What is Coworking? Trying To Be Kidful Downunder

I have commented before that one of the unsolved problems for coworking is how to accommodate kids. Day care for working parents is a hard problem for conventional organizations, and most coworking spaces don’t have any provisions at all. A few have tried and faced problems. But the list is growing, all around the world.

Robert Ollett blogged recently about Happy Hubbub in Melbourne (Australia), which offers a conventional array of coworking services, plus on site day care. There are some details that depend on local policies, other aspects are pretty universal.

Even with subsidies, daycare is expensive, much more expensive than coworking. The information indicates that Hubbub charges about four times as much for daycare as for coworking! This is typical. The cost of kid care is so much higher, I have seen coworking spaces that offered free coworking when you buy day care, sort of like free coffee or fee mints.

For coworking spaces which are operating at the lowest cost possible, day care is way, way outside the reach of their members.

One reason childcare is expensive is that the facilities and staffing are regulated by local authorities. This is a very good thing, but compliance costs money.  In addition, childcare generally requires competent and trained human staff, another cost driver.

You can set up coworking in almost any space, with almost no staff, but that isn’t true for child care.

For that matter, the little ones have their own requirements. Catering needs to be age appropriate, and they need interesting activities while mum is busy working. And so on. This is all standard stuff for day care operators, but it’s totally alien to coworking operators!

Even the coworking facilities themselves probably have different requirements. Parking is probably much more important for parents bringing in their kids. The work space needs to be close to, but isolated from, the children. There probably should be parent plus child lounge areas, separate from both work and child care area.  Handling kids of different ages might require some creativity. And so on.

Hubbub has been successful so far, though it is actually pretty small (sixteen slots for kids). Compared to some “commodity coworking” sides with hundreds of desks, it is tiny. Could you scale it up? How big is too big for this kind of site?  I’m not sure, and I’m certainly not telling you that bigger is better.

Community, community, community

Erin Richards of Hubbub comments that establishing a trusted reputation is essential for the child care service. This is a completely different kind of reputation from the coworking side.

I think the deeply tricky problem fo solve in all of this is that this is not only two businesses in the same location, but that the two businesses are both about community—but two very different kinds of community.

Coworking is all about community, a community of like-minded peers—workers with similar skills, needs, and goals. Drop-off child care is about trust, and ideally about a community of like-minded peers—parents and care givers with similar needs and goals.

“Coworking with kids” must really be about a community that is both peer workers and peer parents. That’s easy enough to say, but it’s not that easy to do. It’s kind of a Venn diagram, looking for the intersection of the group of simpatico independent workers, and the group of parents who want this kind of child care.

This is a niche, and it cuts both ways. Richards notes that the double draw is attractive for some, “These parents try the coworking space for the childcare, but keep coming back because of the community.” On the otter hand, workers who might otherwise be pleased may be disinclined to participate. “There’s definitely a psychological barrier for people who don’t have kids to come here”.

Thinking about this, I can see that it is not likely that you can have successful coworking and “sprinkle on” some child care, nor have successful childcare and “drop in” some coworking. Making this work is hard, but Hubbub and other sites are beginning to show how to make it work.

One key is the right kind of community leadership, people who are “peers” in both the target communities. The greatest community wrangler in the world may be useless with kids, and the finest tot wrangler might be hopeless at office management.   In the case of Hubbub, this challenge is addressed by the partnership of two leaders, with the right combination of skills.

I think that is their secret, and I’m betting that the success they have seen so far is due to having the right leaders.


  1. Happy Hubbub. Happy Hubbub – coworking with children. 2017, https://www.happyhubbub.com.au/.
  2. Robert Ollett, Coworking Heroes: Happy Hubbub, in habu. 2017. https://www.habu.co/blog/coworking-heroes-happy-hubbub

 

What is Coworking?

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017.

Three Recent Books On Happiness

Everyone wants to be happy, but few people seem to be happy. Even people who are, and have every reason to be happy, still want to be even happier. There is an infinite desire for happiness, and, not coincidently, there is a huge industry in telling people how to be happy. Religions have served this market for millennia. Nowadays, there are apps for it, too.

I thought I would sample some of the recent offerings.

OK, I admit it. I was motivated by the release of Paula Poundstone’s entry in the genre, which I really wanted to read. In the spirit of her “unscientific study”, and the eternal maternal principle that you have to eat your vegetables before you get dessert, I tackled two other recent books on the topic, the sublime, the ridiculous, and the real.

