Coordinate Systems Matter

Sunday, January 20, 2013

I have discovered more than once in recent free-time projects, that exploiting symmetry can help make code much simpler to write and understand. In fact, it makes some problems feel tractable, when at first they felt as though a complicated "brute force" technique was needed.

I'll give some examples of where simply adjusting coordinate systems made my problems much easier to understand and solve. By changing to the right coordinate system, symmetries in the problem can become more apparent.


One project I have been working on in my spare time is a digital instrument that uses the Lattice Boltzmann Method to simulate fluids. In it, I have fill the screen with hexagons (2DQ7), where each hexagon simulates how pressure waves move through a two dimensional surface. Thus, the problem arises: “In what structure store the hexagons, how would I map hexagon indices to screen positions, and how do I find neighboring hexagons?”

When I started the project, I approached these question the same way I would a lattice of squares (2DQ9). Working with pixels much longer than I have hexels, it was difficult to start from first principles.

The nice thing with a lattice of squares / screen of pixels is that a 2D array maps directly onto it in a reasonably straight-forward manner. In fact, it can be as simple as directly translating array index to pixel position.

3 by 3 grid of squared, numbered identically to a 2D array

I attempted to do a similar mapping with hexagons, and it “worked,” but I went through many iterations and errors as I walked through the different cases for drawing and finding neighbors. Doing things this way, I was shoving a hexagonal peg into a square hole.

A sample of hexagons labeled s.t. the index was nearest to the 2D array / pixel mapping.

Doing this was frustrating in two ways. The first is that I could draw such a numbering by hand easily enough, but it took many wrong implementations translating the procedure to code. The drawing code for even rows and that for odd rows ends up being very different from each other. Second, even once the code was implemented correctly, it felt wrong to be doing things this way. After all, a hexagon in an even row looks exactly the same as a hexagon in an odd row. The code should reflect this symmetry. My code reaked of code smell.

Ideally, we can find a mapping where hexagons are treated more symmetrically. That is, the mapping from 2D array index to screen position should be linear. Meaning, it should be a simple addition and multiplication. There should be no difference in even versus odd rows or any other unnecessary distinction between the different hexagons.

In this light, we see that our choice to attempt to fit the x and y directions at 90 degrees is a poor fit for a lattice of hexagons. Instead, we should choose an x and y direction (the basis in linear-algebra-speak)

Choose x, y directions (the basis) in a way that makes sense for hexagons.

Choosing an x and y direction not 90 degrees apart may look strange, but to do so when drawing a grid of hexagons will cause more pain that needed. Had I looked at the problem this way from the beginning it would have saved me at least four iterations of bug fixing, finding missing cases in drawing code and neighbor finding code.

This mapping has a basis going south-west and south-east.


Looking at symmetries in coordinate systems is also helpful when looking at the n queens problem. The first part of this is to specify what exactly it means for a set of queens to be attacking each other. Queens are said to be attacking each other if they lie in the same row, column, or diagonal.

Queens attack columns, rows, and diagonals.

Can we translate the notion of queens attacking each other into mathematics? If we are given a set of queens as (row, column) positions, can we determine if any are attacking each other?

Let's start with the rows. If more than one queen shares a row, then these queens are said to be attacking each other along that row. So, looping through all the row coordinates of the queens and finding the existence of duplicates (with a hash set, by sorting, or whatever other method you'd like to find duplicates) is equivalent to finding out if the queens are attacking along some row. The same argument applies to finding queens attacking along some column.

Is there a simple way to find queens attacking along the diagonals? Would it work in the same way as the rows and columns. It feels as though the problem and solution should be symmetric. We are just finding if the queens lie along a certain line in the row, column, and diagonals cases, after all.

By rotating a chess boad by 45 degrees, diagonals look just like rows and columns! row' = row + col, col' = col - row.

Just as with the hexagons problem, with a change of coordinates (in this case, by rotating 45 degrees and scaling), what we at first thought was difficult now looks easy. By converting the queens' (row, column) coordinates to (row + column, column - row) coordinates, what we have really done is convert the queens' coordinates to (south-east diagonal, south-west diagonal) form.

With this new set of coordinates in hand, we can use the exact same duplicating finding method as we did with rows and columns to determine if queens are attacking along one of the diagonals.


Changing coordinates can highlight valuable symmetries when solving programming can both prevent bugs and make problems tractable. Finding symmetry is a very important step. By taking the time to find symmetries in the problems I've encountered in my side projects, I could have saved myself from a lot of debugging time.