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Country flags are pretty colorful and some are even pretty.

Instead of drawing the flag in a traditional way (yawn...), I wanted to draw it purely based on the color proportions in the flag (yay!). There are lots of ways to do this, such as stacked bars, but I decided to go with concentric circles. A few examples are shown below.

Once flags are drawn this way, they can be grouped by similarity in the color proportions.

Check out the posters or read about the method below.

Or, download my country flag color catalog to run your own analysis.

To determine the proportions of colors in each flag, I started with the collection of all country flags in SVG from Wikipedia. The flags are conveniently named using the countries' ISO 3166-2 code. At the time of this project (21 Mar 2017), this repository contained 312 flags, of which I used 256.

I originally wanted to use the flag-icon-css collection, but ran into problems with it. It had flags in only either 1 × 1 or 4 × 3 aspect ratio, which distorted and clipped many flags. Many flags were also inaccurately drawn and had inconsistent use of colors. For example, in Turkey's flag the red inside the white crescent was slightly different than elsewhere in the flag.

I converted the SVG files to high resolution PNG (2,560 pixels in width) and sampled the colors in each flag, keeping only those colors that occupied at least 0.01% of the flag. I apply this cutoff to avoid blends between colors due to anti-aliasing applied in the conversion. When drawing the flags as circles, I only use colors that occupy at least 1% of the flag—this impacts flags that have detailed emblems, such as Belize. I apply some rounding off of the proportions and colors with the same proportion are ordered so that lighter colors (by Lab luminance) are in the center of the circle.

There are various ways to represent the proportions of the flag colors as concentric rings—in other words, to use symbols of different size to encode area.

The accurate way is to have the area of the ring be proportional to the area of the color on the map. The inaccurate way is to encode the area by the the width of the ring. These two cases are the `k=0.5` and `k=1` columns in the figure below, where `k` is the power in `r = a^k` by which the radius of the ring, `r`, is scaled relative to the area, `a`. A perceptual mapping using `k=0.57` has been suggested by some.

My goal here is not to encode the proportions so that they can be read off quantitatively. To find a value of `k`, I drew some flags and looked at their concentric ring representation. For example, with `k=0.57` the Nigerian flag's white center is too large for my eye while for `k=1` it is definitely too small. I liked the proportions for `k=1/\sqrt{2}` but wasn't happy with the fact that flags like France's, which have colors in equal areas, didn't have equal width rings.

In the end I decided on a hybrid approach in which the out radius of color `i` whose area is `a_i` is `r_i = a_i^k + \sum_{j=0}^{i-1} a_j^k` where the colors are sorted so that `a_{i-1} \le a_i`. If I use `k=0.25`, I manage to have flags like France have equal width rings but flags like Nigeria in which the proportions are not equal are closer to the encoding with `k=1/\sqrt{2}`. In this hybrid approach smaller areas, such as the white in the map of Turkey, are exaggerated. Notice that here `k` plays a slightly different role—it's used as the power for each color individually, `\sum a^k`, rather than their sum, `\left({\sum a}\right)^k`.

For the purists this choice of encoding might appear as the crime of the worst sort, representing neither correct (`k=0.5`) nor the conventionally incorrect encoding associated with `k=1`. Think of it this way—I know what rule I'm breaking.

The similarity between two flags is calculated by forming an intersection between the radii positions of the concentric rings of the flags.

For each intersection, the similarity of colors is determined using `\Delta E`, which is the Euclidian distance of the colors in LCH space. I placed less emphasis on luminance and chroma in the similarity calculation by fist transforming the coordinates to `(\sqrt L,\sqrt C, H)`) before calculating color differences. The similarity score is $$ S = \sum \frac{\Delta r}{\sqrt{\Delta E}} $$

Color pairs with `\Delta E < \Delta E_{min} = 5` are considered the same and have an effective `\Delta E = 1`.

I explored different cutoffs and combinations of transforming the color coordinates. This process was informed based on how the order of the flags looked to me.