So I (tried to) read all these:

  1. The Book of Joy (2016) by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams (The Sublime)
  2. Solve For Happy (2017) by Mo Gawdat (The Ridiculous)
  3. The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness (2017) by Paula Poundstone (The Real)

Each of these books tackles similar questions (“what can I do to be happy?”), and actually advocate the same array of techniques (e.g., getting a grip on negative thinking, focusing on others, not focusing on “more stuff”). The differences lie in how they tell the story, and especially, how they seek to inspire you, the reader.

These differences are important, both abstractly (are they correct?) and pragmatically, because even the same story told differently captures different readers.

Inevitably, I found myself arguing with the authors, especially where they make claims about science. I cant say that criticizing books about how to be happy made me especially happy, but its what I do.

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Sunday Book Reviews

Antarctic Ice Losses

As everyone knows, Antarctica is covered with ice. A lot of ice. Ice that is many kilometers deep. Enough ice that, should it all melt, oceans would rise tens of meters. With the retreat of sea ice in the Arctic and glaciers in many places in the Northern hemisphere, a lot of attention is focused on Antarctic ice.

This spring (which is fall in the south), there has been evidence of yet another dramatic calving, as a crack on the Larsen C ice shelf suddenly grew. (I note that Larsen A and B have already broken off in the last decade.)

This activity was observed by ESA’s Sentinel-1 satellites. Observation from space is pretty much the only way to know what is going on in the winter down there.

The current location of the rift on Larsen C, as of May 1 2017. Labels highlight significant jumps. Tip positions are derived from Landsat (USGS) and Sentinel-1 InSAR (ESA) data. Background image blends BEDMAP2 Elevation (BAS) with MODIS MOA2009 Image mosaic (NSIDC). Other data from SCAR ADD and OSM.

This accelerated change comes after the “warm search” of Antarctic summer, and may signal a break up this year. If so, the ice shelf will be 10% smaller, and the smallest ever observed. This is certainly a big event.

Separation of this ice will probably not affect sea level (the ice is floating on the water). But there is growing evidence that the ice is melting at an accelerated pace at that location, and may well be accompanied by melting of near by ice on land. The latter will contribute to sea level rise.

I used to not expect to see the ice caps melt or the great Athropogenic sea rise (AKA, The Great Glub!). But, who knows? The pace of melting is faster and seems to be accelerating, so I might live long enough to see it.


  1. O’Leary, Martin, Adrian Luckman, and Project MIDAS, A new branch of the rift on Larsen C in Project MIDAS Blog. 2017. http://www.projectmidas.org/blog/a-new-branch/

 

Space Saturday

Orchestrating Internet of Things Services

Zhenyu Wen and colleagues write in IEEE Internet Computing about “Fog Orchestration for Internet of Things Service[1]

Don’t you thing “Fog Orchestra” is a great name for a band?

After laughing at the unintentionally funny title, I felt obliged to read the article.

The basic topic is about the “Internet of Things”, which are “sensors, devices, and compute resources within fog computing infrastructures” ([1], p. 16) As Arieff quipped, this might be called “The Internet of Too Many Things”.

Whether this is a distinct or new technology or architecture is debatable, but the current term or art, “fog computing” is, for once, apt. It’s kind of like Cloud Computing, only more dispersed and less organized.

Wen and colleagues are interested in how to coordinate this decentralized fog, especially, how to get things done by combining lots of these little pieces of mist. Their approach is to create a virtual (i.e., imaginary) centralized control, and use it to indirectly control pieces of the fog. Basically, the fog and its challenges is hidden by their system, giving people and applications a simpler view and straight forward ways to make things happen. Ideally, this gives the best of both worlds, the flexibility and adaptability of fog, and the pragmatic usability of a monolithic application.

(Pedantic aside: almost anything that is called “virtual” something, such as “virtual memory” or a “virtual machine” or a “virtual private network”, is usually solving this general problem. The “virtual” something is creating a simpler, apparently centralized, view for programmers and people, a view that hides the messy complexity of the underlying system.

Pedantic aside aside: An exception to this rule is “Virtual Reality”, which is “virtual” in a totally different way.)

The authors summarize the key challenges, which include:

  1. scale and complexity
  2. security
  3. dynamicity
  4. fault detection ans handling

This list is pretty much the list of engineering challenges for all computing systems, but solving them in “the fog” is especially challenging because it is loosely connected and decentralized. I.e., it’s so darn foggy.

On the other hand, the fog has some interesting properties. The components of the system can be sprinkled around wherever you want them, and interconnected in many ways. In fact, the configuration can change and adapt, to optimize or recover from problems. The trick, of course, is to be able to effectively use this flexibility.

The researchers refer to this process as “orchestration”, which uses feedback on performance to optimize placement and communication of components. They various forms of envision machine learning to automatically optimize the huge numbers of variables and to advise human operators. This isn’t trivial, because the system is running and the world is changing even as the optimization is computed.

