that the seam traverses from top to bottom. The third requires the seam to always “go up,” so that there is only one pixel in each row. The last requires the seam to be “connected” in the sense that it doesn’t veer too far at any given step.

Here are some examples of some vertical seams. One can easily define horizontal seams by swapping the placement of $x, y$ in the above list of conditions.

So the goal is now to remove the seams of lowest total gradient. Here the total gradient of a seam is just the sum of the energy values of the pixels in the seam.

Unfortunately there are many more seams to choose from than columns (or even individual pixels). It might seem difficult at first to find the seam with the minimal total gradient. Luckily, if we’re only interested in minima, we can use dynamic programming to compute the minimal seam ending at any given pixel in linear time.

We point the reader unfamiliar with dynamic programming to our Python primer on this topic. In this case, the sub-problem we’re working with is the minimal total gradient value of all seams from the bottom of the image to a fixed pixel. Let’s call this value $v(a,b)$. If we know $v(a,b)$ for all pixels below, say, row $i$, then we can compute the $v(i+1,b)$ for the entire row $i+1$ by taking pixel $(i+1,j)$, and adding its gradient value to the minimum of the values of possible predecessors in a seam, $v(i,j-1), v(i,j), v(i,j+1)$ (respecting the appropriate boundary conditions).

Once we’ve computed $v(a,b)$ for the entire matrix, we can look at the minimal value at the top of the image $\min_j v(n,j)$, and work backwards down the image to compute which seam gave us this minimum.

Let’s make this concrete and compute the function $v$ as a two-dimensional array called “seamFitness.”

void computeVerticalSeams() {
seamFitness = new float[img.width][img.height];
for (int i = 0; i < img.width; i++) {
}

for (int y = 1; y < img.height; y++) {
for (int x = 0; x < img.width; x++) {

if (x == 0) {
seamFitness[x][y] += min(seamFitness[x][y-1], seamFitness[x+1][y-1]);
} else if (x == img.width-1) {
seamFitness[x][y] += min(seamFitness[x][y-1], seamFitness[x-1][y-1]);
} else {
seamFitness[x][y] += min(seamFitness[x-1][y-1], seamFitness[x][y-1], seamFitness[x+1][y-1]);
}
}
}
}


We have two global variables at work here (global is bad, I know, but it’s Processing; it’s made for prototyping). The seamFitness array, and the gradientMagnitude array. We assume at the start of this function that the gradientMagnitude array is filled with sensible values.

Here we first initialize the zero’th row of the seamFitness array to have the same values as the gradient of the image. This is simply because a seam of length 1 has only one gradient value. Note here the coordinates are a bit backwards: the first coordinate represents the choice of a column, and the second represents the choice of a row. We can think of the coordinate axes of our image function having the origin in the bottom-left, the same as we might do mathematically.

Then we iterate over the rows in the matrix, and in each column we compute the fitness based on the fitness of the previous row. That’s it

To actually remove a seam, we need to create a new image of the right size, and shift the pixels to the right (or left) of the image into place. The details are technically important, but tedious to describe fully. So we leave the inspection of the code as an exercise to the reader. We provide the Processing code on this blog’s Google Code page, and show an example of its use below. Note each the image resizes every time the user clicks within the image.

Photograph by Raphael Goetter.

It’s interesting (and indeed the goal) to see how at first nothing is warped, and then the lines on the walls curve around the woman’s foot, and then finally the woman’s body is distorted before she gets smushed into a tiny box by the oppressive mouse.

As a quick side note, we attempted to provide an interactive version of this Processing program online in the same way we did for the gradient computation example. Processing is quite nice in that any Processing program (which doesn’t use any fancy Java libraries) can be cross-compiled to Javascript via the processing.js library. This is what we did for the gradient example. But in doing so for the (admittedly inefficient and memory-leaky) seam-carving program, it appeared to run an order of magnitude slower in the browser than locally. This was this author’s first time using Processing, so the reason for the drastic jump in runtime is unclear. If any readers are familiar with processing.js, a clarification would be very welcome in the comments.

## Inserting Seams, Removing Objects, and Videos

In addition to removing seams to scale an image down, one can just as easily insert seams to make an image larger. To insert a seam, just double each pixel in the seam and push the rest of the pixels on the row to the right. The process is not hard, but it requires avoiding one pitfall: if we just add a single seam at a time, then the seam with minimum total energy will never change! So we’ll just add the same seam over and over again. Instead, if we want to add $k$ seams, one should compute the minimum $k$ seams and insert them all. If the desired resize is too large, then the programmer should pick an appropriate batch size and add seams in batches.

Another nice technique that comes from the seam-carving algorithm is to intelligently protect or destroy specific regions in the image. To do this requires a minor modification of the gradient computation, but the rest of the algorithm is identical. To protect a region, provide some way of user input specifying which pixels in the image are important, and give those pixels an artificially large gradient value (e.g., the maximum value of an integer). If the down-scaling is not too extreme, the seam computations will be guaranteed not to use any of those pixels, and inserted seams will never repeat those pixels. To remove a region, we just give the desired pixels an arbitrarily low gradient value. Then these pixels will be guaranteed to occur in the minimal seams, and will be removed from the picture.

The technique of seam-carving is a very nice tool, and as we just saw it can be extended to a variety of other techniques. In fact, seam-carving and its applications to object removal and image resizing are implemented in all of the recent versions of Photoshop. The techniques are used to adapt applications to environments with limited screen space, such as a mobile phone or tablet. Seam carving can even be adapted for use in videos. This involves an extension of the dynamic program to work across multiple frames, formally finding a minimal graph cut between two frames so that each piece of the cut is a seam in the corresponding frame. Of course there is a lot more detail to it (and the paper linked above uses this detail to improve the basic image-resizing algorithm), but that’s the rough idea.

We’ve done precious little on this blog with images, but we’d like to get more into graphics programming. There’s a wealth of linear algebra, computational geometry, and artificial intelligence hiding behind most of the computer games we like to play, and it would be fun to dive deeper into these topics. Of course, with every new post this author suggests ten new directions for this blog to go. It’s a curse and a blessing.

Until next time!