(Slate) Illustrator Martin Handford published the first in his beloved series of Where’s Waldo books over 25 years ago.* The books challenge readers to find the titular cartoon man, clad in his trusty red-striped shirt and red-striped hat, as he hides in a landscape of red-striped red herrings. When attempting to find Waldo you can scan the page completely from top to bottom, or you can focus your search around certain landmarks where Waldo seems likely to be hiding (in a castle’s moat, riding a blimp). Neither approach is particularly efficient. Which got me to wondering: What if there’s a better way?
I knew that Handford had placed Waldo in each of these illustrations, and in my experience, all people—even people who make a living hiding cartoon men in cartoon landscapes—have tendencies, be they conscious and unconscious. True randomness is very difficult to achieve, even if you want to, and according to Handford he does not necessarily aim for unpredictability. “As I work my way through a picture, I add Wally when I come to what I feel is a good place to hide him,” he once told Scholastic. Knowing this, is it possible, I wondered, to master Where’s Waldo by mapping Handford’s patterns?