I note that this general approach has been applied to optimizing large scale systems for a long time. Designing networks and chips, optimizing large databases, and scheduling multiprocessors use these kinds of optimization. The “fog” brings the additional challenges of a leap in scale, and a need for continuous optimization of a running system.

This is a useful article, and has a great title!


  1. Zhenyu Wen, Zhenyu, Renyu Yang, Peter Garraghan, Tao Lin, Jie Xu, and Michael Rovatsos, Fog Orchestration for Internet of Things Services. IEEE Internet Computing, 21 (2):16-24, 2017. https://www.computer.org/internet-computing/2017/05/05/fog-orchestration-for-internet-of-things-services/

Blockchain Use Cases: Theme Parks?

Jegar Pitchforth writes in Coindesk about “5 Ways Theme Parks Could Embrace Blockchain” [1]. His basic idea is that theme parks are historically “early adopters” and pioneers of technology, and should pioneer the use of blockchain technology.

He specifically identifies five use cases:

  1. Ticketing
  2. “Fastpass tickets” (i.e., specific deals)
  3. Theme Park Currency (Branded)
  4. Audience Surveys
  5. Pay audience to advertise

Hmm.

These are scarcely new ideas. Indeed, the entire article refers to existing programs. The point must be, and the question is, what does blockchain technology bring to the table? How would a blockchain be better than current technology?

Let’s look at his use cases to see what value blockchain brings, if any.

In the case of ticketing, it seems that the main advantage is that a blockchain system can be securely accessed by any smartphone.   Current systems work fine, as far as I know, and wearable technology makes it even more convenient than a smartphone.

The “Fastpass” use case has the potentially interesting wrinkle of using “smart contracts” to implement markets for these ‘rights’. Guests could trade and bargain for seats on rides, and so on.  Or there could be various conditions attached (“You can ride if you and 3 of your friends show up in 15 minutes….”)

Assuming that this kind of activity is a desirable feature (and for some fantasy worlds, I’m not sure that you want people diverting attention to such matters), it isn’t clear that blockchain is any better or worse than any other technology. After all, so called “smart contracts” are really, really simple logic, which can easily be built into a conventional database.

The idea of Theme Park Currency is nothing more or less than digital tokens or coupons, with a ton of general purpose overhead. Since these ‘coins’ are essentially private tokens issued by the park, they aren’t “decentralized” at all. In that sense, blockchain is a terrible choice, completely incongruent with the use case.

The last two hinge on using the cryptocurrency as loyalty points to incentivize the victims guests. This may or may not be desirable thematically (and is certainly ethically problematic when children are involved), but you don’t need a blockchain or private cryptocurrency to make it work.

Overall, there is little technical or logical reason why blockchain technology is especially well suited for any of these use cases. Indeed, to the degree that blockchain is generic and invites attention to commerce it is interfering with the effort to create a magic world and to command total attention and immersion.

It is true that a blockchain-based solution might be cheap and easy compared to creating a secure private network. However, much of the cost and effort must go into the user experience not the back end details, so I’m not sure if there would be much cost savings.

Most of the features of the blockchain are actually irrelevant to these use cases. The data systems of a theme park are extremely private and highly localized. What is the advantage of using an open, internet-wide data system?

Above all, the entire theme of a “theme park” is trust. We hand over part of our life to the designers, trusting them to give us a safe and enchanting experience. Ticketing, tokens, and whatever else must all be integrated to be part of this trusted experience. What is the advantage of using a “trustless” technology to implement this deeply trustful system?

Overall, it looks to me like you could use blockchain technology, but there is hardly a compelling case to do so. And if you do, it will be necessary to integrate it into the overall magic, which likely will mean that the blockchain should be invisible. If it is done right, you’ll never know it is there.

Actually, a successful deployment would be very good for blockcahin technology in general, because it would have to create a safe and wonderful user experience.  To data, the “user experience” with blockchains is very, very weak. A Disney quality interface would lift all boats.

For example, a blockchain system requires guests (including children?) to manage cryptokeys  In the theme park this must be safe, intuitive, and generally invisible.  Developing cool metaphors and UI to do this would be a great thing to see, and would advance the whole field.


  1. Jegar Pitchforth, 5 Ways Theme Parks Could Embrace Blockchain (And Why They Should) May 16 2017, http://www.coindesk.com/5-ways-theme-parks-embrace-blockchain/

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

CuddleBits: Much More Than Meets The Eye

Paul Bucci and colleagues from University of British Colombia report this month on Cuddlebots, “simple 1-DOF robots” that “can express affect” [1] As Evan Ackerman says, “build your own tribble!” (Why hasn’t there been a zillion Tribble analogs on the market???)

