*i am a beautiful snowflake*
"only as an æsthetic phenomenon is
existence and the world justified"

- nietzsche



1. the challenge

"Create the simplest program that generates the most beautiful snowflake" - >>Media Lab Snowflake-A-Thon 2005<<


Snowflake-a-thon image taken from MIT's homepage, 19 January 2005.
by Kelly Norton © Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

2. my concept

The most beautiful snowflake: what is beautiful, anyway? (And why are we asking such fatuous questions?) A computer program is well-equipped for mathematical beauty -- creating snowflakes of infinite fractal detail, and even perfecting random noise, if that is called for in this algorithmic recipe.

Sometimes a good idea comes from perspective. Stepping outside of MIT, there is a sense that mathematical beauty loses its taste. It is too pure, too ersatz. Out in the world, what we find most beautiful are natural imperfections, idiosyncrasies, and our best testimony to this are people. People are beautiful, on all levels, and idiosyncrasy is central to our endearing quality. As Joseph Campbell once said,

"The only way you can describe a human being truly is by describing his, or her imperfections. The perfect human being is uninteresting…it is the imperfections of life that are loveable."

And, as Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection, we might also find the most beautiful snowflake as that which mirrors our own soul. So I decided on the following concept for my snowflake:

*I am a beautiful snowflake*

The most beautiful snowflake, is you, and the people you care about. The nonesuch secret to your beauty are your imperfections, and really, no mathematical snowflake could come close; no random number generator could generate idiosyncrasies as complex and loveable as yours.

To make this happen, to put you into the snowflake (and to do this with a simple computer program), I decided on a goal of offering your person in poetic description. I would write a program capable of composing a short ode or limerick about you, and cleverly arrange the lines of the text such that, when the text is replicated six-fold and arranged into a circle, your graphical snowflake emerges. So this is what I did. Read on.


3. my winning program

My winning snowflake generating program is 86 lines of neatly manicured python code. I encourage you to read it & download it here and make your own snowflakes.

Here is the program's logic. From the input of a person's full name, e.g. "george w. bush," the program searches for what people are saying about this person out in the wild of the web, by querying google with leading phrases like "george w. bush is," "george w. bush wants," etc.. Mining this "chatter" from the web, the program does some primitive natural language processing to extract out these characterisations. Phrases like "george w. bush wants to spread his brand of democracy across the middle east" are translated to the first person and given a narcissistic spin, as if dubya himself might utter those words:

"my name is george w. bush and i am a beautiful snowflake. i desire to spread my brand of democracy across the middle east."

A random sampling of these phrases are collected and arranged so no two snowflakes on a person contain the same description. A simple randomised spring algorithm decides on the contour of one-sixth of the snowflake, and then the text is segmented into lines to meet this contour. To finish off the snowflake, a center pattern is generated with asterisks for a touch of class. The rendered one-sixth of the snowflake is rotated and mirrored every pi-over-3 radians and viola! It is a simple program, but a lot of fun, as I hope you will agree. Read on for examples.

Hint: Click snowflakes to zoom in.



Hint: Hover mouse over image to read the snowflake.

Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte's snowflake (first try)

4. the political snowstorm of 2004

I have a penchant for metaphor and social issues, so naturally, I could not resist presenting an entire snowstorm, and not just any snowstorm but the characters of the political snowstorm of 2004. In the above right image, there is a snowflake for many of the major political figures of 2004. To view them in full size, just click on each of the snowflakes.

Caveat emptor : Because these are algorithmically generated, I have not attempted to control their semantic content, nor have I tried to generate many and pick the most apropos ones. This is a completely fair sample of the capabilities of my algorithm, and I cannot take responsibility for any offensive content contained herein, just as Google cannot take responsibility for all the contents on the Web.



5. epilogue

Thank you John Maeda for dreaming up this competition. The other 19 entries were really amazing and I hope you check out all of them. If you have any poignant suggestions or nice words on this project for me, please address to them to my email: hugo@media. I am working on a nicer version of the snowstorm. Thank you everyone for taking a look, and check back soon!

If you like my work, then please link to me.

... and some other snowflakes

albert einstein

stolen from john's



H U G O . . L I U ...
program in comparative media studies, mit

the media laboratory, mit
if you like my work, please link to me
hugo at media dot mit dot edu




John Kerry George W. Bush Osama Bin Laden Kofi Annan Condi Rice Dick Cheney Another John Kerry John Ashcroft Another George W. Bush