I decided to start the order with Tonga, since it had the highest average similarity score to all other flags in some of my trials. The flag that is most different from other flags, as measured by the average similarity score, is Israel.

I couldn't find a list of colors in the flags of countries, so I provide my analysis here. Every country's SVG flag was converted into a 2,560 × 1,920 PNG file (4,915,200 pixels). Colors that occupied at least 0.01% of the pixels are listed in their HEX format, followed by the number of pixels they occupy. The fraction of the flag covered by sampled colors is also shown.

DOWNLOAD #code img_pixels sampled_pixels fraction_sampled_pixels hex:pixels,hex:pixels,... ... cm 4366506 4364514 0.999544 FCD116:1513103,007A5E:1456071,CE1126:1395340 cn 4369920 4364756 0.998818 DE2910:4260992,FFDE00:103764 co 4364800 4364800 1.000000 FCD116:2183680,003893:1090560,CE1126:1090560 ...

DOWNLOAD #code1 code2 similarity_score ad ae 0.0108360578506763 ad af 0.0288161214840692 ad ag 0.0510922121861494 ad ai 0.42746294322472 ... zw ye 0.473278765746989 zw yt 0.238101673130705 zw za 0.810589244643825 zw zm 0.573265751850587

Discover Cantor's transfinite numbers through my music video for the Aleph 2 track of Max Cooper's Yearning for the Infinite (album page, event page).

I discuss the math behind the video and the system I built to create the video.

*Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.
—Rene Magritte*

A Hidden Markov Model extends a Markov chain to have hidden states. Hidden states are used to model aspects of the system that cannot be directly observed and themselves form a Markov chain and each state may emit one or more observed values.

Hidden states in HMMs do not have to have meaning—they can be used to account for measurement errors, compress multi-modal observational data, or to detect unobservable events.

In this column, we extend the cell growth model from our Markov Chain column to include two hidden states: normal and sedentary.

We show how to calculate forward probabilities that can predict the most likely path through the HMM given an observed sequence.

Grewal, J., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2019) Points of significance: Hidden Markov Models. *Nature Methods* **16**:795–796.

Altman, N. & Krzywinski, M. (2019) Points of significance: Markov Chains. *Nature Methods* **16**:663–664.

My cover design for Hola Mundo by Hannah Fry. Published by Blackie Books.

Curious how the design was created? Read the full details.

*You can look back there to explain things,
but the explanation disappears.
You'll never find it there.
Things are not explained by the past.
They're explained by what happens now.
—Alan Watts*

A Markov chain is a probabilistic model that is used to model how a system changes over time as a series of transitions between states. Each transition is assigned a probability that defines the chance of the system changing from one state to another.

Together with the states, these transitions probabilities define a stochastic model with the Markov property: transition probabilities only depend on the current state—the future is independent of the past if the present is known.

Once the transition probabilities are defined in matrix form, it is easy to predict the distribution of future states of the system. We cover concepts of aperiodicity, irreducibility, limiting and stationary distributions and absorption.

This column is the first part of a series and pairs particularly well with Alan Watts and Blond:ish.

Grewal, J., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2019) Points of significance: Markov Chains. *Nature Methods* **16**:663–664.

*Places to go and nobody to see.*

Exquisitely detailed maps of places on the Moon, comets and asteroids in the Solar System and stars, deep-sky objects and exoplanets in the northern and southern sky. All maps are zoomable.

Quantile regression explores the effect of one or more predictors on quantiles of the response. It can answer questions such as "What is the weight of 90% of individuals of a given height?"

Unlike in traditional mean regression methods, no assumptions about the distribution of the response are required, which makes it practical, robust and amenable to skewed distributions.

Quantile regression is also very useful when extremes are interesting or when the response variance varies with the predictors.

Das, K., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2019) Points of significance: Quantile regression. *Nature Methods* **16**:451–452.

Altman, N. & Krzywinski, M. (2015) Points of significance: Simple linear regression. *Nature Methods* **12**:999–1000.