This caught my eye just because they are cute. Then I looked at the paper presented this month at CHI. Whoa! There’s a lot of interesting stuff here.[1]

First of all, this is a minimalist, “how low can we go” challenge. Many social robots have focused on adding many, many degrees of freedom, for example, to simulate human facial expressions as faithfully as possible. This project goes the other way, trying to create social bonds with only one DOF.

“This seems plausible: humans have a powerful ability to anthropomorphize, easily constructing narratives and ascribing complex emotions to non-human entities.” (p. 3681)

In this case, the robot has programmable “breathing” motions (highly salient in emotional relationships among humans and other species). The challenge is, of course, that emotion is a multidimensional phenomenon, so how can different emotions be expressed with just breathing? And, assuming they can be created, will these patterns be “read” correctly by a human?

This is a great piece of work. They developed theoretical understanding of “relationships between robot behaviour control parameters, and robot-expressed emotion”, which makes possible a DIY “kit” for creating the robots – a theory of Tribbleology, and a factory for fabbing Tribbles!

I mark their grade card with the comment, “Shows mastery of subject”.

As already noted, the design is “naturalistic”, but not patterned after any specific animal. That said, the results are, of course, Tribbleoids, a fictional life form (with notorious psychological attraction).

The paper discusses their design methods and design patterns. They make it all sound so simple, “We iterated on mechanical form until satisfied with the prototypes’ tactility and expressive possibilities of movement.” This statement understates the immense skill of the designers to be able to quickly “iterate” these physical designs.

The team fiddled with design tools that were not originally intended for programming robots. The goal was to be able to generate patterns of “breathing”, basically sine waves, that could drive the robots. This isn’t the kind of motion needed for most robots, but it is what haptics and vocal mapping tools do.

Several studies were done to investigate the expressiveness of the robots, and how people perceived them. The results are complicated, and did not yield any completely clear cut design principles. This isn’t terribly surprising, considering the limited repertoire of the robots. Clearly, the ability to iterate is the key to creating satisfying robots. I don’t think there is going to be a general theory of emotion.

I have to say that the authors are extremely hung up on trying to represent human emotions in these simple robots. I guess that might be useful, but I’m not interested in that per se. I just want to create attractive robots that people like.

One of the interesting things to think about is the psychological process that assigns emotion to these inanimate objects at all. As they say, humans anthropomorphize, and create their own implicit story. It’s no wonder that limited and ambiguous behavior of the robots isn’t clearly read by the humans: they each have their own imaginary story, and there are lots of other factors.

For example, they noted that variables other than the mechanics and motion While people recognized the same general emotions, “we were much more inclined to baby a small FlexiBit over the larger one.” That is, the size of the robot elicited different behaviors from the humans, even with the same design and behavior from the robot.

The researchers are tempted to add more DOF, or perhaps “layer” several 1-DOF systems. This might be an interesting experiment to do, and it might lead to some kind of additive “behavior blocks”. Who knows

Also, if you are adding one more “DOF”, I would suggest adding simple vocalizations, purring and squealing. This is not an original, this is what was done in “The Trouble With Tribbles” (1967) [2].


  1. Paul Bucci, Xi Laura Cang, Anasazi Valair, David Marino, Lucia Tseng, Merel Jung, Jussi Rantala, Oliver S. Schneider, and Karon E. MacLean, Sketching CuddleBits: Coupled Prototyping of Body and Behaviour for an Affective Robot Pet, in Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2017, ACM: Denver, Colorado, USA. p. 3681-3692.
  2. Joseph Pevney, The Trouble With Tribbles, in Star Trek. 1967.

 

Robot Wednesday

Close Reading Apps: Brilliantly Executed BS

One of the maddening things about the contemporary Internet is the vast array of junk apps—hundreds of thousands, if not many millions—that do nothing at all, but look great. Some of them are flat out parodies, some are atrocities, many are just for show (no one will take us seriously if we don’t have our own app). But some are just flat out nonsense, in a pretty package. (I blame my own profession for creating such excellent software development environments.)

The only cure for this plague is careful and public analysis of apps, looking deeply into not only the shiny surface, but the underlying logic and metalogic of the enterprise. This is a sort of “close reading” of software, analogous to what they do over there in the humanities buildings.  Where does the app come from? What does it really do, compared to what they say it does? Whose interests are served?

Today’s example are two apps that pretend to do social psychology: Crystal (“Become a better communicator”) and Knack (“for unlocking the world’s potential”).

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